Merle “Ruffy” Silverstein was a trial lawyer and a familiar figure in St. Louis courtrooms for more than 60 years. His clients included Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters’ leader who disappeared in 1975; Harry Ornest, owner of the Blues hockey team; and Chuck Berry, the St. Louis rock ’n’ roll legend.
In addition to his boldfaced, famous clients, he represented women in divorce cases who couldn’t pay his fee.
“He often took a case, not for the remuneration, but because it was the right thing to do,” recalled Ellen Levy Siwak, a judge on the St. Louis County Circuit Court and a former partner in Mr. Silverstein’s law firm.
Mr. Silverstein died Thursday (Oct. 2, 2014) at Missouri Baptist Medical Center in Town and Country. He was 86 and lived in Clayton. He had successful open-heart surgery on Aug. 19, but was diagnosed with acute leukemia the following month, his family said.
One of his most famous cases involved the criminal trials of Berry, one of the most influential figures in American popular music.
Berry had met an American Indian teenager in El Paso, Texas, and hired her in 1959 to work at his club in St. Louis. Police suspected her of being a prostitute. Berry was charged with violating the Mann Act, a law that made it illegal to transport a minor across state lines for immoral purposes.
The case immediately had racial overtones. The police report was filled with descriptions of Berry’s race. The trial judge refused to grant bail, and Mr. Silverstein said the reason was clear.
The judge was, quite simply, “one of the greatest bigots of all time,” who had used the “n” word in court, Mr. Silverstein recalled in the Berry biography “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.”
Mr. Berry could have drawn a five-year prison sentence. Instead, he served 18 months in the federal penitentiary in Springfield, Mo., where he wrote the lyrics to some of his most famous songs, including “Nadine” and “No Particular Place to Go.”
All things considered, Mr. Silverstein said his client had gotten off easier than he could have. Berry, however, wasn’t happy with Silverstein. Like many clients of lawyers, he wondered why he couldn’t get his attorney to do what he wanted him to.
“I had but little faith in my attorney,” Berry later wrote in “The Autobiography.” He absolved himself of any guilt and singled out Mr. Silverstein for criticism, especially for his “mild voice” and “weakly sounded objections.”
For his part, Mr. Silverstein said that openly attacking the judge at a time when whites dominated the judicial system would not have turned out well for his client.
“Now that would really have gotten (the judge) pissed at me,” Mr. Silverstein said. Prosecutor Frederick Mayer agreed, saying Mr. Silverstein “did everything in the world to represent (Berry) in a proper way.”
Mr. Silverstein didn’t shy away from controversial cases. During the 1970s, he fought an often uphill battle on behalf of abortion clinics and their physicians.
Merle Lloyd Silverstein grew up on Washington Avenue in St. Louis, the youngest of three children. His father worked for Shell Oil Co. Mr. Silverstein graduated from Soldan High School at the age of 16.
He studied engineering at Washington University, then decided he didn’t want to be an engineer. A judge in a debating championship suggested he study law.
He graduated from Washington University School of Law in 1951 and served two years in the Air Force JAG Corps in Korea. He married Marcee Waldman in 1957.
He was an assistant prosecutor for St. Louis County. In 1956, he became a partner at what is now Rosenblum Goldenhersh in Clayton. Recent clients include former KMOV (Channel 4) anchor Larry Conners, who is suing his former employer.
Mr. Silverstein was an adjunct law professor at Washington University. He was a volunteer attorney for Legal Advocates for Abused Women. He received an award for distinguished service from the Metropolitan Bar Association. He was a past president of Congregation Temple Israel.
Visitation will be at 11 a.m. Sunday at Temple Israel, at Ladue and Spoede roads in Ladue, followed by the funeral at noon at the temple. Burial will be at Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Cemetery in Ladue.
Survivors, in addition to his wife of 57 years, include two daughters, Jill Silverstein of Clayton and Karen Silverstein of West Hartford, Conn.; a brother, Sanford Silverstein of Ladue; and four grandchildren.