Levin, Meyer. “Compulsion”, Fig Tree Books Reprint, 2015.
“The Jewish Crime of the Century”
I have heard others say that I am a bit obsessed with the Leopold/Loeb affair and I suppose that there is some truth to that. I have never been able to understand the entire business and whenever I need to think about something, it seems that I return to it; I suppose because I have so many unanswered questions. Quite frankly it bothers me a great deal that two such promising young men should be involved in such sordidness especially when it did not need to happen. It has been 90 years and there is still so much we do not understand about it. Even Meter Levin’s classic “Compulsion” makes me think about it even more and it is 60 years old. Between Leopold, Loeb and the Rosenbergs, I spend a lot of tine just sitting and thinking about the criminal mind and how it comes to be.
I remember that as a kid, I would hear people whispering about it. It seemed that everyone knew something about the murderers and/or were reading “Compulsion” and talking about it. Leopold and Loeb certainly were responsible for some degree of American anti-Semitism. (After all, Jews do not commit such horrific crimes, do they?)
“Compulsion is a fictional account of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb’s horrible and horrifying murder of a 14-year-old boy and while the names are changed to Steiner and Strauss, everyone knew the book was about Leopold and Loeb. The story sticks closely to the actual facts of the 1924 crime.
When the book was published, it became an instant sensation and a bestseller. Murder mysteries were popular in the 50s and 60s and one that was based on a true story, a story as gruesome as anyone imagine was what Americans liked to read. The Leopold/Loeb murder was nothing ordinary—there was no reason for it to happen. The killers’ aim was to commit the perfect crime and the murder of Bobby Franks, then just 14 was the way that they thought they could succeed. It was a gratuitous murder by two young men who looked at what they did as “an intellectual project carried out with the detachment of a scientist.”
Meyer Levin was fascinated by the case and that was probably because he was close to it. He went to the University of Chicago and he was precocious like Leopold and Loeb. As a young Chicago reporter, he helped cover the case for the local paper and he appears in “Compulsion” as the narrator, Sid Silver.
What is interesting about “Compulsion” is that it is long and full of talk and even has a bit of psychological analysis in it. The reading public, writers and film studios were drawn to the book. Leopold and Loeb were curiosities, Jewish boys from good homes and wealthy families. They were young admirers of Dostoevsky because with him crimes could be philosophically justified and they loved Nietzsche for his concept of the superman who was not bound by society or morality. He was above that and they wanted to prove that so were they.
The teenage Leopold and Loeb — prodigies who had graduated from the University of Chicago while still in their teens — were immersed in Dostoevsky (“Crime and Punishment” with its philosophical justification of the crime), Gide, and above all Nietzsche and his notion of the superior man not bound by morality.
“Compulsion” is certainly well written but it is not literary. After all, it is a crime novel much like Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” that came out some 13 years later. What Levin did here was to give the people what they wanted; a crime novel and more than that—a novel about a crime that everyone was aware of. Indeed, it is a crime novel and a thriller but it is also a psychological novel that uses social psychology about issues that the case brought up— what did we know about these rich Chicago Jews and was there anything sexual in this case?
Meyer Levin dared to right about homosexuality when it was still deep in its own closet. He mentions that the Bobby Frank’s body was mutilated in the genital area and he writes about the sexual immaturity of the murderers. We suspect that the two men were in love with each other but we read nothing of them ever being sexual with each other. Could it be that this sexual denial also figures into the case? Then there is the issue of Jewish self-hatred as Freud suggested in the 19th century with the idea that the Jew does not want to pay the toll to be a Jew and that could explain the mutilation of Bobby Frank’s genitals. Levin really captures the wealthy Jewish culture of Chicago at the times and the fact that many Chicago Jews chose not to be especially visible and in fact, at that time, Jewish organizations were quiet and worked quietly. It was not a time for social activism.
Some have remarked that if Leopold and Loeb had to kill someone, it was better for all that they chose a Jewish victim. Had they chosen someone of a different religion, the murder would certainly have been looked at differently as we have seen historically in blood-libel cases. This was not a murder dealing with a ritual; it was a murder for murder’s sake. Here was a crime that was about the anarchy of murder, a crime that resembles in theory the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, what happened in Rwanda and Darfur. Can we assume that this is why we still read “Compulsion”? It seems to me that we now exist in a time when killing and murder are considered horrors of our time. The book might be about a time in history but the crime of Leopold and Loeb is a lasting one; one that will never be forgotten and this is just how it should be.