I was greatly saddened to hear today of the death of Marvin Chirelstein. Marvin was my tax (and Corporate Finance) professor at Yale Law School back in the day – I never took a course with Bittker, who was reputed to dislike having to deal with students’ vastly lesser state of intellectual attainment (both in tax and generally) than his own.
My intellectual inspiration in tax didn’t really come from Marvin – mainly through my own fault; at that stage I wasn’t very receptive to the Yale law professors’ intellectual interests. Combination of burnout (I had gone straight through from nursery school to law school without a break) with disdain, at that callow stage in my personal development, for non-Ph.D. academic disciplines (I had planned until late junior year to go to history grad school). But he had very few peers at the time in tax law scholarship.
Marvin was, however, by far my favorite professor at YLS. I (along with all of my best friends among the students there) admired his humor, personality, and panache as a performer (if panache, rather than anti-panache, is the word for his brilliantly low-key comic style). We all thought he was extremely cool - not an accolade that we extended, at the time, to many YLS faculty members, or, for that matter, to many people who were older than, say, John Lennon and Bob Dylan.
Word had it that he had been associated with the people in the Second City Theater Group in Chicago during the Nichols and May era, but didn’t formally join the troupe due to stage fright. I honestly don’t know if that was true. But he used to pace around nervously before class, sucking on a cigarette and narrowing his eyes, very much in his own head like a performer getting ready. And, true or not, it was credible, because he was so hilarious in his distinctive style. I thought of him, at the time, as a combination of Humphrey Bogart and Rodney Dangerfield. I might now add, also with a touch of Stephen Wright.
Here is another story I heard about Marvin at the time, which I doubted was true but actually did later confirm. Supposedly, when he was a student at the University of Chicago Law School, taking tax with my own subsequent mentor Walter Blum, two things became clear to Walter. The first was that Marvin was intellectually gifted, and the other was that he was cutting a lot of classes, apparently because he detested the early morning meeting time. Walter called Marvin into his office to discuss this, and Marvin made him the following offer: “How about you let me attend or not as I see fit, and if I get at least an A- on the exam you give me an A, but if I don’t, you fail me / lower my grade to a C” [I forget which]. I assumed that this story couldn’t actually be true, but when I asked Walter about it years later, he confirmed it.
Here are a few examples of Marvin’s comic style in class. Disclaimer: You had to be there, it was a totally personal style that worked via his delivery and the character he played.
1) Marvin: “Feldman, this case says something about ‘old and cold.’ What’s the opposite of ‘old and cold’?
Student: “Uh, hot and fresh?”
Marvin. “Hot and fresh … hot and fresh … I would have said young and warm. Shame on you, Feldman. You’re thinking about bagels.”
2) Student in the back: “Can you speak up? We can’t hear you.”
Marvin: “Sometimes people don’t speak softly because they’re unaware. Sometimes it’s because they’re so ashamed of what they’re saying.”
3) [To a student]: “Would you be able to defend this transaction? … For a fee, of course.”
4) [Discussing a case that was decided in 1935.] “Ah, 1935. The best year of my life. The Cubs won the pennant, and a boxer from my hometown became middleweight champion.” He followed this with a toneless little laugh. What made this funny, to Chirelstein aficionados such as myself, was the implicit suggestion that the point wasn’t that these things were so great, but rather that the rest of his life was so completely lacking in anything better. But I should note that we didn’t think he was actually unhappy - rather, it was the character he played, like Jack Benny pretending to be cheap. Indeed, if anything we figured he had to be confident and secure in his life, in order to be willing to pretend that he felt pathetic.
5) [Explaining why he wasn’t using Bittker’s casebook, in a year when Bittker was on leave and out of town.] “He’ll never know. He’s currently sailing down the Nile with a rose between his teeth.”
Whenever I saw Marvin in subsequent years, he would make a point of commenting on how awful my handwriting was on the exams I took in his classes. He complained that it had permanently worsened his vision, and that surely I must have a physiological problem. He also called me “young Shaviro,” well past the point when it was descriptively accurate. And he would complain that I was publishing too much, pretending to demand that I stop so he wouldn’t look bad.
Early in my time at the University of Chicago Law School, I got a handwritten card from Marvin in which he suggested that I visit Columbia Law School. He assured me that the head of the Appointments Committee, “Smiling Jack Coffee,” would be happy to extend a visiting offer. Why not try New York, he wrote. It has crime, dirt, and vermin – what more could you want?