Gerald A. Berlin, former president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, fought legal battles ranging from censorship of the musical “Hair” to helping author Susanna Kaysen gain access to her psychiatric records for her best-selling memoir, “Girl, Interrupted.”
Born in Virginia in 1919, he had the demeanor of a Southern gentleman and the pen of a civil liberties firebrand. In a landmark 1963 decision requiring that all criminal defendants have lawyers, the US Supreme Court cited a legal brief Mr. Berlin wrote when he was a Massachusetts assistant attorney general.
“I am not a great litigator or author, but at least I got quoted in arguing one of the most seminal constitutional cases of the 20th century,” Mr. Berlin told a Massachusetts Bar Association publication in 2003. “I’ll settle for that for a career high.”
Mr. Berlin, who also was also an accomplished clarinetist and a classical music critic for The Jewish Advocate for decades, died Sept. 1 in his Cambridge home. He was 93 and suffered from dementia, his family said.
Kaysen said that while writing “Girl, Interrupted,” she sought his help when McLean Hospital officials balked at handing over hundreds of pages compiled during her commitment in the late 1960s. She spent almost two years in a locked ward for teenage girls on the recommendation of a psychiatrist she met once during a brief appointment.
“Gerry was amazing,” said Kaysen, whose book was made into a film that won an Academy Award for Angelina Jolie. “He said, ‘I will write them a letter and let them quail before the magistracy of the law.’ And they did.”
“It wouldn’t have been the book it was without Gerry’s help,” she said.
Mr. Berlin’s former law partner Richard D. Clarey said he was “one of the kindest and most humanistic people I’ve ever encountered. He was a scholar and a man of great generosity to everyone. He would almost never turn down a civil rights case, or a pro bono case, that involved a principle he cared about.”
Among the battles Mr. Berlin fought was successfully challenging a state law designed to weed out communists by requiring teachers swear a loyalty oath to the Constitution.
“The suit was based on the conviction of all who participated that any such oath is, in the final analysis, an attempt to coerce loyalty,” Mr. Berlin said in a 1969 letter to the Globe. “Loyalty can no more be compelled than love. Any action through government which seeks to exact patriotic sentiment by compulsion is contrary to the presuppositions of an open society.”
A graduate of the University of Virginia and Yale Law School, Mr. Berlin headed the first Massachusetts Attorney General’s civil rights division, which Edward J. McCormack Jr. created in the 1960s, and was regional counsel to the American Jewish Congress.
In 1967, he had a public falling out with his client Frederick Wiseman, who made the film “Titicut Follies.” The state sought to block release of Wiseman’s film about the life of patients and inmates at a state hospital. Mr. Berlin resigned from the case days before an important court deadline, Wiseman recalled.
A newspaper cartoon depicted Mr. Berlin astride two white horses going in opposite directions: the civil liberties horse in one, and a horse labeled Mr. Wiseman’s case in another. Leaders of the civil liberties union denied Mr. Berlin was pressured to drop the case.
“I was left holding the bag. I was furious,” Wiseman said in an interview Friday. He said the two men never spoke again.
Mr. Berlin first came to Boston while serving in the Navy. He was a lieutenant during World War II and commanded a minesweeper.
The youngest of six, Mr. Berlin was a son of Latvian immigrants who had little formal education. They ran a dry goods store in a mostly black neighborhood below a juke joint known as Berlin Hall.
“We would bring music home over the years and my father would cock his head and say, ‘that’s Berlin Hall stuff,’ ” said his son Matthew, who is an attorney.
As a child, Mr. Berlin sang to entertain Civil War veterans in nursing homes and wreaked havoc by telling other children that Santa Claus did not exist, said his wife, the former Miriam Haskell.
He never used a computer, preferring to dictate his legal writing, and his wife typed many of his briefs.
“He was charming, kind, and generous with a delightful smile and wit,” she said. “I was very lucky.”
On one of their first dates, they had a heated debate in her mother’s kitchen in Brookline over the meaning of fascism. Miriam, who became an expert in Russian history and taught at Wellesley College, preferred a more precise definition.
“Then I did something I had never done in my life. I had a date with someone else and I lied to cancel it. That tells you how impressed I was,” she said.
They were married 60 years and had three sons.
In addition to his wife and his son Matthew of Cambridge, Mr. Berlin leaves two other sons, Jeremy of West Tisbury, and Joshua of Arlington; and five grandchildren.
A service has been held.
Mr. Berlin enjoyed daily runs until his 80s.
“He was so young and vigorous for so long,” Jeremy said. “He was very proud of the fact he was over 65, and when there were senior discounts, he would invariably be carded. He loved that.”
Jeremy, a pianist, recalled that his father once proudly wore a necklace made of buffalo nickels that was a gift from producers of the musical “Hair.” The show, which included nude scenes, was banned in Boston under obscenity laws until Mr. Berlin helped the producers prevail in a US Supreme Court ruling.
Mr. Berlin played clarinet at several benefit concerts for the civil liberties union’s legal fund, including a concert of Mozart and Brahms at Jordan Hall three days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“As an advocate and an artist, Mr. Berlin’s leadership at a critical time in Massachusetts history helped to transform the ACLU of Massachusetts into a powerful and dynamic civil rights and civil liberties organization,” said executive director Carol Rose. “He laid a foundation for the defense of freedom for this and future generations.”
J.M. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.