For at least three centuries, members of the Frankfurter family had been rabbis. Yet, after Felix Frankfurter’s father Samuel visited the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, he decided to move the family to America (to the Lower East Side of Manhattan) and he became a fur trader. Young Felix had been born in Vienna, Austria, on November 15, 1882, the third of six children. In America, he learned English quickly, and by age 19 he was a graduate of City College, third in his class and Phi Beta Kappa. After saving up tuition money working with the Tenement House Department of NYC, he would go on to graduate Harvard Law first in the class of 1906.
Mr. Frankfurter worked briefly with a law firm, and soon was engaged as a law clerk by Henry L. Stimson, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who upon his appointment as Secretary of War in 1911, would appoint Mr. Frankfurter Law Officer in the Bureau of Insular Affairs, where among other work he got to argue cases before the Supreme Court. Around this same time he befriended future justice Louis Brandeis and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Messrs. Brandeis and Frankfurter would become ardent Zionists, later lobbying Woodrow Wilson to support the Balfour Declaration, and also were supporters of Theodore Roosevelt and New Nationalism. Though his government position restricted expressing his political opinions, he had supported the Bull Moose Party and had been rendered “politically homeless” when Woodrow Wilson won election to the Presidency.
In 1914, Mr. Frankfurter left government work to accept a faculty position at Harvard Law. While there, he revolutionized the curriculum, and taught Supreme Court history. He was known as an expert in Constitutional law and federal jurisdiction. Yet in 1917, he was appointed assistant to the Secretary of War, and later became Secretary and counsel to the President’s Mediation Commission, and thereafter Chairman of the War Labor Policies Board, one of the members of which was Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1918, he worked on the founding conference of the American Jewish Congress, and in 1919 he served as a Zionist delegate to the Paris Peace Conference. In 1920 he helped found the American Civil Liberties Union.
After World War I, he went back to Harvard Law. Eventually, he got involved in the implementation of the New Deal, and FDR nominated him to the Supreme Court of the United States on January 20, 1939, which was confirmed by the Senate with no dissenting votes on January 30. He would serve until retirement on August 28, 1962 (after a stroke), and passed away on February 22, 1965.