The three escaped convicts holing up for the night in a suburban Pennsylvania mini mansion on Sept. 11, 1952, were remarkably polite -- “perfect gentlemen,” one of the home owners said later -- or as much so as uninvited guests can be while holding you at gunpoint. They ate, played cards with the children and danced a bit to music from the radio. After exchanging prison garb for clothes selected from the wardrobe of the man of the house, they went on their way.
The crime spree continued for another week or so, ending with a shoot-out in the Bronx that left two of the convicts, as well as a detective, dead. The third escapee surrendered and went back to prison. The family held hostage became famous for a little while and found themselves in great demand from the news media. Ed Sullivan tried to book them for his variety show The Toast of the Town, no less.
But as Samantha Barbas, a professor of law at University of Buffalo School of Law, recounts in Newsworthy: The Supreme Court Battle Over Privacy and Press Freedom (Stanford University Press), the Hills were not interested in being the toast of the town. They just wanted their lives back. They moved to another city, and things eventually returned to normal, or as much as they ever would. But not for long. The Hills, in effect, went through a second home invasion -- one that proved more chaotic and drawn-out than the first. It was also, in its own way, far more brutal. Throngs of people from Broadway, Hollywood and the news media invaded their space and did enormous damage.
The ordeal in 1952 would have faded from public memory if not for a writer, Joseph Hayes, who had been collecting newspaper reports of home invasions as raw material for fiction. In churning out a novel called The Desperate Hours, Hayes changed the victims' family name to Hilliard and kept quite a few details from the Hills' real-life hostage situation. But he left out the surprisingly well-mannered criminals; they became sex-crazed wild men instead. Hayes must have known what he was doing, because the book sold well. He adapted it for the stage and, in due course, Humphrey Bogart appeared on screen in the role of Mr. Hilliard. Prior to the release of the film in 1955, Life magazine published a photo feature in which the cast of the Broadway production re-enacted scenes from The Desperate Hours in the house where the original crime had taken place.
The article accompanying the photos indicated that the film was based on the Hills' experience; the reader would have every reason to assume it was a docudrama rather than a fictionalization of real events. The impact on Elizabeth Hill, the mother of the family, was especially severe. Her busy social life (bridge and sewing groups, Sunday school teaching and volunteer work) disintegrated as she fell into a cycle of depression that grew worse over time. The implication that she had been raped was traumatic in itself.
The Hills sued Hayes and Life in New York in 1962 and won $175,000 -- at that point "the biggest invasion-of-privacy verdict in history," Barbas says. But the full historical impact of the suit came only when the publisher's appeal reached the Supreme Court in 1965. Time Inc. v. Hill -- decided in early 1967 -- had little to do with the original hostage-taking, as such, or even with the novelist's rather callous ineptitude in disguising the people he was exploiting. At issue was whether the common-law (but constitutionally disputable) notion of a right to privacy took priority over the First Amendment protection of freedom of the press. The court’s decision against the Hills in early 1967 marked a strong affirmation of the press’s rights. Or to frame it differently: “As a right that could be invoked against the media,” Barbas writes, “privacy stalled with the Hill case.” Richard Nixon played an unaccustomed role as the lawyer defending the family. It was the only time he argued as a practicing attorney; he returned to electoral politics a year after the ruling.
Newsworthy grew out of a law-review article -- which, to be clear, does not mean it just got longer. Crime lends itself to narrative, of course, while explaining the issues and logic involved in the balancing of rights runs the risk of tangents flying off in any number of directions. Barbas pulls them back before they do. The history of arguments over privacy and freedom of the press turn into subplots rather than just precedent.
The author faces no difficulties in eliciting sympathy for the family. But while reading, I constantly noticed how unusual their situation seemed -- to them and to others -- at the time, and how strong a feeling for the value of privacy they had. What the Hills endured was a slowly unfolding tragedy by contrast with the way things develop today; that they didn't want to go on Ed Sullivan must seem unimaginable for those raised on a diet of reality TV celebrity.