He was born in 1920, the youngest of four boys in a wealthy family. When he was 7, his father opened the 28-story Stevens Hotel on Michigan Avenue (now the Hilton Chicago), overlooking the lake.
It was said to be the largest hotel in the world, and the young boy met the traveling celebrities of the era, including aviators Charles Lindbergh, who gave young John a dove, and Amelia Earhart, who advised him he should be in bed because it was a school night. A fan of the hometown Cubs, he watched at Wrigley Field as Babe Ruth pointed his bat at the outfield bleachers and hit the next pitch there during the 1932 World Series.
But by then, his family's prospects had darkened with the Great Depression. The stock market had crashed two years after the Stevens Hotel had opened, and the ensuing business collapse emptied most of its rooms. After the hotel was driven into bankruptcy, Stevens' father, uncle and grandfather were accused of having embezzled more than $1 million from the family-run life insurance company to prop up the failing hotel.
His grandfather suffered a stroke, and his uncle committed suicide. Left to stand trial alone, Stevens' father was convicted and faced a long prison term. A year later, however, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction and said that transferring money from one family business to another did not amount to embezzlement.
April 10, 2010
"Stevens spoke little about his family's ordeal, but it surely helped inspire a lifelong faith in the fairness of judges and the courts."
David Savage tells the fascinating story of Justice Stevens' boyhood: