Sutro. Starting with the firm as office boy in 1928, Mr. O'Brien joined
the firm as an associate after graduating from Boalt Hall Law School in
1935 when he was twenty-three years old.
He participated in a wide variety of matters during his early years
with the firm, eventually handling major national and international affairs
for Chevron Corporation (then Standard Oil of California) before leaving
PM&S in 1966 to become Chevron's legal vice president and director. After
retiring from Chevron in 1974, he became counsel to PM&S, where he was
interviewed for this oral history.
Mr. O'Brien relates stories of the early founders and senior partners
of the firm, including Evans S. and Horace D. Pillsbury, Frank Madison,
Alfred and Oscar Sutro, Felix Smith, and others. For example, he recalls
of senior partner Felix Smith that "he was an extraordinary man in every
way - beautifully educated, with extraordinary intellectual attainments, a
writer of pure Anglo-Saxon prose; a lion in his den and a pussycat
outside." As an illustration of the lion side, O'Brien explains that
Smith's method of training young associates "was to make you walk the plank
and watch to see whether you sank or swam." O'Brien's engaging manner of
telling an anecdote, plus his own warmth and good humor, are clear in the
transcript but especially vibrant on the actual tape-recording.
In discussing some of the early cases he tried, Mr. O'Brien describes
with satisfaction some that he won, but he also adds a word of caution
regarding the necessity of careful preparation: "Such cases were great
seasoning, and you learned very quickly that what you thought was a perfect
case when you finished preparing it in the library at the Standard Oil
Building proved to be full of holes when some seasoned lawyer began to take
you over the jumps in the courtroom."
He also documents the type of law practiced at Pillsbury, Madison &
Sutro, discussing different kinds of cases and matters and then proceeding
with information about work done for Chevron Corporation. Antitrust law
became a special area of expertise for James O'Brien, and his skill and
finesse in fending off government onslaughts on the oil industry are much
admired by his colleagues. He discusses the principal aspects of the oil
cartel case that began during the Harry S. Truman administration and lasted
for years .
He participated in significant international agreements, such as the
formation of the Iranian consortium, and arbitration, such as the Aramco
arbitration award. Becoming well versed in international law, Mr.
O'Brien has made a strong effort to educate American thinking about the
rights and duties of nations. He has taken on innumerable speaking
engagements on this and other law and business topics. As a trustee of
the Southwestern Legal Foundation, he helped establish its International
Comparative Law Center .
This oral history, as part of the Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro Series,
does not attempt to document the years 1966-1974 when O'Brien was vice
president for legal affairs and director of Chevron, although he carried
on Chevron's strong relationship with the firm as Chevron principal
In addition to his law firm practice and his term as Chevron vice
president, Mr. O'Brien has given generously of his time and talents to
various groups that serve the community and society- -the Asian Art Museum
of San Francisco, for example, and the Friends of The Bancroft Library.
He served on the boards of the Youth Council, the San Francisco Chamber
of Commerce, Stanford Hospital, and the Academy for Educational
Development in Washington, B.C.
Twelve interview sessions took place in Mr. O'Brien's ninth floor
office where he is surrounded by books, pictures, and travel mementos.
The office is in the Adam Grant Building, located in San Francisco's
financial district. The interviews took place on January 13, 20, 26,
February 2, March 17, 24, April 7, June 7, September 22, 1987; March 28,
November 30, 1988; June 19, 1989.
The tapes were transcribed at Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro and were
carefully edited by the interviewer and Mr. O'Brien. He collected
photographs and clippings to be included in the transcript.
The Regional Oral History Office was established to record
autobiographical interviews with persons who have contributed
significantly to recent California history. The office is headed by
Willa K. Baum and is under the administration of The Bancroft Library.
Carole Hicke, Project Director
Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley
Regional Oral History uince
Room 486 The Bancroft Library
university or calltornla
Berkeley, California 94720
Your full name
Date of birth
< ' 4* *>
Where did you grow UP?
Education y .
tT C*^T "^
Areas of expertise
Special interests or activities C r
O'Brien, James Edward
OCCUPATION^ 5): lawyer
March 22, 1912 Trinidad. CO US
PARENTS: GecrQe A O'Brien and Alice A Lapsley O'Brien
Married Mary Louise Janes, January 2, 1 935 (dec 1 978 ) 5
married Jeanne Gilnore LaClair, 1379
AB, U Calif at Berkeley, 1932;
JD. U Calif at Berkeley, 1935
CERTIFICATION: Calif bar, 1935
practice in, San Francisco, CA , US, 1 935-1 955 5
assoc, partner Pillsbury, Madison 8> Sutro , 1935-1966;
vp., dir Standard Oil Co Calif, San Francisco, CA , US, 1555-1977;
of counsel firm Fillsfaury, Madison & Sutro, 1 977-preseni ;
dir WP Fuller & Cc;
dir Ei Portal Mining Cc;
dir Abercrombie & Fitch Co;
pres bd dirss Stanford Hosp;
bd dirs Acad for Ednl Devel NY;
bd dirs Nat Fund fcr fled Edn;
bd dirs Am Enterprise Inst ;
trustee Internal ar.d Corcparativs Law Center, Dallas, TX , US;
trustee Southwestern Legal Found;
trustee Mills Coil;
trustee San Francisco Asian Art Conwn
Served as It col U5AAF , 194Z-154E
Decorated Legion of Merit;
Decorated Bronze Star;
Croix de Guerre with Silver Star
Men San Francisco G of C 'past vp , dir);
Mer, Internal C of C;
Md A?i Ear Assn;
Men An Sec Internat Lau;
Men !r>ternai Lau Assr,;
Me.*. An Law Inst
CLUBS AND LOOSES: Pacific-Union < Sen Francisco)! Bohemian (San
Francisco); Stock Exchange
HOME: Pale Alto, CA US
OFFICE: San Franc 15:0, CA US
[Interview 1: January 13, 1987 ]//*
Grandparents and Parents
Hicke: I wonder if we could just start this morning by your telling me a
little bit about your family background - something about your
grandparents and your parents.
O'Brien: I know very little about my grandparents. I grew up as a youngster
outside the United States. As a consequence I had very limited
exposure to my grandparents. Once, for a month or two, when my
older brother John was in Children's Hospital in New York, I was
sent off to spend some time with my paternal grandfather and his
wife. They lived in Ashland, Wisconsin. It was wintertime;
bitterly cold. I had just come from the Philippines, and the shock
of that climate and those surroundings are indelibly printed on my
My father had two sisters who lived with their parents, and
they pampered me and spoiled me, but I spent a winter with a runny
nose and severely chapped hands; a little lonesome boy playing in
the snow on a tiny sled. And that was the only time I ever saw my
grandfather or my grandmother - I don't think she was my father's
mother; I think she was the second wife of my grandfather.
Hicke: This was your paternal grandfather?
1. This symbol, ##, marks the beginning or end of a tape or a tape
segment. A guide to the tapes is provided at the end of this
O'Brien: Paternal grandfather.
My mother's father I saw, to the best of my recollection, only
once in my life. He had been seriously wounded in the Civil War.
He lived very modestly as an old soldier in est Los Angeles, near
my mother's sister. I do have some pictures of him, taken with the
whole O'Brien tribe, when he visited us in Ocean Park, California.
He was a tall, handsome, erect, old gentleman, with a most
impressive, white, handlebar mustache, a great shock of white
hair - beautiful to behold. My mother, when we lived in China and
earlier in the Philippines, I know wrote him with considerable
frequency and, I think, probably helped support him.
I never met my grandmother on my maternal side. She died
before my mother and father were married. My mother was born in
Evansville, Indiana. How she came there, how her family came
there, I haven't the slightest idea, or why they moved to
Colorado - all lost in the mist of time. She lived there with her
father and mother as a young girl -
Hicke: In Evansville?
O'Brien: No. In Colorado.
Hicke: Where in Colorado?
O'Brien: In Trinidad, Colorado, which is a small railroad and mining town on
the southern border of Colorado - a railroad town because the
principal activity, as I look back on it, seemed to be the fact
that the Santa Fe Railroad roared through there.
How my mother got there with her family, I don't know. But
she was married at an early age, probably eighteen, to a prominent
citizen of this small town - a man much older than she - who was
a railroad construction engineer or had a construction company. In
any event, he was the leading citizen or one of the leading
citizens of this small town. It is a rather picturesque little
place. Behind the small group of streets in those days there was a
tall bluff called Fisher's Peak, which was easily climbed. That
part of Colorado lies in the Sangre de Cristo range of mountains
that run generally north and south through Colorado.
In any event, she was married to this gentleman whose name was
McKeough, James McKeough. He had a son who was, I believe, older
than my mother. He was, in those days, a young lawyer in Trinidad,
Colorado - representing the railroad, I guess, in all of their
personal injury cases and whatever other sort of business they had.
That was a coal-mining area of Colorado. Nearby was
Walsenburg, a coal-mining town. I recall my mother telling me
about the terrible, bloody massacres and strikes that had taken
place in the coal mines in those very early days. When
Mr. McKeough died, his son assigned all of his interest in his
father's estate to my mother. She thus inherited, I don't know,
three or four little houses and perhaps some other small
She lived on there with her mother as a young widow. Her
mother died there. I believe her father had already moved away to
Southern California, but I may be mistaken about that. At least I
have no consciousness of her ever having talked about him in
connection with Trinidad, Colorado. I think she was a widow for
perhaps five or six years, maybe longer, when my father appeared on
the scene as an energetic, promising, young employee of the old
Wells Fargo Express Company. In those days the Wells Fargo Express
had an express car on every train in the country, and the express
messengers rode those trains and handled the express packages,
insured packages; they handled money, gold and silver, and safes,
and all that kind of business.
Hicke: Were they guarded?
O'Brien: They were the guards - there were sometimes extra guards. They
were usually armed. I don't think he was an express messenger,
although I might be mistaken; I think he was sort of a divisional
superintendent, superintending the running of the express service
in some part of Arizona and Colorado.
Hicke: And your father's name?
O'Brien: Was George Augustus O'Brien. He was born in Bay City, Michigan.
He was of Irish and, I believe, German descent; I'm not terribly
sure. There are other Irish names in the tribe - there are
Fitzgerald O'Briens, and so on - but I really don't know anything
whatever about the family.
He had a brother by the name of Harry O'Brien. And my father
had been married some few years, perhaps five or six years, before
he met my mother. His first wife had had two children, Harry Birge
O'Brien and George Fitzgerald O'Brien. When his wife died, he was
left with two tiny boys. How they were taken care of, I haven't
any idea. Anyway, he was younger than my mother by maybe five or
They made common cause, and shortly after they were married,
he was sent to Mexico City to take charge of the Wells Fargo
business there. On second thought, I think they lived in Nogales,
Arizona first, and then he was sent to Mexico City. My father had
these two children. My parent's first child was my older brother,
John, who was eighteen months older than I. They lived in Mexico
City. When I arrived, my mother had four small children. There
were some fairly hectic experiences with tremendous earthquakes and
the turmoil of the Mexican revolutions.
I was born in 1912. My mother, I guess, decided that I was
going to be president - at least she came back to Trinidad,
Colorado, and 1 was born there in her old home.
Hicke: She came back specifically to -
O'Brien: For that purpose, yes, to be delivered of me. And shortly
thereafter we went back to Mexico City. That was in 1912. In 1914
the civil wars in Mexico City drove us out of Mexico. There were
soldiers stationed on the roof of the house, and we were right in
the thick of all the shot and shell and fire. My mother and the
four children left Mexico by way of Vera Cruz.
My father stayed in Mexico and had a few hair-raising
experiences of his own. Pancho Villa, for example, commandeered
all of the equipment of the Wells Fargo Express Company there -
their carts, their horses, and so on - and when my father went out
to meet the general, Pancho Villa, he was promptly clapped in jail
in one of these railroad cars and held there. He was ultimately
marched through the streets of Mexico City on the way to be
executed when the [U.S.] State Department, in the person of William
Jennings Bryan, intervened with the Mexican government. Somehow
his release was secured and he left Mexico.
Hicke: That's an amazing story.
Hicke: William Jennings Bryan was down there on a visit, or something?
O'Brien: He was Secretary of State.
Hicke: But he wasn't in Mexico City himself?
O'Brien: No, no. Some State Department messages were sent back and forth
Hicke: And your father was representing Wells Fargo there?
O'Brien: Yes. He wanted Villa to sign some sort of receipt for all this
stuff that he had confiscated. The revolutions that swept Mexico
were really bloody revolutions. Somewhere in my papers I have some
letters that my father wrote from Mexico at the time, with his
accounts of all the contending forces.
He was not a formally educated man- -he had, I assume, a high
school education- -but he was what I would call a well-educated
man. He had read widely, he wrote excellent prose. Maybe
because he had been a railroad messenger, he wrote a beautiful
hand, very legible hand. So his accounts of those episodes in
Mexico's history were very interesting.
Hicke: That would be fascinating.
O'Brien: Yes. So then, after that, he was transferred to the Philippines.
Hicke: This is 1914, or so?
O'Brien: Yes. Right. And the four of us, four boys, and our parents
lived in Manila- -at first in the Manila Hotel. My two older
brothers - his sons, Harry and George- -were sent off to Baguio,
which is in the mountains in the Philippines, to a famous boys'
school. I think it's an Episcopal school; it may still be there.
And occasionally we'd take a train that went to Baguio and visit
them up in the mountains . But my brother and I lived very
happily as two lively, small boys in Manila.
Childhood in China
O'Brien: My family moved out of the hotel eventually. My earliest
recollections are of this lovely house in which we lived on the
Avenue Mabini. And I played in the Luneta, which was the big,
main park. And life was very pleasant and agreeable until - !
can't remember, the dates have completely escaped me- -my older
brother, John, fell off a pony. He was a little boy and tumbled
from the pony and hurt his hip, and it did not heal. The upshot
was that my family just packed up and left the Philippines, and -
he was their first born- -took him to New York, put him in
Children's Hospital, and my father and mother did nothing but
tend to him for perhaps a year or more .
We lived in East Orange, New Jersey, and they took the ferry
and train and went to the hospital every day. But none of those
things succeeded. John ultimately died in the hospital there and
is buried in East Orange, New Jersey. Maybe twenty years ago I
went to the cemetery (my mother was a Catholic; he is buried in
the Catholic cemetery) and arranged for so-called perpetual care.
In the cemetery I found his headstone, and so on. His name was
John Lapsley O'Brien, which was my mother's maiden name - her name
was Alice Lapsley; Alice Alberdine Lapsley.
Hicke: Is that Scottish?
O'Brien: Sounds to me like a manufactured name.
Hicke: Maybe. I was thinking of Aberdeen, Scotland.
O'Brien: Yes. So after his death, my father was asked by the Wells Fargo
Express to become their representative in the Far East. My two
older brothers were put in school at the Mt. Tamalpais Military
Academy in Mar in County, and my father, mother, and I moved to
Hicke: You had seen a lot of the world already.
O'Brien: Yes. And we lived there until about 1921, or maybe 1922, or '23,
I've forgotten precisely. That was a happy time in my life. We
lived in a fashionable hotel in Shanghai in those days called the
Astor House, which was in the British zone. It was right on the
river. It's still there; I looked it up when Mrs. [Jeanne]
O'Brien and I were in China several years ago. And I was sent to
a famous missionary school called the Shanghai American School.
It had been established by missionaries. It was primarily a
boarding school for missionary children. Many of their parents
were in the interior of China, up the Yangtze, out of sight, and
their children were left in Shanghai at this boarding school, but
they took day pupils as well.
When I look back on it, I think my mother was very brave,
because I had started school in the Philippines in a private
school run by two very nice spinster ladies, school teachers, and
run in their private home. As I recall, there were maybe fifteen
children altogether- -all little monsters, six or seven or eight
something like that- -kind of kindergarten age. But we did pursue
the alphabet and phonics- -vowel sounds and so on. I can remember
the banners that they used to display with all of the "cos" and
Hicke: Well, speaking of languages, can I just interrupt? Where you
lived, did you learn the languages? Like in Mexico, did you
O'Brien: I spoke Spanish before I did English, because I had a Spanish
nursemaid. And when I was in Shanghai, I learned, I'm sure, a
very vulgar brand of rickshaw-boy Chinese. I also took Chinese
in school, however. We had a Chinese teacher, and we did
I never advanced very far in that, but I could make myself
But to go back to my mother: she would walk to the corner
with me when I was on my way to school, put me on a British tram
car, and I would ride halfway across Shanghai, changing trams, and
then walk maybe a quarter of a mile on what was called Bubbling
Well Road to the site of the school. And then I would repeat that
process in the afternoon when I came home. And I never had, you
know, the slightest anxiety, except fear that I might lose my way,
until I learned it well. I guess perhaps she rode with me a couple
of times to make sure that I had it in mind, but if so, I don't
As I became more accustomed to the routine, we used to play
games with the Chinese conductors, because it was sort of like the
cable cars except there were two of them hooked together. And when
the conductor would come to collect your fare, you would hop off
the thing and get on the back car, and then you'd get off the back
car and hop on the front. Not that that really, I think, fooled a
Chinese conductor - to see a little foreign devil running back and
forth between one car and another. Anyway, I went to school.
Hicke: Was the expression "foreign devil" used by them?
O'Brien: No. I had a Chinese amah nursemaid and we had a couple of
house boys that waited on us in the hotel, took care of the
apartment and so on, and I felt great affection for them, and they
for me. I was sorely troubled when we finally parted, because they
had been wonderful, affectionate friends. I had a favorite
rickshaw boy. When I wanted to go anywhere, I would hop into his
rickshaw and be carted around the town. And I used to play on the
banks of the river. You could take a small, four-wheeled cart,
which was common sort of toy for a little boy [gestures] -
Hicke: Looks like about two feet long?
O'Brien: Yes, and walk along the river and catch, maybe, fifty turtles in
the course of afternoon - of all sizes, little tiny ones and big
ones - and then I'd bring them back to the hotel -
Hicke: For dinner?
O'Brien: And put 'em in the no in the bath tub. They were pets.
Hicke: Pets? Oh, okay.
O'Brien: And then I'd have to turn them loose. But I always kept one or two
Well, my favorite rickshaw boy - I remember only one episode
about him. The British zone of Shanghai was policed by these
tremendous, ferocious, Indian Sikhs in police uniforms, and they
treated the coolies, Chinese coolies, with the greatest cruelty.
For example, the big Sikh who stood in front of the Astor House
Hotel keeping order among the rickshaw coolies, carried a whip like
a riding crop, only longer, and he didn't ever hesitate to flay
those poor coolies over the back. I created quite a fuss one day,
because he slashed my rickshaw boy. I was sitting in the rickshaw,
and as he struck this poor fellow, I wrapped my umbrella around his
head. I came down on the Sikh's head.
Hicke: You whacked the Sikh?
Hicke: Well, good for you.
O'Brien: Well, that was strictly verboten. I created quite a fuss, but I
was loudly applauded on all sides by the Americans who felt the
same horror at the way these poor people lived.
In those days - if you go to Shanghai now it's all cleaned
up - in those days the sampans were -
Hicke: You were just saying the sampans were tied up on shore.
O'Brien: On the shore, and then tied up to each other, and they came
practically out to the center of the channel of the huge river
Hicke: One tied to the other in a string?
O'Brien: Yes. Not in strings - side-by-side. The poor Chinese that lived
on those sampans, many of them had never been on dry land. They
scurried around on those little sampans, which were about as big as
the top of this desk. They cooked and ate and slept and lived and
died on those little potato chips in the utmost degradation and
filth; barely keeping body and soul together. I used to look out
the window and watch the scene every day from the windows of our
apartment. The Astor House is right at one of the main bridges
that goes across the river, and on the other side of the river was
the infamous park, reserved for English people - the Americans
were permitted to use it as well -
Yes, which had the sign on it, "No Dogs or Chinese Allowed." My
father, at some stage, bought me what I guess was the first pair of
roller skates ever seen in Shanghai. I learned to skate, skating
up the rather precipitous slope of this bridge and then coasting
down the other. But the bridge was lined with beggars with every
ugly, horrible sore, with every deformity many of them self-
inflicted for the purpose of attracting sympathy, and so on - and
I knew them all by name, because I fell so often into their arms.
They would set me up on my feet again, and I would struggle to
scramble up one side and down the other.
I was ill once or twice, rather seriously. I not surprisingly
got some sort of a paratyphoid, or something of the sort, some very
debilitating sort of disease. My parents, naturally, having lost
one child, were quite anxious about that. My mother brought me
home once or twice in the summertime to be in Southern California.
I can't help but be amused now when I see the pictures of Venice,