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Versatility is no mystery to the prodigiously talented and creative Alan Gordon ’81

If you call Alan Gordon ’81 a Renaissance man, he’s likely to correct you. 

“I think of myself as a Jack-of-Some-Trades,” he replies. 

Gordon makes his living as a public defender in Queens. He’s been working for the Legal Aid Society since 1984, dealing with robberies, burglaries, and driving misdemeanors. But in his off-hours, you’ll find him composing musicals, short stories, and novels, like the Fools’ Guild Mysteries, his eight-volume medieval series.

Gordon conceived the idea at Swarthmore during a seminar with Professor Susan Snyder when the role of jesters in Shakespeare captured his interest. After following him for nearly 20 years, the idea came to life in 1999 as the first Fools’ Guild novel, Thirteenth Night. (In 2013, Jeopardy! included this clue for $2,000: “Feste the Fool is a character in this Alan Gordon novel that one-ups a Bard comedy.”)

Set in 1201 during the time of the Fourth Crusade—“a wonderfully cynical enterprise”—the book took a year and a half to write after a year and a half of research. 

“I realized I’d have to learn some medieval history,” Gordon says, crediting Swarthmore for his research skills. He turned to Will Durant’s The Age of Faith to start. “That covered 1,000 years of history in 1,000 pages, and then the footnotes led me to the next books. I read everything I could.”

Gordon took a leave of absence to write the second Fools’ Guild book, but mostly he’s squeezed writing in around his legal work. 

“You have to find a specific time that’s yours,” he says. “I write for an hour or so before work in the mornings. Like any exercise, the more you do, the better you get. I’ve evolved from writing a plot-driven book to a more character- and emotionally-driven book.” 

More recently, Gordon has expanded into musical theater. He started by writing silly songs, like “The Narrow Kitchen Tango,” to delight his wife, Judy Downer ’81. He auditioned on a whim for the Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, a two-year program, and was accepted. Most workshop participants were 20-something students. As for Gordon, who was in his 40s at the time? 

“I was the strange lawyer who showed up in a suit,” he laughs. 

Since then, he’s completed four full-length musicals, teaming up with composers Joy Son and the late Mark Sutton-Smith. “It’s been an absolute blast,” he says. 

His libretto for The Usual won the prestigious 2013 Kleban Prize for Musical Theatre, and his work has been performed around the country, including his fourth musical, Better Than Dreaming, at the 2015 Santa Fe Musical Theater Festival. 

Ultimately, Gordon recommends the Jack-of-Some-Trades life. 

“Anyone who’s going to be a lawyer, it’s important to have something emphatically not law in your life,” he says. “Have a happy place where you can go to escape the stress of your regular job.”

+ Learn more about Alan’s work

+ Hear Alan discuss his longing for “The Encyclopedia Brown Moment”