|The first worthwhile piece of fiction
that Erle Stanley Gardner ever sold was published,
indirectly, as a result of a cruel inside joke. It
happened in 1923. Writing under the pen name Charles M.
Green, the California-based lawyer-writer submitted a
novelette titled "The Shrieking Skeleton" to a
pulp magazine called Black Mask. The story was so
bad the magazine's staff sent it to their circulation
director as a joke, pretending that the piece was going
to be the lead featured in their next issue and asking
him to work up some publicity ideas to promote it. The
circulation director read the story and, thinking the
editorial staff had taken leave of its collective senses,
fired it back to them with comments such as "this
plot has whiskers like Spanish moss," and "the
characters talk like dictionaries."
With the gag played out, the staff returned the story to Gardner accompanied by the usual form-letter rejection slip. However, perhaps fatefully, the circulation director's note blasting the story was mistakenly sent to Gardner as well. Gardner found the note and read the brutal, uncensored criticism. It may have been the best thing that ever happened to him.
Gardner took the story apart and, in three days, put it back together again. He worked so hard on it that his fingertips bled onto his typewriter keys. He resubmitted it to Black Mask with a letter explaining that he had seen the circulation director's comments and had taken the criticism to heart. The magazine bought the revised version of "The Shrieking Skeleton" for $160.
Thus was launched the writing career of a man who would go on to sell literally hundreds of millions of books.
Just why Gardner got into writing at all is somewhat of a mystery. He was a successful lawyer in Ventura, California, when he started writing in the early 1920s. He frequently wrote at night, after spending the day practicing law, and in his early years, earned less in a year from writing than he could earn in a month as an attorney. Dorothy Hughes, in her excellent biography, Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason (William T. Morrow & Co. Inc., 1978), reports that Gardner said in 1959 that he started writing because he had to fill his leisure time. But then ten years later, he said that he got into the business because he thought it would be a profitable one. Whatever the reason, Gardner started writing more or less full time in the early 1930s, around the time he wrote his first Perry Mason book.
And write he did. Gardner, a man of amazing self-discipline, set an annual goal for himself of writing 1.2 million words. That breaks down to almost 3,300 words a day, every day, adding up to 100,000 words a month. At first he typed all these words himself. Only later did he realize that it would be quicker and easier for him to dictate. From then on, he left most of the manual labor to a pool of secretaries.
While the Perry Mason books were by far Gardner's most successful works, they were by no means his only ones. Nor was Mason his only character. One of his early pulp creations was a human fly detective named Speed Dash. He also wrote a series of books starring a district attorney named Doug Selby and other characters named Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. He worked with pen names; A. A. Fair was just one. He also wrote short stories and novelettes, plus many nonfiction works such as his books on the Baja region of California and the Sacramento delta, as well as authoritative books on crime. But it was when Gardner was writing about what he knewpracticing lawthat he was at his best. And his best was Perry Mason.
In his conceptual form, the world's most famous lawyer was actually half attorney, half astronomer. Gardner had written a novel called Reasonable Doubt, which featured a lawyer named Ed Stark. The book was rejected by the two publishers it was offered to. Later on, Gardner produced another book, The Silent Verdict, which had an astronomer named Samuel Keene as its central character. This story was also rejected. Then the president of Morrow happened to read both books and suggested that Gardner marry the two characters into one. He did. But he needed a name for this new hero, a kind of detective/lawyer type. Gardner then reportedly fell back on a magazine he had enjoyed as a kid, The Youthful Companion. That publication had frequently used the name "Perry Mason," and that was the name Gardner gave to his new creation.
The first Perry Mason book, The Case of the Velvet Claws, was published in March 1933. Oddly, like those for the television show that would follow nearly a quarter of a century later, the first reviews weren't good. But Gardner was never one to let criticism bother him. In fact, in many ways it strengthened him, gave him the will to push on. The Case of the Sulky Girl followed in September of 1933 and after that, there was no stopping Gardner. The sequels turned into a series. Within two years, Warner Brothers had bought and filmed three Mason stories, with dubious results. Radio was next (in 1943), then a comic strip (1950-52) and finally, the original TV series in 1957.
In all, Gardner banged out and dictated eighty-two full-length Mason novels before his death in 1970. Many of these books were written literally "on the road." Gardner, never a man to sit still, frequently wrote in the desert using one of his several house trailers as a base of operations. In later years, he would organize entire caravansincluding secretaries and friendsand take off for the wilderness, dictating his books as he went along. From these desert beginnings, Gardner's books were published in hardcover by Morrow and in paperback by Pocket Books, then translated from English into dozens of languages and sold all over the world. At one Point, Gardner's publishers had figured out that Perry Mason fans were buying his books at a rate of two thousand copies an hour, eight hours a day, six days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. This was back in 1958, when Gardner had sold a mere one hundred million books in English. By the late 1970s, the worldwide figure was more than three hundred million.
Of course, all these words added up to a lot of money for Gardner. He was eventually very wealthy. Columnist/publisher Bennett Cerf once put it best: "'When Does Crime Pay?' When Erle Stanley Gardner Writes about It."
What's amazing is that all this was written about characters that Gardner never really described. "I can't tell you what [Perry] looks like," he told TV Guide in 1964. "1 blurred everything as much as possible. [I] wanted the reader to create his own image."
He did reveal that he always thought of the lawyer as a combination of four attorneys he knew while practicing in Oxnard, California, mixed in with a large dose of Gardner himself. Like his creator Perry Mason likes steak. However, unlike his creator (who once described himself as "a middle-aged Kewpie"), Mason gave an "impression of bigness," and had "rugged features" that could have been "carved from granite."
Gardner never provided much of a description of Mason's secretary, Della Street, either, only that she was beautiful, liked dancing, and was highly efficient. Gardner had a secretary like this in real life. Her name was Jean Walter. She and her two sisters, Honey and Peggy, made up a kind of permanent secretarial pool for Gardner throughout his career. They were with him when he first started writing and it was theyplus many, many more secretaries in the following yearswho took down Gardner's dictated tales and typed them into manuscripts. No doubt a lot of what made up the Della Street character came from the Walter sisters, especially Jean. As author Dorothy Hughes points out, Gardner and Jean were a team, just like Perry and Della. But, unlike his fictional character, Gardner did not keep this relationship on a strictly business basis. Mason never proposed to his secretary,* but Gardner proposed to his. In 1968, after an association that dated back to the 1920s (and after his first wife, Natalie, from whom he had been separated for years, had died), he and Jean Walter were married.
As far as the character of Paul Drake, it probably originated in Gardner's imagination, although the author had a friend from whom he may have drawn at least Drake's initial traits. The friend's name was Sam Hicks, a cowboy who could do just about anything from handling boats to fixing an automobile engine. He and Gardner were close; Hicks managed Gardner's California ranch and was a prominent member of the author's entourage. Hicks was a Mr. Fix-it, loyal and intelligent-qualities that were also attributed to Paul Drake.
Gardner always believed that lawyers in general were treated unfairly. In an article in TV Guide dealing with the state of television, he wrote that there were "two classes of persons who automatically enjoy poor public relations: the attorney at law and the mother in law." In many ways, the Perry Mason character let the lawyers, at least, fight back. "Perry Mason represents a member of the legal profession who is fighting for human rights and liberties," he wrote in the same article. "I am hoping that people who see him [on TV] will learn to appreciate the importance of the law and the necessity for fearless, intelligent lawyers who are, above all, primarily loyal to their clients."
Not that he felt all lawyers were as perfect as his famous character. One of Gardner's other interesting pursuits was his involvement with the Court of Last Resort. This was a panel, formed in the early 1950s and made up of experts in the field of crime investigation, that reviewed authentic cases in which judgments appeared to be wrong. In many of the cases it reviewed, this panel found that innocent people had been convicted of crimes they hadn't committed, and many were released because of the panel's investigations. For more on the "court," the aforementioned Dorothy Hughes book goes into detail, and Gardner himself wrote about the panel in The Court of Last Resort, (Morrow, 1952).
Gardner's writing touched a lot of people, celebrities included. Harry S. Truman was a fan. They say that when Einstein died, a Perry Mason book was at his bedside. And when Raymond Burr had occasion to meet Pope John XXIII, the actor reported that the pontiff "seemed to know all about Perry Mason."
Gardner kept a close eye on all of the Perry Mason projects. He barraged his editors with letters concerning the Mason novels. He almost never missed a Mason radio broadcast in all its twelve-year history. When the television series was created, it was by Gardner's own production company. He helped choose the actors and approve the scripts, and was frequently on the set while the show was being filmed. The character he had created in 1933, which filtered out to the public via every medium of communication, was no orphan.
Gardner himself was often described as cantankerous. He was a demanding go-getter, a workaholic if there ever was one. He was once described as a kind of "preachy son of a bitch." Just as the character of Perry Mason was derived in good part from Gardner himself, a large measure of Gardner's life was taken up by Perry Mason. They were inseparable to the end. Gardner was writing Perry Mason books well into his late seventies, even after the original television show had been taken off the air.
Despite his sometimes nasty reputation, those who knew Gardner loved him. A close associate of his, Cornwell Jackson, the man who played a big part in getting Perry Mason on TV, went to see Gardner as the great author lay dying of cancer in early 1970. Gardner, now eighty years old, had known he had cancer for several years, but had managed to keep it a secret. Now he was slipping in and out of a coma and the end was near. Jackson entered the writer's hospital room just as Gardner was coming out of a comatose state. It was long enough, as Jackson told it, for Gardner to rip off a string of obscenities at his longtime collaborator to the effect that the man should have been doing something more constructive with his time than visiting a dying man.
It was vintage Gardner. "I'll always treasure that last meeting," Jackson said. "He did nothing but abuse me."
* Webmaster's Note: John Mills points out that, in the Perry Mason books, Perry proposed to his secretary, Della, several times. She always turned him down.
|The Perry Mason TV Show Book Copyright © 1987 by Brian Kelleher and Diana Merrill. All rights reserved. Presented here by permission of the copyright holder. Commercial use prohibited. Web page Copyright © 1998 D. M. Brockman. Last edited 04 Nov 2004.|