Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) was a friend of Carroll John Daly’s, though his opposite in character. Short and stocky, he loved to box, was thrown out of both high school and college, and was a Westerner. In a time before degrees were required to practice law, Gardner studied on his own and passed the California bar exam at age twenty-one. He joined a firm in Oxnard, California, and earned a reputation as a champion of the underdog, particularly in the Chinese community. Possessed of a great memory for the case law he read and the testimony he heard, Gardner won most of his cases. “No one who had known him as a lawyer had to look far,” said his partner, “to find where Perry Mason came from.” 1
Gardner decided to write stories to make extra money for his family. His initial efforts were terribly-written and all rejected, but one sent to The Black Mask was accidentally returned with editor North’s comments. Gardner used them to rewrite and to re-submit “The Shrieking Skeleton,” which was published in December, 1923. North then took an interest in Gardner and put him to work on a series hero, one of several he would create. His first success was Ed Jenkins, “The Phantom Crook,” who debuted in January 1925. A perpetual favorite in the magazine’s reader polls, Jenkins appeared in seventy-three stories over eighteen years.
Gardner became a maniacal worker: he conducted his practice during the day, read in the law library evenings, wrote his fiction in the late night, and then slept three hours. “Under my own name and a dozen others,” he said, he had averaged “a full novelette every third day… For ten years I kept up this pace of a hundred thousand words a month.” 2 In one year, 1926, Nolan estimates that Gardner sold a million words, ninety-seven stories, including twenty-six to Black Mask. 3
When “Cap” Shaw became editor in 1926, Gardner was fourty-three and looking for a yet wider audience. Shaw prized the Ed Jenkins series so much that he turned down a chance to publish Gardner’s attempt at a full-length novel about a tough, trouble-shooting young lawyer. The book and a sequel were only published in 1933 by William Morrow and Company; the lawyer, first named Starke, then Keene, was renamed Perry Mason by the time the book appeared (The Case of the Velvet Claws, 1933). By the end of that year, having practiced for twenty-two years, Gardner abandoned law and wrote full time.
During this early period Perry Mason was close to the Black Mask private eye tradition. The “idea of smash-bang action is really the basis of Perry Mason’s exploits,” said Gardner at the time. Scholar Francis Nevins writes that the early work is “steeped in the hard-boiled tradition of Black Mask” and that Perry Mason is “willing to take any risk for a client.” Says Mason in one novel, “I’m a paid gladiator.” But Gardner was worried that he had been overly influenced by Dashiell Hammett. 4
After Hollywood studios purchased the first Perry Mason novels (and botched them, in Gardner’s opinion), the writer moved to Hollywood to learn about the movie industry. Lost at first, Gardner gained respectability and money in 1937 with the serialization of his novel The Case of the Lame Canary in the Saturday Evening Post. He bought a 150-acre ranch in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles and began to improve it. Over the next decade the energetic Gardner became an industry: he invented more series characters, such as Doug Selby, Lam and Cool, and Pete Wennick. He wrote for the movies and his Perry Mason radio show began on C.B.S. in 1943, staying on the air for twelve years. Gardner reportedly listened to and critiqued each half-hour episode.5 His secretary Jean Bethell was the model for Della Street; her two sisters typed his manuscripts and transcribed his dictation when Gardner adopted the Dictaphone, which he had used in his law practice.
By 1943 Gardner abandoned the pulp magazines, which were losing a battle for audience with radio, comic books and paperback novels. He traveled (writing travel books, naturally), expanded his ranch, and began “The Court of Last Resort,” a panel of experts who reviewed apparent cases of legal miscarriage (and in some ways anticipated today’s pro bono DNA reserachers). Gardner wrote over seventy-five articles out of this endeavor, becoming expert in everything from forensic medicine to prison reform.
By the mid-1950s, the enduring popularity of Perry Mason had attracted the attention of television. Gardner negotiated a deal that gave him complete control of the series, and he personally selected Raymond Burr to play Perry Mason, Barbara Hale to play Della, and William Talman as the District Attorney (right). The Perry Mason Show ran from September 1957 until the spring of 1966 (271 episodes), with Gardner controlling everything and resisting all change. 6
At the time of his death on March 11, 1970, Gardner was “the most widely read of all American writers” and “the most widely translated author in the world,” according to social historian Russell Nye. The first Mason novel, The Case of The Velvet Claws,” had sold twenty-eight million copies in its first fifteen years. In the mid-1950s, the Perry Mason novels were selling at the rate of twenty thousand copies a day. 7 Since then Gardner has never been out of print.
The Erle Stanley Gardner website: http://www.erlestanleygardner.com/
1 Frank Orr, quoted in Nolan, Black Mask, 96. 2 Gardner in Nolan, Black Mask, 97. 3 Ibid. 4 Nolan, Black Mask, 98. 5 Nolan, Black Mask, 99-102 6 Ibid. 7 Ibid. 98, 101.