Erle Stanley Gardner, the prolific pulp fiction writer best known for creating the fictional lawyer Perry Mason; Della Street, Mason’s secretary; private detective Paul Drake, Mason’s favorite investigator; and Hamilton Burger, the district attorney with the worst won-lost record in the history of fictional jurisprudence, was born in in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1889, the son of a mining engineer. The family soon moved to Portland, Oregon and later to the Klondike during the Gold Rush. Eventually, the Gardners settled in Oroville, California, a small mining town.
Early Life & The Law
Young Earle graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1909, but his college education was cut short when he was expelled from Valparaiso University in Indiana early in his freshman year for fighting. The young Erle led a wild life, as befits a child of the Klondike and mining towns. He was to remain an ardent sportsman and traveler throughout his life. He also spoke fluent Chinese.
The wild young Mr. Gardner supported himself as a boxer and as a promoter of illegal wrestling matches. Eventually, fate was to intervene. While working as a typist in a California law office, he became intrigued by the subject and decided to make it his profession. In the first half of the 20th century, lawyers did not attend law school but gained their education via practical experience, i.e., working in a law office. Law school was for those who intended to teach the law or become judges. Without formal instruction, Erle Stanley Gardner passed the bar examination and was admitted to the California Bar in 1911, opening his first law office in Merced, California when he was 21 years old.
Initially, business was bad, but his Chinese fluency enabled him to make a living defending Chinese clients, who dubbed him “T’ai chong tze” (“The Big Lawyer”). Gardner moved south to Ventura, where he went into practice with another attorney in 1918. Gardner soon quit practicing law for three years, instead working as a salesman for the Consolidated Sales Co. He married Natalie Frances Talbert in 1921, the year he returned to Ventura and the practice of the law. He was a practicing attorney for the next 12 years.
In the early 1920s, Erle Stanley Gardner began writing for the pulp fiction magazines under the pseudonym Charles M. Green, the first of many pen names he would use during his career. Gardner wrote strictly for the money, but he had a flair for it, and his mystery short stories were popular and proved highly salable. He soon became a quite successful writer. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Gardner “wrote nearly 100 detective and mystery novels that sold more than 1,000,000 copies each, making him easily the best-selling American writer of his time.”
Erle Stanley Gardner established himself a major contributor to The Black Mask, the most famous of all the pulp magazines. He wrote stories about gentleman rogue Lester Leith, Sidney Zoom (The Master of Disguise) and Hoo Duck (The King of Chinatown). After the Great Depression set in, Gardner began writing western stories for a penny a word.
A 1931 trip to China gave birth to Major Copely Brane, International Adventurer. That same year, he began using a Dictaphone to dictate his stories to. Gardner had averaged 66,000 typed words a week (10% longer than F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby). After dictating a story, Gardener’s secretary would transcribe the recordings.
Due to his prodigious output, Erle Stanley Gardner ad to resort to pseudonyms so that his works wouldn’t flood the market and depress their value. His most famous pen name was that of A.A. Fair. Gardner had a staff of secretaries to transcribe his dictation. He married one of his long-serving secretaries in 1968, after the death of his wife Natalie, whom he had been estranged from since 1935.
Out of necessity, Gardner developed formulaic characters and plots, though each book was worked out extensively in his own longhand, including the final courtroom confrontation, before he sat down to dictate it. Graduating from Black Mask in the late 1930s, most of the Perry Mason novels were serialized by the Saturday Evening Post before they were published in book form. Gardner’s connection with that magazine lasted 20 years.
Perry Mason debuted in 1933 with two stories, The Case of the Velvet Claws and The Case of the Sulky Girl, and proved instantly popular. The first Perry Mason film, The Case of the Howling Dog (1934) was made the next year at Warner Bros., with Warren William as Perry Mason, ably supported by future Oscar-winner Mary Astor. Williams returned the following year in The Case of the Curious Bride (1935) and The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935), the former helmed by Michael Curtiz, one of Warner’s top directors who would win an Oscar for directing Casablanca (1942).
The following year, at R.K.O., granite-chinned heart-throb Richard Dix played Gardner’s detective Bill Fenwick in the B-movie Special Investigator(1936). Meanwhile, back at Warner Bros., William Warren reprised the role of Perrry Mason in The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936) before handing the role over to former silent-film superstar Ricardo Cortez.
Cortez had played Sam Spade in the original The Maltese Falcon (1931), and was the actor at whom the immortal line, “Who’s the dame in my kimono?” was directed in that flick. He had been a star in silent pictures, and had remained a front-line star in the early talkies, but by the time he took over the Perry Mason role, the days of both Ricardo Cortez and Perry Mason as a top draw in the movies were soon over.
The Perry Mason series was foisted off on the B-unit In The Case of the Black Cat (1936) which starred Cortez as the ndefeated barrister. It was the only time he was to lay the role. Donald Woods took overas Perry Mason for the final entry in the Warner Bros. series, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937). Despite Ann Dvorak (another faded star) being cast as Della Street, it proved the last appearance of Perry Mason on-screen for 20 years, with the exception of his veiled appearance under another name inGranny Get Your Gun (1940), which was based on the Perry Mason novel The Case of the Dangerous Dowager.
After 1940, an Erle Stanley Gardner work would never again appear on the big screen, though Perry Mason was to achieve immortality on television. Perry Mason, which had some success as a radio show on CBS, moved to TV in a one-hour format on 1957 and was a smash hit. The series ran until actor Raymond Burr, the definitive small-screen attorney, tired of the role in 1966. The TV series was revived in 1989 as made-for-TV movies, starting with The Case of Too Many Murders (1989), written by Thomas Chastain.
Court of Last Resort
As a lawyer, Erle Stanley Gardner became the bane of the legal establishment when he helped co-founding The Case Review Committee (colloquially known as the Court of Last Resort), a professional association of concerned lawyers who sought to investigate and reopen cases wherein a person might have been wrongly convicted serious crime. Beside Gardner, other founders included LeMoyne Snyder, a physician and lawyer who write well-regarded homicide investigation text books he wrote concerning homicide investigations; Dr. Leonorde Keeler, a pioneer and authority in the use of the polygraph in criminal proceedings; former American Academy of Scientific Investigators President Alex Gregory (another polygraph expert who replaced Dr. Keeler after his death), renowned handwriting expert Clark Sellers, and former Walla Walla Penitentiary warden Tom Smith.
The Mystery Writers of America bestowed its prestigious Fact Crime Edgar Award on Erle Stanley Gardner in 1952, for his non-fiction book The Court of Last Resort, which detailed one of the Court’s first investigations.
The most prominent case the Court was involved with was the murder conviction of Dr. Samuel Sheppard, who staunchly proclaimed his innocence of the murder of his wife. (The Sam Sheppard case provided the basis for the fictional The Fugitive (1963-68) TV show.) During the initial phases of the Sheppard appeal, Gardner polygraphed members of the Sheppard family. He had hoped if the results were favorable, he would then administer the lie detector test to Sam Sheppard himself. However, when Sheppard family members were tested, the polygraph results indicated guilty knowledge. Consequently Gardner declined to test Sam Sheppard, and the Court of Last Resort withdrew from the case, even though Gardner believed in Sheppard’s innocence.
Sam Sheppard was later freed by a Supreme Court decision that held that Sheppard had not gotten a fair trial due to pre-trial publicity that tainted the juror pool. The Supreme Court case was won by F. Lee Bailey, who also won acquittal for Sheppard during the subsequent retrial. Polygraph tests have never been allowed into evidence in a U.S. court due to their unreliability. Gardner ended his active membership in the Court of Last Resort in 1960. The Court – which conducted preliminary investigations of at least 8,000 cases — eventually disbanded.
Erle Stanley Gardner died on March 11, 1970, at his home, Rancho del Paisano, in Temecula, California. His last Perry Mason mystery, “The Case of the Postponed Murder” was published in 1973.