Tuesday, July 16, 2013

July 17: Erle Stanley Gardner

On this date in History ... July 17, 1889:

Author Erle Stanley Gardner is born.  

Gardner is most famous for writing the “Perry Mason” book series which later involved into a television series, but he was a prolific writer with multiple characters to his credit. He is the most translated American author with his works published in 71 languages.  Gardner attended the Valparaiso (Indiana) School of Law for one month when he was suspended for organizing several illegal boxing matches.  He went to California and found a job as a typist in a law firm.  Picking up some law information on the job and doing self-study, he passed the California Bar three years later, without any formal training or law school.  

He wrote a massive number of short stories and did a great deal of pulp writing.  In 1932, the last year he wrote exclusively for pulp, he earned $20,000.  In 1932, “those are Stephen King-like numbers.” [1]  

“In his pulp days, Gardner was notorious for killing off the final heavies with the last bullet in the hero's gun, which led to some editors teasing him about how all his good guys seemed to be such bad shots. Gardner's alleged explanation? "At three cents a word, every time I say 'Bang' in the story I get three cents. If you think I'm going to finish the gun battle while my hero still has fifteen cents worth of unexploded ammunition in his gun, you're nuts." “[2]  

He gave up his law practice in 1933 and became a full time writer. When the Perry Mason book series became so popular, Gardner, who was also writing books with his many other characters, had to give up typing the manuscripts himself and hired six secretaries.  He would go from one to another, dictating a different novel to each one. Gardner used a Plot Wheel to sketch out his writing ideas, a tool that is credited for his incredible output of novels.  

Raymond Burr, who is the face of Perry Mason, showed up for auditions planning on auditioning for the role of Hamilton Burger.  Many leading actors were there to audition for the role of Perry Mason.  Fred MacMurray, who would go on to become the dad of “My Three Sons” fame, was a leading contender. 

According to author Brian Kelleher, who wrote a book about the TV series, Gardner just happened to be there that day, saw Burr walk in, and before one word came out of the actor’s mouth, Gardner jumped up out of his chair and said, “That’s him! That’s Perry Mason!” Even though the show’s producers disagreed, Burr got the part.[3]  

There is much speculation about the platonic relationship between Perry Mason and secretary Della Street.  One view is that it was a reflection of Gardner's own life.  He had a 30-year friendship/relationship with his secretary, who he married months after his wife passed away.  Gardner had remained married to his first wife even though they had been separated for years.  The slight flirtation yet strictly business relationship seen in Mason/Street may have been how Gardner viewed his own relationships with his wife and his secretary.

Another view is that it was a business decision.  Had Mason married Street, it would have sent the series and storylines in a completely different direction and Gardner didn't want to change the formula of success. 

Plot Wheel
In 1946, he formed The Court of Last Resort. With other professionals, case files were reviewed and persons who had been wrongly accused and convicted were cleared.  On the first case review, Gardner wrote a letter to California Governor Earl Warren. The Governor’s office was impressed with Gardner’s findings and a reprieve was issued.  The sentence was changed to life in prison, to give time for additional investigation and eventually the person was proven innocent and released.  The idea from this actual group became a TV series on NBC 1957-1958.  

Gardner died in March 1970 at the age of 80.

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