Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner in 1966
Born (1889-07-17)July 17, 1889
Malden, Massachusetts, U.S.[1]
Died March 11, 1970(1970-03-11) (aged 80)
Temecula, California, U.S.
Pen name Kyle Corning, A.A. Fair, Charles M. Green, Carleton Kendrake, Charles J. Kenny, Robert Parr, Les Tillray
Occupation Lawyer, writer
Genre Detective fiction, true crime, travel writing
Notable works
Notable awards
  • Natalie Frances Talbert
    (married 1912–1968)
  • Agnes Jean Bethell
    (married 1968–1970)
Children 1


Erle Stanley Gardner (July 17, 1889 – March 11, 1970) was an American lawyer and author. Though best known for the Perry Mason series of detective stories, he wrote numerous other novels and shorter pieces, as well as a series of non-fiction books, mostly narrations of his travels through Baja California and other regions in Mexico.

The best-selling American author of the 20th century at the time of his death, Gardner also published under numerous pseudonyms, including A.A. Fair, Kyle Corning, Charles M. Green, Carleton Kendrake, Charles J. Kenny, Les Tillray and Robert Parr.

Life and work

The First National Bank Building in Ventura, where Gardner wrote drafts for first Perry Mason novels.

Born in Malden, Massachusetts, Erle Stanley Gardner graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1909 and enrolled at Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana. He was suspended after approximately one month when his interest in boxing became a distraction. He returned to California, pursued his legal education on his own, and passed the state bar exam in 1911.

In 1912 Gardner wed Natalie Frances Talbert; they had a daughter, Grace.[2] He opened his first law office in Merced in 1917, but closed it after accepting a position at a sales agency. In 1921 he returned to law as a member of the Ventura firm Sheridan, Orr, Drapeau and Gardner,[3] where he remained until 1933.[4]

Gardner enjoyed litigation and the development of trial strategy, but was otherwise bored by legal practice. In his spare time he began writing for pulp magazines; his first story was published in 1923. He created many series characters for the pulps, including the ingenious Lester Leith, a parody of the "gentleman thief" in the tradition of A. J. Raffles; and Ken Corning, crusading lawyer, crime sleuth, and archetype for his most successful creation, Perry Mason. In his early years writing for the pulp magazine market Gardner set himself a quota of 1,200,000 words a year.[5]:13 When asked why his heroes always defeated villains with the last bullet in their guns Gardner answered, "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".[6] Early on he typed his stories himself using two fingers, but later dictated them to a team of secretaries.

Under the pen name A. A. Fair, Gardner wrote a series of novels about the private detective firm of Cool and Lam. In another series, District Attorney Doug Selby litigated against attorney Alphonse Baker Carr in an inversion of the Perry Mason scenario. Prosecutor Selby is portrayed as a courageous and imaginative crime solver; his antagonist A. B. Carr is a wily shyster whose clients are invariably "as guilty as hell".

Gardner remained with Sheridan, Orr, Drapeau and Gardner until 1933, when The Case of the Velvet Claws was published. Much of that story is set at the historic Pierpont Inn, just down the road from his law office.[4] In 1937 Gardner moved to Temecula, California, where he lived for the rest of his life.

With the success of the Mason series, which eventually ran to over 80 novels, Gardner gradually reduced his contributions to the pulp magazines until the medium itself died in the 1950s. Thereafter he published a few short stories in the "glossies" such as Collier's, Sports Afield, and Look,[7] but the majority of his postwar magazine contributions were non-fiction articles on travel, western history, and forensic science. Gardner's readership was a broad and international one, and included the English novelist Evelyn Waugh, who in 1949 called Gardner the best living American writer.[8][9]

Perry Mason executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson and Erle Stanley Gardner speak with Hollywood columnist Norma Lee Browning during filming of the last episode, "The Case of the Final Fade-Out" (1966)

Gardner also created characters for various radio programs, including Christopher London (1950), starring Glenn Ford, and A Life in Your Hands (1949–1952).[10]:10, 157 He created Perry Mason as a recurring character for a series of Hollywood films of the 1930s, and then for a titular radio program, which ran from 1943 to 1955. In 1954 CBS proposed transforming Mason into a television soap opera. When Gardner opposed the idea CBS created The Edge of Night, featuring John Larkin — who voiced Mason on the radio show — as a thinly-veiled imitation of the Mason character.[10]:199–201

In 1957 Perry Mason became a long-running CBS-TV series starring Raymond Burr in the title role. Though Burr originally auditioned for the role of district attorney Hamilton Burger, Gardner reportedly declared he was the embodiment of Perry Mason.[11] Gardner made an uncredited appearance as a judge in "The Case of the Final Fade-Out" (1966), the last episode of the series.[12][13]:24

Gardner and his first wife had separated in the early 1930s, and after her death in 1968 Gardner married Agnes Jean Bethell[14] (1902–2002), his secretary since 1930. The character of Della Street was a composite of Jean and her two sisters, Peggy and Ruth, who also worked as secretaries for Gardner.

He held a lifelong fascination with Baja California and wrote a series of non-fiction travel documentaries describing his extensive explorations of the peninsula by boat, truck, airplane and helicopter.

Gardner devoted thousands of hours to "The Court of Last Resort", in collaboration with his many friends in the forensic, legal, and investigative communities. The project sought to review and, when appropriate, reverse miscarriages of justice against criminal defendants who had been convicted due to poor legal representation, abuse or misinterpretation of forensic evidence, or careless or malicious actions of police or prosecutors. The resulting 1952 book earned Gardner his only Edgar Award in the Best Fact Crime category,[15] and was later made into a TV series, The Court of Last Resort.

Death and legacy

Gardner died on March 11, 1970, at his ranch in Temecula[2][16]—the best-selling American writer of the 20th century at the time of his death.[2] He was cremated and his ashes scattered over his beloved Baja California peninsula.[5]:305 The ranch, known as Rancho del Paisano at the time, was sold after his death, then resold in 2001 to the Pechanga Indians, renamed Great Oak Ranch, and eventually absorbed into the Pechanga reservation.

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin holds Gardner's manuscripts, art collection and personal effects. From 1972 to 2010 the Ransom Center featured a full-scale reproduction of Gardner's study that displayed original furnishings, personal memorabilia and artifacts.[17] Although the space and a companion exhibition were dismantled, a panoramic view of the study is available online.[18]

In 2003 a new school in the Temecula Valley Unified School District was named Erle Stanley Gardner Middle School.[19][20]

In 2016 a lost novel in the Cool and Lam series, The Knife Slipped, written in 1939 but never published, is scheduled to receive its first publication; the book will appear as an entry in the Hard Case Crime series of mystery novels, which previously reissued one of the other Cool and Lam novels, Top of the Heap. The manuscript was found in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.


Cultural references

An unspecified article Gardner wrote for True magazine is referenced by William S. Burroughs in his 1959 novel, Naked Lunch.[21]

Gardner's name is well-known among avid crossword puzzle solvers, due to his first name's containing an unusual pattern of common letters, and few other famous people have the name Erle. As of January 2012, he is noted for having the highest ratio (5.31) of mentions in The New York Times crossword puzzle to mentions in the rest of the newspaper among all other people since 1993.[22]

In 2001 Huell Howser Productions, in association with KCET/Los Angeles, featured Gardner's Temecula Rancho del Paisano in California's Gold. The 30-minute program is available as a VHS videorecording.[23]


  1. "Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841–1910". New England Historic Genealogical Society. Retrieved 4 August 2010.
  2. 1 2 3 Krebs, Albin (March 12, 1970). "'The Fiction Factory': Erle Stanley Gardner, Author of the Perry Mason Mystery Novels, Is Dead at 80". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-07-28. As the best-selling American author of the century, Erle Stanley Gardner often insisted that he was 'not really a writer at all,' and to be sure, there were many critics who enthusiastically agreed with him. But millions of readers who have bought more than 170 million copies of his books in American editions alone, looked upon Mr. Gardner, creator of the redoubtable defense lawyer Perry Mason, as a master storyteller.
  3. Senate, Richard. "Erle Stanley Gardner". Benton, Orr, Duval, & Buckingham. Retrieved 1 August 2013.
  4. 1 2 Current Biography 1944, pp. 224–226
  5. 1 2 Hughes, Dorothy B. (1978). Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. ISBN 0-688-03282-6.
  6. Maher, Jimmy (2014-06-05). "Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder". The Digital Antiquarian. Retrieved 11 July 2014.
  7. "Erle Stanley Gardner Bibliography". Retrieved 2013-06-20.
  8. Stannard, Martin (1992) Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years 1939-1966, p. 240, Norton, ISBN 0-393-03412-7
  9. Borello, A. Evelyn Waugh and Earl Stanley Gardner. Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, vol. 4, no. 3 (1970). Retrieved October 15, 2014.
  10. 1 2 Cox, Jim (2002). Radio Crime Fighters. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-7864-1390-5.
  11. Podolsky, JD and Bacon, D: The Defense Rests. People Magazine archive. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
  12. "Perry Mason, Season 9 (CBS) (1965–66)". Classic TV Archive. Retrieved 2015-05-02.
  13. Kelleher, Brian; Merrill, Diana (1987). "The History of the Show". The Perry Mason TV Show Book. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 8–27. ISBN 9780312006693. Retrieved 2015-05-02.
  14. "Erle Stanley Gardner Weds". The New York Times. August 9, 1968. Retrieved 2013-12-19. Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of fictional Perry Mason, married Agnes Jean Bethell, his secretary of 40 years, last night at the home of a former Nevada State Prison warden.
  15. "Interesting Facts About Erle Stanley Gardner". Phantom Bookshop. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
  16. "Erle Stanley Gardner, Author of Perry Mason Stories, Dies". Los Angeles Times. March 12, 1970. Erle Stanley Gardner, whose Perry Mason mysteries made him the world's best selling author, died Wednesday at his ranch home at Temecula in Riverside County.
  17. "Erle Stanley Gardner Study". Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved 2016-06-26.
  18. "Panoramic View, Erle Stanley Gardner Study". Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved 2016-06-26.
  19. "Gardner Middle School". Temecula Valley Unified School District. Retrieved 2015-07-28.
  20. Kasindorf, Martin (March 20, 2003). "Congestion replaces citrus in L.A. fringe". USA Today. Retrieved 2015-07-28.
  21. MacFadyen, Ian (2009). "Dossier Four". In Harris, Oliver; MacFayden, Ian. Naked Lunch at 50: Anniversary Essays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press. p. 164. ISBN 978-0-8093-2916-8.
  22. Matt Gaffney (2012-01-27). "The Shortz List of Crossword Celebrities". Slate. Retrieved 2012-02-27.
  23. OCLC 53175485

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