Stalking Perry Mason: Following the Footsteps of Erle Stanley Gardner in Ventura

What’s not to like about a lawyer who got kicked out of law school?! His best-selling Perry Mason novels aside, Erle Stanley Gardner would still be legendary for that un-lawyerly feat!

Erle Stanley Gardner with his signature pipe.

Born in 1889 in Malden, Massachusetts, Erle Stanley Gardner managed to stay enrolled at Valparaiso University’s law school for only a few short months. Legend has it that Gardner was sent packing after organizing an underground boxing match in which he himself became a pugilist. It probably didn’t help that Gardner also claimed to have slugged a professor.

Never mind his lack of a formal law degree. Gardner managed to get himself admitted to the California Bar by passing the test in 1911 at age 21. He’d spent three years working as a typist at a law firm in Oxnard, so perhaps that experience gave him sufficient insight into the mysteries of the profession.

The following year (1912), Gardner eloped with one of the secretaries at the firm, Natalie Talbert. A hasty wedding it may have been, but the marriage lasted — officially, at least — until Natalie’s death some 57 years later.

The former Ventura County Courthouse where Gardner practiced – now Ventura City Hall.

Gardner had his own law practice in Merced for a short time. Then in 1915 he was invited to join the trial law firm of Frank Orr in Ventura. He abandoned law briefly in 1917, working instead as a salesman. But by 1921 he was back doing trial work for the Ventura firm. He seemed to most love representing legal underdogs: “I have clients of all classes except the upper and middle classes,” he once wrote his father.

Meanwhile, Gardner was trying his hand at writing pulp fiction on the side. His typewriter clacked late into the night in the study over his garage. But would-be writers can identify with Gardner’s early tribulations. His initial efforts produced only a growing pile of rejection slips. Finally, in 1921, Gardner’s first short story appeared in print. Some claim it was “The Shrieking Skeleton.” Others say it was the equally-alliterative “Nellie’s Naughty Nightie,” a bit of pulp fiction that generated all of $15 bucks. (Gardner’s mother reportedly refused to read it.) But Gardner had found his true calling. Over the next decade, he would crank out an astonishing 600 short stories and novelettes in his spare time.

The Ventura Pier today.

A daughter was born in 1923. Gardner would soon happily begin teaching her to fish off the nearby Ventura Pier.

Things were apparently going well in his professional life, too. In 1926, Gardner’s law firm moved into offices in a newly-completed bank building at the corner of California and Main. Although Main Street itself was still unpaved, the building boasted the finest accoutrements, from sparkling chandeliers to the city’s very first elevator.

Gardner’s office was in this building at 21 California St., Ventura

The four-story office building was conveniently situated in the heart of downtown, with the Ventura Courthouse just a short walk up the hill. Gardner was able to enjoy some of the finer things that Ventura had to offer, including steak dinners at his favorite Pierpont Inn.

As Gardner’s publishing credits began to grow, his agent encouraged him to try his hand at book-length works. And there in his third-floor law office in 1932, Gardner would crank out the opening pages of what would become his first Perry Mason novel. Some say it took him a mere three days to finish his first draft.

Front door of Gardner’s office building.

The book, “The Case of the Velvet Claw,” debuted in 1933 and became an immediate success. Soon, Gardner was spending just two days a week as a lawyer. The rest of his time was devoted to writing. Before long, Gardner gave up law entirely and devoted himself to writing full-time.

Although he pounded out stories at first as a two-fingered typist, Gardner quickly figured out that he could produce far more by dictating. A chance encounter with Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn (where she worked as a hostess) led Gardner to offer Agnes a job as his secretary. The dictation system worked so well that he soon hired her two sisters as secretaries, too.

Gardner met his secretary, long-time companion and eventual wife Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn.

Some sources say Gardner set himself a goal of 4,000 words a night; others say his target was 10,000 words every three days. He regularly churned out some 100,000 words a month. That meant he could produce between three and six books a year — a track record that would make him any writer’s idol!

Gardner and first wife Natalie acquired a newly-built home on Foster Avenue about 1936. But Gardner himself didn’t live there long. Although they never formally divorced, the couple lived separately beginning about 1935. In 1937 Gardner purchased “Rancho del Paisano” in Temecula. It would be his home for the rest of his life.

Natalie passed away in 1968. A few months later, Gardner married his long-time secretary and companion, Agnes.  He was 79 years old. Gardner lived just two another years, passing away of cancer at his home in Temecula in 1970.

All-told, Gardner authored nearly 100 detective and mystery novels, more than 80 of them featuring the quintessential sleuth, Perry Mason. His books have been translated into 71 languages, making him the most-translated American author. Despite this incredible record, Gardner claimed “no natural aptitude” as a writer. He was simply a “good plotter,” he once said — and oh yes, “one hell of a good salesman.” His goal was to offer his readers “sheer fun.” And readers loved it.

The historic plaque on Gardner’s former office building at 21 California St., Ventura.

Today, modern-day Perry Mason fans can still follow in Erle Stanley Gardner’s footsteps on a visit to Ventura. A bronze plaque flags the downtown building on California Street where Gardner had his third-floor law office — and drafted his first Perry Mason tale. The Courthouse just up the hill (now Ventura’s City Hall) is where Gardner, as a real-life lawyer, once argued tenaciously on behalf of his clients. The Ventura pier where Gardner taught his daughter to fish has since been rebuilt, but still juts out proudly into the Pacific. The Pierpont Inn, where Gardner tucked into delicious steak dinners and where he met Agnes Jean Bethell, remains an iconic Ventura attraction.

The former Gardner home at 4240 Foster Ave, Ventura, listed by eXp Realty.

And you’re really eager to follow in Gardner’s footsteps, you can even purchase Gardner’s former home at 2420 Foster Avenue. It’s two stories, 2,770 square feet, with a killer view overlooking town. And it’s on sale right now for just $1.79 million.

 

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Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.

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For further reading about Erle Stanley Gardner:

IMDb biography of Gardner

Kingston Pierce blog

“Thrilling Detective” blog 

L.A. Times story by Jane Hulse (1/11/1996) 

L.A. Times story by Gary Gorman (9/23/1990) 

Wikitree

Wikipedia

And the eXp Realty listing for 2420 Foster Ave