Erle Stanley Gardner Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Gardner, a prolific writer of detective fiction, created Perry Mason, one of the most well known and popular fictional lawyers in print and on television.

Early Life

Erle Stanley Gardner was born in Malden, Massachusetts, the second child of Charles Walter Gardner and Grace Adelma Gardner. The eldest child, Walter, was two years older. A third child, Kenneth, was born in 1901. His father, a civil engineer, moved the family west to find work in his field, first to Portland, Oregon, and then to Oroville, California. Erle was about ten when they moved, and though he loved to travel, he remained a loyal Californian.

Gardner—an energetic nonconformist—tended to clash with Walter, an academic achiever in high school and college. Gardner’s academic career was much rockier; his own accounts of high school days included clashes with authority figures in the Oroville Union High School. A series of incidents led to his dismissal from school, which pushed him to find work with the deputy district attorney of Butte County. His understanding father then boarded him with an outstanding high school principal, Joseph C. Templeton of Palo Alto High School. Determining that Gardner suffered from excessive energy, Templeton set up a grueling schedule that required Gardner to read for two or three hours before breakfast and type legal papers in a law office after school until 9:30 P.M. This discipline enabled Gardner to graduate from high school on June 18, 1909.

Gardner’s legal education was self-directed: He studied law as he worked in lawyers’ offices, passed the qualifying examination, and was admitted to the bar when he was twenty-one years old. After an unsuccessful attempt to start his own office, he moved to Ventura County to handle the small cases of a prominent corporate lawyer. Because of one case involving Chinese gamblers wherein Gardner helped them by exploiting some of the racist attitudes of the times, he became a hero in the Chinese community and an annoyance to the district attorney. Although he continued to practice law in Ventura County for twenty years, he said later that he disliked the routine practice of office law but very much enjoyed trials, especially in front of juries.

On April 9, 1912, Gardner married Natalie Frances Beatrice Talbert, then a secretary in a law office, and in 1913 their only child, Natalie Grace, was born. Two years later, he was invited into a partnership with a prominent young attorney, Frank Orr. After taking a short and hectic detour into sales for three years, Gardner settled into the law practice and, in 1921, started writing fiction.

Life’s Work

Writing did not come easily to this genial lawyer who could skillfully talk his way around a courtroom. At first, Gardner’s years of battling in court only provided him with the emotional toughness he needed to keep sending off jokes, skits, stories, and novellas while the rejection slips kept piling up. In 1923, some caustic comments from a reader about a story he had submitted to The Black Mask magazine were accidentally included in the rejection slip. Gardner took the comments to heart and revised for three nights, typing with two fingers until the skin on the fingers cracked. He sold the revision for 160 dollars as Charles M. Green, his pen name at the time. Thereafter he sold a steady stream of writing to The Black Mask and other pulps.

The idea for a book-length mystery was first brought up by Gardner in 1929. Gardner’s methodical approach and experience breaking into the pulps was repeated: He studied the market, took notes, analyzed, and learned. By 1932 he had produced a 70,000-word manuscript featuring Ed Stark, a hard-boiled lawyer and detective figure, and his secretary. He then wrote a second manuscript that featured a different lawyer figure, Sam Keene. The manuscripts made the rounds of publishers until the president of William Morrow and Company, a relatively young firm, expressed interest and useful criticism.

Gardner had the idea, the word count, and the plot line, but he had to make the transition from the rough, violent world of the pulp magazines that had sustained him as a writer to the world of mystery and romance expected in drugstore novels. Because it was a standard practice in pulp fiction to give characters names that personified their most remarkable characteristics, Gardner changed “Stark” to “Stone” and then settled on “Mason,” which had the advantage of referring to a person instead of inert matter yet had the connotations of granite-hard strength. So many laborious, minute revisions followed that Gardner wrote to his agent that revising a book was the hardest job he had ever tackled. Finally, after rejecting many other possibilities, the title was chosen from a line of dialogue uttered by Della Street, the secretary: The Case of the...

(The entire section is 2018 words.)

Erle Stanley Gardner Biography

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Erle Stanley Gardner was born to Grace Adelma Gardner and Charles Walter Gardner in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1889. The elder Gardner was an engineer who traveled wherever his work demanded, and he moved his family to the West Coast, first to Oregon when Erle was ten, and then to Oroville, California, in 1902. The young Gardner loved California, and though in adulthood he traveled extensively, he always made California his home base and that of his fictional characters.

Gardner displayed the independence, diligence, and imagination that were later to mark his career as a writer by becoming a lawyer at the age of twenty-one, not by attending law school but by reading and assisting an attorney and then passing the bar exam. He set up practice in Oxnard, Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles, where he quickly gained a reputation as a shrewd and resourceful attorney who helped many clients out of seemingly impossible situations.

An outdoorsman (hunter, fisher, and archer), Gardner tried a number of other business ventures before turning to writing at the age of thirty-four, selling his first story to a pulp magazine in 1923. He was not a natural writer, but he learned quickly by studying successful writers and the comments of his editors. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, he turned out an enormous number of stories for the pulps and created a large array of characters before introducing his most successful character, lawyer-detective Perry...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Erle Stanley Gardner Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Erle Stanley Gardner was a true Renaissance man. In addition to being a best-selling novelist, he was a legendary trial lawyer, a talented wildlife photographer, an avid sportsman, and an enthusiastic world traveler who spoke fluent Chinese. A workaholic and a perfectionist, he was described by those who knew him well as cantankerous.{$S[A]Kendrake, Carleton;Gardner, Erle Stanley}{$S[A]Kenny, Charles J.;Gardner, Erle Stanley}{$S[A]Fair, A. A.;Gardner, Erle Stanley}

Gardner was born in Malden, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1889. The son of a gold-mining engineer, Gardner spent his youth in Oregon, California, and Alaska’s Klondike. As a teenager, he dabbled in professional boxing. He enrolled at Valparaiso University in Indiana, hoping to study law, but was expelled after just a few weeks for punching a professor. Gardner then worked as a typist in a law firm. In his spare time he read law books, and in 1911 he passed the California bar examination at age twenty-one.

He joined a law practice in Oxnard, California, where he won acclaim for his vigorous defense of indigent Chinese and Mexican clients. Before long the up-and-coming lawyer fell in love with Natalie Talbert, a secretary in his law office. They eloped on April 9, 1912, and a year later their daughter, Grace, was born. By 1935, the marriage had floundered; however, neither Gardner nor his wife sought a divorce, and they remained on amicable terms. For years Natalie and Grace lived in a house in Oxnard while Gardner resided down the street in a nearby apartment.

Despite his relish of “the rough-and-tumble courtroom fight,” Gardner did not find the legal profession very lucrative, and in the early 1920’s he began writing fiction in his spare time. He sold his first story, “Nellie’s Naughty Nightie,” to the pulp magazine Breezy Stories. In 1932, he wrote to the publishing firm of William Morrow and Company in New York and proposed a series of mysteries. Instead of the hard-boiled private eyes made popular by authors such as Dashiell Hammett, his protagonist would be a crime-solving attorney. “I want to make my hero a fighter,” the Gardner wrote. The following year William Morrow published Gardner’s first novel-length work, The Case of the Velvet Claws, featuring the lawyer Perry Mason, which spawned one of the most phenomenally successful mystery series of all time. Gardner soon gave up...

(The entire section is 986 words.)