Erle Stanley Gardner Biography

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(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.


(The entire section is 2,018 words.)