Writer Adela Rogers St. Johns Dies at 94
Adela Rogers St. Johns, the veteran reporter and best-selling author whose colorful career spanned more than six decades and took her among the leading news makers of several eras, died Wednesday.
She was 94 and died in a convalescent hospital in Arroyo Grande, near San Luis Obispo. She had moved there to be near her daughter, Elaine.
Her longtime friend, Margaret Burk, who helped her found Round Table West, a Los Angeles writers group, said the colorful journalist and author had been in failing health.
As one of the first woman reporters--Mrs. St. Johns was the first woman to cover a police beat and the first allowed into the press box at sporting events--she had been known as everything from “The World’s Greatest Girl Reporter” to “Mother Confessor of Hollywood.”
As “The World’s Greatest Girl Reporter” for Hearst newspapers, she covered the Lindbergh baby kidnaping trial of Bruno Hauptmann, the abdication of King Edward VIII, the assassination of Sen. Huey Long, the long-count Dempsey-Tunney boxing match and Washington politics during the Roosevelt Administration.
As “Mother Confessor of Hollywood,” she wrote frank celebrity interviews, profiles and articles for Photoplay, the first movie magazine devoted to satisfying the seemingly insatiable curiosity of a newly star-struck nation.
The outspoken, opinionated and occasionally acerbic writer also had a successful career writing fiction--numerous screenplays, scores of short stories, serials for the top magazines of the day and a best-selling novel, “Tell No Man.”
Burk said that Mrs. St. Johns, who also was a minister in the Church of Religious Science, had been working on a final book, “The Missing Years of Jesus,” at her death.
Mrs. St. Johns’ personal triumphs were accompanied by tragedy: the death of her eldest son, William Ivan St. Johns, in World War II; the conquest of alcoholism, a disease that killed her celebrated father, attorney Earl Rogers, and which she called “the curse of my life,” and three failed marriages.
In 1970, in recognition of her years of “devotion to the ideal that a democracy cannot survive without a free press,” President Richard M. Nixon, who had delivered her groceries when he was a boy in Whittier, awarded Mrs. St. Johns the Medal of Freedom.
“My accomplishment worthy of recording has been to see, know, interview, hear, and observe people whose very names made news-- who did unusual, historic, exciting things,” she wrote in her 1969 best-selling autobiography, “The Honeycomb.”
The book revealed that her own life was just as unusual, historic and exciting as most of the people she interviewed.
Born in Los Angeles on May 20, 1894, she was the only daughter of Earl and Harriet Rogers. Her father was considered California’s leading trial lawyer at the turn of the century.
When her parents’ stormy marriage ended when she was 8, she chose to live with her father, whom she idolized. Mrs. St. Johns once said that her mother despised her--and the feeling was mutual. “My memory has rejected her, eliminated her, cannot apparently bear to remember her,” she wrote in “Final Verdict,” her affectionate memoir of her life with her famous father.
As a child, Mrs. St. Johns was an insatiable reader who had her first short story published at age 9, when she won a Los Angeles Times-sponsored story-writing contest. Her formal schooling was haphazard, and she left Hollywood High School before graduating.
Her real education, however, came from observing the assorted characters--the detectives, street cops, reporters, pickpockets, second-story men and murderers--who passed through her father’s law office, and from sitting in the courtrooms where he tried his cases.
Earl Rogers, who believed that “a woman must be trained to earn a living for herself and her children, or she will be a slave,” introduced his daughter to newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.
And in 1912, when she was not quite 18, the future Mrs. St. Johns was hired as a $7-a-week cub reporter on the San Francisco Examiner.
About a year later Hearst transferred her to his new Los Angeles newspaper, the Herald, where she covered everything from society to City Hall and quickly earned a reputation as a “sob sister.”
“I was,” she explained in “The Honeycomb,” “supposed to make people weep over their fallen sisters; or homeless babies or underdogs in the pound; or a mother who had killed herself because she spent her kids’ Christmas money on a new dress and we must get a tree and presents for them. We dramatized all this in the newspapers as it is now dramatized on the stage and in best-selling novels. Ours was real .”
In the early ‘20s, Photoplay editor James Quirk, who was impressed with the young Herald reporter’s “inside stories” on Hollywood, asked her if she would write for his new fan magazine. Mrs. St. Johns, who had married William Ivan (Ike) St. Johns, the Herald’s chief copy editor, when she was 19, had a young son and daughter by then and saw the job as an opportunity to work at home and spend more time with her children.
Close to Celebrities
As a “confidante” to the stars, Mrs. St. Johns was an integral part of early Hollywood--as her 1978 book, “Love, Laughter and Tears,” attests: She took Gary Cooper to buy his first dinner jacket, was proposed to by John Gilbert “in a bleak moment after he’d broken off his tremendous love affair with Garbo,” sewed up the seat of Rudolph Valentino’s pants when he ripped them on the door handle of his roadster, and counted Clark Gable among her closest friends.
By the late ‘20s, Mrs. St. Johns had also become a successful writer of fiction for both movies and magazines and had moved her family to an 18-room mansion on a 22-acre walnut ranch in Whittier.
But the thrill of meeting daily newspaper deadlines proved irresistible and she returned to the Hearst organization. Hearst, who recognized that more people--including women--were becoming interested in sports, assigned her to write sports features, and she covered everything from the World Series and the Rose Bowl game to the Forest Hills tennis tournament and the 1932 Olympic Games.
New in the Press Box
Up to that time there had never been a woman in the press box at any sports events, wrote Mrs. St. Johns, who was once asked by an interviewer if she faced discrimination as a “girl reporter.”
“Actually,” she said, “I don’t know what women mean when they talk about that kind of discrimination. Once I went to cover the Kentucky Derby and I was told the man in charge wouldn’t give me a press box pass. I told him, ‘Look, I can’t very well cover the race from any other place. I’d be very grateful for permission to sit in the press box.’ And he let me in.”
As one of Hearst’s favorite reporters (she was a frequent guest at “the ranch,” Hearst’s fabled castle in San Simeon), Mrs. St. Johns in 1931 received one of her most challenging personal assignments from “the chief:” to pose as an unemployed woman on the streets of Depression-era Los Angeles.
Assuming an alias, wearing a bleak dress from the Metro Goldwyn Mayer wardrobe department and with only a dime in her pocket, she spent weeks making the rounds of employment agencies, sleeping on park benches and in fleabag hotels and seeking aid from organized charities.
Her 16-part expose of the city’s indifference to its poor resulted in, among other things, tougher laws regulating the operation of county charities, new staffs for their operation and the creation of emergency funds for the needy.
Now billed as “The World’s Greatest Girl Reporter,” despite the fact that she was nearing her 40s, Mrs. St. Johns spent the next decade working for Hearst in New York, London and Washington.
But while her career was soaring, her married life was floundering. She had divorced St. Johns in 1927 and a year later married Richard Hyland, a former Stanford football star. Their six-year marriage ended in a bitter custody battle for their son, Richard, who later changed his last name to St. Johns. A third marriage, to airline executive F. Patrick O’Toole, ended in divorce in 1942. She later adopted another son.
Retired from newspaper work--her “farewell assignment” for Hearst was a six-part series on the life and work of the assassinated Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1948--Mrs. St. Johns served briefly as a story adviser for MGM executive Louis B. Mayer, taught journalism for two years at UCLA and turned her attention to writing books.
Popular as Speaker
A frequent guest speaker on the Southern California women’s club circuit, the outspoken and now aging veteran journalist was also a favorite guest on talk shows in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
By now her deeply lined face had become as much a personal trademark as her crusty voice and her habit of running her fingers through her unruly salt-and-pepper hair. And she scoffed at the idea of cosmetic attempts to look younger. When a fellow talk-show guest--a middle-aged actress--suggested that she get a face lift, Mrs. St. Johns was characteristically candid:
“You may want to present to the world a blank sheet of paper, proving that you’ve written nothing on it in the years you’ve lived,” she said. “I would rather they could see on my face that I have lived, loved and had one hell of a time, bad and good.”
In 1976, at age 82, Mrs. St. Johns came out of retirement to cover the bank robbery trial of her old boss’s granddaughter, Patricia Hearst, for the Hearst Headline Service. She relished the job, turning out her 750-word first-person daily dispatches in less than 30 minutes.
“I love it!” she enthused to one of half a dozen reporters who interviewed her at the trial. “I’d rather be doing this than anything in the world.”
Slightly stooped and walking with the aid of a cane as she approached her ninth decade, Mrs. St. Johns was a regular fixture at Round Table West, the monthly literary luncheon meetings at the Ambassador Hotel, which she founded in 1977 to encourage a wider interest in her lifelong love of reading.
By then, she had moved out of her Malibu beach house and was living with a grandson in Woodland Hills. She continued to write before finally moving north, where she died, leaving behind 2 sons, her daughter, 9 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and 8 great-great-grandchildren.
One of her last writing projects was to be the final version of her 1969 autobiography, which she never got around to. It would have, she predicted in a 1983 interview, offered her “conclusions about life and people.”
“I haven’t summed it up yet,” she said, “but I know one thing--that 90% of the people are better than they think they are. Humanity, as a whole, I think, does better, thinks better and treats each other better than they really think they do.”