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Keeping an Eye on Perry Mason’s Legend : Literature: Four former secretaries of mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner, including his widow, will be honored this weekend in La Jolla for their continued devotion to the man and his work.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everything in the movie script seemed in order. Perry Mason, Della Street and the rest of the cast were all in proper character--with just the right amount of on-screen tension.

There was just this little business of an opening bedroom scene.

“I hollered when I saw that,” said Jean Gardner, widow of Perry Mason creator, Erle Stanley Gardner. “Erle would have put down his foot and said, ‘Absolutely not!’ All those bloodletting and sex scenes. He just didn’t like that kind of thing finding its way into his work.”

On a second look, the script for “The Case of the Murdered Madam” raised a few more red flags. At one point, a character had used the word “hell"--an oversight that would never have occurred in a Gardner project. And there were a few quibbles on the finer points of the law--Perry Mason style.

So Gardner’s widow sent a handwritten letter to Viacom Productions in Hollywood with a few suggestions for revisions. “I try to be diplomatic,” the 88-year-old Gardner says with a sweet smile.

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“But Erle always made sure that the Perry Mason character represented certain values. The name ‘Mason’ stood for something rock-solid. I’ve just tried to see to it those values are maintained. Erle may have passed on, but Perry Mason is still very much alive.”

Alive, indeed. Viacom has just signed a contract to produce another series of made-for-television movies starring Raymond Burr as the redoubtable Los Angeles criminal defense attorney.

There are also the 82 full-length Perry Mason mysteries that the lawyer-turned-author produced in a prolific career that amassed 147 books in all--works that have been translated into 37 languages including Russian, Japanese, Hebrew and Serbo-Croatian. When he died in Temecula in 1970, Gardner’s novels and travelogues had sold more than 320 million copies worldwide, establishing him as the best-selling American author of all time, according to his publisher, William Morrow.

During his lifetime, Gardner’s success was attributed to the tireless energy that earned him the reputation of “the fiction factory.” Often producing a book a month, he still made time to travel throughout the American West and the world--leading a bevy of secretaries who kept track of his vast outpouring of words and ideas.

Twenty years after his death, four of those former secretaries--including Gardner’s widow--still continue the frenetic work of keeping alive the spirit of the man most of them knew as “Uncle Erle.”

From the small office in her rural Fallbrook home, Jean Gardner, her sisters Ruth and Peggy, and researcher Betty Burke carry on the complicated business of managing Gardner’s far-flung literary empire, guarding the carefully crafted image of his characters with an ever-watchful eye.

For Gardner and her sisters, there is a special interest in the fate of the Perry Mason characters--especially Della Street. Because Mason’s willing assistant, the author always said, was a composite of the three women.

“Erle always thought of himself in a lot of the courtroom maneuvers that Perry Mason was able to pull off,” said Gardner, a spry woman dressed in a bright red and white polka-dot dress and red high-heels. “And he didn’t have to look too far for inspiration for Della. We were all right there.”

This weekend, at the close of the first-annual Erle Stanley Gardner Festival sponsored by the Friends of the La Jolla Library, the women will be recognized for their efforts.

“Erle Stanley Gardner was incredibly prolific, but I don’t think he could have gotten all those books published without the help of those women,” said festival planner Lois Dechant. “For decades, that man has been their life. And they’re carrying on his spirit.”

When the author was alive, writing and horseback riding on his 1,000-acre Temecula ranch, his coterie of secretaries was never far away.

They spent their days transcribing dictation on the newest Perry Mason project. They gathered information for Gardner’s mystery thrillers written under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, magazine articles, travelogues or correspondence for The Court of Last Resort, an organization the author founded to help real-life defendants wrongly convicted of murder.

Often, Burke recalled, the secretaries also took part in proof-reading the finished novels for authenticity. They often play-acted, lying on the floor, for example, to see if corpse’s limbs could be outstretched in the way described in the novel.

These days, the play-acting, fact-finding and authenticity checks still go on.

When they’re not fielding fan letters that still trickle in from as far away as Australia and Japan, the women correspond with publishers and monitor the scripts written for the newest television and film projects.

After the Perry Mason television series first began in 1957, Gardner started monitoring scripts for the correct moral tone--a practice Jean Gardner and the others carry on to this day.

And, as they have for years, the studios are still listening.

Today, a trust comprised of Jean Gardner and Erle Gardner’s daughter from his previous marriage retain control over the author’s copyrights and have a legal say in the closed-door decisions made about Gardner’s work in Hollywood boardrooms.

“We do pay attention to what Mrs. Gardner has to say,” said Donna Colabella, a production executive at Viacom for the Perry Mason movies. “We send her each script and wait for her comments.

“After all these years, she still works hard to protect the timeliness of her husband’s characters and the image of Perry Mason that Erle Stanley Gardner created.”

After the author’s death, the center of operations moved from the ranch to the office in Jean Gardner’s home, which has been transported into a time warp chronicling the half-century of her husband’s creative process.

On a table beneath a portrait of the burly author, gazing sternly from his favorite rocking chair, sit dozens of Gardner’s books, some translated into exotic script that none of the women can decipher.

One solid wall of filing cabinets house the large volumes that track the development of each Perry Mason novel from its inception, through its editing to publication. Each entry also has a ledger listing annual royalties, which the women continually update.

Other volumes contain a daily log of Gardner’s activities and travels--even the consummate notes he took on the places and people he encountered.

Rows of other files catalogue 50 years of Gardner’s business and telephone contacts as well as the original air dates of the old Perry Mason television programs--including the products advertised on the commercials.

For the newest Gardner work, a collection published this year called “Dead Men’s Letters and Other Stories,” articles were collected that had been published in magazines such as “Argosy” and “Black Mask” back in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Recently, the women sent 5 tons of Gardner notes, manuscripts and sundry scribblings for use at the Erle Stanley Gardner library at the University of Texas at Austin.

For Jean Gardner, the work is a labor of affection for a man who was her almost constant companion for 50 years.

After the author separated from his wife in the early 1930s, he began taking the young woman he first hired to work in his law office on all his travels--whether throughout the West, across Baja or to Europe or Asia.

Gardner has photographs of herself taking dictation in places ranging from a horseback ride on a Mexican beach to the steps of the Vatican in Rome. She also accompanied him to Hollywood functions and local dinner dances.

In 1968, shortly before his death and three years after his first wife passed away, the writer married his faithful secretary in a private ceremony in Nevada. Since then, she has carried on the organization of his work, she said.

Over the years, the relationship between the pair often found its way into the Perry Mason thrillers--surfacing in the dynamics between Mason and Street.

“Erle trained Jean to keep track of everything,” recalled Burke, who began working for Gardner in 1963. “She was always with him. But it was like a father-daughter relationship. Everybody tried to make a big romance out of it, which always bored the daylights out of me.

“Because Erle Stanley Gardner wasn’t running around romancing anyone. He was a jolly, huggable old man who loved to talk. But he was also very businesslike. And no one bothered him when he was working. We all knew that.”

Jean Gardner remembers him as an outdoorsman who preferred denim jeans and cowboy boots to suits; a volatile man who kept copious notes in the tiny notebooks he seldom left home without.

One of his greatest triumphs, she recalled, was not the success of his novels but that his “Court of Last Resort” group once won a man--wrongly convicted of murder--a presidential pardon from John F. Kennedy.

“Erle never made any effort to be a great writer,” his widow recalled, sitting in the parlor of her home, working a piece of chewing gum. “He took up writing because he didn’t want to be chained to a desk.

“He loved to talk with people, and he could read them like a book. And his novels are full of real people. That’s their strength, I think.”

But even an author as prolific as Erle Stanley Gardner suffered occasional writer’s block.

“You could always tell when he was struggling with a plot,” she recalled. “He had a Navajo rug in front of the door of his office. He’d get in his favorite rocking chair and rock from one end to the other.

“Then he’d pick up the chair, carry it back, and start all over again--until he got his problem worked out.”

That black rocker still sits in Gardner’s home, along with thousands of other mementos of the man she both loved and respected.

“Erle’s been dead 20 years now--it just doesn’t seem possible,” she said. “He was just so active. I just miss his energy so much.

“He kept us all on the run when he was alive. And we’re still busy as bees with his projects now that he’s gone.”


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