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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : Perry Mason Is City’s Famous, Fictional Son : A Ventura walking tour visits spots frequented by lawyer and author Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of the courtroom genius.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s not widely touted, but in Ventura in 1933, Erle Stanley Gardner, lawyer by day and pulp-fiction writer by night, created courtroom genius Perry Mason. Mason went on to great fame, squeezing confessions out of countless scoundrels on the witness stand, but Gardner’s connection to Ventura became little more than a footnote.

Ventura historian Richard Senate revives Gardner’s link to Ventura during a two-hour downtown walking tour Saturday. The tour, from 1 to 3 p.m., costs $6.

The tour swings by the old bank building at California and Main streets, where Gardner practiced law from his third-floor corner office. The building was finally named a historic landmark last year. It makes a stop at City Hall--the courthouse in Gardner’s day--where his courtroom antics often drew a crowd. Another stop is the Phantom Bookshop, which has some first-edition Gardner books.

“He was the best-known individual to live in Ventura,” Senate said. He practiced law here from 1915 to 1917 and then again from 1921 to 1933. By the time he died in 1970, he had written 150 mystery novels, including 82 featuring Perry Mason as the hard-driving, inexhaustible defense attorney.

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Perry Mason was a “thinly veiled” imitation of Gardner, according to Senate, and the Los Angeles setting of the Mason books included Ventura features, some of which the tour takes in.

“He used a lot of the town, the people, events, murder cases,” Senate said.

A workaholic, Gardner passed the bar when he was 21, after only a few months in law school. “He was a defender of the underdog,” said Senate, who is working on a book about Gardner and his years in Ventura County. “Today he would be classified as a liberal with a big L.”

He was a hero to Chinese Americans. One of his best-known cases involved about 50 Chinese American merchants in Oxnard who were arrested for running a lottery. The city fathers had incurred a big debt and figured they could take care of it by fining the Chinese Americans for illegal gambling, Senate said. The idea backfired when Gardner directed his clients to switch places at their businesses. After the Chinese Americans were arrested under the wrong warrants, the case was thrown out.

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“He had the kind of personality that people loved or hated,” Senate said. “He had to be the center of attention.”

In the 1920s, he started writing pulp fiction at night in the study over his garage. He churned out westerns, confession stories and mysteries at an incredible rate.

“He became the king of the pulps,” Senate said. He worked six or eight hours every night under a self-imposed deadline of 10,000 words every three days. He pounded his typewriter so hard that the tips of his fingers bled. Later he cut back his law practice, switched to a Dictaphone, and kept a team of secretaries busy typing his manuscripts.

His agent advised him that if he wanted to make big money he should aim for the slick magazines, like the “Saturday Evening Post,” but he would first need to get his foot in the door by writing a novel.

“So he cranked out a novel,” Senate said. “It took him three days to write.” But it was rejected. It sounded too much like pulp fiction. And the hero, a lawyer named “Ed Stark,” didn’t seem real. So he rewrote it using Perry Mason, a character much like himself. It became his first book: “The Case of the Velvet Claws.” A second Mason book, “The Case of the Sulky Girl,” soon followed.

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Despite his success, he was always part of Ventura. He helped establish the local Lions Club and he was in on the design of a new Elks Lodge, Senate said. He taught his daughter to fish off the Ventura Pier.

Bits of Ventura found their way into his books and stories. He loved to go to the Pierpont Inn, where he always ordered a steak, medium-well done, a baked potato and a salad. When Perry Mason wrapped up a case, he would do the same--only he took his faithful secretary, Della Street.

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It was at the Pierpont Inn that Gardner, married at the time, met Agnes Jean Bethell, a desk clerk and hostess who became his secretary. In 1933 Gardner split with his wife and left Ventura for Temecula. Bethell remained with him the rest of his life. They married in 1968.

“You might say he married Della Street,” Senate said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

DETAILS

* WHAT: Erle Stanley Gardner walking tour.

* WHEN: 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday.

* WHERE: Meet on the steps of Ventura City Hall, Poli and California streets.

* HOW MUCH: $6.

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* FYI: 658-4726.


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