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Writer Adela Rogers St. Johns Dies at 94

August 11, 1988|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

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.

Key Introduction

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 ."

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