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Writer Adela Rogers St. Johns Dies at 94

August 11, 1988|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

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.

Published Expose

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.

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