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Perry Mason's Friend From Oxnard : Fame: Erle Stanley Gardner gave life to a sly defense lawyer and, though dead 20 years, is still the world's second best-selling author. But no statue or plaque testifies to his success.

September 23, 1990|GARY GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Erle Stanley Gardner, who wrote 82 Perry Mason mysteries, might have called this one "The Case of the Forgotten Author."

Or better yet--since Gardner loved alliteration--"The Case of the Slighted Storyteller."

Not that this is a Perry Mason case. There's no murder, no hapless client, no suspects, no chance for courtroom theatrics or a confession from the witness stand.

But there's certainly a mystery here. Some might call it a crime: Ventura County has no memorial to Erle Stanley Gardner, who lived here for more than 20 years.

Gardner invented Perry Mason in the study of his house on Foster Avenue in Ventura. As a lawyer in Oxnard, he perfected the courtroom razzle-dazzle that Mason later used to enrage his fictional adversary, Dist. Atty. Hamilton Burger.

And in Ventura County, Gardner met two of the women who worked as his secretaries and are considered models for Della Street, Mason's able assistant.

Except that in real life, the lawyer married them, 56 years apart.

Although he died 20 years ago, Gardner is still among the best-selling authors in the world. The Guinness Book of World Records ranks him second only to Gothic novelist Barbara Cartland in volumes sold, with 319 million in 37 languages.

And Perry Mason still sells. In durable paperback books, black-and-white reruns and top-rated made-for-TV movies, millions still sympathize when a luckless client insists: "Honest, Mr. Mason, he was dead when I got there!"

Mason has a fan club, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Perry Mason, which publishes a quarterly newsletter. The University of Texas has built a re-creation of Gardner's study and takes care of his manuscripts, plot outlines and memorabilia.

But in Ventura County, where Gardner got his start, the only memorial is a portrait at the law firm where he worked. According to a secretary there, "Nobody pays any attention to it."

A few years ago, former Oxnard Councilman Mike Plisky proposed a Gardner exhibit at the Heritage Square historical park. "I thought how neat it would be to develop something downtown in honor of him," Plisky said. But the idea languished behind other priorities.

If there's no Erle Stanley Gardner Street, no park statue, no mention in the tourist brochures, perhaps it's because Gardner left more than 50 years ago, when his success as an author allowed him to give up law and live on the road.

He may be forgotten now, but when he lived in the county Gardner was a local celebrity, recalls Vivian Bostwick of Ventura.

"I can remember whenever he had a story coming out in Black Mask or one of those magazines . . . everybody bought it," said Bostwick, 78, who remains a close friend of Gardner's daughter.

"I suppose there are still old-timers who remember him. . . . Ventura has grown so much."

Gardner, a Massachusetts native, arrived in Oxnard in 1911 at age 21. The town had a sugar beet mill, a bustling port, about 3,000 residents, and a reputation for brothels and gambling dens.

Though he had passed the bar without a degree in law or anything else, Gardner quickly made a name for himself with legal tactics right out of a Perry Mason story.

For example, there was the case of 21 Chinese residents accused of gambling with undercover detectives. Gardner felt certain that the detectives would not be able to distinguish the faces of the Chinese. Before they were picked up for trial, Gardner had the Chinese switch homes among themselves.

Officers picked up the first suspect at the home of a Chinese named Wong Duck. The man insisted he was not Wong Duck but was hauled off anyway. By the time a deputy familiar with the Chinese community realized they had the wrong man, it was too late. The Oxnard paper had the story, headlined "Wong Duck May Be Wrong Duck, Says Deputy Sheriff."

Humiliated, the district attorney dismissed charges against all the Chinese.

In another gambling case, Gardner got a Chinese suspect freed by showing the Oxnard city ordinance to be unconstitutional. But Gardner was certain that the city attorney would simply arrest his client again and try him under state gambling laws.

So the crafty Gardner hustled his client over to Ventura and told a judge that he felt awful about getting a guilty man off on a technicality. Gardner swore out a citizen's complaint against his own client and had him quietly plead guilty to violating the state gambling law. The sympathetic judge fined the man $10.

Unaware of the Ventura proceeding, the Oxnard city attorney rearrested the man under the state law and confidently asked for the maximum six-month sentence. Gardner triumphantly produced the Ventura court record and argued that his client could not be tried twice for the same offense.

The incidents, recounted in a 1978 biography of Gardner by Dorothy B. Hughes, were among many that earned Gardner the enmity of Oxnard's police and the devotion of its Chinese residents.

"I am terribly busy," Gardner wrote to his father. "I have clients of all classes except the upper and middle classes."

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