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ON THE LAW

In Ventura, the Case of the Novelist's Missing Museum

Erle Stanley Gardner's fans say the 'Perry Mason' writer deserves hometown recognition.

November 29, 2002|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

A small brass plaque hanging on the side of an old bank building in downtown Ventura is the only memorial to the site where attorney-turned-author Erle Stanley Gardner dictated his first Perry Mason novels in the early 1930s.

It is a mystery to devoted Gardner fans that the city hasn't done more.

In fact, some Ventura residents say it is downright criminal that no statue or municipal museum has been erected to celebrate their most famous and prolific author, whose savvy protagonist introduced the masses to courtroom drama long before O.J. Simpson or Court TV.

Gardner's mystery novels have sold about 300 million copies worldwide. They led to the creation of the "Perry Mason" television series, which made its debut in 1957 and ran until 1966. Reruns continue to draw viewers into the tales of the brilliant defense attorney, his beautiful assistant, Della Street, and his prosecutorial adversary, Hamilton Burger. (Another version of the show ran in 1973-74.)

"Erle Stanley Gardner is perhaps our most famous son," said Ventura historian Richard Senate, who wrote a book on the late author's connection to the town and periodically leads tours of Gardner's old haunts.

Though few today are aware of the connection, Gardner's work is infused with characters and street names drawn from his early years of practicing law in Ventura County.

A Massachusetts native, he arrived in Oxnard in 1911, when the farm town had a sugar beet factory, a few thousand residents and a reputation for brothels and gambling dens.

Although he had no law degree, Gardner passed the bar and made a name for himself representing Chinese Americans and other minority clients.

One of his better-known cases involved two dozen Chinese American merchants accused of gambling with undercover detectives. Guessing that the officers would not be able to distinguish his clients, Gardner had them switch places at their businesses. After they were arrested under the wrong warrants, the case was thrown out.

"He was a liberal with a capital L," Senate said. "He hated the death penalty and spoke up for liberal causes. He defended minority groups, and he was a spokesman for the underdog."

Attorney H. Frank Orr invited Gardner to join his prestigious firm in downtown Ventura in 1915, and the lawyer soon began writing pulp fiction at night in the study over his garage.

In 1932, Gardner sent a letter to the William Morrow & Co. publishing house, proposing a series of mystery novels with a crime-solving lawyer as the title character. Perry Mason was born.

"The stories were that he was a pretty darn good attorney, but he was a better writer," said John C. Orr, a Ventura probate and estate planning attorney whose grandfather hired Gardner.

An avid hunter and fisherman, Gardner also was an incredibly prolific writer.

From his third-floor office in the bank building at California and Main streets, Gardner dictated the first of 82 Perry Mason novels, starting with "The Case of the Velvet Claws" in 1933.

In later years, he scaled back his law practice and kept a team of secretaries busy typing manuscripts. In all, Gardner wrote 155 books and more than 400 articles before his death in 1970.

At one point, Guinness World Records ranked Gardner among the best-selling authors in the world. And though Gardner's name is not as well known today, a Ballantine Books spokeswoman said the publisher has sold more than 3.5 million of his books in paperback since 1985 alone.

For all that, Ventura has done little to celebrate him.

There is no memorial at the Ventura Hall of Justice. Several judges said they are unaware that one had ever been suggested.

Avid Gardner fans say the city, which is trying to market its historic downtown as a tourist destination, is missing an opportunity.

"That we don't have a physical museum is Ventura's loss," said Keith Burns, a documentary film writer and book collector who has tried for years to rally support for such a project.

Burns and his friend John Anthony Miller, an online book dealer who started a virtual museum dedicated to Gardner on the Internet, have collected just about every one of the novels written by the late author.

They also have acquired Gardner's typewriter, law books and financial records, a giant customized wooden desk and even the author's baby cup. Their collection includes suits, ties and scripts used by actor Raymond Burr when filming the "Perry Mason" television series.

Eager to share the collection with the rest of the city, Burns and Miller opened a small museum at a temporary location in downtown Ventura three years ago. But with rentals skyrocketing in the downtown redevelopment area, they could not afford to keep the display open.

"This city," Miller writes on his Web site, "should consider this a matter of utmost importance to the cultural and economic progress of this coastal area ... but it does not."

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