Della, Della Street
In the name of marriage and companionship, I sat through every episode of the Perry Mason TV series while the lawyer spouse grooved on Perry Mason’s cool. But for me, it was always about Della Street. The TV show was blah, I didn’t care for murder mysteries, the retro chic amused only for a few minutes, police procedurals were lame and the courtroom drama clichéd. But Della Street! What was behind her Mona Lisa smile, her gaze that followed Perry as he paced the courtroom floor?
Plenty, I decided, and began to create a life for her.
Erle Stanley Gardner, himself a trial attorney, created Perry Mason, Della Street and all the other supporting characters. He wrote a series of over 80 short novels, then the characters moved on to prime time television from 1957 to 1966. The TV episodes, like the novels, were a well-worn formula. Gardner continued practicing law while writing, and enjoyed tremendous success in both parts of his life. Perry Mason was a sort of an alter-ego for Gardner. But what about Della?
There is very little in the novels that explain Della’s history. She seems to have always been with Perry and always would. I learned that Gardner made Della a composite of the many secretaries he employed, including a set of five sisters who rotated in and out of the work. One of them—Jean—became special. After 40 years of being Gardner’s faithful amanuensis and more, she became Mrs. Gardner after the death of his wife from who he’d long been separated. Perry Mason fans have always wondered whether Perry and Della were a couple and why they never married. Garner left some clues throughout the novels and they parallel his own life. Like the Gardners, Perry and Della kept their own counsel, offering little comment on the nature of their relationship.
That leaves me and other fan fiction writers to fill out Della’s life. From the first time I heard Park Avenue Beat and saw Della smile after Perry showed her what was inside a file, I knew there was a rich life worth my attention. What was in that file? (Della’s reminder to Perry to pick up his own dry cleaning.) Why did she call him ‘Chief’? (It was the name of her dog from childhood.) Was she always a secretary? (Even after a distinguished education—yes.) My questions went on and on and I invented answers that flowed from my certainty that theirs was a relationship built upon loyalty and passion. Della and Perry were fated to be together. Their story is about the perfect complementarities of male and female, ying and yang, light and dark, active and receptive, interior and exterior - Della and Perry.
Here are a few of the ‘lost scenes’ from their life together. Cue the music.
“Della, let's dance.” (They dance together, slow, close, elegant) “Where were you born, Della, in a hospital or at home?”
“In my parent's bedroom.”
“What do you remember about that room?”
“A floral pattern wallpaper, with a border of big cabbage roses. A cedar chest full of blankets. The large oval hook rug. Why?”
“Because you live life in the details - and I want to know all of them.”
“What would you say to a little fishing?”
“I would say, what type of fishing?”
“A little casting about, floating an irresistible fly down a dark stream, to see what, or who, snaps at it.”
“And is this a dry fly or a wet fly?”
“And what do you hope to catch?”
“Nothing. I want to see if I can get any strikes, I want to see how far I can play my line out and still bring it back in. And whatever is at the end of it, wriggling on that hook I set, I'll set free.”
“But what if it's trophy size?”
“That wouldn’t matter.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Mason. I'm Della Street.”
“Mrs. Street ...”
“It's Miss Street.”
“Bryn Mawr, cum laude.”
“60 words a minute.”
“Oh, quite good. I...”
“Can you correct my grammar?”
“I can correct just about anything.”
“The position, Mr. Mason, will it require evening work?”
“Not right away. Why? Is this a problem?”
“Only in terms of getting the streetcar back home.”
“Oh. Well, they can be..”
“I pay for your taxi fares.”
“Oh. Are there other terms of employment?”
“You will be here at 7:30 with coffee ready in ten minutes. You will take all telephone calls, schedule all appointments, handle all correspondence. You will file all papers coming into and out of this office, greet all clients, bring in a sandwich for me at noon, I like roast beef, you may take your own lunch at 12:15 to 1:00. You will check court dockets and court files and get on a first name basis with every judge's secretary. Last appointment of the day is at 5:00 but you must stay until 6:00. Any questions?”
(Go ahead and ask him. Is that all there is for me to do? Why did I read philosophy and history in school? Where will I find the truth and beauty in this office? How am I to use all that I've learned, and to what use shall I put it? He’s not going to bite. Well, not yet.)
“Yes, this is all clear.”
“Why should I hire you for this position?”
“That all depends on how I compare to the other applicants.”
“And if you compare well?”
“Then your choice should be easy.”
“But it isn’t, Miss Street, it is never easy. Judgment of character should never be easy.”
“Yet it seems we have already come to some conclusion.”
“How soon can you start?”
“Tomorrow, if you like.”
“I would like. Is 7:30 all right?”
“It will be fine. I have always been an early riser.”
“I can see that.”
(And he did, he saw it all at that very moment, our life and work together, rolling out before us like a grand carpet.)