She was blessed (and cursed) with the title of “The world’s greatest girl reporter” even if the moniker was meant to marginalize her by characterizing her achievements as that of a “girl’s,” this, when she was well into her 40s. Noted film critic, Pauline Kael wrote “just as all movies about lady fliers were based on Amelia Earhart … movies about girl reporters were also based on the most highly publicized girl reporter — Hearst’s Adela Rogers St. Johns.” And she was extraordinary.
I have been watching the new “Perry Mason” series and loving the sets and clothes and feel of long-ago Los Angeles. The series reminded me of a woman I have long admired and was influential in my writing, before I knew that she was. I grew up reading her memoirs of Hollywood. She seemed to know everyone.
Let us start with her remarkable father Earl Rogers, aka “Perry Mason.” Rogers was arguably the greatest criminal defense trial lawyer in America, then and possibly now. It is said he saw the courtroom and his performance as that of a player in a theatrical production. His clients included Clarence Darrow, in a jury tampering case, Griffith J. Griffith (Griffith Park is named after him) for attempting to kill his wife, but only managing to shoot her in the eye (he claimed she was having an affair with the Pope. Mr. Griffith drank to excess.). It was with the use of visual aids — Rogers was the first to introduce blackboards, charts and blowups to juries — that got the vast majority of his clients acquitted. Seventy-four out of seventy-seven cases won. Astounding. He was a brilliant man, labeled flamboyant and a genius. He would drag skulls and intestines into the courtroom, even once waiving a Colt .45 at the jury. A practice, not likely to occur today. Whatever it took to convince the jury to let his clients off, he would do. By the way, most of his clients were guilty, and he would work hard for them, but most he did not like, once shouting at a client, “Get away from me, you slimy pimp! You know you’re guilty as hell.”
As a young wanna-be attorney Jerry Giesler worked for Rogers, starting with a 40-page research paper during the Darrow trial that so impressed Rogers he hired the young man. Giesler would go on to defend Marilyn Monroe, Lili St. Cyr (as I always like to note, six degrees of separation from burlesque) Errol Flynn and many others, earning the catch-phrase “Get me Giesler!” that had previously been his mentor’s when murderers and criminals shouted, “Get me Rogers!”
This son of a Methodist minister Rogers was married in 1890, at age 20. A natty dresser he wore a gardenia in his lapel (perhaps stolen by Dan Broderick of “Dirty John: Betty’ who similarly wore a rose in his buttonhole). He was a hard partier. Friends with the alcoholic Jack London. And yes, Earl Stanley Gardner thought he was the perfect inspiration for his fictional character Perry Mason. He had started his illustrious career when he passed the bar in 1897.
Later years saw the attorney drinking more, seeing his family less, partying late into the night at local nightclubs. He divorced and remarry. Adela and her brother would face her greatly diminished father in court after he was detained while driving drunk and resisting arrest, breaking a cop’s nose. In court he was attended by a nurse-deputy from the county hospital where he was kept. The siblings were there to have their father committed, this “genius” with his sanity on trial. It was for his own good, the thought. This “genius” performed as his own defense attorney. Rogers asked his beloved daughter in front of the judge and reporters in the back of the room, “You don’t think I’m crazy, do you, honey?” That did it and Adela could not go through with hurting Papa. Perhaps she should have. It seems he had forgotten his own advice he had once given her, “The truth cannot hurt anybody. In the end the truth is the light — always.” It is likely he could not face his problems, though he entrusted her to write his story someday, as long as she told the entire truth. She did and the book “Final Verdict” was a success.
Earl spent his final years drinking. Eventually drinking himself to death. In 1922 he was discovered in a run-down “cheap rooming house,” as Adela described it, near the site of so much of his triumph, the L.A. courthouse. His final residence is now the current Hall of Justice and perhaps haunted by a brilliant, charismatic attorney. There was little mention in the newspapers he had once dominated.
His daughter, Adela was tough. And smart. She grew up in the courtroom watching her father and his famous clients, having at age eight decided to live with her father when her parents acrimoniously divorced. The mutual hatred between mother and daughter caused Adela to eliminate her mother from the narrative of her life. Adela somewhat sporadically attended Hollywood High but did not graduate. She was an avid reader and began writing at age 9 (or earlier) when she was first published by the Los Angeles Times.
She was given a gift by having a father who believed “a woman must be trained to earn a living for herself.” And she did. She started working for William Randolph Heart (her father’s friend) at either age 17 or 18, depending on the story you believe. Perhaps it was a favor for the attorney. In any event she quickly earned her keep. The cub reporter was fearless. She wrote about crime and politics. She became a “sob sister” writing stories intended to make the reader weep; homeless babies, a mother suicide because she had no money for Christmas; underdogs and less-thans. Later she would pose undercover as a homeless woman, living on the streets of Los Angeles with a dime in her tattered pocket for two weeks. Because of her stories, legislation was enacted that funded social services.
Eventually it was her celebrity stories for Photoplay magazine that cemented her fame. She was a young mother with two children by the age of 19. She needed and wanted to be close to home and Hollywood insider stories helped her achieve that. It was these interviews that would mark her long-lasting friendships with many stars. And I mean real stars. Back in the day where there were movie stars, many with reputations to build and protect. She caroused amongst legends such as Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentine, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Carrie Nation, Judy Garland, Mabel Normand, Joan Crawford. She knew them all and their stories. She helped Gary Cooper pick out a dinner jacket. Actor John Gilbert proposed (after being rejected by Garbo). Another great friend was Joan Crawford’s sometime lover, Clark Gable. She got to know her subjects, and she didn’t hide the nasty bits. She loved Hollywood, managing to keep her head while many stars lost theirs.
As a friend of William Randolph Hearst, she spent many weekends at San Simeon paling around with Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies. She was giving up front and personal access to the kings and queens of Hollywood, though many names are forgotten today, but that had been as famous (more so?) than royalty. Actors such as Ruth Roland, Harold Lloyd, and Bebe Daniels. It is possible, and rumored Adela was put in charge of collecting dirt on director/actor Orson Welles after he made “Citizen Kane” about her boss and whom Hearst loathed.
Adela wrote numerous magazine and newspaper articles and screenplays. Her narrative “What Price Hollywood?” written in 1932 went on to become “A Star is Born,” now on its fifth iteration on the big screen. Her numerous books became best-sellers. So successful was Adela with her fiction and non-fiction she was able to purchase a 22-acre ranch with an 18-room mansion for herself and her family.
She was also a champion of women before many others. She was a great advocate of Joan Crawford. She wrote about the star she clearly admired, relating many of Joan’s unsung acts of charity. Crawford generously gave to the Motion Picture Rest Home in Woodland Hills. Then she gave her entire salary (presumably from a film) to the War effort. Adela wrote of Joan’s determination and tenacity, how she hung on through the fickleness of Hollywood. The “girl” reporter could relate.
Adela had been the first woman to cover a police beat, the first allowed into a press box at a sporting event. In later years religion comforted her and she became a minister in the Church of Religious Science. Like her father, she struggled with alcoholism. She had three marriages that did not last.
In her eighties she was still reporting, covering the trial of her old boss’s granddaughter, Patty Hearst. She said she loved every minute of the work, writing 700-word columns in 30 minutes.
Discrimination seemed to touch her lightly. When first denied access to the sports press box, she merely asked how she was going to report without being there. She was let in. She did not take “no” for an answer, nor wither under slights. Later in life, a middle-aged actress suggested the deeply lined Adela get a face lift. Her response? “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. I would rather they could see on my face that I have lived, loved, and had one hell of a time, bad and good.”
She died at age 94 in Arroyo Grande. I cannot recommend enough her books, “The Honeycomb” and “Love, Laughter and Tears.”
Zemeckis is the author of three best-selling books, including “Goddess of Love Incarnate,” the biography of Lili St. Cyr. Honored for her work inspiring women, in 2020/21 Zemeckis will be awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in part for “sharing and preserving stories of women who were once marginalized and stigmatized . . .” but due to her work “these women are now celebrated for their independence and personal agency.” The Medal is officially recognized by both Houses of Congress and is one of our nation’s most prestigious awards. Past recipients include Presidents Clinton and Reagan, Elie Wiesel, Sen. John McCain and HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco. Her IG weekly features best-selling authors and their writing tips. @lesliezemeckis.
www.lesliezemeckis.com for more of her work.