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Biography of Della Street, Perry Mason’s More Than Secretary

Ron is a long-time fan of the Perry Mason stories, both the books and the original television series.

It was 3 o’clock in the morning, and Perry Mason, in defense, as usual, of a client wrongly accused of murder, was hot on the trail of the real killer. But he couldn’t do it alone—he needed help. So, who could he call on at that time of the morning?

Perhaps he thought of Paul Drake, his intrepid private investigator friend, who could back him up with a whole team of hard-nosed operatives. But there was someone he knew he could rely on even more than Paul—someone who was ready to be by his side, any time, anywhere, for anything he needed:

He called Della Street’s number, and her sleepy “Hello” came over the line, almost at once.

“This is Perry Mason, Della,” he said. “Wake up and get the sleepy dirt out of your eyes. We’ve got work to do.”

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Around three o’clock, or quarter past.”

“Okay,” she said. “What is it?” 1

That’s a scene from the very first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, written in 1933 by Erle Stanley Gardner. Della is introduced on the very first page, when “Della Street, his secretary, eased her way into the room and closed the door behind her.”

But Della was far more than a secretary. She was a full partner with Mason from start to finish in every one of his cases. She was his closest confidant, whom he trusted implicitly. If he needed something done, even if it was risky, he knew he could count on Della.

In fact, when you read through the Mason novels, it’s fair to say that Perry Mason wouldn’t be the Perry Mason we know without Della Street.

But who was this woman who was willing to put not just her secretarial skills, but her freedom, and at times even her life, on the line for her boss?

Meet Della Street

When we first meet Della she’s 27 years old2 and had known Mason for about five years. Her family had been wealthy, but lost their money in the Depression. One of the things that impressed Perry about her was that instead of finding a way to get some man to support her in the luxury to which she had been accustomed, Della went out and found a job for herself.1

And she was proud of it!—proud of her independence and determination. As she put it,

“I've had to work for everything I got. I never got a thing in life that I didn't work for. And lots of times I've worked for things and have had nothing in return.” 1

That last statement, about working but getting nothing in return, leads me to believe that her job as Mason’s secretary was probably not the first one she took when she had to go to work, since she would never have said that about him. Also, it’s clear that at the time of that first Mason story, though Della was totally committed to Perry, she wasn’t yet convinced of the wisdom of some of his methods. So, it’s likely that although she’d known him for five years, she hadn’t worked closely with him for all that time.

We do know that she had never been married,11 and had an unlisted telephone number12 that only Mason (and perhaps Paul Drake) knew.

What Did Della Look Like?

Erle Stanley Gardner never gave any comprehensive description of Della’s looks, but we can pick up hints here and there in the novels. One thing we do know is that she was beautiful!

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Della Street went to Mason’s car, jumped in with a swirl of skirt and a generous flash of leg.

The service-station attendant watched her as she drove away...

“Isn’t that girl a picture actress?” he asked... “The most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in my life." 3

Della had hazel eyes,13 and a slim, trim figure.1 She dressed well, and it’s clear that she always wanted to look her best for Perry:

Perry was staring at her and automatically Della looked at herself through his eyes. Her brown suede pumps were good. Her legs were perfect. If the beige tailored suit didn’t fit it was not because she hadn’t been to a good tailor. Her face was all right, and she had a new shade of lipstick. Her hat was outrageous. She hoped he was satisfied.4

What Kind of Person Was Della?

While Erle Stanley Gardner never told us a whole lot about Della's appearance, her character and the kind of person she was shines through clearly in all the Mason stories.

She was absolutely loyal

Perry had no doubts about Della being entirely loyal and trustworthy. Once, when a potential client questioned whether she could be counted on to always be confidential, Mason's reply was succinct:

“Will she keep her mouth shut?” Brunold asked.

Mason laughed. “Torture,” he said, “wouldn’t get a word out of her.” 5

But although Della was always loyal to Perry, she had to learn by experience that she could completely trust him. In fact, early on in their relationship there was a time when he felt the need to plead with her to do just that:

“Della,” he said, “I’ve got one thing to ask you.”

“What is it?”

“Please have confidence in me,” he said, humbly.1

When Perry finally got everything worked out in that case, and was triumphantly vindicated, Della was ashamed of her initial lack of trust.

“Please,” she said, “I’m so sorry… Why didn’t you explain?”

“It wasn’t that,” he said… “it was the fact that it needed an explanation that hurt.”

“Never, never, never, so long as I live, will I ever doubt you again.” 1

And from that moment, she never did.

She was independent

Although Della’s loyalty to Perry knew no bounds, her obedience sometimes did.

She once told Paul Drake, “when the chief tells me to do something, I do it.” But that wasn’t always the case. When she felt it necessary, Della was willing to act on her own judgment, even when it ran counter to Perry’s instructions. She had confidence in her own abilities, and wasn’t deterred even when Perry seemed to doubt them.

“I told you not to risk it,” Mason told her.

She turned around and looked at him...

“I don’t care,” she said. “It was all right. I managed to ditch them.” 1

She was totally committed

Throughout all the Mason stories, it's clear that Della totally identified herself with Perry and his work. She was even willing to go to jail in his stead if that's what it took to protect him and get the job done:

“Chief, you keep out of it. Let me take the rap. After all, I’m the one whose fingerprints are on the gun. They can’t prove that you knew anything ...” 6

And sometimes she paid a price. There was at least one occasion when she had to suffer the indignity of being strip-searched by a police matron (“stripped me to the skin,” Della recalled),10 and another in which District Attorney Hamilton Burger gleefully put her on trial in the hope of getting back at Mason by sending his secretary to jail.4

But Perry was finally able to set these situations straight, and afterwards Della felt it had all been worthwhile:

The orchestra was playing one of the old-time waltzes … Mason’s lips brushed Della Street’s cheek. “Happy?” he asked.

“Yes, darling,” she said softly. “And it’s lovely not to be going to jail!” 6

She was smart about her rights

Della knew her legal rights, and knew how to stand up for them. When she was detained by a policeman at a hotel, she demanded to be allowed to use a hotel phone to call her lawyer immediately. When the officer tried to put her off with patronizing nonsense (“You don’t want the whole hotel to know your business”), she let him know he might be the one getting charged.

“On what grounds?”

“For refusing to let me communicate with a lawyer, for failing to take me before the nearest magistrate without unnecessary delay.”

“Now wait a minute,” the officer said. “You aren’t arrested yet.”

“Then why are you holding me here?” 7

She was courageous

Della was fiercely protective of her boss, even to the point of putting herself in harm's way to keep him safe. When an enraged bad guy pulled a gun on Perry, Della went fearlessly into action:

Mason, some ten feet away, stared into the ominous dark hole which marked the end of a .38 caliber revolver...

Della Street doubled up her body, braced her heels and shot forward. The man jumped to one side, but not in time to keep her from grabbing the arm which held the gun. 8

Raymond Burr as Perry Mason and Barbara Hale as Della Street

Raymond Burr as Perry Mason and Barbara Hale as Della Street

What Kind of a Relationship Did Della Have With Perry?

Both Della and Perry looked at themselves as a team in everything, not just on the job, but in their social lives as well.

In both spheres using the term "we" came naturally to them. When Della distrusted a potential client, she wasn't shy about sharing her doubts with Perry and expecting him to seriously consider her judgment.

"I wish," she said, "that you'd find out who she really is before we do anything for her." 1

And when Perry was concerned that they were spending too much time on work, he told her, “Probably we should have a more active social life.” Apparently, in his mind whatever social life they might have would always be a “we” thing.

Their social lives did, in fact, revolve exclusively around one another. They often went out dancing or for a meal together, but neither is ever depicted dating anyone else.

Although Perry counted on Della to always be there for him, even in some pretty risky situations, he felt very protective towards her:

“It’s all right for me to take chances,” he said, “but I didn’t realize what it meant to me to have you out on the firing line. I’ll never do anything like that again, Della—not ever.” 9

But Della wasn't having it. She was determined to be an active partner with Perry in everything, and she refused to be coddled and protected. When Mason worried that what he needed her to do might put her in danger, Della's reply was emphatic:

“I don’t want to be kept in the clear,” she said impatiently. “How many times must I tell you that I’m part of the organization? If you take chances, I want to take chances.” 9

She knew how to use her intimacy with Mason to manipulate him for his own good.

Della looked up at him solicitously. “Chief, get over it, will you?”

“What?”

“That tense rage.”

Mason tried a forced grin.

Della started to get out of the car, then glanced back at him. Her arm came up around his neck, pulled his head back down to hers. For a long interval her lips clung to his, then she suddenly freed herself from Mason’s embrace.

“That,” she announced, “should get your mind off of Sergeant Holcomb. Remember to wipe the lipstick off your mouth. Good night, Chief.” 10

Was Della Perry's "Almost Wife"?

The role Della played in Perry’s life has been described as her being his “quasi wife.”

Although they never married (Perry proposed to her on five separate occasions, but she turned him down every time), it’s clear throughout all the novels (much more so than on TV) that Della was in some ways closer and more influential in Mason’s life than a wife would be. In fact, the reason she turned down all his proposals was because she was convinced that she was already more important to the essence of who Mason was than she would be if she married him.

If you had a wife you’d put her in a fine home – and leave her there. You don’t want a wife. But you do need a secretary who can take chances with you.11

The "Real" Della Street

Della is, of course, a fictional character—she never existed in real life. Or did she?

Actually, Erle Stanley Gardner is almost universally believed to have modeled Della on one of his own secretaries, Jean Walters. In fact, Jean was one of three sisters who all worked for ESG (the others were Honey and Peggy), and there's some of all of them in Della. But Jean was the real prototype.

There's one way, though, in which Jean wasn't like Della at all. After ESG's first wife died, he proposed to Jean. She said "yes" and married him.

More of Perry and Della!

If you liked this Perry Mason story, you might also enjoy:

The Romance of Perry Mason and Della Street

Perry Mason: The Case of the Silent Black Judge and More

Sources

These are the Perry Mason books in which the information and quotations in this article are found:

[1] The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933)

[2] The Case of the Sulky Girl (1933)

[3] The Case of the Spurious Spinster (1961)

[4] The Case of the Careless Kitten (1942)

[5] The Case of the Counterfeit Eye (1935)

[6] The Case of the Golddigger’s Purse (1945)

[7] The Case of the Crooked Candle (1944)

[8] The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1936)

[9] The Case of the Silent Partner (1940)

[10] The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde (1944)

[11] The Case of the Substitute Face (1938)

[12] The Case of the Daring Decoy (1957)

[13] The Case of the Howling Dog (1934)

© 2022 Ronald E Franklin

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