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The Romance of Perry Mason and Della Street

Ron is a fan of the television shows of the 1950s and 60s. In fact, he enjoys them more than just about anything that's been on TV since!

Barbara Hale as Della and Raymond Burr as Perry

Barbara Hale as Della and Raymond Burr as Perry

From the very first Perry Mason novel (The Case of the Velvet Claws, published in 1933), fans of the world’s most famous fictional attorney have displayed an intense interest in one all-consuming question: are Perry Mason and his secretary, Della Street, romantically involved?

The author of the Mason books, Erle Stanley Gardner (ESG), clearly wanted the answer to that question to be, “No.” Believing that if Perry ever married Della “he would lose his sex appeal,” Gardner intended the nature of the relationship between the two to forever remain a mystery. In fact, he promised that if they ever had a romance, he'd write about it. He never did.

Yet throughout the run of the original Perry Mason television series (1957 to 1966), and especially in the 82 Mason novels, it’s clear that Perry and Della had a unique relationship, filled with mutual admiration and respect, unquestioning loyalty, and yes, love.

I think the moment that crystallized for me the extraordinary depth of the relationship between Mason and his secretary occurred in an episode of the TV series. In The Case of the Weary Watchdog, which first aired in 1962, the two are having dinner in a Chinese restaurant, but Della seems distracted and anxious. When Perry notices her distress, a very revealing exchange takes place:

Perry: “Well, can I help?”

Della: “How far would you go for a friend?”

Perry: “How long is forever?”

Della: “I need 25,000 dollars.”

Perry: “You need what?!”

Della: “No questions asked. 25,000 dollars, (snaps her fingers) like that.”

Perry: (Writes a check and hands it to her) “Without questions and without thanks.”

To me, this scene shows that there were no limits to Perry's commitment, love, and trust toward Della. He obviously regarded her as far more than just a valued work colleague! How many legal secretaries could ask their employer for $25,000 (more than $226,000 in 2021 dollars), with no explanation except that they needed it, and receive it on the spot, “without questions and without thanks”?

(By the way, Della needed the money not for herself, but for a friend who was being blackmailed).

But, even though the relationship between the two is clearly extraordinary, is it romantic?

Their friends certainly thought so!

Friends always expected Perry and Della to get married

That’s made very clear in ESG’s 1953 novel, The Case of the Hesitant Hostess. Mason and his secretary had flown to Las Vegas in a private plane to investigate a case. During the flight the following revealing interlude occurred:

Mason circled Della Street’s shoulders with his arm. She came over to put her head on his shoulder. The pilot glanced back out of the corner of his eye, then devoted his attention to piloting the machine.

The pilot certainly thought there was a romance going on between his passengers. And when the radio gossip programs got hold of the story, so did everyone else:

The announcer said, “According to the Hollywood broadcast of one of the motion picture and celebrity commentators this evening, Perry Mason, the noted Los Angeles attorney, and his secretary, Miss Della Street, are in Las Vegas for the purpose of consummating a romance which has, according to friends, been in existence for several years."

Paul Drake, Mason’s private investigator and close friend, was not at all surprised at the news:

“Well, well, well,” Drake said. “Congratulations, Perry. So it finally happened! Well, I’m certainly glad to hear of it.”

“Don’t count your chickens before the coop is built,” Mason told him. “Della and I are here on business.”

“That’s what you think,” Drake told him. “The whole town is buzzing with the news. You might just as well get married now.”

Of course, friends can be wrong—after all, in the novels and TV series, Perry and Della never did get married. (They did marry in the 1936 movie version of The Case of the Velvet Claws, but all those 1930s Warner Brothers films strayed far from the storyline established by Erle Stanley Gardner).

So, is there any other evidence of the depth of their romantic feelings for one another? Let’s take a look.

There was much more romance in the novels than on the TV series

In the TV series there are only hints of a romance between the lawyer and his secretary. For example, although their mutual affection is clearly depicted on the show, during the entire run of the original series they never even kissed (except for Della giving Perry a little peck on the cheek in The Case of the Sunbather’s Diary).

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So, if you’ve only seen the TV series and haven’t read the novels, you might not realize the depth of the romantic attachment between the attorney and his legal secretary.

The Case of the Substitute Face is a good illustration of how Perry and Della's relationship had a much higher profile in the novels than on the TV program. In both the TV and written versions the two are depicted as returning home on a cruise ship. In the TV episode, they've been on a short business trip to Vancouver, British Columbia. But in the novel, they’re coming back from a round-the-world vacation cruise they took together (with separate cabins, by the way).

The evidence for a deep romantic attachment between Perry and Della

In the books there are many instances of romantic (but not sexual) intimacy between the two.

It begins with the very first novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws. Throughout the story, Della is vocally irritated that Mason seems to be allowing himself to be taken advantage of by a beautiful female client whom Della instinctively mistrusts and even, in her own words, hates. The woman does try to stab Mason in the back, but he eventually brings both his client and himself out on top.

At the end of the story, Della expresses remorse for not trusting him more:

There were tears in her eyes as her hands touched his shoulders.

“Please,” she said, “I’m so sorry.” . . .

His long arm circled her shoulders, and scooped her to him. His lips pressed down to hers.

“Forget it, kid,” he said in gruff tenderness.

“Why didn’t you explain?” she asked chokingly.

“It wasn’t that,” he said slowly, choosing the words, “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.”

And she never did.

Indications of how deeply Perry and Della cared for one another

Here are some more vignettes from the novels that illustrate how close they were:

They weren’t afraid to express their love for one another

The Case of the Sulky Girl (1933)

She looked at Perry Mason with eyes that were starry with pride. When she spoke, her voice had something of caressing tenderness in it…

Mason’s lips brushed Della Street’s cheek. “Happy?” he asked.

“Yes, darling,” she said softly.

Even when a case had them pretending to be married, their feelings for one another were real:

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat (1935)

She clasped her arms around his neck, drew his head down to her savagely, clung against him while her lips sought his, found them, and held them in a long, close embrace.

There was something of startled surprise in Perry Mason’s face as she released him. He took a quick step toward her. “Della,” he said, “you ...”

She pushed him away. “Hurry, Watson Clammert,” she said, “and get that airplane…”

For a moment Mason stood uncertainly, then turned and strode from the hotel lobby.

Della Street placed her handkerchief to her eyes, walked unsteadily toward the elevator.

They freely (but chastely) visited one another’s bedrooms in the line of duty

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat (1935)

Della Street, with a robe thrown over silk pajamas, sat on the edge of her bed and watched Perry Mason untying the cord around the hatbox.

The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito (1943)

"You should wake me up at four o’clock in the morning to propound legal puzzles! Get out of here and let me dress. I take it you want to leave?”

Mason got up off the bed. “We,” he announced, “have work to do.”

The Case of the Drowning Duck (1942)

Della Street…paused as she walked past the door of Perry Mason’s room, tapped tentatively on the door…

Della Street walked firmly past him, opened the Venetian blinds, and pulled them up... “Put on some overall pants and a leather jacket. That’s all you need.”

She went over to Mason’s closet, rummaged around, found his riding boots and jacket, brought them out, and said, “I’ll be waiting in the lobby.”

They put their lives on the line for one another

The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1936)

The tall man whipped blued steel from his pocket. 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. Mason took two jumps and swung his right fist, catching the man flush on the jaw. The tall man staggered backward. Della Street, clutching for the gun, slid down the man’s arm and fell, face forward, on the floor. She jerked the weapon from the man’s nerveless fingers.

With such love for one another, why didn’t they ever marry?

The fact that his secretary never became Mrs. Della Mason was certainly not due to lack of trying on Perry’s part—he proposed five separate times,* but Della turned him down every time. Why?

* Books in which Perry proposed are: The Cases of the Drowsy Mosquito, One-Eyed Witness, Lame Canary, Substitute Face, and Rolling Bones.

Della loved Perry, and she was sure of his love for her. Throughout the novels and the TV series, their social lives revolved entirely around one another—they are often depicted as going out to eat or for an evening of dancing together, but never with anyone else. So, Della wouldn't have had any fear of Mason getting into another relationship—whether she married him or not, he was hers.

What she did fear was that marriage would change their own relationship. Here’s how she put it when Mason proposed in The Case of the One-Eyed Witness:

There was something wistful in her laughter. “And then I’d be staying home in this house and you’d be going to the office and hiring another secretary to run your business and…”

“No,” he said, “you could continue to be my secretary.”

“Phooey! that never works out and you know it.”

“Why doesn’t it work out?”

“Darned if I know,” she said, “but it doesn’t. I suppose a man can say things to his secretary he wouldn’t dare say to his wife and... You know it doesn’t work."

Della didn't want to risk what they had

The bottom line for Della was that marriage would inevitably change the relationship that drew them together in the first place. As his more-than-secretary and partner in his crime-busting adventures, she was a full participant in that aspect of Perry's life that really defined who he was.

Raymond Burr as Perry and Barbara Hale as Della at work

Raymond Burr as Perry and Barbara Hale as Della at work

As she told Perry in The Case of the Rolling Bones, he simply wasn’t cut out for domestic life—he might stand it for a few weeks, then would be bored stiff. And she wouldn’t be able to stand being relegated to the role of housewife and having some other woman, his new secretary, participating in all his adventures and maybe developing that same extraordinary intimacy she had established with him over the years.

Della believed that she and Perry already had a deeper relationship than many married couples, one in which both were deeply satisfied. Perhaps they would have found a way to maintain, or even improve that relationship in marriage. But she was unwilling to risk what they already had to gain what they might have to struggle to build as a married couple.

Personally, I like to think that Della was wrong—that Perry and Della Mason could have reached heights, both professionally and in their relationship with one another, beyond what Perry Mason and Della Street were able to achieve.

© 2021 Ronald E Franklin

Comments

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 10, 2021:

Peggy, the amazing thing is that after half a century, that relationship still grabs attention!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 10, 2021:

I loved watching those old Perry Mason shows. I think that the friendship between Perry and Della, as well as the sexual tension, kept them interesting. It is somewhat like the James Bond movies where he is always very friendly with the company secretary, but it never goes further than that.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 08, 2021:

Heidi, it's usually when shows are at the point of cancellation that they resort to having their lead characters get married. So ESG was probably right to resist having the Perry/Della relationship be too explicit.

I haven't seen the HBO series, but from the reviews I read, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with ESG's Mason. He was very disappointed with the 1930s Mason films, and I think would be even more so with this adaptation.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on October 08, 2021:

I am a HUGE Perry Mason fan! Watched it over and over as a kid, and just watched the entire series on streaming not too long ago. Kinda why I always wanted to go to law school. BTW, if you haven't seen it, the new Perry Mason series on HBO, it is just awful. Not classy like the original.

Anyway...

The Perry + Della question is always one that fans ask. Throughout the TV series, there were several hints that their relationship was a little bit more than professional, or even just friends. But I'm so glad they didn't go down that romantic road. Looking at other shows like the X-Files that did, it changes the dynamic so much that the show becomes almost unwatchable.

Thanks for sharing the love of one of the greatest TV shows ever!

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 07, 2021:

Thanks, Patricia. I hope you're able to read some of the novels, I think you'll enjoy them.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on October 07, 2021:

A great walk down memory lane. My family and I watched Perry Mason each time when it was on tv. While I never read any of the stories as a young girl I did feel there was a close friendship between Della and Perry. As might be expected from a young girl raised when romance was not spoken of too openly in my home. I guess you would say I was very sheltered Now I will try to find some of these stories to read. Angels headed your way this evening ps

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 07, 2021:

Thanks, Joanne. I don't know about the UK, but here the original TV series is in continual reruns. So the charm you speak of has never abated even after more than half a century.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 07, 2021:

Jo, I'm with you—what I really like in both the TV show and the novels is the courtroom drama. In the books Della is much more actively involved in the investigative action than she is on TV, so the question of her relationship with Perry looms larger.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 07, 2021:

Peg, I'm sure your family weren't the only ones acting out the roles they saw on the show—it seems to have given an entire generation their first understanding of how the legal system works.

Joanne Hayle from Wiltshire, U.K. on October 07, 2021:

Thanks for reminding us of a great couple of characters. I'll admit that I grew up watching the older Raymond Burr shows/tv movies but the stories had a charm that endured. Excellent write, enjoyed.

Jo Miller from Tennessee on October 07, 2021:

I only watched the tv shows and never read the novels. I did like the show (there was little competition then) but was never very much interested in the relationship between Mason and his secretary. I just liked the legal dramas and the way Mason handled them in court.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on October 07, 2021:

Nicely told. Those of us that grew up with this TV show and ESG books often wondered when the romance would bloom. I believe you're right that it would have diminished Mason's appeal. Turns out it did with "I Dream of Jeannie."

We grew up watching Perry Mason, humming along with the theme song, and even play acting out the roles as children. "Your honor, I object!" Thanks for all the reminders of what television shows used to be like.

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