The Case of the Curious Cousin

People who follow the blog may have thought I went on hiatus for a few days, when I was actually wrestling with what I promised myself would be the final entry devoted to Stephen Lovewell’s daughter Edna.  I wrote a lengthy, rambling piece explaining why I found the story of her death so affecting, rewrote much of it several times, and ended up throwing away most of what I had written.  So, if you find it tedious now, you should have seen it before.

Edna was the second child born to Stephen Rhodes and Villa Viola Lovewell, the first born at the dawn of a new century, and thus far the first female family member I’ve heard of who strikes me as a thoroughly modern woman.  She set her sights on a goal early on, and attacked it methodically.  After high school she spent a year at a business college picking up the skills necessary to get a secretarial position at a law office in Beatrice, Nebraska.  The firm of Hazlett, Jack & Laughlin became the base camp from which she began her long climb to a legal career, under the tutelage of senior partner Fulton Jack.

Being a lawyer in mid-1930’s America was about to become very sexy.  Edna was admitted to the bar the same year a California attorney left his law practice in Ventura to devote all his energies to his secondary vocation, turning out a series of mystery stories with a lawyer as the central figure.  Erle Stanley Gardner’s first Perry Mason mystery “The Case of the Velvet Claw” was published in 1933, and is still considered one of his very best.  The series was adapted for radio in 1943 and very nearly became a daytime drama on CBS until Gardner pulled out of the deal at the last minute.  The show went on the air in 1956, minus its famous crime-solving attorney, as “The Edge of Night,” switched networks during its run, but remained in the daytime lineup for almost thirty years.  Mason himself hit the primetime airwaves of the CBS network in 1957, with his creator overseeing script-writing chores and casting.  At one audition, Gardner reportedly pointed and shouted, “It’s him!” when a virtually unknown actor named Raymond Burr entered the studio.

If I seem to be going off on a tangent, it’s because there’s a family mystery on the fringes of this Perry Mason business, and one of the tangents may involve Edna Myrle Lovewell’s decision to become a lawyer.   

One evening many years ago as my family was sitting in the living room watching Perry Mason thwart Hamilton Burger’s latest scheme to railroad an innocent client, my father mentioned that one of his uncles had been Erle Stanley Gardner’s law partner.  While I was sufficiently impressed to carry his remark around with me for several decades since, I assumed back at the time that Gardner and his law firm were part of some distant, hazy past, and never asked for details.  Even then, Perry Mason seemed to have been around forever.  Yes, he was in a top-rated TV series, but I had seen dog-eared paperbacks with his name on the covers strewn around the house.   Surely his creator was long dead.

No he wasn’t.  In fact, it was a few years after my own wedding and a few months after the death of his estranged wife, that Erle Stanley Gardner finally tied the knot with his longtime secretary Jean Bethel Walter, the woman who is assumed to be the model for Perry Mason’s girl Friday, Della Street.  Jean, the second Mrs. Gardner, died in 2002 at the age of 100. 

Which of my father’s uncles could have been one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s law partners?  I’ve checked the names of Gardner’s professional circle and saw no name that leapt out at me, nothing that made me point and shout, “It’s him!”  My father had more than his fair share of aunts and uncles, grand-uncles, and uncles by marriage.  Like the rest of us, he had four great-grandfathers.  One of them was Adam VanMeter, whose wife, the former Elizabeth Shuler, seems to have borne twenty children, nine of them girls.  One of those girls was Villa Viola VanMeter, who would wed Stephen Lovewell and become the mother of Edna Myrle Lovewell.  If one of my father’s uncles was affiliated with the author of some eighty Perry Mason mysteries, the same uncle also might have been related to Edna, and could have been the inspiration for her career aspirations.  We’ll see.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, Dave Lovewell tells me that when he was ten, he was given a radio-phonograph and a few discs that had belonged to Edna.  One of them was a recording of trumpeter Clyde McCoy performing his theme song, “Sugar Blues.”  I’m sure a copy of that song was also tucked away somewhere in my dad’s collection of scratched-up LP’s, along with a few albums by the Ink Spots, Glenn Miller, the occasional compilation of cowboy tunes, and the ribald stylings of Miss Rusty Warren.  Oh, he was also fond of “Park Avenue Beat,” composer Fred Steiner's name for the tune that most of us know as the theme for “Perry Mason.”

We all believe a few things that aren’t true, even things that can’t possibly be true.  It may be the things we believe in that can’t be true that keep us going.  As for me, especially on late spring evenings, about 8 o'clock, I’m sustained by the belief that somewhere in the world, Perry and Della are walking into a swank supper club.  Music starts to play and Perry escorts Della to the dance floor, nodding politely but coolly to acknowledge the presence of the weasely district attorney and his wife as he passes their table.  Just as Perry and his secretary start to dance, Paul Drake shows up to report a break in the case, and ruins the mood.  Ah, well.  Perhaps tomorrow night. 

© Dale Switzer 2016  dale@lovewellhistory.com