Secretary, twenty-seven, quiet, fast as hell on her feet, had been places. Worked in a carnival or side show, knows all the lines, hard-boiled exterior, quietly efficient, puzzled over the lawyer, chestnut hair, trim figure, some lines on her face, a hint of weariness at the corners of her eyes.
This was Erle Stanley Gardner’s description of one Della Street, a character in his then-unpublished novel Reasonable Doubt. An editor at William Morrow liked the character but wasn’t prepared to accept the novel; Gardner rewrote the story, retitled it The Case of the Velvet Claws, and gave Della Street a new day job: secretary to criminal-defense lawyer Perry Mason.
That was 1933. Barbara Hale was eleven years old and had no idea that she’d become Della Street in 1957 for what would be 271 episodes of the Perry Mason TV series plus dozens of TV-movies thereafter. When she arrived in Hollywood, she got mostly uncredited bit parts along the lines of “stocking salesgirl” (from Gildersleeve on Broadway, 1943); it took her a few years to become a household word, and a little bit longer to realize that Della Street would take over her life.
Okay, maybe not her entire life:
I had a Radarange. (It said “Amana,” it did. And it probably said “hernia” to the burglar who stole it.)
Barbara Hale died yesterday at her home in Sherman Oaks, California, of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She was ninety-four years old.