LA and California History viewed through Perry Mason and Paul Drake’s Hair

Ok, where to begin?

Perry Mason, for those who don’t know, is a fictional defense attorney practicing in Los Angeles, created by the mystery writer Earle Stanley Gardner, shown here. If you’ve never picked up a Perry Mason novel, I highly recommend.

Perry Mason was the basis of the long-running tv series–it ran from 1957 to 1966!–featuring Raymond Burr (one of my favorite actors) as Mason and the extremely lovely Barbara Hale as his secretary/confidante Della Street (shown below) . The show featured an excellent ensemble cast, including William Hopper as Paul Drake, Mason’s go-to private investigator, and undeservedly obscure character actor William Talman as the always-foiled district attorney Hamilton Burger.

So what lessons can we learn about urban and state history from the Perry Mason universe? A bunch.

First off, Raymond Burr’s lifelong commitment with his partner Robert Benevides is a object lesson for why California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage is a civil rights problem, no matter what you personally believe about the morality of homosexuality. Burr met Benevides in 1960 and together they built Burr’s acting career and a vineyard. Partners, no matter what sex they are, often sacrifice for the partnership, and theirs was no exception; Benevides gave up acting to help Burr manage his increasingly successful career. Together, they were philanthropists and buisinessmen. That is shared work and economic value.

After Burr’s death in 1993, Burr’s niece has challenged Benevides controlling Burr’s estate, particularly their vineyard, which he still runs. She may a point, for all I know, but it should caution us. Marriage isn’t just about a bedroom; it’s a set of property agreements, and under no accepted measure of justice should Benevides be threatened with the loss of what he built with Burr over the course of nearly 40 years. In some states, he would be in more jeopardy than he was in California. Everybody should have equal protection under the law, and that includes rights to property. The easiest way for partners to take care of each others’ property in legal agreements is marriage and pre-nuptials. .

Secondly, William Hopper himself was the son of high-profile Hollywood gossip Hedda Hopper, who is one of the early chroniclers of Hollywood history.

Hopper’s character, Paul Drake, is one of the most interesting in the series. Hypermasculinized as a player, his smooth blonde pompadour and his Thunderbirds were a California male ideal. Throughout the series, he drove Thunderbirds*: 1957, 1958, 1961, 1963, 1964, and 1965, including the convertible models. I think its hard for my car-hating students to understand just how unbelievably cool these cars were, shown below.


1965 convertible

There is no disputing that these are two of the most beautiful cars ever produced, and no, car culture isn’t just about waste. In more innocent times, they manifested the beautiful material craftmanship of human imagination and vision.

Finally, when you watch Perry Mason, occasionally Paul has to take the Thunderbird out “all the way to the North Hollywood.” The glimpse you get from Mason in the late 1950s is a North Hollywood full of farms–way suburban fringe. It was really far out of town, you know. Now it has a subway station:

*Mason also drove some pretty cool cars, including the Ford Fairlane.

2 thoughts on “LA and California History viewed through Perry Mason and Paul Drake’s Hair

  1. I always thought Paul only drove t-birds but I saw an episode last week where he was driving an early model corvette. Perry was driving a caddy .

    • Both drove a variety of cars throughout the series–it ran a long time–and I swear it was early product placement because all the cars on the show were beautiful!

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