Erle Stanley Gardner’s Pen Pal

Brooks Peters has an fascinating piece on ways that the Leopold and Loeb case has been repurposed as fiction. Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rope is probably the best-known interpretation, but Peters notes that there were plenty of others. (F. Scott Fitzgerald considered writing a novel on the case.) Among Peters’ most surprising discoveries was a cache of correspondence between Nathan Leopold, who along with Richard Loeb was convicted for senselessly killing a 14-year-old boy in 1924, and crime novelist Erle Stanley Gardner. Leopold had a sympathetic ear in Gardner, who was a household name in the 50s thanks to the Perry Mason novels and TV series. He would eventually write an introduction to Leopold’s memoir, and make a case for Leopold’s release. Who was using whom here? Brooks figures that the correspondence (archived among Gardner’s papers at the Harry Ransom Center) makes it tough to say:

The symbiosis throughout the correspondence between Gardner and Leopold is revealing too of Leopold’s uncanny people skills. In all his letters, Leopold is a master at flattery and charm. He downplays his talents and paints Gardner as an extremely generous man who risked his reputation to take on Leopold’s case. Leopold constantly criticizes his own prose style and laughingly admits that he only wanted Gardner to write the introduction so that the reader wouldn’t be too disappointed in the final product. It’s a clever ploy to win over the immensely successful author (who never really achieved literary recognition for his immense output, and only won an Edgar award for his non-fiction book The Court of Last Resort). Leopold must have known that by stroking Gardner’s ego he was nudging the door open to his own freedom.

But there’s no denying that the friendship was genuine. Leopold may have seen the advantages of his connection to a famous writer who went out on a limb to help him achieve parole. But the affection seems completely real and definitely mutual. In one letter Leopold offers to put up Gardner in his tiny apartment in Puerto Rico (after his parole) if Gardner were to visit. The idea of Gardner shacking up with this notorious killer is too good to be true. It’s not clear from the correspondence if Gardner ever took him up on his offer.