This month, Perry Mason — the legendary Los Angeles defence attorney who yielded to no one in getting his clients off the rap — is returning to British television screens in a transformed characterisation by the award-winning Welsh actor Matthew Rhys.
Mason was the creation of U.S. author Erle Stanley Gardner in some 80 novels that have sold more than 300 million copies, putting Gardner just two spots behind J.K. Rowling in the list of all-time bestseller writers.
Rhys’s portrayal of the younger Mason as a dishevelled drunk in a filthy vest, who steals a tie from a corpse when he needs to smarten up before a judge, bears little comparison with the original star who brought Perry to the viewing millions.
Canadian-born actor Raymond Burr was more than 6ft tall and immaculately dressed in expensive suits. He had a commanding voice and the aura of a pillar of the community.
Perry Mason is pictured with his co-star Barbara Hale who played his secretary Della Street in The Case Of The Sulky Girl
Burr played Mason for nine years from 1957 to 1966 — those episodes are still available on UK TV today — and then in a further 26 TV movies from 1985 to 1993.
To British viewers, he was also the star of the popular detective series Ironside, which ran from 1967 to 1975. But his private life was the antithesis of what his public life appeared to be.
His story, littered with spurious claims of the most astonishing kind, was the greatest monument to ‘mythomania’ — an abnormal or pathological tendency to exaggerate or tell lies — in the history of Hollywood.
Why should this be, for a man who was both very rich and very successful? It all came down to his terror that he would lose the role of Perry Mason and his entire career as a leading actor if he was exposed as gay and sharing his life with a male lover.
Such fears seem preposterous in these more enlightened times. But, in the Hollywood of the 1950s, they were by no means groundless.
Burr was alleged to have sexual relationships with female Hollywood stars, one of whom — Natalie Wood — laughed the idea to scorn when I asked her about it
So, to cover his tracks, Burr had begun to invent a completely bogus history for himself.
This included military service he had never undertaken, battle wounds he had never sustained, early marriages to two women who never existed, the birth and death of a son who was yet another figment of his fantasy, and alleged sexual relationships with female Hollywood stars, one of whom — Natalie Wood — laughed the idea to scorn when I asked her about it.
Many of the claims Burr made about his life were accepted at face value by his first biographer, Ona Hill, in a book published in the year after his death. But his definitive biographer, Michael Seth Starr, writing 15 years after Burr’s demise, confronted all the claims head-on, demolishing most of them. His book was entitled Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr.
Raymond William Stacy Burr was born on May 21, 1917 in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada. He was a chubby baby, exhibiting even then the ample girth that would both help and haunt him for the rest of his days.
By the age of 22, Burr, as far as anyone knew, had never dated anyone. But the gossip columnist Ed Sullivan muddied the waters when he published an unsubstantiated rumour that Ona Munson, who had played Belle Watling in the movie Gone With The Wind, was ‘flirting with San Franciscan Raymond Burr’.
There was only one problem about this. Ona, despite three disastrous marriages, was a lesbian who was later linked to both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.
Burr met his first and only wife, Isabella Ward — Bella, as she preferred to be called — in 1943, during his first season as a trainee actor at the Pasadena Playhouse. The couple co-starred in Burr’s first Playhouse production, Quiet Wedding, and were married on January 10, 1948, when he was 30.
The marriage collapsed within months and they were divorced in 1952. Neither would ever remarry. Bella would later comment: ‘Some people are just not marrying people — and I think I’m one of them.’
Burr was later to insist that Bella was not his first wife and that he had been married previously to a Scottish actress named Annette Sutherland, whom he was supposed to have met while he was touring Britain in the early 1940s.
He claimed Annette had died in June 1943 in the same plane as actor Leslie Howard, shot down by the Nazis over the Bay of Biscay.
Burr is pictured with co-star Hale and her life partner Robert Benevides
But there was no record of any ‘Annette Sutherland’ and certainly not on the Leslie Howard flight, which listed 13 passengers (including three women) and four crew members, none of whom bore that name.
To this tragic ‘first wife’ Raymond subsequently added an even more tragic dead son.
Michael Evan Burr was allegedly born in 1943, shortly before Annette’s fatal plane crash. Raymond further insisted that Michael had died in 1953 at the age of ten after battling leukaemia.
No member of the Burr family ever met Michael or Annette. If Michael had existed, he would have been about five years old when Raymond married Bella Ward in 1948.
Asked if she knew of a son’s existence, Bella replied: ‘No, I never met him. Because there was no son. But I don’t want to talk about that — it isn’t my place to say anything about that.’
As for the mythical Annette, Bella added: ‘I was Ray’s first wife. If there had been a wife before me, he would have told me.’
In 1959, seven years after his divorce from Bella, Burr began introducing yet another previous wife into his calamitous history. This one was named Laura Andrina Morgan and he claimed to have married her in either 1955 or 1953.
She conveniently died soon afterwards, having lost her battle with cancer just before the couple’s planned honeymoon in the Bahamas. Once again, no one known to Burr ever met Laura and no trace of her has ever been found.
Burr’s fame merely increased with the creation of another role for him as wheelchair-bound former Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside
Burr’s chronology was suspect. If he had married Laura in 1955, that would mean their courtship had begun shortly after the death of his ‘son’ Michael Evan, and at a time when Burr was spending well-documented months in Korea entertaining U.S. troops during the Korean War.
It would also mean he got married while he was supposed to be wooing Natalie Wood.
He was later to say of Laura: ‘I married that young lady because she was dying and I knew it.’ He told Barbara Hale, who played his secretary, Della Street, in Perry Mason: ‘She just wanted to be married and I did it for that reason.’
In 1966, I met Natalie Wood through a mutual friend and asked her about the rumours that had linked her with Raymond Burr during the previous ten years.
Natalie, who was to have some experience of relationships with gay and bisexual men — her first marriage to Robert Wagner ended when she found him in flagrante with another man in their own home — made an old-fashioned face, then laughed.
‘Oh, that!’ she said. ‘Well, that was something the publicists just made up to protect Ray. Don’t get me wrong. I love Ray dearly and we were very close friends. But as for lovers — no way, not in a million years.’
To British viewers, he was also the star of the popular detective series Ironside, which ran from 1967 to 1975
Burr’s own take on the alleged affair was that it had been ended by studio chiefs who wanted to split up the supposed sweethearts.
Almost everything Raymond Burr said about himself during his years as a star turned out to be false, including a military past that did not exist. The closest he came to any military service was a brief stint in the U.S. Coast Guard. Yet he claimed to have served in the U.S. Navy.
Some press accounts, almost certainly encouraged by him, maintained he was shot in the stomach during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 and still had bullet fragments in his belly. In other claims, he had been awarded a Purple Heart for heroism after surviving a kamikaze attack. None of it was true.
The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) informed his biographer, Michael Seth Starr: ‘We have conducted extensive searches of every records source and alternate records source. However, we have been unable to locate any information that would help us verify the veteran’s military service.’
Starr adds: ‘Had Raymond served even one day in the military, his name would have surfaced.’
An objective view of Raymond Burr’s life leaves no room for doubt that he was gay from the beginning. The actor Paul Picerni, who was five years younger than Burr, became a friend and was often invited by Burr to his dressing room to play cribbage.
He was ‘very subtle’ in his approach, said Picerni. But it soon became apparent to the younger man, who was straight, exactly why the burly actor had taken such an interest in him.
In his autobiography, he recalled the cribbage session when reality dawned: ‘When I took a look up from my cards . . . I saw him staring at me with his big blue eyes. And with this strange expression on his face. For the first time in my life, I felt like a dame.
Many of the claims Burr made about his life were accepted at face value by his first biographer, Ona Hill, in a book published in the year after his death
‘Then it hit me. He’d been giving me all this bullsh*t about his wife and his two little kids in London, when in fact he was gay and he was makin’ a move on me!’
The turning point in Raymond Burr’s life came one day on the set of Perry Mason in 1957 when he met his life partner, an actor and Korean War veteran 13 years his junior, Robert Benevides, who was always known as Bob.
In 1960, the couple set up home and they continued to live together for the remaining 33 years of Burr’s life.
There were claims they had secretly ‘married’ in 1963 and that Raymond enjoyed playing ‘wife’ to Robert. A friend said: ‘If you went to their house, Raymond would be wearing a frilly pink apron and doing the ironing. He fussed around like the woman of the house.
‘Raymond always called Robert “my husband”. He would knit sweaters for him in front of the fire.’
When the original series of Perry Mason ended in 1966, Burr’s fame merely increased with the creation of another role for him as wheelchair-bound former Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside.
Despite his continuing terror over the vulnerability of his private life, Burr lived under the radar as a closeted gay man until 1993, when it was discovered that he was dying from kidney cancer. He threw a series of lavish parties to bid farewell to his closest friends.
He died at his California home aged 76 on September 12, 1993, leaving his entire $32 million (£26 million) estate to Benevides and excluding his sister and the rest of his own family. A challenge by several of them against the will failed.
The man who told so many lies about himself should still be remembered with compassion because of the intolerant times in which he lived. The brilliance of his screen acting is still admired.
- Perry Mason is on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on Monday.