The real-life "His Girl Friday," Adela Rogers St. Johns proved women could do a man's job as well as any hardboiled newspaperman and became a veritable celebrity of letters. The daughter of famous Los...
The real-life "His Girl Friday," Adela Rogers St. Johns proved women could do a man's job as well as any hardboiled newspaperman and became a veritable celebrity of letters. The daughter of famous Los Angeles defense attorney Earl Rogers, St. Johns eschewed gender roles early to become a reporter with Hearst newspapers at age 17, covering crime, sports and politics. Hearst made her a novelty act, and she garnered even more limelight as an interviewer of Hollywood's biggest stars for Photoplay magazine. She did more than just cover the industry, as she wrote screenplays and saw her stories adapted for the big screen, including an Oscar-nominated homage to her father, "A Free Soul" (1931). The Depression saw her covering some of the era's major stories as well as chronicling the street-level travail of the hard times on poor people. She struggled through three marriages, became a beloved Grand Dame of Hollywood lore, and battled her father's demon, alcohol. She told his story again in a memoir of her early years, Final Verdict, in 1962 and completed the companion piece about her years in the trade, The Honeycomb. She continued to pen books into the 1970s and established a new imprint as an irrepressible TV guest and documentary commentator on her eventful glory days. Carrying sensationalist billings such as "Mother Confessor of Hollywood" and "World's Greatest Girl Reporter," St. Johns mastered nearly every medium involving the written word and became a veritable living archetype.
She was born Adela Nora Rogers on May 20, 1894 in Los Angeles, to Harriet and Earl Rogers. Her father earned wide renown as a criminal defense attorney and one of the first to introduce modern forensic science into legal proceedings. Adela idolized him and loathed her mother, and she opted to live him when her parents' tempestuous union finally ended when she was eight. She developed a love of letters and both read voluminously and began writing from an early age. The latter garnered her recognition at age nine when her submission won a story contest sponsored by The Los Angeles Times. St. Johns attended Hollywood High School but, she would later say, truly learned of the world through the rugged people she met as an unofficial clerk on her father's cases. Through an acquaintance with one of Earl Rogers' more famous friends, publisher William Randolph Hearst, she left school early and took a cub reporter's job with the jewel of Hearst's newspaper empire, the San Francisco Examiner at age 17. She returned to L.A. a year later to join the staff of Hearst's Los Angeles Herald. At age 19, she married that paper's top copy editor Ike St. Johns, the Herald's chief copy editor.
St. Johns refused to content herself with standard "ladies" sections of the newspaper, putting her talents to work instead on politics, sports and crime beats through the 1910s. This earned her a rep as an intrepid "girl reporter," able to take on all the heady subject matter any hard-bitten male typewriter jockey did. She also began staking out in-depth coverage of the burgeoning film industry and sold her first stories to the movies in 1918. The first, "The Secret Code" (1918), starred matinee diva Gloria Swanson. In 1922, dissipated by alcoholism, Earl Rogers died. The St. Johns had begun a family, and Ike moved over to edit for James Quirk and his trailblazing fan magazine Photoplay. Looking to spend less time in the field and become a prototype work-from-home mom, she became a contributor to Photoplay, did in-depth profiles of the America's elegant new aristocracy, and additionally published in top magazines such as Cosmopolitan and The Saturday Evening Post. She ramped up her own screen work as well, collecting story/scenario credits on at least two films a year through the 1920s, starting with a pair of cautionary tales produced by fellow female film pioneer Dorothy Davenport, "Broken Laws" (1924) and "The Red Kimona" (1925). Adela and Ike divorced in divorced in 1927, and that year she published her first book, a fictionalized homage to her father, A Free Soul.
In 1928, St. Johns married Richard Hyland, a onetime star for Stanford University football and the U.S. Olympic rugby teams. The union would produce a son, Richard, but would only last six years. Around this time, she became something of a celebrity herself and hobnobbed with Hollywood luminaries. Her close friendship with Clark Gable even spurred rumors that one of her children was his love child. In 1931, MGM adapted A Free Soul into a star-studded film, starring Lionel Barrymore as a brilliant-but-alcoholic defense attorney, Norma Shearer as his daughter and Gable as the wrong-side-of-the-tracks tough-guy she winds up loving and he winds up defending. The performances would bring Barrymore an Oscar win, Shearer an Oscar nod, and newcomer Gable overnight stardom. Also that year, St. Johns' novel about a society woman bucking sexual stereotypes via a series of romances, The Single Standard, was made into a film starring Greta Garbo. St. Johns would garner an Oscar nomination in 1933 for the original story behind the film "What Price Hollywood?" (1932), the tale of a waitress discovered by a mercurial, boozy film producer who makes her a star. She returned to the Hearst fold as a special correspondent on major sports events, including the World Series and the 1932 Olympics, and bringing her evocative prose to bear on national stories such as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case.
St. John's stock-in-trade, however, became so-called "sob-sister" stories, which shed a light on ordinary people struggling through hard times. In 1933, she went undercover among the denizens of L.A.'s bread lines and employment offices and produced a 16-part series that made political waves and led to a slate of reforms. She stepped up to national politics in the 1930s and transferred to Hearst's Washington Herald, where she would become a signature voice on the New Deal and such riveting stories as the assassination of Senator Huey Long. Hollywood continued to spin her original stories into films, including the comedy-mystery centering on a plucky female reporter, "Back in Circulation" (1937), and a sequence of films conspicuous for their strong female leads that included "The Great Man's Lady" (1932), "Government Girl" (1943) and "That Brennan Girl" (1945). In 1936, she married again to United Air Lines executive Francis O'Toole, but they divorced in 1942. St. Johns suffered a devastating tragedy when her son by Ike, William St. Johns, was killed in World War II. She bowed out of daily journalism in 1948, but went out with a comprehensive multi-part profile of the recently assassinated Indian revolutionary Mohandas Gandhi. St. Johns then did a two-year stint teaching journalism at UCLA. In 1953, MGM again adapted a A Free Soul for an all-star melodrama starring William Powell and Elizabeth Taylor in the father/daughter leads.
Some of her stories were adapted for raft of anthology shows populating the new television networks in the 1950s, and she became a regular guest of Jack Paar on NBC's Tonight show (1954- ). In 1962, she published a personal nonfiction bio/memoir of her life with Earl Rogers, Final Verdict, and four years later, she made the fiction lists again with Tell No Man, the tale of the odyssey of a businessman who abandons his conventional life after a religious epiphany. In 1969, St. Johns completed what was effectively the second installment of her memoir, The Honeycomb, which resumed her story as she went to work for Hearst. President Richard Nixon awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1970. She mostly worked on books in the '70s but returned to the San Francisco Examiner in 1976 to supply special coverage of the trial of Patty Hearst, her old boss' brainwash-victim granddaughter. She garnered a new generation of fans by becoming an expert witness on bygone eras and not just via her frequent guest-chats on the many talk shows of the time. She supplied engaging testimonials to the 13-episode "Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film" (HBO, 1980) and also discussed the personal lives of the America's leftist intellectuals in cutaway scenes for Warren Beatty's epic "Reds" (1981). St. Johns died on Aug. 10, 1988, in a convalescent hospital in Arroyo Grande, CA. Three years later, TNT made Final Verdict into a TV movie.