I was going to write about this T-shirt that I received recently as a birthday present, but I think the awesomeness of the words and images speak for themselves.
What's in your closet?
The Baker Street Irregulars has always been a literary society. The same can be said for its scion societies. For most of them, that means reading and discussing the Canon. But some scions, like the BSI itself, have contributed to the literature by issuing publications.
In fact, numerous scions have done so, in many and varied forms – journals, pamphlets, books, comics. To attempt a list of publishing scions would be a fool’s errand, for I would inevitably miss some important examples. I won’t even mention that the Illustrious Clients of Indianapolis, of which I am one of the least illustrious members, published six case books in its first 70 years.
But Sir Hugo’s Literary Companion, edited by David C. Humphrey and published in 2007 by Hugo’s Companions of Chicago, is a fine example of how to do it. The book includes two dozen entries by club members, going all the way back to early legends Vincent Starrett and Jay Finley Christ.
Starrett’s entries include the sonnet “221B,” his familiar essay on “No. 221 B Baker Street,” and “A Note on Mr. Sherlock Holmes.” Robert J. Mangler complimented that trio with a charming essay on his personal memories of Starrett.
You can also learn in this volume about Britis coins of the Victorian era, the Pink ‘Un racing sheet, Sherlockian connections to Chicago, the founding of Hugo’s Companions, antecedents of the hell hound of the Baskervilles, and knots in the Canon.
My two favorite essays in the book, because of their originality and cleverness, are both by C. Arnold Johnson. In “Belshazaar Theory,” he argues (with some ingenious if not convincing evidence) that Sherlock Holmes’s birthday was May 17. Hugo’s Companions still celebrate this date with an annual birthday dinner. In “An East Wind,” Johnson builds a case that Moriarty survived Reichenbach and resumed his criminal career in the guise of Dr. Fu Manchu.
This is a twenty-first century book with deep roots in The Game’s earlier days, and I’m happy to add it to my shelves.
It’s not that we don’t know what’s there. We are as familiar with the cigars in the coal scuttle, the patriotic VR in bullet marks on the wall, the Persian slipper with tobacco in the toe, the bear-skin hearth rug, and the acid-stained deal table as we are our own rooms.
But exactly where in the room do they fit?
“Precisely where to place the chairs and tables, for example, the sofas and the shelves of books, and all the other impedimenta of the sitting-room, is somewhat of a problem,” Vincent Starrett writes in the “No. 221B Baker Street” chapter of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
This is a problem with multiple solutions. My wife, Ann, and I have had the good fortune to visit reconstructions at the Sherlock Holmes Pub and the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London, the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Meiringen, Switzerland, and Denny Dobry’s home in Reading, PA. I’ve written about all of them on this blog. (Find those posts with the search engine at the far upper left.)
All the reconstructions are wonderful in their own way (although Denny’s impressed us the most), and all seem right even though they are different. Different still are the various floor plans enthusiasts have drawn, including a famous one by the legendary Julian Wolff for a 1946 Baker Street Journal.
Ann didn’t depend on any of these when she built her own miniature 221B sitting room for me last year as a Christmas present. Instead, she and our friend Carolyn Senter went to the Canon and figured out an arrangement that was consistent with the descriptions there.
The sitting room they constructed is in one-twelfth scale in amazing detail, down to the miniature Persian slipper. In fact, it began with the slipper. Ann saw that, bought it, and built the model-size sitting room around it over the course of many months. Pieces came from all over, on all at the same scale – even the properly dated London newspapers.
The result now sits proudly on the library table behind our Victorian love seat, separating the from library from the living room. It is flanked by the 221B floor plans of Julian Wolff and Kiyoshi Tanaka, plus a framed postcard of the 221B reconstruction formerly housed at the Holiday Inn on Union Square in San Francisco.
Which one of these many visions is the true 221B? Whichever one you believe. For, as Vincent Starrett reminds us, “Only those things the heart believes are true.”
I was sorting out some of the voluminous Sherlockian material that Carolyn Senter generously gave me recently. I’ve called it my inheritance from her late husband, Joel. One of the items that popped out at me was Susan Rice’s book called A Compound of Excelsior.
It’s an attractive little volume, published by Gasogene Press in 1991, with a line drawing of a bee on every page. Reading it is to engage with the brilliant mind of Susan Rice. Within a few pages, I was enthralled – even though I have no special interest in the topic of bees, beekeeping, or the literature thereof.
Susan was a wonderful writer – elegant, intelligent, and humorous. An excerpt will not do her justice, but I was particularly struck by these lines:
Only in the past decade or two have scientists become convinced she [the queen bee] mates many times, perhaps between ten and twenty. The queen bee may seem to us more mechanical than admirable, but it is impossible not to appreciate her achievement. For thousands of years she has kept what’s private, private.
But, of course, the book is as much about Sherlock Holmes as it is about bees. The central mystery of the book is why he retired so early. Susan found the solution in the preface to His Last Bow, where Watson mentions Holmes as “somewhat crippled by occasional attacks of rheumatism.” There it is – bee stings are well known to cure rheumatism! That’s why Holmes retired at a little shy of 50 years old, and why became a beekeeper.
Just seven months ago, Susan sent me a superb essay on Vincent Starrett’s “The Unique Hamlet” for a book I edited, which I hope will be published by the end of the year. Along with it, she supplied a short biography which is perhaps indicative of what she thought important about her life – especially its final sentence:
Susan Rice, ASH (“A Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations Upon the Segregation of the Queen”), BSI (“Beeswing”), first met Holmes and Watson 65 years ago, and eight years later attended her first scion meeting. Since then she’s been very active in the Sherlockian cosmos, writing roughly 70 papers for at least two dozen publications. She has spoken at various ASH and BSI Dinners and perhaps 30 conferences, including John Bennett Shaw symposia, Bob Thomalen’s Autumn in Baker Street, and Back to Baker Street, where she spoke at New Scotland Yard. Susan is the recipient of the Gaslight Award, the Morley-Montgomery Award, and the Musgrave Crown. She is the author of The Somnambulist and the Detective, about Vincent Starrett, and two other books. She was among the first six women invested in the BSI in 1991, and 12 years later received her second shilling. Her greatest reward, however, is a life of lasting friendships.
For more of Susan Rice in her own words, click here for a link to an interview with Rob Nunn.
My recent post on Nigel Bruce drew more positive reaction than anything else in the nine years of this blog. People love “Willie,” especially at The Rathbone Bruce Years Facebook Page.
So, I was in a Rathbone-Bruce mood when I picked up Sherlock Holmes: Behind the Canonical Screen, a collection of papers from the Baker Street Irregulars conference held at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in 2012. The volume was edited by Lyndsay Faye and Ashley D. Polasek.
Some purists understandably object to Bruce’s uncanonical portrayal of Watson as bumbler. But Jerry Kegley, in a paper called “Holmes Superbus, Watson Absurdus,” joins the ranks of those who note that “he brought Watson out of the shadows and ceased the notion of marginalizing the good doctor. For the first time on film, Watson was able to stand side by side with the great detective, a trend that has continued to this day.”
Jeffory Hart, in an insightful and witty survey of Holmesian cinema, makes a similar point: “Watson will never again be neglected, and we owe that to the popularity of Nigel Bruce.” And so does Russell Merritt in his paper on Sherlock in the silents: “After Nigel Bruce, Holmes without Watson is unimaginable. Before Bruce, he was entirely optional.”
Nevertheless, Timothy Greer, in an authoritative and beautifully written retrospective on the Granada series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes, concurs with Bert Coules that, “Nigel Bruce as many outstanding qualities; being Dr. Watson is not among them.” Greer has high praise for Brett’s two Watsons, a judgment unlikely to find much dissent anywhere.
With reference to the Rathbone films in general, Greer says, “a great Holmes does not automatically a great Holmesian adaptation make.” I would go even further: In my opinion, there have been many great interpretations of Holmes but no perfect Holmesian adaptation.
There are many other delights in this book – 18 chapters in all. I particularly enjoyed the four transcripts of dialogues that took place at the conference. (The always engaging Nicholas Meyer memorably tells John Landis that Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes is “a sort of superhero beatnik.”)
For all the wide range of film- and TV-related topics covered in this book, most of the papers have one thing in common: at least a passing mention of the Rathbone-Bruce movies. The series constituted a milestone that is hard to ignore.
Almost from his very beginning, Sherlock Holmes has been as much at home in drama as on the printed page. And one of the landmark achievements in that long history of Holmes being brought to life was the first dramatization of the entire Canon.
With Clive Merrison as Holmes, Michael Williams as Dr. Watson, and Bert Coules as head writer, BBC radio completed the task in eight years, seven months, and seventeen days, and just under nine hours, starting Oct. 9, 1989 and ending on May 26, 1998. So Coules reports in his excellent 221 BBC, part of the Musgrave Monograph series from the Northern Musgraves Sherlock Holmes Society.
The 1998 monograph, later expanded into a book available from Wessex Press, is fascinating to me as an author. Coules writes in it about the challenges and decisions involved in adapting specific episodes. For example, he added a touching scene at the end of the “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” in which Watson invites himself to Baker Street for a late Christmas Eve meal so that famously unemotional Holmes won’t have to say the words.
The series has long been regarded as a high-water mark in Sherlockian drama, not only because of its ground-breaking nature but also because of the high quality of the scripts and the acting. So I’m pleased to say I recently inherited from the late R. Joel Senter, Sr. (via his wife Carolyn) the entire series on cassette tape, as well as a copy of the monograph.
But who has a cassette player anymore? Well, the Senters covered that, too. Long ago they gave me this art deco radio that also plays cassettes.
Fortunately, that’s not the only way to enjoy this BBC Sherlock. The shows are available from Amazon and Audible. Click here for a link to Bert Coules website, where you can learn much more about the historic series and order the episodes as well as 221 BBC.
Last week we visited the only permanent Sherlock Holmes statue in North America – and it has the face of Elzie “E.C.” Segar, the cartoonist best known for creating the immortal spinach-eating sailor Popeye.
The granite statue standing in a residential neighborhood in Segar’s hometown of Chester, IL, was the brainchild of Mike McClure, BSI, founder of the Chester Baskerville Society. It celebrates Segar’s affection for Holmes, which shows up repeatedly in his cartoons.
On the wall behind the statue, those who not only see but observe will notice the word “RACHE” in red from A Study in Scarlet, four crosses from The Sign of the Four, and the symbol tattooed on the Scrowrers The Valley of Fear. At the base of the statue are “the footprints of a gigantic hound.”
Encircling the statue are a series of granite blocks, each bearing the name of two Sherlock Holmes adventures and the sponsor of the block. From above, these form the lens of a magnifying glass, with the path being the handle.
McClure, a mortician by trade, was also the creator of the Popeye & Friends Character Trail, celebrating the fact that Wimpy, Olive Oyl, and Popeye’s other friends were based on residents of Chester in Segar’s boyhood. And many of these statues are embedded with Sherlockian Easter eggs. We didn’t have a chance to catch up with Mike on our visit, but he sent me these photos:
|Cole Oyl|Caster Oyl
|Cole Oyl's Hound of the Baskervilles|
To learn much more about all of Mike’s fun and fascinating enterprises and hear his March 2019 interview with the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere podcast, click here.
My first Kickstarter -- for the new Sebastian McCabe - Jeff Cody book -- is off to a great start, with 15 days left to go. If you haven't seen it, please check it out here. If you are already on board, thanks! The book is already available on Kindle and will be in print soon.
Internet research is indispensable, but sometimes you just have to ask the right person to get the right answer.
Over the weekend, I had a vague recollection that Nigel Bruce wrote an unpublished autobiography. That’s all I remembered. So, on Saturday afternoon I popped an email over the ocean to my British friend Roger Johnson, the always-helpful editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal, to ask him if there was indeed a Bruce memoir.
On Sunday, Roger sent me a PDF of eight pages from the Winter 1988 number of the Journal. A couple of pages consists of Nicholas Utechin’s interview with Nigel Bruce’s daughter, Pauline Page, and the rest is made up of excerpts from Bruce’s unpublished memoir, Games, Gossip and Greasepaint.
Ms. Page lovingly describes her father as a gregarious, intelligent, very funny man who read at least a book a day and fit in well with Hollywood’s British colony, which included David Niven and Boris Karloff as well as his great friend, Basil Rathbone. She remembered Rathbone fondly as a “wonderful, kind, loving, gentle – really gentle – man without a nasty streak in his body.”
Bruce took just over three years to write his autobiography, ending on Nov. 3, 1947. The extracts in the Journal are limited to his role as Dr. Watson. That began in 1938 when Basil Rathbone sent him a telegram in New York, where he had been involved in a failed Broadway play: “Do come back to Hollywood, Willie dear boy, and play Doctor Watson to my Sherlock Holmes. We’ll have great fun together.”
“Willie,” as all Bruce’s friends called him, was soon making The Hound of the Baskervilles. He earned nearly $10,000 for the picture.
“I never worked with a nicer man than Basil,” he writes, “and I never acted with a more unselfish or more co-operative actor.”
His assessment of Rathbone was based on an experience that included 13 more Holmes films and a long-running Holmes radio series. They also spent many hours together playing golf, both having a 10 handicap.
“Our (Universal) Sherlock Holmes pictures took between 18 and 22 days to make,” he reports. For this he was initially paid a salary of $850 a week in 1942 for 40 weeks. By 1945 his contract was for $1,150 a week, but he was laid off for 12 weeks – during which time he arranged an operation on his legs, which had been wounded in World War I. He acknowledges that Watson "was made much more of a 'comic' character than he ever was in the books."
Bruce was also playing Dr. Watson on the radio for $500 a week at the same time. This was not only good money, but security for an actor.
Although Pauline Page blames Basil Rathbone’s “very ambitious, rather pushy little wife” Ouida for ending the Holmes film series, Bruce’s final words about Rathbone in the excerpt are: “Ours had been a very happy association and one which had brought me much publicity and a lot of money. During our long time together Basil and I never had a row or any unpleasantness of any sort.”
Bruce ends his memoir with the hope that his two daughters “will enjoy their lives as much as their father has enjoyed every minute of his.”
It is good to know that William Nigel Ernle Bruce, who gave so much happiness to the rest of us, was a happy man himself. He died in 1953 at the age of 58, one month shy of five years after finishing his memoir.