Dr. Julian Wolff just became real to me. But first, some background:
The most common age for readers to encounter Sherlock Holmes is about 12. Unusually for me, I was a bit ahead of the curve on that. At that age, in 1964, I spent $5.50 of my own money to buy my first Doubleday Complete Sherlock Holmes. I had read not only half the Canon by then, but also Vincent Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and Edgar W. Smith’s Profile by Gaslight, and probably some issues of The Baker Street Journal.
So, at the age of 10 or so, I certainly knew about the Baker Street Irregulars and might well have known about its third leader, Julian Wolff. Now I feel like I know Dr. Wolff himself after reading Sonia Fetherston’s new book Commissionaire. It’s a fast and fascinating read.
This is not a complete biography of all the ins and outs of Dr. Wolff’s professional and personal lives. It is, rather, largely a portrait of his BSI service and leadership, with sufficient personal details to make the subject come alive as a complex personality. (A man who courts a woman for 30 years with ultimate success is no quitter.) I love the anecdote-laden way the book is written, with quotes and stories from dozens of people who knew him.
Not surprisingly, many of those anecdotes come from the inimitable Peter Blau. My favorite is his quote from Julian Wolff himself about how he ran the BSI: “Sometimes I’m described as a benevolent dictator. I’m not a dictator. But if I were a dictator I’d be a benevolent dictator. If I were benevolent.”
In no way slighted is Dr. Wolff’s controversial (then and now) decision to maintain the BSI as a stag organization, at least in terms of attendance at the annual dinner, despite the famous picketing by a half-dozen female Sherlockians at the 1968 dinner. Three of the first six women admitted to the BSI a year after Dr. Wolff's death offer their unique perspectives on him.
If you’re as interested in BSI history as I am, be sure to listen to an interview with Sonia Fetherston here on the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere podcast and equally sure to order a copy of the book here.