Although considered a founder of the BSI, Vincent Starrrett attended only one annual dinner. Here's his version of what happened.
In a few days, the friends of Sherlock Holmes will gather to celebrate their common bond in New York City. Call them devotees, scholars, fans, fanatics, shippers or aficionados, the fact remains that for one weekend each year, the Sherlock Holmes cognoscente descend from the four corners of the earth to talk, eat, drink, talk, drink, debate, shop, laugh and talk about the master detective in all his various incarnations.
This will mark my 30th anniversary at a Baker Street Irregulars dinner. The record is not uninterrupted. Nevertheless, it shows either an extraordinary dedication or a blind obligation to tradition. Either way, I am delighted to be able to go once again and see so many friends, old and especially new. There is a great wave of new Sherlockians out there and it’s a delight to see their enthusiasm and excitement.
With so many years behind me (and I hope at least a few more in the offing), I often reflect on the fact that one of the founders of our feast, Vincent Starrett, made it to only one BSI dinner, in 1934. Oh, but what a dinner it was. And, if Starrett’s account can be trusted, he made the most of it.
He told the story of that dinner in various venues over the following decades, most notably in almost identical accounts in the 1960 revised version of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (TPLOSH) and again in his 1965 memoirs, Born in a Bookshop.
Here’s how it went, according to Starrett.
Anticipating today’s revelers, who arrive days before the BSI dinner, Starrett got into the city “early in December for that first state dinner.” He then made a decision that would go down in history: Starrett invited THE greatest Sherlock Holmes actor of his time, William Gillette, to attend the dinner. Although well beyond his years as a stage heartthrob, Gillette remained a powerful presence in the minds of those who had seen his performance as Holmes over the last three decades. He was also a hero of Starrett’s, who praised Gillette’s performance and profile in the 1933 edition of TPLOSH.
And then came an inexcusable (according to some) decision on Starrett’s part.
Starrett says he was contacted by the unpredictable, highly volatile, and irrepressible Alexander Woollcott who wanted to attend the dinner, and Starrett agreed, without asking Christopher Morley. In a later piece for the New Yorker, Woollcott claims it was Starrett who invited him, an account backed up by his biographer, Samuel Hopkins Adams. Who invited whom remains a question down to today. Regardless, Morley was angered by the presence of the irrepressible Woollcott, who expected to be the center of attention at any event he attended.
On the afternoon of the dinner, Starrett dropped by Woollcott’s apartment and was stunned to find a party in full swing. “I supposed he had forgotten the Sherlockian adventure; but nothing could have been farther from the truth. The cocktail party went on to the last possible moment. Then Woollcott prepared to depart, leaving the guests in possession.”
Starrett claims Woollcott outfitted them both in deerstalkers and magnifying glasses, then raced to the street where he had hired two horse-drawn hansom cabs, the first of which dashed away without them.
“The first may be dangerous,” Woolcott called out as he pulled Starrett into the second cab, and then shouted up to the driver, “Follow that cab!”
Arriving just in time at Christ Cella’s, and after pushing their way through a knot of spectators attracted by their apparel, the two “climbed a narrow stairway to an upper room where another party was in progress. Except that there were no women present, it looked to me very much like the party we had just left. A roar went up as we entered in costume, and then…”
What happened next is up to whose account you believe.
Says Starrett, “I did not, as Henry Morton Robinson asserts, enter on all fours disguised as the Hound of the Baskervilles; and I did not at any time, as Woollcott records, read a paper pretending to prove that Sherlock Holmes was a Cambridge man.” (See the first note below)
Starrett, who had liberally consumed Woollcott's "sidecar" cocktails earlier in the afternoon, claims to have nodded off during the evening between Christopher Morley and Frederic Dorr Steele (I can’t imagine dozing with such company!).
And then, around 9 p.m., Sherlock Holmes entered.
“It was Gillette, of course, and when the uproar for him had died away the dinner went forward as planned.”
Papers were read and more toasts were given. If anyone had the energy for an after-party, Starrett does not say.
Is that the way it all happened?
Starrett never let the facts get in the way of a good anecdote, and there is no doubt his version got better as the years went by. There have been several who have questioned Starrett’s account and given their own versions, just as he has claimed other histories are imagined.
You can make up your own mind by reading more about that December dinner meeting in Irregular Memories of the ‘Thirties, published in 1990 by the BSI. The book is out of print, but you can contact your local used book dealer or hunt for copies when they turn up on eBay or Amazon.
As for me, I must dash.
There’s a cocktail party in full swing and I’m late.
“Follow that cab!”
The More You Know
- Woollcott's original account in The New Yorker, and the version published in Long, Long Ago Woolcott in fact says that Starrett, "rose to argue, from indices furnished by the ash of a Trichinopoly cigar and certain allusions in the record of the Gloria Scott case, that, wherever Mycroft Holmes may have gone to school, Sherlock has surely studied at Cambridge, rather than at Oxford." Woollcott also records his memory of Gillette's entrance: "But the dinner turned from a mere befuddled hope into a great occasion at that precise moment when, after a slight commotion in the wings caused by all the waiters trying at once to help him out of his wraprascal, there entered — vague, abstracted, changeless, and inexpressibly charming – an enchanting blend of slinking gazelle and Roman Senator, William Gillette, as ever was. At the sight of this, his most famous model, Frederic Dorr Steele wept softly into his soufflé and none of us, I think. remained umoved." Woollcott's domination of Gillette that evening was reportedly one reason for Morley's pique. (I want to thank Peter Blau for giving me a copy of the original article from The New Yorker. An earlier error relating to this point was corrected as a result. Thank you Peter.)
- Despite the unhappiness that Woollcott's presence and account caused for his friend Morley, Starrett remained an admirer of Woollcott's. In 1955, when Starrett selected The Best Loved Books of the Twentieth Century, he included Woollcott's collection of essays While Rome Burns and its posthumous sequel, Long, Long Ago. It is the latter book which contains Woollcott's account of the BSI dinner. (For the record, The Hound of the Baskervilles and Morley's Parnassus on Wheels also made Starrett's list. But that, as they say, is a story for another day..)