It was 20 years ago that John Bennett Shaw passed beyond the Reichenbach. That hardly seems possible.
When I get together with a bunch of Sherlockians, I sometimes look around the room and wonder how many could thank John Bennett Shaw for our affiliation to this mad hobby.
At the same time, there is a whole generation of Sherlockians who never had the good fortune of meeting the Sage of Santa Fe.
So, even though there will be no talk of Vincent Starrett in this posting, I couldn’t let the anniversary of his passing go by without a few thoughts.
My interactions with John started in the mid-1970s, when I was an undergraduate at West Virginia University. I had discovered there was a Sherlock Holmes society in town and pitched a story to the student newspaper about this odd group. The editor agreed and I made an appointment to interview the local District Attorney, Andrew G. Fusco, BSI. Andy said he could give me 20 minutes. Two hours later, I left with more than enough material about Holmes, an invitation to the next meeting of The Scion of the Four, and the address of John Bennett Shaw. “If you’re going to be a Sherlockian, you need to know Shaw,” said Fusco.
I wrote to John including a copy of the newspaper clipping of my interview with Fusco. Shaw wrote back a few days later, and said he was adding me to his list of correspondents. “I have an active correspondence with at least 125 Holmesians in all parts of the world. What a delightful bunch they are. Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Oklahoma, Colorado, Albuquerque, Los Angeles . . . Amazing!” *
In the days before the internet made world communication as easy as typing, John Bennett Shaw WAS the Sherlockian internet. He seemed to know everyone in the Holmes world and was eager to make sure that newbies hooked up with others to build a base of friendship and fraternity.
In light of recent kerfuffles, this is important: John was a big tent Sherlockian: He was no elitist, and encouraged everyone who displayed a sincere knowledge and interest in Holmes. That doesn't mean he liked all Sherlockians – but he even encouraged those he didn't particularly like.
I discovered that John and I had a few things in common. Our bookish pursuits had both started in childhood, although he was much advanced over me in the collecting world. “I have always (i.e. since say 10 years of age) been a reader and a collector. … I got a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles at that time and have been hooked since.”
Hooked was a mild term. John was obsessed with everything dealing with Holmes. I recall once buying a few Holmes-related books published in Canada from a local dealer for Peter Blau, another great collector and a great friend of John's. John found out about the book and quickly dropped me a note: “I want very much, both for copyright review reasons and because of my mad collecting, the two books I saw that you got for Blau. I enclose my check which in amount will cover, I believe, the cost of the books and postage. I thank you in advance.”
It wasn’t so much a request as it was an order.
Our relationship was a corresponding one until 1980, when I attended John’s Sherlock Holmes Conference at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa. I distinctly recall pulling up to the parking lot at the conference site and seeing John standing there, as big as life, clearly waiting for someone else. Attempting to be clever, I hopped out of my car and went up to him: “You have lately been in Santa Fe, I perceive,” I said.
Shaw squinted at me with his good eye and chuckled. “I might be brown as a nut, but I have never been as thin as a lathe,” he said in reply. We both laughed as my perplexed wife stood by. I introduced myself and marveled at John: He not only had a bolo tie with a Holmes emblem holding the two ends together, but a Holmes belt buckle which strained to hold back his Mycroftian bulk. He took me by the arm and started introducing me to others like a long-lost nephew.
It was thrilling.
I had missed the first Shaw conference in Notre Dame, but made it to subsequent Shaw conferences at Berry College in 1983; Minneapolis in 1984 and Stevens Technical Institute in Hoboken, N.J. in 1985. We even sponsored our own Shaw conference in Williamsburg, Va., in 1987. It was exhausting, demanding and HUGE amounts of fun. We expected 100 people and had to close registration at 200! The reason for the conference was the 100th anniversary of A Study in Scarlet. But the draw was John Bennett Shaw.
One memory remains alive: It was at Duquesne and I was still very new to the Holmes world. I had sat in the shadows watching John move about, working the room like a Chicago politician. And then there he was, towering over me. “Are you doing anything after dinner?” he asked. “A few of us are getting together for drinks in my room. Come join us.” I followed him up and met John’s long-suffering but devoted wife, Dorothy. I sat on the floor of their suite and luxuriated in the camaraderie. The bad puns, the gossip, the spontaneous book reviews. (“I told the editor I would do a review of the book only if he let me use the word ‘craplicated.’ I did not do the review, but I think the word fits.”) It all filled my head with joy.
I was home.
We continued to correspond. And when I was invited to the Baker Street Irregulars dinner in 1985, it was John I went to see. I will never forget laying eyes on him in the lobby of the Algonquin hotel, sitting in a chair like a king on a throne, a drink in one hand and an ever-present packet of materials in his other.
Surrounding John were people just like me: scattered Holmes fanatics who had been brought together by this affable, odd, lovable fellow.
As anyone who took one of his devilish quizes could attest, John loved puns.
I took great pleasure delighting him with a double dose of punnage while at his conference in Hoboken. John had asked for someone to help put a chair on the stage for the next speaker. I carted a chair up and set it next to John.
"Would you consider this an act of chair-ity?" I asked to a chorus of groans.
"You might," John said. "I wouldn't."
"It only makes sense," I said retreating from the stage. "After all, chair-ity begins at Holmes."
Our corresponding friendship continued, even as John's health prevented him from traveling. For several years, as Ely Liebow and I roomed together in New York over the birthday weekend, we would call John the morning after the BSI dinner and catch him up on the news and the gossip. He may have been kept back in Santa Fe by his health, but John was certainly present in spirit. I think he felt better after getting those calls. I know I always felt better after hearing his voice.
Going to New York for the BSI dinner after John's death simply wasn't the same. The empty chair in the Algonquin lobby was like Tiny Tim's corner in the Cratchet home.
For years after John died I would see a Holmes-related article in the paper and reach for the scissors thinking: I must send this to Shaw. I admitted this to Ely, and he said the same thing had happened to him. I wonder how many others had a similar experience.
Were he still with us, I think John would be amazed by the current Sherlock Holmes movement. The internet has drawn folks together in ways he never dreamed of, and I am also convinced that the latest generation of "Sherlock"-ian influenced fans would have delighted the old boy.
Though they might not know it, these new Sherlockians owe a lot to John. His conferences were the predecessors to today's "cons." John also pushed for a greater role for women in the Holmes world, paving the way for groups like the Baker Street Babes.
I’ll end with this: John never turned down a reporter’s interview request and was frequently asked why Holmes remained so popular over the decades. “Holmes is loyal, he’s smart and he’s someone people can look up to,” he would say.
I wonder if he knew there were more than a few of us who thought of him in the same way?
There’s a lot more to say, (ask me about the Holmes chocolate bunny some day), but that’s enough for now. I invite others to talk about their experiences of John below in the comments section.
The more you know
There is much more to know about John Bennett Shaw.
For example, his magnificent Sherlock Holmes collection was donated to the University of Minnesota. You can find out a lot more about John and his collection here.
John was also influential in the admittance of women to the Baker Street Irregulars. The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes have more to say about John here.
You should also track down the December 1990 issue of The Baker Street Journal. It's one of the rare festschrift issues, and it was dedicated to John.
* NOTE: All of the quotes from John come from letters to me, unless otherwise noted.