A “new” Vincent Starrett photograph and the mystery that comes with it.
Here’s the thing about collecting Vincent Starrett: There have been so many who have come before me that it sometimes seems there is no new ground to explore. Charles Honce and Peter Ruber, Michael Murphy and Robert Mangler, Susan Rice and Karen Murdoch. All of these folks—and many others— have contributed to the literature of Vincent Starrett. And all of them have been uncovering so many items for such a long time, that it’s stunning to find something genuinely unfamiliar.
Which is why one little photograph has excited me so much.
Purchased from a dealer who would only say that it came from the collection of a mystery buff, the photograph seen here cannot be found in any of the usual Starrett publications. Oh, there might well be a copy in the underground cave at the University of Minnesota’s vast collection, published in some newspaper somewhere, or in another collection, but if it has been reprinted in the last 30 years, I can’t recall seeing it.
So that’s why we’re going to play with this single image a bit and see what we can deduce. Full disclosure: There is no writing or marks on the back of image, which appears to be an original print and not a photocopy.
You now have as much information as I do about the photo. So let’s play Sherlock Holmes and see what we can deduce.
When was the photograph taken?
For reasons I’ll explain later, I am suggesting that this was taken circa 1960, when Starrett would have been 74. Compare the above image with this other one, taken when he was 72. (See The More you Know at the bottom of this article.)
The glasses and the hair look about the same. Even the plethora of pens in his pocket is familiar. The two look enough alike to say the age estimate is close.
Starrett was certainly no older than 74 when the photograph above was taken.
(To get a look at him at 84, check out an earlier post.)
What book is he autographing?
I think we can find additional reasons to place the date at 1960.
Take a look at the book Starrett is autographing.
Now focus on the text on the inside dust jacket flap. At the top is a page with nine lines of text. Next comes a large block with (if my eyes are good enough) 18 lines. The final block has only three lines. The last printing on the flap is centered and only one line in length.)
I’ve looked at this closely and believe the book is the “revised and enlarged” 1960 edition of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
Here’s the inside flap from my copy. Take a look at the jacket copy, and count the lines of type if you want to do the comparison yourself. (Clicking on the image will make it larger and easier to read.)
And so, my dear Watson, based on the data at hand and drawing on an extensive knowledge of the subject, my conclusion is that he is autographing the University of Chicago's 1960 edition of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,
I wish I could tell you to whom Starrett is autographing the book. I’ve looked at the handwriting with a strong glass and the best I can do is “For Anita Aronoff.”
Or something like that. The other lettering is simply too blurred.
Where was the picture taken?
The location is much harder to deduce, since there’s so little information about the place. There is that oddly Egyptian-like backdrop. I feel like I should know that background image, but just can’t place it. It’s certainly odd, and whether it is a permanent image or one that was put up for some special occasion, I can’t say.
The only guess I can give is that this is someplace in Chicago. (I know that guessing is a shocking habit and harmful to the logical faculties, but with so little information available, guesswork is all we have to fall back on.) By this point in Starrett’s life, he rarely traveled outside the city. So until someone can tell me otherwise, I’m saying this was Chicago.
What was the occasion?
An autograph party might be in process. If so, Starrett came prepared.
He has at least five pens in his suitcoat pocket. That’s in addition to the ballpoint pen he is using. He also seems to have at least three cigars in that pocket, in addition to the one in his mouth. Speaking of cigars, notice the huge ashtray to Starrett’s left (our right). The ever-present ashtray: another symbol of a bygone era.
Look at the two items just in front of the book Starrett’s autographing.
The first is from the Mystery Writers of America. Starrett was named the second Grand Master of the MWA in 1958. (Agatha Christie was the first.) I’ve checked with the MWA and they say this is NOT one of their annual dinners, since those events are black tie and Starrett is nattily dressed in a suit. (By the way: I wonder who has the Starrett’s statue now?)
Shift over the left a bit and you can make out a little deerstalker cap. I can’t tell you what the cap is resting on, but it is certainly a reduced version of the cap Sherlock Holmes is most commonly associated with.
What books are on the table?
Now let’s look at the books on the table. Besides the 1960 edition of Private Life, I can positively identify two other books:
- The dust jacket on the book in the lower right hand corner is blurry, but is undoubtedly Seaports in the Moon, Starrett’s first piece of fiction to appear between hard covers. Compare that blurry image with the one from my collection and I think you will agree.
- More obviously, the book “above” Seaports is Murder on ‘B’ Deck, one of Starrett’s mystery novels. Not only is the book in dust jacket, but it also has the now –rare band around its middle. I’ve seen only one copy with that band, and that was in a private collection. (Despite my best efforts, I was not able to steal, er, obtain it.)
I can’t figure out the other books on the table. Without dust jackets and with only a blurry view of the cover of the one on top, it's difficult to sort out. They could be copies of Starrett's other mysteries. But who knows?
What can we conclude, Watson?
In light of the evidence at hand, I would venture to suggest that the photograph was taken during an autograph party for the 1960 University of Chicago's edition of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
Perhaps a Starrett collector came to the event to buy the book and to seek Starrett's signature on a lifetime of his work.
(Maybe if I hunted through the issues of the Chicago Tribune or Daily News, I might come across this photo, and then verify the supposition. But such a hunt would take far too much time.)
If you have other theories, I would like to hear them. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until then, I’ll take comfort in my guesswork by recalling these words:
“I don't insist upon it. No doubt I am wrong. And yet it seems to me to be suggestive.”
The More You Know
The photograph of Starrett at 72 comes from Peter Ruber’s book, The Last Bookman.