A gift of pearls for this holiday season, courtesy of Vincent Starrett
Imagine if you will a Chicago bar, circa 1966. It’s late at night, a few days before Christmas. A string of holiday lights is fighting to be seen through the cigarette and cigar haze, and a jukebox is churning out Brenda Lee singing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
The bar’s back table has its usual collection of newspaper reporters, magazine editors and wannabe poets telling stories. Sitting in his accustomed spot is Vincent Starrett, who takes advantage of a lull in the discussion to ask, “Did I ever tell you about the Christmas Tree ship that used to pull up every years at the Clark Street dock?”
The men (in those days, it was always all men), smiled indulgently. The tale is one of Starrett’s favorites and they’ve each heard it innumerable times, but Starrett’s role as dean of the table’s collected scribblers affords him an indulgent audience. And so he begins.
“Every time I cross the bridge over the Chicago River at Clark Street I think of the Christmas Tree Ship I used to visit as a young reporter, more than fifty years ago. It had been coming to Chicago since 1887, deep laden with a fragrant cargo of green, snow-powdered evergreens from northern Michigan for the holiday trade. . . .”
And Starrett was off, delighting his audience and doing what he does best: tell stories that amuse, mystify and entrance.
We will never sit at that table, but we can do the next best thing: Read and revel in a string of pearls magazine article from a talented. story teller.* (See The More You Know, below.)
Vincent Starrett was a master of the string of pearls feature. His command of the form was never better displayed than in his holiday feature for Gourmet magazine’s December 1966 issue. The general theme was Christmas stories and Starrett called up several from memory.
He started with the Christmas Tree Ship, which he visited in the early years of the 20th century. “The Christmas season really didn’t arrive until the Christmas Tree Ship tied up at Clark Street,” he recalled. When Starrett was writing about the ship, it’s captain was Herman Schoenemann, who took over the business in 1898 after his brother’s ship went down in a storm.
“Covering its arrival was my favorite Christmas assignment; probably I started to report the event as early as 1908. Usually I began my visit with a glass of Christmas cheer with Captain Herman in his cabin and we discussed the perils of the deep as if Lake Michigan were the Atlantic Ocean.”
Sadly, Captain Herman followed his brother’s path in 1912. “For two weeks I and other newspapermen of the period waited for a ship that never came in.” Starrett , then a cub reporter at the Chicago Daily News, remarked to his managing editor that the disappearance of the ship and 50,000 trees would make a good ballad.
“Why don’t you write it?” his editor said.
And so Starrett struggled through the day to compose “The Ballad of the Christmas Ship.” It started thusly:
This is the tale of the Christmas Ship
That sailed o’er the sullen lake,
And of sixteen souls that made the trip
And of death in the foaming wake.
Starrett’s friend Harry Hansen later wrote: “It may never challenge the efforts of youthful orators as often as ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus,’ but the legend is just as moving and the intentions of the poet were as good as Longfellow’s.”
There are four other pearls or anecdotes here, in an article that spread over seven pages. I'm going to look at two: one because Starrett (dubiously) claims it’s from his family’s history, and the other because it involves Holmes and Watson.
Have you ever seen a elf?
Starrett’s Scottish grandfather claimed he did, in a holiday-themed tale that has echoes of Arthur Conan Doyle's fascination with sprites and fairies.
Starrett recalls of his grandfather: “Because I never tired of hearing it, he told it frequently at my request, and usually managed to suggest that he had seen the thing happen, when he was a boy himself.”
Here’s the tale, in summary:
A few days before Christmas, a farmer finds an elf nearly frozen in the field. He takes the little fellow home, gives him milk and warms him up. The elf was silent, but played about the house and the farm family continued to treat him well.
Then, on Christmas Eve, there was a ghostly calling in the wind: “Colman Grey! Colman Grey!”
“At once the tiny creature sprang up and found its voice. 'Ho ho ho,’ it cried, ‘my daddy is come!’–and flew through the keyhole and never was seen or heard of again.”
It’s a delightful little story, and was not limited to Starrett’s family. Here’s a version from Jersey Folklore and Superstitions, Vol. 2.
Starrett also reprints a brief dialogue between Holmes and Watson which he had written several years before. It was first published in his "Books Alive" column in the 1950s, then separately in 1960 as a holiday gift for his friends. Monologue in Baker Street was printed by Fridolf Johnson, whose long friendship with Starrett included his now-legendary bookplate.**
There is no mystery to be solved here, merely a tour de force, with Holmes describing in great detail the various steps which lead the detective to seemingly read Dr. Watson’s mind. While inconsequential in substance, it is a tribute to the friendship of Holmes and Watson at this special time of year. And it does have a fun bit of banter between Watson and Holmes:
(Dr. Watson:) “You are uncanny, Holmes. A few centuries ago you would certainly have been burned as a wizard.”
“Perhaps I was,” said the great detective. “Who knows?”
Which concludes Starrett’s notable pearls and leaves us only enough time to wish each of you the “Compliments of the Season.”
The More You Know
Back in the mid-1970s, I was a journalism student at West Virginia University. I well remember a lesson from Harry Elwood about a type of news story that was once popular in magazines and Sunday newspaper supplements: the string of pearls feature. You picked out a theme or person or incident and then strung four or five anecdotes together and viola: instant feature story.