There are dozens of photographs of Vincent Starrett, but only one has taken on icon status.
Let's trace the history of this image through the decades. Before we begin, let me say I'm certain I am missing appearances and would love to know if you've seen it somewhere else, or have more information on the various incarnations.
Here we go.
Taken by Chicago portrait photographer Don Loving, the original image had its original book appearance in Starrett’s 1933 seminal work, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The dustjacket flap shows him in his homburg, chomping on a long cigar (ash intact), deep in a warm overcoat with lapels wide enough to help the owner take flight. (Compare this coat with the one he’s wearing in the bottom left image here.)
The image is more than just a photo of the writer. It represents what Starrett wants you to know about him.
He is 1930s Chicago Style personified: dapper, handsome and perhaps a bit dangerous. He stares right at you with a look that is both confident and completely at ease with this persona. "I might be a writer," the photo says, "but don't mess with me. I know people."
Loving must have been proud of the image, because he signed it in the lower right for its use here.
Loving was a Chicago portrait artist of some renown. According to his biography at Luminous-Lint Don Loving was born in Missouri in 1902, briefly studied at Northwestern, and apprenticed himself to a local photographer for four months before moving to Chicago, where he worked at a number of local studios. It was during this period that he likely took this photo of Starrett, then an up and coming poet, writer and bon vivant in the Windy City.
I can’t say for certain where the photo first appeared. It’s possible that it was sent out with a press release about Private Life, but that’s just a guess. If anyone knows of an earlier appearance in print, let me know.
By the way, as I was putting this post together, fellow Starrett admirer Steve Doyle mentioned that he had a copy of the original photo hanging on the wall of his library. He kindly snapped a photo of the framed original and here it is.
Steve purchased the photo from a dealer who had picked it up from a Chicago newspaper that was getting rid of its photo archives. He saw it listed as part of a larger lot in a auction catalogue and snapped it up!
The photo Steve bought had already been cropped to the roughly square size you see here.
What’s wonderful about the original is the level of detail that you don’t see in other reproductions. If you click on the image, it should come up in a way that will let you enhance the size so you can see what I'm talking about.
Check out the depth of the felt in the homburg and overcoat. You can practically feel the texture of both garments. And look at the rings in the cigar ash.
You will also note that the full homburg was in the original photograph, but was cropped out when printed in the Private Life. The band on the hat alone must have been two inches tall. It reminds me of a citified version of the classic Stetson cowboy hat.
One things for sure: Starrett knew how to wear an outfit that would draw the eye.
The next step for the image is a dramatic one.
The photo has been transformed into a woodcut-like image by one Mathew Zimmer. (Does anyone know anything about Zimmer? I’m having a hard time finding information on him. I can't find anything about him online or in Sherlockian-based materials. Any details you have would be appreciated.)
It's an extraordinary image. And it clearly comes from the photo as it was cropped for Private Life's dustjacket. Notice that the hat is cropped off and the overcoat is there in it's full glory.
Zimmer has captured the elegance and allure of the original photograph, while adding new texture and shading. There's a stronger shadow under the hat's brim, hiding a portion of Starrett's prominent ear, which now seems less dominant. And the coat's texture now pops off the page, adding substance to the garment, which now could be a rug!
Starrett's visage has evolved too. The look on the his face becomes more of a provocative stare, with a hint of "You talking to me?" bravado.
It’s unclear when the Zimmer image was done or why, but its first publication in book form that I can find came 8 years after the photograph appeared in Private Life.
Charles Honce uses the image as the frontispiece in his 1941 bibliography, A Vincent Starrett Library.
Like all the other images in Honce's book, it’s printed in blue.
I can't explain why.
It just is.
Zimmer’s image has been used many times over the years.
Let's look at just a few.
Here’s a reproduction of an item attributed to the University of Minnesota’s vast Sherlock Holmes collection.
The reproduction was done by Bruce Southworth, BSI, for the 1991 Irregulars dinner. That’s a remarkable lineup of signatures: W.S. Hall, Frederic Dorr Steele, Edgar W. Smith, Rex Stout, Christopher Morley and Earle F. Walbridge.
It must have been signed before 1944, because that’s when Frederic Dorr Steele passed away, the first of the group to go.Note that the quote below the image is different than the one from Honce’s book.
I wonder when the original was done and why.
Perhaps one of you know?
Another unusual iteration of the Loving/Zimmer image was this lapel pin.
I purchased it in 2015 (with the help of Steve Rothman) from Dick and Francine Kitts, BSI. She recently told me it came from the collection of Bob Thomalen, BSI. That’s some provenance. There's a bit more about the pin and here.
I like wearing it to BSI weekend events and other Sherlockian occasions.
Loving’s original photograph must have been found in several newspaper morgues, because it was hauled out again in 1974 as writers paid tribute to their fallen colleague.
Here it adorns an essay by Michael Murphy, who, as you can see, complains about the editing and headline, in a note to Fridolf Johnson. Johnson was a longtime friend of Starrett's, and created Starrett’s bookplate.
One more tidbit:
Don Loving, who did the original photo, also shot this image of a middle-aged Starrett. Unlike the earlier photograph, this one eschews hat and cigar. Starrett's prominent shock of white hair replaced the homburg, his wool suit a less dominant garment than the overcoat.
This photograph was used in several books like Autolycus in Limbo and Starrett’s only children’s book, The Great All-Star Animal League Ball Game. There's more information about the book, and its famous illustrator, here.
I’m certain Loving’s photo and Zimmer’s image were used in many other places.
If you know of one that I’ve missed, or have more information about Zimmer or anything else on this page, feel free to drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org