Off Topic: Ely M. Liebow

An old friend and one of the most entertaining storytellers the world has ever known.

A photo of Ely from the back dust jacket of his book, Dr. Joe Bell: The Model for Sherlock Holmes.

“You remind me of a story.”

Those might not have been the first words Ely ever said to me, but they were certainly the most frequent and the most welcome. For most of his professional life, Ely was a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, an expert in Yiddish humor, medieval literature, detective fiction generally and Sherlock Holmes specifically.

But his great joy was telling elliptical stories that were always gentle observations on the complexities of the human spirit.

I can still hear his soft, low voice, see his sweet smile playing on his round face, his hands clapped together like he had just seen a dog dance the ballet.

“Have I ever told you about Mrs. Tietlebaum and her son at Coney Island?” Not waiting for an answer, he would launch into the tale that would end with everyone around the table laughing amid tears of joy.

It’s hard to believe we won’t be hearing those stories again.

Ely was born in 1924 and was raised in in Hyattsville, Maryland, not far from Baltimore. He grew up in one of a handful of white Jewish families in a largely African American neighborhood. His family ran a little store, with the white customers coming in the front, while the black patrons would use the alley that lead to the back door. That’s where Ely hung out.

“I grew up in that alley in those lazy, hazy Maryland days — playing baseball and learning how to snare sizzling grounders that came at you over rocks, sand, and ashes.” He also was keenly aware of the disparities between his family and those with whom he would play baseball. Whether serving in a medical unit on Guam during World War II, or marching in Selma in 1965, Ely paid attention to life's inequities, and was a quiet seeker of justice.

And yet it was his extraordinary optimism, coupled with a wide range of knowledge leavened with a good dose of irony that made him one of the best storytellers on the planet. It didn't hurt that he had the quick wit of Groucho Marx, the timing of Jack Benny and P.G. Wodehouse's ability to invent just the right phrase.

After the war, Ely got his bachelor's from American University, a master's in English literature from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in 18th-century British literature from Rutgers University.

He settled in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park and over the decades made a name for himself in Sherlockian circles. Ely made his way to Sherlock Holmes through Henry Fielding, who organized the Bow Street Runners. From Bow Street, it was a small step to Baker Street, and Ely became a devoted Holmesian. He belonged to Hugo's Companions and The Hounds of the Baskerville [sic] in Chicago, and in the last few years had started a Holmes group at NEIU. In 1979, he was invested as "Inspector Gregory" in the Baker Street Irregulars, and received the Two Shilling Award in 1991.

It was no surprise that Ely was honored with a double shilling.  He had certainly earned it for his masterful biography of the man whom Arthur Conan Doyle acknowledged as the prototype for Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes, published in 1982, brought Edinburgh's most famous surgeon into focus for his first full-length biography. It wasn't the only Holmes-related book Ely published, but talking about it years later, he said the book brought him tremendous satisfaction for several reasons.

First, it gave him the opportunity to travel to Edinburgh and get to know that great old city, where he was warmly welcomed. (It was Ely’s delight in visiting Edinburgh that helped spark my own desire to see the city, something that Joan and I did last summer. Ely was right. The people there are warm and welcoming. The Scotch whisky isn’t bad either.)

Second, it gave him the chance to add detail to Bell's life for those who knew him only through his association with Conan Doyle. But in many ways, the deepest satisfaction came from being able to dedicate the book to the four women in his life: his wife, Phoebe, and his three daughters, Wendy, Cynthia and Franette. He had read the Holmes stories (and many others) to the girls as they grew up and always considered the Bell book a kind of family project.

Ely gave me a snapshot of the late John Nieminski manyyears ago to prove that he and I looked somewhat alike.

I spiraled into Ely’s orbit shortly after he lost one of his good Chicago Sherlockian friends, John Nieminski, “Abe Slaney” in the BSI. The two had been members of The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic) and Hugo's Companions, two of the long-time Sherlockian societies in Chicago. John was also one of the sparking plugs behind The Baker Street Miscellanea, a fine quarterly journal that started in the 1970s and lasted for nearly 20 years. 

“You remind me of Nieminski,” Ely said to me early in our relationship. He clearly meant it as a compliment, and that's how I took it.  I’ve seen photos of John Nieminski and there is a slight physical resemblance.

And while I never had the pleasure of meeting the man, I think John and I shared a delight in listening to Ely talk about anything and everything in his wry, humorous fashion.

David Morrill and Ely Liebow in our Hotel Algonquin Room in the early 2000s.

As time went on, Ely and I found ourselves as roommates over Baker Street Irregular weekends.

For the better part of the decade, we would hang out together during the weekend, sometimes in the Blue Bar at the Algonquin with Steve Doyle and Mark Gagen, or down at Pete’s Tavern in Gramercy Park with Dave Morrill (who was often the “third” in our room), Don Yates and Michael Kean.

I remember always having a silly grin on my face during those evenings.

I just could not stop smiling. It was the Ely Effect.

We corresponded in between Januaries, and on rare occasions, had the good fortune to see each other outside of New York. In 1987 and again in 1991, Ely was a speaker at the Sherlock Holmes workshops sponsored by The Cremona Fiddlers of Williamsbsurg. Ely stayed in our little home for a few days before the conference in 1991.

We talked books, shared our recipes for making French Toast (stale French bread and adding a drop of vanilla to the eggs was, we agreed, the best.) and generally enjoyed a relaxed time together.

Ely inscribed his "Bell book," (as he called it) for me while visiting our home in Williamsburg before the 1991 Sherlock Holmes conference at the College of William and Mary.

I have tried over the years to retell one or another of Ely’s stories. I always fail. I am not the natural storyteller he was and have come to realize that in trying to emulate Ely, I leave the listener thinking, “Well, it was funny, but it wasn’t that funny.” And they would be right. Anyone who tells one of Ely’s stories is destined to be a mere shade of the original.

I lack the Ely Effect.

Ely died of pancreatic cancer in 2007 at the age of 82. Speaking at his service, Rabbi Dov Taylor, recalled that even on his sickbed, Ely was trying to make others smile.

“Just a few days ago he told me one of his favorite (jokes). He could barely speak but he wrote it on a pad and still took obvious pleasure in the telling. A Jew is hit by a car and is lying in the middle of the road. A passerby rushes over, removed his own jacket, folds it and places it beneath the injured man’s head. 'Are you comfortable?' he asks. The man replies, 'I make a living.' ”

Cheers, as Ely would say.

NOTE: In this posting, I’ve included some information that I wrote for Ely’s obituary in The Baker Street Journal.