The Mystery of the Unknown Photograph
As Inspector Clousseau would have said, “The mystery is sol-ved.”
Those of you playing at home might recall that several months back, I came across this previously unknown (at least to me) photograph of Vincent Starrett. The picture sparked my Watsonian brain to make some deductions and a few well-placed guesses.
But there remained major mysteries to be solved and, like Holmes, I sat cross-legged on a pile of pillows smoking harsh tobacco well into the night until I came up with the solutions.
The truth is I had a few suggestions from others, made a completely useless discovery, and let the matter rest.
And there it sat until a few weeks ago, when a wonderful thing happened: I stumbled across the solution quite unexpectedly.
So sit back, grab a cigar from the coal scuttle and a glass of something stimulating from the tantalus.
One question was easily answered, but not by me.
A section of the photograph shows an Edgar Allan Poe statue (given by the Mystery Writers of America) sitting next to a small deerstalker that has been propped on some sort of device.
I wondered what object the deerstalker cap was sitting on, and Tim Greer answered it quickly enough.
The object is a lantern, of a type mentioned frequently in the Holmes stories. Tim was even kind enough to send photos of a lantern from his own collection. Many thanks for the identification.
So one question was answered.
Two mysteries remained.
- Where was the photo taken?
- What was the occasion?
The background in the photograph offered a tantalizing clue. It seemed like I had seen these hieroglyphics before. I hunted around the web for a bit and through a lot of hit and miss, realized the backdrop was a part of the famous Rosetta Stone. Here is a section of the Rosetta Stone.
The identification was interesting, but useless. Why was Starrett sitting in front of a blown up section of the Rosetta Stone? Was this at a museum or Egyptian-themed event? If so, why was Starrett signing books there?
And that’s where the whole thing sat until a few weeks back. As often happens, I was hunting for something from my collection, going through things from the shelves when I found this old copy of The Chicago Tribune’s TV Week magazine from April 25, 1964. On the cover with Starrett was Robert Cromie, who at the time was the leading book critic from the Tribune. I had purchased this magazine several years ago and recalled reading the story on the inside, describing the show that Cromie hosted on a local Chicago TV station. But I had forgotten the illustration that went along with the story. This is what I saw when I opened the magazine to Page 3.
And there it was. This was exactly the same backdrop that is behind Starrett in the photograph as he inscribes his book. Surely this is the same location. A few other pieces dropped into place. Compare the round table in both photos. And, more significantly, take a look at the circular ash tray that is in the Cromie photograph and compare it with the ashtray sitting to Starrett’s left. Surely they are the same.
Having the location also gives us a very good sense of the time frame. In my original post, I had theorized that this was a book signing for Starrett’s 1960 revised edition of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. But it now seems to have been taken four years later, when Starrett appeared on Cromie’s TV show, “Book Beat” in the spring of 1964.
Indeed, having placed the date and location, we can learn a great deal more. You see, audio from the television show “Book Beat” was included in the Wessex Press CD Starrett Speaks, created in 2012 and now sadly out of print.
Cromie is joined on the show by Starrett and Prof. Orlando Park, who was a long-time Chicago area Sherlockian and author of Sherlock Holmes Esq. and John H. Watson, M.D., an Encyclopaedia of Their Affairs. Park was an entomologist at Northwestern University, played in a Dixieland Band and in 1964 was preparing to retire from teaching.
It was Park who brought along his copy of the 1933 edition of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, among other books. And as the cameras rolled, Cromie noted that Park had asked Starrett to autograph his book. Here’s how it happened.
Cromie: “Prof. Park, I think you wanted to establish something about this book, make it a unique copy by having Vincent autograph it on the air.”
Park: “Yes. I regard Vincent as the leading Holmesian expert and if you would be good enough to autograph it Vincent —“
Cromie: “Now what is this, incidentally—”
Park: “This is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. First edition.”
Starrett: “Oh I see you have a copy of the real first edition, don't you?”
Cromie: “This is a book written by Vincent, of course.”
Park: “Yes, of course.”
Starrett: “They tell me this is very hard to find.”
Park: “Yes, I had a lot of trouble getting it.”
It would be nice to know where that copy of Private Life is now. What a lovely thing it would be to put on your shelf, with that TV show documenting its provenance.
The photo then, was likely taken after the filming had ended. (It would be difficult in those days to pose Starrett as above during the live show.) The picture shows Starrett signing a copy of the 1960 revised and enlarged edition of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which Prof. Park likely also owned along with the first edition from 1933 that was signed on the air.
One final note: Cromie’s TV show, “Book Beat” was sponsored by one of the largest bookstore chains in Chicago at the time, Kroch’s & Brentano’s.
Here’s a copy of Starrett’s book of memoirs, Born in a Bookshop, with an “Autographed by the Author” band from Kroch’s & Brentano’s wrapped around the dust jacket.
This copy was inscribed by Starrett thus:
“To Thomas Allan Dunn — / with Sherlockain greetings/Vincent Starrett/1 Dec. 1965”
And with that, the Mystery of the Unknown Photograph, is sol-ved.