Rachel Latimer and Vincent Starrett: A Love Story
I’ve been putting this off for a long time. Here’s why.
I never met Vincent Starrett, but I have read a lot of his writing and read a lot of what he said about himself and what other people have said about him. While that’s not the same as writing about someone from life, there’s a lot of material about the man and the general picture of Vincent can come into view. I know I've made mistakes in some places, but I also feel pretty confident of what I've said about Vincent.
Ray is different.
Rachel Latimer, whom Vincent called Ray, was a school teacher when Vincent met her. She was beautiful and enamored of the writer. But there exists very little information about her.
Vincent only mentions her in his memoirs and is as elliptical about her as Watson was about Mary’s Morstan’s death. There are bits and pieces in letters and libraries and from these can be knit together the outlines of their relationship.
Except for these few details, Ray remains an attractive enigma. I hope someday to find out more about her.
Until then my quandary remains: It is fair to write about someone about whom so little is recorded?
And yet, no study of Vincent would be complete if it didn’t have information about Ray.
What I do know for certain was that they were very much in love.
But theirs was not to be an easy kind of love.
When they met, Vincent was married to Lillian Hartsig, although they were estranged. As is sometimes the case with Vincent (and Watson), he is vague about the time frame for this comment from his memoir, Born in a Bookshop. But it gives you an idea of what his life was like when he met and secretly dated Ray.
“Marital companionship had gone glimmering by this time, I regret to say, and Lillian and I had quietly separated. Neither of us were happy about it, but at the time it had seemed the thing to do. I had begun to think of myself as a failure; and I recalled Stewart Holbrook’s shrewd observation: 'Girls should think twice before marrying newspapermen, who usually die leaving them about two dollars.' It seems to apply. Meanwhile, life had to go on—although sometimes I wondered why. If anyone was to blame for the split, it was I.”
That’s a pretty stark admission.
Vincent would eventually get a divorce from Lillian, but it was neither easy nor inexpensive. Lillian was Catholic and fought the divorce despite their separation and her unhappiness. Starrett went to Reno, then Europe, hoping to find friendly divorce laws, but it was not to be. He eventually sold a portion of his collection to raise funds for the settlement.
These were difficult years for Vincent and Ray. She was a school teacher and any sign of moral indiscretion would damage her reputation and her career.
Here is what is clear: When Vincent came into a little money by selling his plots to Hollywood, he and Ray were sufficiently an item that they traveled around the world together. They ended up in Peking where they joined the ex-pat colony of American and British writers and ne’er-do-wells. It was the happiest time of their lives.
When they came back Vincent discovered he was broke (again) and so began to furiously write short stories, nonfiction pieces and a new novel based on their Chinese period first called The Laughing Buddha but later retitled, Murder in Peking.
It was also during this period that Ray suffered a nervous breakdown, in 1939. If Vincent hoped that their marriage in 1940 would help Ray’s mental health, he was wrong.
Ray would become especially anxious if she through he was going on a trip. She was afraid he would not return to her.
Vincent was regularly invited to meetings of the Baker Street Irregulars in New York. Both Christopher Morley and Edgar W. Smith pleaded with Vincent to travel from Chicago to New York. It would have been an easy train ride along the Hudson River Valley, but after 1934, he never went again.
I have conjectured elsewhere that by 1942, a combination of genteel poverty and Ray’s fragile health made it clear to Vincent that he would never go to New York to be with the Baker Street Irregulars. As a result, he and a small group of friends created the Hounds of the Baskerville (sic), the group he often called the Chicago Irregulars.
It was the closest Vincent could get to the BSI without alarming Ray.
Ray died in 1969, just five years before Vincent. There is a handwritten memory of her in the archives of the University of Minnesota written by Vincent. A catalogue by the University of Minnesota for a 1989 exhibition of his work describes it as a four page typescript, "heavily corrected in his hand." It is a tender love letter, which was reprinted on page 10 of the booklet. Accompanying the description is a photo of a very young and lovely Rachel Latimer, which appears as the icon for this column.
Here is his description of her:
“I cannot recall the exact circumstances of our meeting, but I can recall the way she looked. She was of small stature but soft and full and she had brown hair touched with a sunburned richness of red, and rather seductive eyes, as blue as Wedgewood, a small slightly uneven nose, a strong chin and somewhat downcast mouth. This falls short of describing her: I have devoted my life to threading words into a fabric of communication and find the facility woefully inadequate to convey the liveliness, the vibrance of her personality and the luxury of her eyes.”
For now, let us leave it here.