Going to Graceland

The last book.

Vincent Starrett's headstone as it looks today in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago. I took this photo in October. Looking down from the top, the stone looks like a large book, with iconic images on both "pages."  Time and weather are taking their toll on this final monument to Starrett and his wife. I did not leave the pennies.

Before we move on to today’s topic, I want to let you know that there will be a request that you consider donating to a Starrett-related project at the end of this piece. The project is not my brainchild or responsibility, but I do support it and wanted to bring attention to it. I don’t normally use this blog for fundraising, but this is a cause I believe in and wanted to publicize. If you don’t want to be bothered by the request, I’ll let you know when you can stop reading.

A portion of the Graceland map that describes why it is so special.

While in Chicago a few weeks back I took a trip that I’ve been thinking about for more than 30 years: I went to Graceland Cemetery.

There are several notable Chicago leaders buried there (Allan Pinkerton! Ernie Banks! Cyrus McCormick! Marshall Field!) and less famous others have grave markers or mausoleums (mausolea?) that were fascinating to see. As worthy as they are, I wasn’t here for a stroll among the headstones.

I wanted to see Vincent Starrett’s resting place and, after getting lost for a bit, we found our way to the one gravesite I had been looking for.

There is a history to this stone, one that deserves to be told. The story of how it came to be says a lot about Starrett and the high regard his friends felt for him.

We stopped at the Graceland office and were given a copy of this card. Starrett is buried in the grave belonging to his wife's family, the Latimers.

When Starrett died he was penniless. His body was cremated and the ashes placed over the resting place of his wife, Rachel Latimer, who had died five years before. The plot in Graceland is, in fact, the Latimer family plot, as you can see from the document the folks at the Graceland administrative offices gave me during our visit.

Starrett’s funeral was not a “cast of thousands” affair.

There were a distressingly few number of mourners when Starrett was buried. He had outlived his wife, his peers and his fame. A few friends and family members were there to see him laid to rest.

While it is an honor to be buried in Graceland, there was little honor in the tiny marker on Vincent and Ray’s grave.

So in 1986, in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of Starrett’s birth, his friends and admirers got together and decided they would raise the money needed for an appropriate memorial to the great book collector, Sherlock Holmes lover and founder and Needle to the Hounds of the Baskerville (sic).

I was still a young Sherlockian lad in 1986, but had come to know Bob Mangler, one of the group’s movers and shakers in the project. The goal was to have the stone completed and dedicated in time for Starrett’s 100th birthday in 1986. Mangler sent me a note saying they were raising money for the stone.

I sent in an embarrassingly small amount of money, but it was a token of my respect for the man whose book, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, had introduced me to a group called The Baker Street Irregulars.

In January 1987, I was among those who received a letter from Mangler on behalf of the committee announcing they had done it! “In all, we received contributions from just over 200 supporters including individuals in England, Japan, Australia, Denmark and Canada.”

Nearly $7,500 had been raised, “almost exactly what was needed to cover the monument and expenses,” reports Mangler. He added:

“The monument to Vincent is black and light grey granite. Two of Vincent’s book marks were carved into the opened book pages. The inscriptions are “The Last Bookman,” a title often used in reference to Vincent; also “And it is always 1895” the last line of Vincent’s famous poem, ‘221B’ ”

An article from the Chicago Sun-Times of Monday, Oct. 27, 1986. The ceremony was also covered by the Chicago Tribune and UPI, United Press International. Laura Page, who was instrumental in the effort to get the headstone for the grave, is shown with the late Bob Mangler. Laura is now spearheading a drive to have the stone cleaned and restored.

The result was both handsome and wholly appropriate, even 30 years later. Standing there a few weeks ago I couldn’t help but be thrilled and deeply moved. I never met Vincent Starrett in life, and this was as close as I was ever going to get to him, outside of his own works. Standing there I remembered something Mangler had said to the Sun-Times reporter. “There are Sherlockians all over the world, and the name Vincent Starrett is magic to them."

I knew my little pilgrimage was neither the first nor will it be the last. Many have come here in the last 30 years and many more will follow.

Another photo of the headstone showing wear as it looks today. The Latimers grave marker is above the Starrett stone.

If you don't want to know about the current campaign to restore the headstone, you should stop here.

While at the 75th Anniversary Hounds of the Baskerville dinner in October, Laura Page made an appeal to wipe away the damage that weather has done to the headstone. She is raising $1,600 to have the stone cleaned, the gold leaf restored to the lettering, and otherwise bring the stone back to the way it looked 30 years ago. Anyone interested in making a donation should send their gift to: The Vincent Starrett Memorial Fund/Laura Page/Hounds of the Baskerville (sic)/ P.O. Box 5283/Madison, WI 53705.  The goal is to have the stone look like this once again.

Donors to the initial campaign received this photo showing the pristine stone.