The story of his life

The mystery behind Starrett's bibliography.

The dust jacket to Starrett's memoirs, featuring the delightful "baby Vincent" cartoon.

There are times when I take months to research a topic, pull together illustrations and write a post.

Not this one.

It came together in hours.

(I hope it doesn't show any signs of haste.)

It came about this way:

I was rummaging through the online archives of the Chicago Tribune when I found a Jan. 4, 1953 column by Fanny Butcher, a longtime Tribune columnist. She first wrote about Starrett nearly 30 years earlier when she was the society columnist and Starrett charmed the ladies with bookish talk at a luncheon social.

Butcher wrote about Starrett off and on over the decades—she was the few among his contemporaries who outlived him and died in 1986 at the age of 99!

She always spoke of him with admiration and affection.

This time was no exception.

I know this clipping is a little hard to read, so I chopped it into three parts, with a transcription of each part, followed by some observations. (Note that I've changed the Tribune's use of "autobiografy" to the more common "autobiography.")

Part 1 of 3 from the Chicago Tribune for Jan. 4, 1953.

The Literary Spotlight
By Fanny Butcher

WHEN VINCENT STARRETT appeared recently as guest of honor at a luncheon given by the Society of Midland Authors, of which he is honorary president, he shared with his fellow writers some of the pages form the autobiography which he has been three years writing. . . .The problems of writing an autobiography are the same as doing any other kind of writing, he noted, and especially the writing of fiction, for a reader’s interest is the same in fact and fiction . . . . Publishing an autobiography is complicated by the thousands or so persons, none of whom, Mr. Starrett declared wryly, will buy the book but who will expect to find their names in the index. . . . He quoted a wise and witty old aunt of his (she sounded like a fictional character to most of his audience) who, when asked what her favorite autobiographies were, declared, Rousseau’s and Black Beauty’s.
Vincent Starrett, before he began reading excerpts from his autobiography, reminded his friends of a remark of Dorothy Sayers' incomparable detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, who insisted that one must “be careful not to let any damned modesty creep in”—which, Mr. Starrett declared, he certainly had not done in his life story.

    His Earliest Appearance in Print

THE STORY OF HIS BIRTH he called a highly immodest event but one which any autobiographer who had spent most of his life "wrapped up in print" would consider an appropriately dramatic start for his life. . . When he was born in Toronto on Oct. 26, 1886, he was, he said, taken for dead and wrapped in a newspaper and thrust under the bed, and it was not until some time later that he was spanked into life. "The Toronto Globe was my first garment in a strange new world," he said, "and I wonder if any of my colleagues can point to an earlier appearance. in print."

Starrett's autobiography received the star treatment from his paper.

A few observations on Part I:

  • It's 1953 and Starrett is well on his way to having completed his autobiography, a work that took him three years. Yet the book was not published until 1965, and not by any of the mainstream publishers but the University of Oklahoma Press. Why did it take so long to see print? And why a university press?
  • It's largely conjecture, but Starrett's manuscript was probably a very hard sell. While he had seen and met many of the great American writers of the early 20th century, his story is a highly episodic one. He was a reporter at heart and the book very much features a reporter's eye for anecdotes. (I suffer from the same malady.)
  • For a reading public of the 50s and 60s, the Chicago Renaissance was old news. New writers were making themselves felt in the world.
  • Butcher says Starrett warns he was not going to "Let any damned modesty creep in" to his life story. That might have also been a deterrent for publisher. Still highly respected in Chicago, Starrett's literary fame had cooled elsewhere by the 1950s. His mystery novels were no longer in print, and while a few of his Jimmie Lavender short stories were being syndicated, they were no longer in demand.
  • At 250,000 words, the manuscript is also too long, as we'll see in a later section.
  • The first anecdote about his ignominious birth is the same one that opens his book. For a former newspaper reporter like me, it always draws a smile.

Transcription, Part 2 of 3:

Despite Vincent Starrett’s look of a dignified English judge, complete with white wig (his great handsome mop of hair is pure white now), he can be wryly funny, as evidenced by that classic sentence.

Part 2 of 3.

H.L. Mencken was, he said, almost his first editor, the old Smart Set days, he relived for his audience the excitements of the time when for a writer to be “tapped” for the Smart Set was practically equivalent to an Englishman’s knighting. . . .But the earliest works he published were Sunday School pieces for which he received $6 apiece, and, he added, “I could still, if I got that hard up, do them.”
In his early newspaper days Vincent Starrett was called Charlie—his name in its entirety is Charles Vincent Emerson Starrett—and it was as Charley (sic) that his fellow newspaper men congratulated him on his first big story bonanza—$75 from Collier’s. . . .Then and there he decided to stop being a newspaper man and devote himself to short story writing, a profitable venture, he figured, which would pay him $75 a week—until Ben Hecht, his colleague on the Daily News, pointed out that no magazine could possibly use a story by the same man every week—a matter which had entirely escaped his calculations.

   Chicago Called the Literary Capital

IN SPEAKING OF the Chicago Renaissance to which H.L. Mencken once put the oft quoted label, “Chicago, the literary capital of the United States,” Vincent Starrett declared that Poetry magazine may just possibly have constituted the Chicago Renaissance, since everyone connected with any so-called Chicago literary movement wrote for it. . . .That label of Mr. Mencken’s, by the way, Vincent Starrett thinks was merely pulling New York’s leg .  . “He didn’t believe a word of Chicago’s being the literary capital of the nation.”

Everyland was one of those Sunday School publishing places Starrett wrote for early in his life for a quick $6 in the days when that could get you through a week. You can read more about the story in this issue here.

Observations on Part 2:

  • I can't help but think that Butcher carried a torch for Starrett. She often mentions his handsome profile, piercing eyes or prominent shock of hair.
  • Those Sunday school pieces ran in publications like Everyland and could have been an influence from his conservative Christian mother, Margaret Deniston Young Starrett, who frowned on her son's interest in pulp and eerie stories.
  • Just as Butcher used "biografer" for "biographer," so Starrett insisted in using "Renascence" instead of the more common "Renaissance."
  • Mencken's relationship to Starrett does not appear to have been "deep," but it was extensive, if a series of kindly rejection slips can be called that. Here's what Starrett says about the Sage of Baltimore:
"I have a nice little collection of his inspiring letters of rejection. Sometimes, to soften the blow, he would lay the blame on his associate. 'I'm really very sorry about this, ' he would write. 'Blame it on Nathan, a rank Presbyterian.' Or perhaps: 'I have made several attempts to convince Nathan that we ought to have this, but he can't see it that way.' Or he might say, 'I confess that Nathan's absurd objections to this admirable story begin to make an impression on me. Try us with something else.' "
  • Starrett's natural reporting style of writing, where he was hoping to get a wry chuckle at most out of his reader, also left Mencken cold. "I am sorry that this leaves me flat but such is the fact. We want rather more robustious stuff . . . . If you can think of any violent epigrams against leading dignitaries, let me seem them by all means."
  • Starrett desperately wanted to be in Poetry magazine and collected just as many rejections slips from its editor as he did from Collier's. He would later acknowledge that his verses weren't right for the publication, although he did succeed in being published there many years after the Chicago Renaissance had faded and the magazine's reputation as a kingmaker was long gone.

Part 3 of 3: Enter Basil Rathbone.

Transcription, Part 3 of 3:

The manuscript of his autobiography is 750 typed pages, and contains in the present unedited stage some 250,000 words. . .  It is, he declares, not a history of crime in Chicago but a history of culture in Chicago during his lifetime.
A special guest at the Midland Authors luncheon was Maxwell Bodenheim, returned, after many years, to live in Chicago, where he was first published by the late Harriet Monroe in Poetry.
When he stood to talk, Mr. Starrett held in his hand a manuscript which he assured his audience was not the one about which he was going to talk, but a new Sherlock Holmes play which he was reading for Basil Rathbone, who at that time was playing in Chicago . . . . A brief talk I later had with that suavest of British actors evoked some extremely interesting data for literary as well as drama enthusiasts. . . . Mr. Rathbone is the nephew of the great Sir Frank Benson, who inaugurated the Shakespeare festivals at Stratford on Avon and was head of the greatest of the Shakespeare repertory theaters. . . . When his cousin was killed in the first World war, Basil Rathbone became his uncle’s hear of the spirit, and from that truly cultured, deeply appreciative man his own natural interest in literature was intensified. . . . That the interest was inherited is evidenced by the fact that the Benson family was one of the most famous literary families in English history. . . .If they are not now so widely read as once they were, the essays of Arthur Christopher Benson, the theological apologias of Father Hugh Benson, and the incomparable and delicious novels of E. F. Benson were in their day in every cultured person’s thoughts. . . . E.F. Benson wrote two delightful books about all them called “As We Were” and “As We Are,” among the most charming of family chronicles.

Other Names Equally Stellar

Besides the writer bearing the magic name, there were cousins with other names equally stellar—Laurence Binyon, poet, dramatist, and art critic; Stephen Phillips, who was an actor in his cousin’s Sir Frank Benson’s Shakespeare company before he became a famous dramatist with “Paolo and Francesca”; and A.A. Milne, whose Pooh and Christopher Robin stories and verse for children have become classics.
Mr. Rathbone had just finished reading Frances Winwar’s “Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Nineties” and it had so stirred him, he confessed, to me, that he ad written three poems which he, however, modestly refused to share. . . .”I just write for my own pleasure,” he said, “and because I can’t help it. I did write two plays. One was an immediate failure—a play about Judas Iscariot, and the other, a dramatization of Dostoievsky’s ‘The Idiot,’ never got out of its manuscript.”
Basil Rathbone is living proof that in some blood there is an undeniable extra, sometimes undetected corpuscle—printer’s ink. . . .

Susan Dahlinger and Glen Miranker tell the sad but true tale of Basil Rathbone's play in the 2007 Christmas Annual for The Baker Street Journal.

Observations on Part 3:

  • 750 typed pages! 250,000 words!  No wonder publishers shied away.
  • The finished product, Born in A Bookshop: Chapters from the Chicago Renascence, runs considerably shorter and shows signs of having been chopped late in the production process. We get hints of what is missing by flipping through the index. There are references to footnotes that don't exist, people who are never mentioned, events that are absent from the main text. Page numbers to references that do exist in the text are unreliable.
  • Here's the part that bothers me most: If the bio was heavily edited late in the production process, where is the rest? I've talked with others who have tried the University of Oklahoma and various dealers who have sold Starrett manuscripts. All roads lead to dead ends. Additional work needs to be done here.
  • What stories of Starrett's life are we missing?  Could a few of the feature stories that showed up in the Tribune in the 1960s about Starrett's experiences as a reporter have been drawn from the unpublished material?
  • Butcher mentions Max Bodenheim being in the audience. I wonder who paid for his lunch. Bodenheim was a prolific poet whose dissolute lifestyle would lead to his murder a year after this column was written.
  • The Rathbone references are an unexpected pleasure. Surely the play Starrett references is the one Ouida Rathbone wrote and was produced to disastrous results in the same year this column was written. It opened on October 30, 1953 and closed the next day.
  • The full story of the play's history was described in The Baker Street Journal's Christmas Annual for 2007, written by Susan Dahlinger and Glen Miranker. And you can read the play itself in the Christmas Annual for 2013, edited and introduced by Nick Utechin. Both are essential for understanding the full import of Fanny Butcher's column, although reading the play is a painful process and reading it's back story is like watching a very slow train wreck.
  • In light of this, Fanny Butcher's final comment, "Basil Rathbone is living proof that in some blood there is an undeniable extra, sometimes undetected corpuscle—printer’s ink. . . .", deserves to be taken as a comment from an era when newspaper columnists were kinder and gentler.

The Rathbone play was published by The Baker Street Journal as its 2013 Christmas Annual, with an excellent introduction by Nick Utechin.