The mystery of the first Mrs. Starrett
It started with a newspaper clipping, a single paragraph that fluttered out of a file folder and onto the floor. The folder contained correspondence between Starrett and, later, Mike Murphy with one of Starrett’s oldest friends, Fridolf Johnson. Loyal readers will remember it was Johnson who created the famous Sherlock Holmes bookplate for Starrett. And now this one graph that says so much and yet tells so little was something that Johnson had clipped and kept.
It’s a shame Johnson and his wife are gone. They might have helped resolve some of the intriguing language of the divorce announcement that appeared on page 12 of the March 23, 1940 Chicago Tribune. For example:
Why was Starrett no longer living in Chicago?
Why had he moved to New York?
And what became of Lillian Hartsig, Starrett’s first wife?
For that matter, who WAS Lillian Hartsig?
So many questions, so little information.
We can piece together a few items with a little help from our friends, starting with Julie McKuras, whose ability to unearth personal details must mean she’s a former (or current, it’s hard to tell) FBI operative.
Lillian Hartsig was born on Dec. 29, 1886 in Michigan, the daughter of Lewis Wheeler Hartsig and Nellie McFarland O’Hara.
She married Vincent Starrett on April 21, 1909 in Chicago.
The two were divorced (see above) in March 1940
Lillian died on Jan. 1, 1968 in San Diego, California.
And there you have it. The very bare bones of a life.
Marriage to Starrett
We can fill out the picture just a little more, I think.
In his memoirs, specifically page 73 of Born in a Bookshop, Starrett recounts first meeting Lillian:
When I first saw Lillian Hartsig she was thumping a piano merrily. She turned long enough to acknowledge the introduction, smiled pleasantly, and went back to her playing. She played admirably. I did not instantly fall in love with her, but not long afterward I was “going with” Lillian Hartsig and, although I did not then suspect it, the first important change in my life was impending.
The engagement notice from the March 29, 1909 Chicago Tribune is, as was the custom for non-celebrities, brief. The Hartsigs must have moved from Michigan to Chicago’s Oak Park/Austin neighborhood, since their address is listed as 422 North Pine Avenue, Austin.
Also note that Starrett used his formal name, Charles E. (for Emerson), and not Vincent, which was the name he used as a reporter, poet and fiction writer.
On the day of the wedding, the following appeared in the Tribune for April 21, 1909:
A few observations:
“Both of the young folk have been prominent in musical circles of the village.” That fits nicely with Starrett’s account of he and Lillian having met in the local choir.
Who was Willis H. Pate, Starrett’s groomsman? He doesn’t rate a mention in Starrett’s memoirs. There was a Willis H. Pate who played for the Cleveland Indians at the time. And I have found a death notice for a Willis Hill Pate who died at age 69 on Sept. 29, 1953 at his home in Pentwater, Michigan. That might argue that he was a friend of the Hartsig family, who had Michigan ties. But that’s a guess, and you know what Holmes says about guessing.
There’s no mention of the Starrett family participating, and it’s interesting to note that neither Starrett’s brother nor sister had a role in the wedding.
One wonders what the “bridal trip through the east” consisted of. In his memoirs, Starrett writes that getting sent by the paper to cover Washington during World War I several years later was “sort of a belated honeymoon” for Lillian.
Wedding notices later popped up in both the Tribune and The Chicago Inter Ocean. where Starrett was once a reporter.
Starrett himself makes light of his wedding day, setting it into the context of his work at the Daily News. Noting that he had just gotten a raise and . . .
it was enough, just barely enough, for me to marry on. I resumed my campaign against the red-haired piano player, which never had seriously lagged, and at length persuaded her that we could make a go of it. Even so, it was the hot summer of 1909 before Lillian Hartsig and I were married. Although the ceremony was at night (Daily News editor Herbert) Durand good-naturedly gave me the whole day off to get ready. My colleagues also took the tidings without shock, but warned me that I would live to regret my rash action.
A Happy Marriage. For Now.
There is one brief note that showed Lillian having fun in Starrett’s newspaper world, coming the winter of their first year together. Lillian was the accompanist for a holiday event hosted by the Chicago Women’s Press Club.
Things seem to go well for the two youngsters. Starrett was starting to make a living with his non-newspaper writing and in 1916 gave up the daily news business to bang on his typewriter at home. It was a risky idea, giving up a guaranteed paycheck for the hope of a sale.
“Lillian believed in me completely, I think. I can still remember the pride and awe in her voice when she called her mother on the telephone one evening and said, almost before she said hello, ‘Charlie got eighty dollars for a story today!’ I didn’t hear her mother’s response, but it was properly incredulous.”
And, in a scene that predicts how Holmes collectors and their spouses would interact for decades to come, Starrett’s book buying was clearly a point of discussion.
“(M)y books were all but pushing me out of the apartment. They were in every room in the place, and Lillian had warned me that she would leave me when I began to keep them in the bathtub.”
Speaking of books, Starrett dedicated a thin booklet of poetry, Rhymes for Collectors (1921 by The Torch Press of Cedar Rapids, Iowa) “To My Wife/One of the Characters in this Book.”
After going through the baker’s dozen of verses, it’s tough trying to sort out which one is Lillian. The only wife mentioned is the shrewish one Rip Van Winkle was napping to avoid.
Perhaps her identity in his verses was a secret for only those two.
‘If anyone was to blame for the split, it was I’
Starrett’s books were not the only problem on his hands. By the mid-1920s, his writing sales were not strong enough to support the two of them. And less than a decade after they were wed, the two were now living apart.
“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.”
Starrett had to do something to make money and what he did was at least as depressing as his failing marriage: He sold a large portion of his collection.
The final nail in their marriage came when Starrett fell in love with Rachel Latimer, whose role in his life has been discussed earlier. To be with Ray, Starrett needed to divorce Lillian and with the laws of the time making this difficult, he had to find a solution.
A Painful Divorce
Karen Murdoch, whose exhaustive book, Sherlock Alive: Sherlockian Excerpts from VS’s Book’s Alive Column in The Chicago Tribune, 1942-1967, has a most useful chronology. On page 462 of Karen’s book, under the year 1940, she notes the following:
January–March, VS establishes residence at Lone Star Ranch in Reno, Nevada in order to obtain a divorce from his first wife, Lillian. The divorce is granted March 22 in Reno. On September 3, VS married Ray Latimer, in Wheaton, Illinois. VS takes up residence in a top floor apartment at 3749 North Freemont Street, on the North Side of Chicago. His days of frequent apartment changes are over. He would live here for the next thirty years.
Karen’s quite right about Starrett’s inability to put down roots and she notes considerable address changes in 1938. After he and Ray had returned from their two-year around the world trip, he would shift from Chicago to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin and then to Lyndhurst, New Jersey, the home of fellow poet and friend Thomas Kennedy. He might have spent some time in New York too, as the notice at the top of this post would indicate.
Part of this roaming could have been an attempt to find a state with friendly divorce laws that would help him sever ties with Lillian so he could marry the insecure Ray.
Like so many others of the time, he eventually headed for Reno, which in the 1930s had become the nation’s divorce capital. Divorce was still frowned upon by many, who nevertheless snickered when a neighbor went West for the “Reno Cure” or what Walter Winchell called getting a “Renovation.” The state of Nevada only required that you be a resident for six weeks before it would stamp your divorce application. Starrett put down temporary roots.
The notice in this section records the filing for divorce published on Feb. 17, 1940. A follow-up notice in the Reno paper dated March 22 notes the divorce decree was granted.
By the winter of 1940, Starrett was back in Chicago for Ray and for good.
Fading from View
After that, the pubic record for Lillian grows very sparse indeed.
Julie McKuras once again comes through by discovering that Lillian Hartsig died on Jan. 1, 1968 in San Diego. She would have been 72, and the last 30 or more years of her life are a blank. There is no obituary in the San Diego or Michigan papers that I can find. I have also never been able to find a photo of Lillian.
According to Social Security records, despite the divorce, she retained her married name until the day she died.
A final thought: I don’t feel that I’ve done Lillian justice in this post, and that saddens me. If there is anyone who knows anything more about her, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to be able to properly fill in her life’s record. Thanks.