Sherlockian Memories

By Donald A. Yates (The Greek Interpreter)

I have just read Christopher Morley’s essay, “The Baker Street Irregulars”, which first appeared in The New Yorker over seventy years ago (December 29, 1934) and was later included under the heading of “Shouts and Murmurs V” in Morley’s Long, Long Ago (New York: Macmillan, 1943). The spirit of the B.S. I, as I have come to know it, is magically evoked by Morley in this essay. I recall that this same rollicking, pseudo-serious tone was somehow transferred intact to the gatherings of the Amateur Mendicant Society that I began attending in Detroit in the mid-fifties. That mood was lovingly evoked by Russell McLauchlin and Robert Harris, the group’s leaders.

In 1956 I presented a paper to the Mendicants entitled, “A Final Illumination of the Lucca Code”. Russ McLauchlin liked it and suggested that I submit it for possible publication in The Baker Street Journal, then edited by Edgar Smith. Smith wrote back that he wanted it for the magazine and I received a total of six two-cent postcards from him leading up to the essay’s publication later that year. Smith was extremely friendly, outgoing and encouraging, making me feel very welcome to the Journal’s pages, urging me to subscribe and putting in a plug also for The Sherlock Holmes Journal. The following year he enthusiastically accepted a crossword puzzle that I had constructed, based on The Hound of the Baskervilles.

When I moved from suburban Farmington, outside Detroit, to East Lansing in 1957 and resurrected the Greek Interpreters of East Lansing, which Page Heldenbrand had founded in 1945, I carried the style of the Mendicant gatherings with me and passed it on effortlessly to the faithful there who joined in our celebrations of Baker Street over the period of more than two decades.

I wrote Smith about the Intrepreters’ resuscitation dinner, and he wrote again, indicating that “As representing a full-fledge Scion, you are now eligible to send a delegate to the Annual Dinner”. Of course I went.

So in January of 1960, when I attended that first Baker Street Irregulars dinner in new York City, I discovered-perhaps not to my surprise but to my wonderment-a reverent and at the same time playful mood that was identical to that I had encountered at the gatherings of the Detroit Mendicants. We met that night at Cavanaug’s Restaurant, at 258 West Twenty-Third, where, as Edgar noted in my invitation, “the penalty is sixteen dollars, and the rewards will be out of proportion. Old Irregular Rex Stout will be the Gasogene’s chair.”

I have to say that association with the bright and witty people who share a singular regard for Baker street and its two most famous roomers has been one of the keenest pleasures of my lifetime. That night I met and talked with-among others-Edgar, of course, Rex Stout, Basil Davenport, H. W. Starr, Thomas McDade, Ernest Zeisler, Howard Haycraft, and Earle Walbridge. It was a wonderful evening: filled with the singular delights previously enjoyed in the company of the Mendicants, but now somehow raised to a more intense level.

I also met for the first and only time Page Heldenbrand, one of the youngest of the Irregulars, whose life was sadly so brief. It was he who had preceded me-as a student at Michigan State back in the mid-forties–as the founder and moving force behind the short-lived Greek Interpreters of East Lansing. The group met first in 1945 and thus qualified as the fourth or fifth group to be established in the U.S. It was, in any case the first of many academic scions to follow.

I had a long conversation that evening with Earle Walbridge, who, it turned out, was the curator of the library housed at the Harvard Club. I remember strolling with him afterwards as far as Gramercy Park, where he lived, engaged in a long chat about subjects Sherlockian. His gift that night was to make me feel as an equal among the luminaries I had rubbed elbows with at the dinner.

When in 1982 Joanne and I pulled up stakes and moved from East Lansing to St. Helena in California’s Napa Valley, we were greeted most cordially by Ted and Mary Schulz of San Rafael, and were welcomed to the gatherings of San Francisco’s scion, The Scowrers and Molly Maguires, which we have enjoyed for more than a quarter century.

In 1984, Joanne and I founded the Napa Valley Napoleons of S.H., a convivial group of Holmes admirers that thereafter came together four times a year to greet the new seasons and to try out a new restaurant each time. (I want to point out that we followed this program out of a desire for variety and not because we were unwelcome at dining establishments where we had raised a ruckus before (restaurants whose other diners never failed to be astonished when around our dessert time some forty or fifty souls suddenly broke out with ‘God Save the Queen.”) One highlight that stands out in my memory was our S.H.-to-the-third-power dinner-Sherlock Holmes in Saint Helena at Sutter Home, an occasion celebrated at the winery’s Victorian Mansion.

In April of 2004, our loyal members got together for dinner at St. Helena’s Pinot Blanc restaurant and that night lifted our glasses to the memory of twenty years of the Napoleons’ doings in our valley.

Now for a look back at my own beginnings. My introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes came in 1944 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when my mother bought for me-as a gift on the occasion of my graduation from Slauson Junior High School-the Doubleday edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I read through it, assiduously underlining significant passages, making marginal notes, keeping track of all of Holmes’s disguises, all the unrecorded cases, the official police figures participating in each adventure, and so on. Why I attacked the Holmes stories in this way, I do not know. I had never read anything else in this fashion. I suspect that I had become alerted to such particular features of Holmes’s universe in the head notes (composed by editor Fred Dannay) to the stories that were appearing in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which I had discovered in 1943. Another possible source for this fascination with the minutiae of the Baker Street scene was Ellery Queen’s (Fred Dannay’s) anthology, The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes (wonderful title!), published in 1944, along with two other books devoted to Holmes-Edgar Smith’s Profile by Gaslight (evocative title)-and Christopher Morley’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: A Textbook of Friendship, both also published in 1944. Somehow, at age 14 I was able to dig up the money and I bought all three of them.

These books were the cornerstones of the large collection of Sherlockiana that I assembled over the years, including Doyle first editions (English and American) of all the Holmes adventures (except, of course, for the Beeton’s appearance of A Study in Scarlet), many bound Strand magazines with Holmes tales, many works of criticism, complete runs of the Sherlock Holmes Journal, The Baker Street Journal, The Baker Street Miscellanea and other periodicals, and a signed and inscribed copy of Doyle’s autobiography, Memories and Adventures. I received my Titular Investiture in the Baker Street irregulars at the January, 1972, dinner. It was Will Oursler who proposed me (which was the way things were handled in those days). When I heard him read the credentials for the recipient of the Investiture of “Mr. Melas”, I said to myself-being totally unprepared for this honor-“That sounds a lot like me.” And so it was. Later, when the Investiture of “The Greek Interpreter” became available, Julian Wolff, at my request, withdrew “Mr Melas” and bestowed the former title on me.

I have made many contributions to Sherlockian magazines-poetry, essays, articles, scion reports, obituaries and book reviews. At the B.S.I. dinners I have offered toasts and read papers and poetry composed for the occasion. And over the years I have enjoyed lasting friendships with many Sherlockians, one of the earliest of which (and most fondly remembered) was my acquaintanceship with Vincent Starrett of Chicago whom I visited on numerous occasions when my travels took me to that city. Cherished mementos of my decade-long association with him, one of the last great bookmen of the century past, are his handwritten letters, a signed photograph and a holograph transcription of his immortal sonnet, “221B”, with a dedication to me. It stands alone as the most prized and meaningful symbol of the pleasure I have taken from a life-long and unflagging admiration for Sherlock Holmes and enduring devotion to the saga of Baker Street.