We Always Mention Aunt Clara by W. T. Rabe

Old Soldiers of Baker Street, 1990; 35 pp., $10.00 p.p.

Of all the Gentlemen Songsters who have entertained the Baker Street Irregulars over the years, none is more fondly recalled than the late Jim Montgomery of Philadelphia. And of all Montgomery's creations and renditions, the song “We Never Mention Aunt Clara” has attained classic status in Irregular circles. So perfectly does this song about an unrepentant and very successful hussy from New Jersey capture the saucy essence of Irene Adler, The Woman, that Baker Street Irregulars and Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes sing it with equal gusto. And it does not surprise me that many Sherlockians today believe that Jim Montgomery did have an Aunt Clara, and that he wrote this ribald song about her.

    While I don’t know whether or not Aunt Clara actually did embarrass his family tree, the fact of the matter is that “We Never Mention Aunt Clara” was not written by Jim Montgomery, who first heard it sung at Philadelphia’s Orpheus Club sometime in the mid-’Forties. No doubt he saw its Sherlockian potential at once, for he sang it in his fine tenor voice for the Baker Street Irregulars for the first time in 1947, and related the legend of his Aunt Clara in his famous paper Art in the Blood in 1950. But “We Never Mention Aunt Clara” was actually written Christmas Day, 1936 (under the influence of strong drink), by a young Philadelphia couple named Ruth and Eugene Willis, with no knowledge of Irene Adler to speak of — just of her type. Over the next twenty years, without any serious effort by the Willises, the song was like a stone cast into still water; its ripples spread further and further, sometimes with its original music, sometimes set to a different tune, finally crossing the Atlantic several times in war and peace, and acquiring a lengthy, diverse, and striking list of devotees. Like Irene, the song, it turns out, has quite a “Past” — a much longer and more complicated one than any of us had imagined.

    A few people began to suspect this several years ago, when little things began to surface, such as a 1951 magazine ad for Springmaid sheets which adapted the song to the company’s purposes (“The Deb Who Defied the Conventions”), and credited the Willises. But while most of us, Watson-like, merely wondered, Bill Rabe, that old shikari of the BSI, acted, and this magnificent publication is the result. Rabe has done literary detective work worthy of the Master himself, compiling a detailed and profusely illustrated account of the history of “Aunt Clara” before and after Jim Montgomery introduced the song to the BSI. Of Rabe’s various publications over the years, this is surely his masterpiece, and a bargain at the price. So do not be deceived by the fairly short page count, and order this book.

    A footnote (Education never ends, Watson): One episode of the song’s troubled history related by Rabe was when the lyrics, set to different music, were privately published in 1947 with copyright in the name of Carlos Kelly. An apocryphal-sounding name, but Gene Willis tracked him down several years later, and Kelly turned out to be a quite respectable businessman and the brother-in-law of the late Nelson Doubleday, a scion of the publishing company (and not coincidentally, the American publisher of Sherlock Holmes). Doubleday, Kelly explained, had been very taken by the song when he heard Kelly sing it one day, and had insisted on arranging it for private publication.

    Perhaps the reason why Nelson Doubleday was so taken at once with the song was that he was able to discern the Irene Adler in “Aunt Clara” — for he had been a close friend of Christopher Morley, and (Morley told Edgar W. Smith after Doubleday’s death) one of the original Sherlockian members of Morley’s Grillparzer Club in the early ’Thirties, before there even was a BSI.

(Jon Lellenberg, in BSM 63, Fall 1990)

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