“Cordially, Elmer Davis”

delivered at the annual dinner of The Five Orange Pips,

October 29, 2008, Williams Club, New York City

I have been a busy bunny this year: follow-through from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Life in Letters’ publication late last year — our daughter’s wedding — things to be done for the paperback editions of Life in Letters — editing a new anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories by mystery writers, now gone to press — even taking the Orient Express from Paris to Constantinople. All without giving useful thought to my paper for tonight.

    Fumbling about for a topic finally, I first intended to relate the story of the Pip who didn’t bark in the night-time. But I decided that that must await another year, after some unpublished letters from Elmer Holmes Davis to Vincent Star-rett, written between 1933 and 1944, came into my hands — Disjecta Membra, to cite the title of this collection of documents in my BSI Archival History series, more stray scraps of Irregular history.

    So, unable as always to refuse my harsh mistress Clio, I decided to share these letters with you instead, with some remarks upon their historical significance.

    They came from the vaults of the University of Minnesota Libraries, after I had written, for the Sherlock Holmes Collections newsletter, an appreciation of Elmer Davis, who died half a century ago this year. The issue is out, and perhaps you have read the item. Its redoubtable editor, Julie McKuras, likes to link each topic to the Collections, and a search there turned up these letters, which were not among Starrett’s papers which I went through quite a few years ago now. “Education never ends, Watson.”

    Elmer Davis was one of the most accomplished Irregulars, even in that era when accomplishment was more common in the ranks. Classically educated, he drew on his very considerable learning to rise to the top rank of American newsmen and authorities on European affairs, and then to make a strong contribution to victory in World War II, when another Irregular named Franklin Roosevelt plucked him from CBS News to run the new Office of War In-formation. I have only five letters to discuss this evening, some of them but brief notes, but none of them are without points of interest. We shall begin with the last, and travel back in time before there even was such a thing as the BSI.

    The latest letter, dated December 13, 1944, was written from Davis’s home at 1661 Crescent Place, N.W., Washington D.C. — a fashionable address, I once toured it. He was running the Office of War Information, and we thought the war against Hitler close to won. Davis could not know that in three days the Germans would launch the massive surprise counterattack called the Battle of the Bulge, our bloodiest battle in the European Theater before it was over in late January ‘45. This seemed instead a time to relax, it was nearly Christmas, and Starrett had made Davis an honorary member of The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic) of Chicago. “Dear Vincent,” he replied, “I’m honored to be numbered among the hell hounds. Not being a tobacco chewer I can’t say that I drip at the jowls, but when I am sufficiently annoyed my rumbling howl resounds across the moor like the booming of a hundred bitterns; so perhaps I can qualify. My salutations to the rest of the fiendish pack; who, I hope, will be able to prove that Bertie McCormick is really Stapleton, escaped from the Grimpen Mire.” McCormick was the arch-isolationist, FDR-hating publisher of the Chicago Tribune who had zealously supported Thomas Dewey for President in the previous month’s election — and was also Vincent Starrett’s employer.

    The next letter, dated January 31, 1944, is on Office of War Information note-paper, with Davis, much pressed for time those days, signing with his initials.  This was not a relaxed time; it was, instead, very tense for those involved with the war’s direction. D-Day was still some time off, but by now it had to come, everybody knew, sometime fairly soon. The Anzio landings had taken place just the week before, and the fighting underway in Italy made it clear that invading Nazi-occupied France would be no picnic. And upon its outcome hung victory or defeat.

    Davis may to have been inside the small circle in Washington D.C. who knew the target date for D-Day, but he betrayed no anxiousness. “Dear Vincent,” he began, “thanks for the rarest of editions.” He was thanking Starrett for one of the mere thirty copies of a new “Sherlockiana” leaflet from the hand press of Starrett’s friend Edwin Hill of Ysleta, Texas — this time an item by Davis himself, his Constitution & Buy Laws for the BSI, originally published in the Saturday Review of Literature in February 1934.

    At our 1998 dinner, I related how that Constitution was amended surrep-titiously over the years — a process I called illegal, immoral, and fattening, or something like that* — and I mentioned this leaflet’s existence. I’d forgotten about it by the time I had this letter of Davis’s, but what excited me was something else. You may recall that in a different year, I spoke about the origins of Elmer Davis’s Constitution & Buy Laws. After lengthy research, and a false step or two, I had concluded that Davis had based it on an earlier one for a by-then defunct, never very material, sodality called “the Friendly Sons of St. Vitus,” and I traced that chimera back to a colorful but unknown episode in Davis’s life when he was a cub reporter for the New York Times.

    In this 1944 letter to Starrett, Davis went on to say: “I don’t think anybody will sue you inasmuch as the other persons who collaborated with me in the ‘Friendly Sons of St. Vitus’ which served as a model for this one are all deceased.” I am greatly pipped at having confirmation of my thesis in Elmer Davis’s own words. I was not guessing before — nothing quite that destructive of the logical faculty, I assure you — but I was surmising. Now the force is with me, the force of conviction. Like Mr. Sherlock Holmes in The Six Napoleons, I shall rise and take a bow.**

    The third letter is on Columbia Broadcasting System letterhead, from New York, dated June 18, 1942. We’d been in the war six months by then, and it was not going well. And Elmer Davis’s punishment for complaining on-air about how Washington handled war news was seeing himself appointed director of an Office of War Information coming into being in July. Starrett had written to congratulate Davis; Davis was not so sure congratulations were in order. “Pray for me,” he begged Starrett: “John Clay was recognized by the knees of his pants. Before long I may be recognizable by the seat of my pants.” He foresaw what being drafted into the trenches of bureaucracy meant.

    Here, I confess to a slight bit of embarrassment. Elmer Davis spent three years as director of OWI, and while he could not have had any firm idea in June 1942 how long the war would last, he surely did not expect a new Thirty Years’ War, matching the time that I spent in the trenches of bureaucracy at the Pentagon. I shall not say whether, in hindsight, I found his foreboding true for me. I do advise you that it’s no use looking at the seat of my pants tonight to find out. This is not the tux I wore in the diplomatic hours of my work in Washington. That one’s gone, for in those days I had less seat to shine. Now it’s the back of my pate that shines instead.

    The next letter came from Elmer Davis’s summer home on Mason’s Island at Mystic, Conn., but only the second page has survived, so I don’t know the pre-cise date. I suspect it was during the summer of 1935, the way it looks back fondly but not distantly at the BSI annual dinner held on December 7, 1934. “Don’t apologize for being goggle-eyed at the Sherlock dinner; we all were,” Davis told Starrett. From that wording, it seems the notion of the BSI itself was not that firm yet, and in fact there was no second annual dinner in 1935. Not until the following year was there another — and that one was the last for four years more. In the second half of the ’30s, it was The Five Orange Pips who kept the memory green in New York.

    But Davis and Starrett were charmed by the dinner at Christ Cella’s, and I was glad to see the lie given to Robert K. Leavitt’s lifelong insistence that the presence of Alexander Woollcott that night had been uninvited, unwanted, and unpleasant; for Davis — an older friend of Morley’s than Leavitt, he and Morley having been Rhodes Scholars at Oxford together in 1911 — took up merrily with Woollcott. “Woollcott and I,” he told Starrett, “got to the point of plotting a joint book, I to edit it, he to finance it, on which we did a lot of work before we discovered it was just one of these ideas consequent on too many cocktails.”

    “Too many cocktails” is an unfamiliar concept for Irregulars of that day, and we must regret their lapse. Elsewhere, Starrett has recorded that Elmer Davis greeted him at Christ Cella’s with a highball in each hand, and that’s more the proper spirit. That spirit, sustained by periodic refreshings, would have given us a volume of Holmesiana by Elmer Davis and Alexander Woollcott: something for the ages, and lost, lost because of the curse of sobriety! We are the poorer for it, and the BSI itself might have taken a different tack had they produced that volume for devotees in the mid ’30s, a time when Morley, and not the last time, had lost interest in the BSI. The BSI might have become less fannish, more cerebral, more gentlemanly, something more like — well, like The Five Orange Pips.

    “The next time you come to New York,” Davis concludes his letter, “lay aside a lunch hour for me. Harpers or the Saturday Review will always have my address.” But Starrett never visited New York again, not even for the BSI annual dinners from 1940 on which Edgar W. Smith implored him to attend.

    The fifth and earliest letter, written from Davis’s home at 90 Morningside Drive, New York City, just off Columbia University’s campus, is the first one Davis wrote to Starrett, whom he had not met in person. Particularly pleasing to me is that it is a reply, dated December 6, 1933, to a holograph letter Starrett had sent Davis three days before. That letter of Starrett’s I found long ago among Davis’s papers at the Library of Congress, and included it in Disjecta Membra in 2001. With your permission, I shall first read Starrett’s letter, thanking Davis for the glowing review he’d given The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in the December 2nd, 1933, issue of the Saturday Review of Literature:

Dear Mr. Davis –

    Hearty thanks for your gorgeous review of my Holmes volume – a notable contribution to the exegesis of the legend. I read your own inferences and suggestions with huge delight – particular those bearing upon Watson’s second marriage – and I am sending a copy of the Review to [S. C.] Roberts by this post. Incidentally, I do not for a moment doubt that Watson married for a second time; I merely doubt Roberts’ notion that he married Miss de Merville. I intend to write again about Watson’s marriages (H. W. Bell, by the way, argues for a third one!); and just now I am greatly enamored of your own happy suggestion anent one of those Forrester girls. But I wish you would develop all of your ideas at length, and let us have a monograph. I suspect that you are the man appointed to do the Freudian research into the love lives of the precious pair.

    Are you acquainted with T. S. Blakeney’s Sherlock Holmes—Fact or Fiction? It came to me too late for anything but passing mention, but it is a stimulating work. And Bell’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson? Bell, by the way, is a New Yorker – 28 East 63rd Street – and a capital fellow. You would like him. He is editing a volume of Baker Street Studies for spring publication (Constable, London), for which I shall do a paper on Mrs. Hudson. I should like to see you in it.

    Should you ever get to Chicago it would be a pleasure to show you my Holmes collection – it is, I think, unusually good. I too regret the loss of your Abdoul yellow-back; for if you still had it, I should endeavor to get it out of you.

    Some day I shall attempt as complete a bibliography of the subject as possible. I have many notes that had to be omitted from the present one. Against that day, I shall be grateful for any references that you care to send me.

Again, all thanks, and all good wishes.

Sincerely, Vincent Starrett

“Dear Mr. Starrett,” Davis wrote in reply,

  You’re very generous in acknowledgment of a review which was mostly my own stuff rather than comment on yours – for which the only excuse is that your book after all was a collection, and if you’d written the whole volume about the private life, I’d have tried to stick to my sheep. I’m only an amateur in these researches, and haven’t read most of the works you mention. But I must; and also get into contact with Bell.

    That the second Mrs. Watson was one of the Forrester girls is only a guess, of course. (Could Cecil S. Forrester [sic], the English novelist, be a younger brother? I don’t think he’s old enough to have been in the nursery in Mary Morstan’s day.) But all the evidence indicates that it was somebody who knew about the first marriage and insisted on some-thing different. And I am afraid that this explains the disappearance of that famous tin dispatch box deposited in the vaults of Cox & Company. Dr. Watson, I’m afraid, is now deceased; his effects, presumably, were inherited by the widow; and unless I misread the second Mrs. Watson, she would conclude that these old papers might as well be sold to the junk man. Qualia artifacta perierunt! The one I most regret (aside perhaps from the strange affair of the cutter Alicia) is the singular adventure of the Grice Pattersons in the island of Uffa. I don’t know where or what Uffa is, but it sounds like a place where you might have very singular adventures.

   Anyway, this later marriage (or marriages, if Bell is right) will certainly repay further research. Everyone must be struck by the contrast between the proud fullness with which Watson recounts his romance with Mary Morstan and his very singular, not to say ominous reticence about his second marriage. I have adopted the most charitable interpre-tation; the evidence is open to others of a darker sort. Watson, you might suppose, would be the last man in the world to contract a mésalliance, social or moral; but if he did contract it you may be sure he would be very reticent about it. Any old reporter would feel that there is an odor here as suggestive as that which must arise from the Wynnekoops’ back yard.

    I usually get to Chicago once a year or so, and the next time I shall probably inflict myself on you to look over your collection, if you don’t object.


Elmer Davis

    In these two letters from 1933, two urbane and humane gentlemen shake hands across a shared love of Baker Street. They were both born in the Victorian era, Starrett in 1886, Davis in 1890. They grew up on the tales as they appeared in print for the first time, in a land that, if not Holmes’s England, was the America Conan Doyle eagerly toured in 1894, giving his Readings and Reminiscences, when they were children. Later as youths they watched William Gillette tread the boards as Sherlock Holmes, and Frederic Dorr Steele record his likeness for posterity. Davis and Starrett were Irregulars before there was a BSI, for it is in hearts and minds that Baker Street Irregularity actually exists.

    They knew the world before it went all awry in 1914. That world in which they’d grown up, and loved for its sense of peace and security, was gone by 1933; these letters were written while postwar passions were stirring in Ger-many, and the Great Depression held America in its discouraging grip. But no matter what befell as years went by — not even when another and worse World War came on — they kept true to the devotion that first brought them together. So must we all; so we shall.


“Abdoul yellow-back”: in his review of Starrett’s Private Life, Davis had written: “this reviewer purchased in 1912, at a Constantinople bookstall chiefly devoted to histories, in the language of Æschylus and Thucydides, of Mpouphalo Mpil and Nik Karter, a yellow-backed volume entitled ‘Abdoul Chamit Kai Serlock Cholms,’ whose subsequent loss is an enduring regret.”

“Wynnekoops”: Davis refers to a current Chicago murder case, in which the near-naked corpse of 23-year-old Rheta Wynekoop had been found November 21st on an operating table in the basement of the Monroe Street mansion of her mother-in-law, Dr. Alice Wynekoop. The elderly Dr. Wynekoop, who had resented her beautiful daughter-in-law’s marriage to her spoiled ne’er-do-well son Earle, was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. She was paroled in 1949 and died in 1952.

* This 1998 Pips paper became a chapter in 2009’s “Certain Rites, and Also Certain Duties” in the Archival History series, and may be read here.

  1. ** Both these earlier Pips papers, about the BSI losing track of its own constitutional toasts, and the source of Elmer Davis’s Constitution & Buy Laws, were published in final form in this writer’s “Certain Rites, and Also Certain Duties” (2009).

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