“Dear Starrett--”/“Dear Briggs--”

co-edited by John Nieminski and Jon Lellenberg

Published 1989 by Fordham University Press, 128 pp.

Out of Print.

When we began, we wanted to begin quickly, and fortunately had the main body of a first volume already at hand. John Nieminski (“Abe Slaney,” BSI), my fellow Baker Street Miscellanea co-editor who had died at the end of 1987, had recently transcribed a body of Irregular correspondence owned by Minnesota bookdealer Stephen Stilwell, who gave us permission to make a book out of it. This correspondence, written over 1930-33 between Chicago newspaperman Vincent Starrett and St. Louis physician Gray Chandler Briggs, covered the entire making of Starrett’s book The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, without whose publication it’s questionable whether Christopher Morley would have brought the BSI into being just two months later. (It was also Starrett’s book that revived Edgar W. Smith’s boyhood enthusiasm in 1936, and directed him first to Starrett, then to Morley, and into the BSI.) This was Ur-geschichte, to be sure, but Ur-geschichte of the highest grade, the ore out of which the BSI and its scholarship was forged.

     We also had a ready-made publisher, George Fletcher (“The Card-Board Box,” BSI), who as director of Fordham University Press was al-ready publishing the Baker Street Journal, edited by the redoubtable Philip Shreffler (“Jefferson Hope,” BSI) who was eager to give a BSI history series the push in print it needed. George published the first three Archival History volumes until he left Fordham U.P. to become the Astor Curator of Printed Books and Bindings at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, after which the next two volumes were printed by Sheridan Press of Hanover, Pa.

        So we had John Nieminski’s transcript of the correspondence, and it was a comfort to know that John had been a perfectionist when it came to proofreading and correcting copy. To it I added another half dozen letters pertinent to the subject matter (one, from Starrett to William Gillette dated February 24, 1930, in facsimile as a sort of frontispiece), an article about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes that Baker Street Miscellanea by published by the recently deceased Irregular, collector, and scholar Bliss Austin, several other accompaniments, and some twenty-eight pages of introduction and notes by myself. We brought it out in red covers deliberately reminding of the Irregular anthologies produced by Edgar W. Smith in the 1950s, and it was enthusiastically received by the BSI and other Sherlockians.



“Ears Attuned to Catch the Distant View-Halloo”

“Dear Starrett—”/“Dear Briggs—“

Letters between Vincent Starrett & Gray Chandler Briggs

Appendix A

Two letters by Briggs to the press

Appendix B

Three letters by Vincent Starrett to others

Appendix C

“Sidelights on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

by James Bliss Austin


“Ballade” by Walter Klinefelter

Notes on the Correspondence

“These Relics Have a History, Then?”

Final Words

“An Open Letter to the Baker Street Irregulars”

by Vincent Starrett



“Ears Attuned to Catch the Distant View-Halloo”

This exciting collection of Irregular correspondence between Vincent Starrett, of Chicago, Illinois, and Gray Chandler Briggs, of St. Louis, Missouri, brings vividly to life two very remarkable figures in the Baker Street Irregulars’ history. We are most fortunate that it has been preserved. It was written over several years, more than half a century ago, in the era prior to the Baker Street Irregulars: the correspondence opens in March 1930 and, but for one undated postcard from mid-1934, closes in December 1933 just a few weeks before Christopher Morley in New York brought the BSI into being at the January 6, 1934, gathering at the old Duane Hotel.

    Today Vincent Starrett is much the better known of the two men. For one thing, he was among us much longer than Dr. Briggs. Starrett died in 1974, at the age of 87; Briggs, only four years older, had died years before, in 1942. Both men were in their mid-late forties when they first began to correspond about Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, but Vincent Starrett was still writing about Holmes in the early 1970s.

    Pages and pages could be devoted to Vincent Starrett, but it should suffice here to remind Irregular readers of a few details about his life and career. Vincent Starrett was born in Toronto on October 26, 1886, and moved with his parents to Chicago at an early age. In time he became personally associated with that city’s literary life. Journalist, critic, writer, and bookman, Starrett, along with Ben Hecht, Carl Sand-burg and others, participated in the so-called Chicago Renascence of the 1920s, whose history is largely recorded now in Starrett’s memoirs, Born in a Bookshop (1965). He lived hand-to-mouth in London in 1904-06, soaking up Holmesian atmosphere, before returning home to start his newspaper career at the Chicago Inter-Ocean. Over time he worked for most of Chicago’s lively newspapers, serving in 1914 and 1915 as a war correspondent in Mexico, where he was shot and wounded, and broke the story of Ambrose Bierce’s disappearance. He spent two years as a correspondent in China in the late 1930s,* followed by a tour of literary Europe on his way home. The 1940s were immensely productive for him, and he became recognized at home and abroad as one of America’s finest literary critics, as well as a novelist in his own right. One London reviewer called him one of the most civilized minds of the 20th century. Eventually he became a fixture at the Chicago Tribune, especially for his weekly “Books Alive” column. Author and editor of hundreds of books and articles, Starrett died in Chicago on January 5, 1974.

    Like others his age, Starrett had been a devotee of Sherlock Holmes from youth; both of Conan Doyle’s stories, which were still appearing at the time, and of the stage dramatization by William Gillette, the most compelling Holmesian presence of the early 20th century. Starrett wrote his first word on the subject in 1917, a review of His Last Bow entitled “In Praise of Sherlock Holmes,” which appeared in the long-gone paper Reedy’s Mirror. He sent a copy of the review to Conan Doyle, and got a pleasant letter in reply, as he did a few years later, in 1920, when he sent the creator of Sherlock Holmes a copy of his privately-printed story, “The Unique Hamlet” still considered the finest Holmes pastiche ever written. Starrett and Conan Doyle met briefly, in 1923, when the latter’s Spiritualist speaking tour of North America brought him to Chicago, though Starrett, one of several reporters interviewing Conan Doyle, had time only to murmur a few words of appreciation for Sherlock Holmes.

    Starrett’s name was essentially unknown in the early 1930s to Chris Morley,** and the other soon-to-be founding fathers of the BSI in New York, exchanging Canonical challenges for drinks in Morley’s Three Hours for Lunch Club and the Grillparzer Sittenpolizei Verein, the BSI’s immediate forebears. Perhaps they had noticed Starrett’s occasional publication of an article about Conan Doyle or Sherlock Holmes, in this or that magazine, but there seems to have been no contact between Starrett and New York Sherlockians until at least October 1933. But that month a book was published: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Starrett’s instantly classic treatment of the Great Detective’s life and times. To Sherlockians, it must have been like a bright, exciting comet lighting up their sky.

    In early 1934, the Baker Street Irregulars were launched in New York, and made a matter of public record in Morley’s Saturday Review of Literature column; and when Morley published his brother Frank’s Sherlock Holmes Crossword Puzzle that May, as the BSI’s entrance exam, Starrett was one of the few to submit a perfect solution. He was unable to come to New York for the first state dinner on June 5, 1934, but he came for the first “jump the gun” BSI annual dinner on December 7, 1934. And from then on, Vincent Starrett has always been acknowledged as the dean of American Sherlockians. Though he seldom if ever managed to attend a BSI dinner again, his presence was always strongly felt, through his lengthy bibliography of Sherlockian publications (including new editions of The Private Life in 1960 and posthumously in 1975), his creation of Chicago’s senior BSI scion society, The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic), in 1943, and, here and there, some of the most memorable lines ever written about Sherlock Holmes. His sonnet “221B” alone, written in 1942, from which the title of his introduction is taken, would be enough to ensure that Baker Street Irregulars never forget his name. When the BSI began to confer Irregular Shillings upon the worthy, Starrett received the first, with the Canonical investiture of “A Study in Scarlet.”

About Dr. Gray Chandler Briggs we know much less. He was born in Burlington, Iowa, on June 30, 1882, and lived most of his life in St. Louis. He was one of the first specialists there in radiology, or roentgenology, as it was called then, after its German pioneer. He had actually begun experimenting with X-rays while still in high school, and had burned his hands badly in the process of mastering the dangerous science, but not enough to prevent him from practicing actively until his death on January 23, 1942, at the age of 59. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called him “one of this city’s best raconteurs,” and described his “serious study of the lore about Sherlock Holmes, photography, painting, stamp collecting, Chinese philology” Briggs had studied Chinese at the University of Chicago “and building model trains.”1

    Although Briggs’ Sherlockian bibliography was as short as Starrett’s was long, he too was an early solitary enthusiast pursuing his Sherlock interests avidly in the days before the Game was established, or many other players known. He was a fanatical admirer of William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes and Frederic Dorr Steele as the Great Detective’s portraitist. He became acquainted with them personally, and amassed a notable collection of Sherlockiana, including an enviable number of Steele’s originals. Steele told that story himself in his 1937 New Yorker article, “Sherlock Holmes in Pictures”:

The matter of the original drawings also involves Dr. Briggs. He had seen one at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in his own city in 1904, and were there any left, and could he get them? Artists are disorderly beings, but something must necessarily be done with studio accumulations. In my own case these were kept in a packing box, the object of frequent profane revilings. My fellow-craftsmen will agree, I am sure, that the joy of creation is exceeded only by the joy of destruction. Hence during the agony of moving, or cleaning, the box was dragged out and the less fit were slaughtered. So some years ago the number had been reduced to perhaps a score, and Dr. Briggs has them all.

    In 1921, Briggs traveled to London, and spent his time there attempting to locate 221B Baker Street with almost supernatural success. He approached the problem by doing his best to follow Holmes’s circuitous back-alley route to Baker Street in “The Empty House,” finding himself eventually in a mews behind a house which matched the description of “The Empty House” strikingly well complete, he discovered, to his astonished joy, to the “Camden House School” plaque beside the front door of the house. Camden House truly existed! Then across the street must be the veritable 221B No. 111 Baker Street.

    In those days, there were no Baker Street Irregulars or members of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London with whom he could discuss and celebrate his triumph, but there was still Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less, whom Briggs did see the next day. How did you find it, Conan Doyle asked in great interest.

            “By the description,” Dr. Briggs replied.

               “Do you know,” said Doyle, “I don’t think I’ve ever been in Baker Street

           in my life.”2

The creator of Sherlock Holmes was a rather spooky fellow, Briggs told Frederic Dorr Steele upon his return home. Briggs never published an account of his discovery, but he told Steele about it, and Steele later gave it considerable publicity in his “Sherlock Holmes” essay in the Souvenir Program for William Gillette’s Farewell Tour of Sherlock Holmes, during 1928-32. Briggs’ fame spread among other Sherlockians on both sides of the Atlantic as a result. S. C. Roberts in England referred to Briggs’ work in Doctor Watson (1931), H. W. Bell took issue with Briggs’ choice of No. 111 Baker Street in Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (1932), and Vincent Starrett praised it lavishly in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes the following year.

    In 1942, Briggs’ passing in St. Louis was noted by the New York Times, that news-paper gratifyingly focusing on his fame as a Sherlockian. “Dr. Gray C. Briggs, a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of nationally known Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, died of pneumonia last night,” it said; “Dr. Briggs was a friend of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Holmes, and made many trips to London to ex-plore the places and streets traversed by the fictional detective.” But Vincent Starrett said it best, as he so often did, in a letter to Briggs’ widow: “Dr. Briggs will always be remembered by his friends of the Baker Street Irregulars; and in the history of Sher-lockian scholarship he has a unique place.”

    As soon as Starrett had learned of Briggs and his discovery, on February 24, 1930, at the opening night of Gillette’s Farewell Tour in Chicago, he had written to Frederic Dorr Steele in New York to get Briggs’ address. Starrett wrote Briggs immediately, telling him of his intention to write a great work about Sherlock Holmes, and asking for more information about his identification of 221B Baker Street. It must have been thrilling for kindred Sherlockian spirits to find each other in those early days before the BSI gave us all a spiritual home together. There instantly sprang up between the two men the enthusiastic correspondence in this volume. It influenced the making of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in many ways, as Starrett’s book took shape over the next few years. Though all this fervor took place in the Midwest prior to the founding of the BSI in New York in 1934, it is definitely a vital part of the Ur-geschichte of the Baker Street Irregulars, as the presence of both Starrett and Briggs at the BSI’s first annual dinner testifies.

The bulk of this correspondence was edited and transcribed for publication three years ago by the late John Nieminski (“Abe Slaney,” BSI) of Chicago, as nearly the last Sherlockian act of his life. He brought the typescript to me in October 1986, when he came east to attend the Bouchercon mystery convention in Baltimore but in December he died at home of a heart attack, and publication was postponed. John’s death left a considerable hole in the Irregular ranks. He was a gentle and congenial man of charm, humor, wit, mischief, and enthusiasm, with vast knowledge of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, and many other literary highways and by-ways. For eleven years, he and I worked closely together on Baker Street Miscellanea, the quarterly journal of Sherlockiana and Doyleana, and John made even BSM’s most serious challenges and problems a delight to tackle and overcome. He would be very pleased to see this correspondence published, at last, as the first volume of the BSI archival series, for history was close to his heart: he majored in it in college, and was the author of an extensive fortieth-anniversary history of Chicago’s Hounds of the Baskerville (sic).

    I have also added, as Appendix C, a previously published essay by the late James Bliss Austin (“The Engineer’s Thumb,” BSI) of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, examining a separate but closely related collection of Starrett’s correspondence. “Sidelights on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” appeared originally in Baker Street Miscellanea 34, Summer 1983, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. With Bliss’s death in 1987, Baker Street Irregulars lost another great Sherlockian and friend.

    And two brief items more. The first, Walter Klinefelter’s “Ballade,” his poetic tribute to his friend Vincent Starrett and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, published in Addenda to the Walter Klinefelter Biblio-List (Sumac Press, 1981). The other, Starrett’s open letter to the Baker Street Irregulars on the occasion of the 1973 BSI dinner in New York (distributed there by Hugo’s Companions of Chicago). Starrett died one year later; we all learned the sad news at Julian Wolff’s cocktail party the day after the BSI dinner. His 1973 letter was a last Sherlockian expression from a great heart, and the final word in his memorial volume should rightfully be Starrett’s.

The correspondence in this volume has been left in the form in which John Nieminski prepared it for publication, on his much overworked Selectric II. I have contributed, in a matching format produced (I fear) on not much better equipment, this introduction, notes on the correspondence, and an index. I have tried to limit the notes to issues of BSI history raised in the correspondence, and I do not pretend to have answered all questions, or even to have identified them all.

    And I have, with difficulty, ignored countless other aspects of Sherlockian interest contained in this correspondence. But the purpose of this series is not to answer all possible questions; it is to make BSI archival materials available to others, and stimu-late further research. Readers will easily recognize a great deal of grist in this corres-pondence for their scholarly mills and they should not forget that more lies waiting to be examined in Vincent Starrett’s personal papers, now in the Hench Collection in the University of Minnesota Libraries. The game’s afoot!

    Finally, I am grateful to a number of people for assistance in preparing this volume: the late Michael Murphy, Vincent Starrett’s literary executor, for many Starrettian favors in years gone by; John Crotty, who long ago preserved the correspondence by purchasing it from Dr. Briggs’ heirs, and Steven Stilwell, who subsequently made it available to John Nieminski for the purpose of publication; George Fletcher, of Fordham University Press, for acting as Commissionaire of Printing for this and the forthcoming volumes in the BSI archival series; Ronald De Waal, without whose Bibliographies the task of preparing the commentary on the correspondence would have been arduous indeed; and Peter Blau, Saul Cohen, Catherine Cooke, Jack D. Key, Nancy King, Austin McLean, and John Bennett Shaw, for various favors and contributions.


    1 “Dr. G. C. Briggs, X-ray Specialist,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 24, 1942.

    2 Ibid.

For each volume of the BSI Archival History, I keep an “Editor’s Working Copy” in which I note errors and corrections, and additional information coming to hand after the volume in question was published. Please note the following two corrections of errors asterisked in red in the text:

    * Starrett’s two years in China were in the mid, not late, ‘30s: 1935-37; and he was not going out as a Chicago Tribune correspondent, but on an extended trip of his own around the world, thanks to income from the motion picture production of one of his novels.

  ** Starrett and Morley had actually met in person earlier, in Chicago; at Ben Abramson’s bookstore, Morley thought. And Morley was reading Starrett’s Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in galleys as early as July 1933. See this writer’s Disjecta Membra.


From the book:

Vincent Starrett to Frederic Dorr Steele, February 24, 1930:

Dear Mr. Steele

    Can you give me the address of Dr. Gray C. Briggs of St. Louis, mentioned by you in your admirable and entertaining article on Sherlock Holmes in the Holmes Souvenir Program? I shall be grateful. I, too, am an ardent Sherlockian, and I should like to compare notes with the Doctor.

    I have in progress a volume to be devoted entirely to Holmes and the literature that has grown up around that great legend, and I am wondering if Dr. Briggs has published any of his researches, and whether they are available. I was pleased to see his photograph of the Baker Street flat and the plan of the street. I had hit upon another place, myself, but on poorer evidence.

    Tonight, I saw the opening performance of the play, here, and saw your remarkable portait of Holmes come to life upon the stage. I had seen the phenomenon twice before; and I hope to see it again before Mr. Gillette leaves the city.

    The premiere was, of course, a worthy success - a great tribute to a great man - William Gillette.

    The Souvenir program is very attractive. It adds a splendid item to my fairly extensive of Sherlock Holmes ANA. It is my ambition to make that collection the best in the world, and to use it as the basis of my book, thus this note to you.

    May I, in conclusion, thank you very heartily for your own magnificent contributions to the understanding and appreciation of Holmes and Gillette? With those of Doyle and Gillette, your own name must always always be inseparably linked.


    Vincent Starrett

I shall meet Mr. Gillette for a talk, I have every hope, next Thursday.

Vincent Starrett to Gray Chandler Briggs, November  20, 1933:

. . . We must really organize an international Holmes society. We might meet at irregular intervals and call ourselves the Baker Street Irregulars.

Vincent Starrett to Frederic Dorr Steele, November  23, 1934:

Dear Mr. Steele

        Possibly Chris Morley or someone else has already invited you to the Sherlock Holmes dinner on Dec. 7. If so, there is no need for my letter; if not, the pleasant task is mine. All of which is to say that the Baker Street Irregulars, being in effect the Sherlock Holmes Society of America, will hold their first annual dinner at Christ Cella’s restaurant, 144 East 45th Street, New York City, on December 7, at - oh, say 8 o’clock, or thereabouts. We shall be in a room on the second floor, where we hope you will be able to join us.

        It is just possible that Gillette may be with us - much depends on how he feels on December 6; but he has tentatively accepted the invitation to attend. For the rest, there will be (d.v.) Morley, and Woollcott, and Clendening, and Elmer Davis, and other Sherlockians of note, among whom I hope I may include

Yours very sincerely

From Baker Street Miscellanea, No. 61, Spring 1990,

    reviewed by Albert and Julia Rosenblatt:

There are, one might reckon, two great epochs in the Sherlockian universe. The first, of course, began in 1887 when Arthur Conan Doyle, then 28, introduced Mr. Sherlock Holmes to the world. Four decades later, in 1927, Conan Doyle penned his last entry to the Holmes Canon, and by the time he died in 1930, the public had granted the world’s first consulting detective a cherished place in its heart.

    Surely, there are many literary figures that have captured the imaginations of readers and earned special places on their bookshelves. But when the ink was barely dry on Conan Doyle’s final Holmes adventure, there began a special love affair with the detective that was to take on the proportions of a movement. This first volume in “The BSI History Project” describes its genesis. Its editors have set about to reveal the origins of this second epoch, which marked Holmes’s life after death; a life now more luminous than ever: one that began, in a manner of speaking, after the death of his creator. In pursuing these origins, there is a good deal of fog, as one might expect after sixty or so years. But there is also light, lovingly and ably shed by Jon Lellenberg and the late John Nieminski, who take us to a Sherlockian Garden of Eden in presenting “Dear Starrett—”/“Dear Briggs—”: A Compendium of Corres-pondence between Vincent Starrett and Gray Chandler Briggs (l930-1934).

    At a time when the world is populated by over 200 Sherlockian societies in which thousands of members share their love of Holmes with each other, it is fascinating to examine the embryonics of it all. Are we not fortunate that Starrett and Briggs, who ignited early Sherlockian sparks, were of the temperament and of an age when people corresponded by letter? The Starrett-Briggs telephone calls would be forever lost. Keeping a letter is an act of love. Taping and transcribing a telephone call is something else altogether.

    Starrett, of course, born in Toronto in 1886, was the author of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which first appeared in print in 1933, a mere six years after Conan Doyle’s last Sherlockian tale, “Shoscombe Old Place.” Briggs was a distinguished St. Louis physician and collector, whose early enthusiasm for Holmes led him to extensive Sherlockian investigations and correspondence. The Private Life was a premier, pioneering work of a species that came to be known as the Writings on the Writings, or the Higher Criticism. If Conan Doyle created The Detective and gave him life, it was Starrett, perhaps more than anyone, who helped make Holmes larger than life. In this, he was encouraged by Briggs, whose love of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, William Gillette, and Frederic Dorr Steele was a source of continuing support.

    The correspondence between Starrett and Briggs takes place during that slice of time roughly between William Gillette’s farewell tour and the beginning of the Baker Street Irregulars. The two correspondents generously exchanged manuscripts, photos, and memorabilia, much of which revolved around Starrett’s plans for The Private Life, and so initiated what was to become an international literary sport: piecing together the “true” lives and adventures of Holmes and Watson. We delight in Briggs’s account of his search for and discovery of the “true” location of 221B Baker Street. For them, the Abner Doubledays of the Canon, The Game was begun with wit and with imagination. All that has followed is in their debt.

    From time to time, the letters introduce us to other Sherlockian luminaries, H.W. Bell in particular. Starrett was initially concerned when he learned that Bell was about to publish a book about Holmes and Watson, lest that work eclipse his own project. He expressed relief when he learned that Bell’s work, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Chronology of their Adventures, in no way anticipated his own efforts. The correspondence refers now and again to a friendly controversy brewing between Bell and Briggs concerning the real 221B.

    This collection constitutes an accessible archive of early Sherlockiana, and as such makes a splendid beginning to the BSI History series. It is supplemented by “Sidelights on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” by Bliss Austin which first appeared in BSM 34 (Summer 1983), and it is expanded by transcripts of certain of Starrett’s letters to Steele, to publisher Burton Rascoe, to pioneer Sherlockian Walter Klinefelter, and to others. The volume is much enriched by the introduction and end-note annotations, in which Mr. Lellenberg, the redoubtable series editor, provides a rich historical backdrop.

    For Sherlockians, the red-covered paperback volumes of the Baker Street Irregulars produced by Edgar W. Smith in the 1950s are associated with an age that now has its own nostalgia. It is fitting that this volume of letters is bound in the same red-covered format, indistinguishable at first glance from the rest, but revealing, on its pages, how the others came to be born.

Albert Rosenblatt (“Inspector Bradstreet,” BSI) is a retired judge of the New York Court of Appeals. Julia Rosenblatt (“Mrs. Turner,” BSI) is a former professor of psychology at Vassar College, and a ski instructor. They live in Dutchess County, N.Y.

Return to Books

Return to the Welcome page