The Editor’s Gas-Bag

(with a wink at Philip Shreffler, Donald Pollock,
Steven Rothman, and other editors of the Baker Street Journal.)

The Mystery of the Brass Plates
At Disputations last week I presented new information about the plates -- by now three in number, one already sold to an unknown party, and two to be auctioned on the 21st in Ludlow, England.  Mr. Philip Porter of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London was kind enough to attend the auction and provide a report:

They indicated they would reach the lots by around 2.30am. I arrived at 2.00 to be on the safe side. They reached 221B and 222 at 3.00. The auctioneer started the bidding for 221B at £10,000 and received not a single bid. He started at  £2000 for 222 - ditto. Total anti-climax and non-event.

The Mullock’s auction house, expressing disappointment with the outcome, will entertain, for the present, private offers for the two remaining plates. Interested parties should contact

The Missing Link
At Links of the Week are several new ones, but missing, alas, is a link to a lengthy review article about recent Sherlockiana by Mike Dirda in the New York Review of Books. I would have included it, but it’s behind a paywall.  Mike says it’s informational rather than critical, with few if any items he discusses in it likely to be news to followers of this website; but it can be looked up in the May 9th issue.  (This suggestion not necessarily valid at the New York Public Library.)

“Restaurant-ing Through History”
is a lovely website conducted by one Jan Whitaker who has now taken an interest in Christopher Morley’s Three Hours for Lunch Club, here.  I first noticed her website two years ago when Ms. Whitaker, writing about a vanished Greenwich Village tea-room called The Crumperie, said Morley used to take the THFLC there as well.  On what evidence I don’t know; but this website is worth exploring, and certainly one Morley would have enjoyed.  Burt Wolder BSI, a present-day apostle of the Three Hours for Lunch Club, who noticed the website’s new story about it on his own, intends to look Ms. Whitaker up, I understand.

Two book tips from Andrew Fusco, BSI:
“Two recent paperback reads - not among the most remarkable ever penned - still merit consideration for lighter reading,” says Andy:

A Friendly Game of Murder by J. J. Murphy is the third in the Algonquin Roundtable mystery series featuring primarily Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott. This latest installment has as its premise that New Year's Eve revelers at the Algonquin are quarantined as the result of a suspected smallpox case, and then the game’s afoot with murder.  Most interesting to us is the cast of visitors locked into the hotel -- especially Arthur Conan Doyle.  The author gives credit, by the way to Dan Stashower’s Teller of Tales and paints an interesting, probably accurate, picture of ACD (who as far as I know was never a guest at the hotel or any “Algonquin” except the park in Ontario).

Hammett Unwritten, purportedly by “Owen Fitzstephens”  (a pseudonym derived from the name  of a character in The Dain Curse), with an afterword and notes by Gordon McAlpine (presumably the true author). The novel tracks Hammett’s downward slide (and LillianHellman’s ascendancy) after he penned The Thin Man, and is worthwhile not so much for its plot as for its insights into Hammett the man. And the plot isn’t bad, although it sent me scurrying to my Hammett biographies to try to separate fact from fiction on occasion. All in all, a brief novel, but well worth the effort to read.

(May 23, 2013)

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Last time I reported below about this 1933 photograph of Chicago literary men at Schlogl’s, which also appeared in the revived Saturday Review of Literature in January. Schlogl’s was for Vincent Starrett what Christ Cella’s speakeasy in New York was for Christopher Morley, and it was a favorite of Morley’s as well.  I can now add this: the picture was printed in the September 15, 1953, Chicago Daily News, with the Daily News men in it identified in the accompanying article as, seated left to right, Henry Justin Smith, managing editor, reporters and brothers Raymond Casey and Robert Casey, literary editor Howard Vincent O’Brien, reporter Charles Laing, and foreign correspondents Edward Price Bell and John Gunther (not yet the John Gunther); standing, left to right, Richard Schneider the literary waiter, retired managing editor Hal O’Flaherty, Washington DC bureau chief Paul R. Leach, and foreign correspondent Junius Wood.

Starrett hoped Bob Casey would become a charter member of The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic) when it was founded in 1943, but it didn’t happen.  He might have tried not having the scion’ss early dinner meetings at Schlogl’s.  According to Such Interesting People, Casey’s lively 1943 account of Chicago newspaper life in the 1920s and ‘30s,  he loathed Schlogl’s.
 I have talked before (and will again) about Schlogl’s, the teutonic Chicago restaurant on Wells Street that was the local Mermaid Tavern for its literary and journalistic circles, and for Vincent Starrett and The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic) what Christ Cella’s was to Morley’s Three Hours for Lunch Club and the early BSI.  In January’s revived Saturday Review of Literature, the picture below appeared as part of a sidebar about Schlogl’s, showing some of the city’s writers at its own round-table one day in 1933:
Standing far left is Richard Schneider, “the literary waiter” there, to whom one of its habituees, Harry Hansen, gave a copy of his 1923 book Midwest Portraits: A Book of Memories and Friendship, which Schneider used as a Grillparzer Book of his own.  So fragile did it become by handling and inscribing by the local literary types, including Starrett, and their visitors from out of town, including Morley, that Hansen had it rebound for him at one point.  The location today of this precious volume is unknown; but in Morley’s September 11, 1937, “Trade Winds” column, I find this news item:  “I’ve had a delightful letter from Richard, so many years a waiter at good old Schlogl’s rathskeller in Chicago (a great literary center in time past; meaning Schlogl’s, not Old Loopy) saying he’s opened a taphouse of his own at 407 South Wabash Avenue where all the ancient tradition will be faithfully purveyed. Good luck to Bonhomme Richard, a kindly soul and an honest caterer.”

Midwest Portraits opens dreamily as follows:

When this book began to be written the hands of the big wall clock at Schlogl’s had already advanced to half past two, and as I looked up at the great disc of the pendulum, somnolently swinging back and forth like an animated moon, I saw reflected within its highly polished surface a merry and leisurely company that gave no signs of going home. Grotesque and disproportionate the scene, distorted in this concave mirror—a strip of olive-colored ceiling above and a flare of light from cut-glass chandeliers, then a strip of brown which I identified as the paintings indigenous to a tavern, then tables and chairs, and men bent over the polished wood in all sorts of easy attitudes. They might linger here for hours, unaware that the deepening gray outdoors was brought on by something more unalterable than soot; unmindful, too, of the pounding of iron wheels high up on iron trestles, or the clanging of street cars, or the churning roar of motor trucks. They were placid and comfortable even as that old patron at the third table, un vieux, if ever there was one, who had sat in that self-same chair thirty years or so, save for the time lost in the distraction of home and business, partaking of his hasenpfeffer with paprika, etwas ganz feines, pulling lazily at his long filler havana, sampling now and then his goblet of Rüdesheimer. Thirty years—that went back almost to antiquity in Chicago, where the calendar began anno incendi, in fact this very house had remained unchanged since the day that it was reared upon smoldering embers and charred walls, and if one dug deep enough the spade would strike bricks and debris that are all that remain to tell of the great fire—as in ancient Troy. Thirty years—and he might sit there another thirty years, toying with his hasenbraten and spaetzle, pulling at his long havana, if life could be endured that long again without the Rüdesheimer.
      This, then, was a hallowed spot. One sought it, mistakenly, under another name, just off the Strand, in London, and thought it worth the journey; jaded souls, tired of insensate dining on Manhattan, imagined it near the Place du Tertre high up on the Butte; feinschmecker extolled its cuisine and dreamed for it a site near the Kürfurstendam in Berlin; the Rathusplaads had it too, they said, in Copenhagen. I had explored them all and traveled up and down their carte du jour; I had indulged in delights gustatory and olfactory, and bewailing the fact that America had no cuisine worth the name, I had come back reluctantly only to find Schlogl’s within three hundred yards of the desk where I performed my daily task. And everything was as it always was. “Good day, and how are you?” asked Richard, as I hung my hat upon the hall tree, which scrambled over the wall like an illuminated initial from an ancient Celtic script, and then: “Your order is coming right up.”
So you can see why Richard Schneider prized this book.

Starrett is in it too, of course.  Hansen looks around the walnut round-table to see who he’ll be joining for lunch, and “There is Vincent Starrett, the last Tennysonian, biographer of the Eighteen Nineties, grave and ponderous and happy over a Rabelaisian anecdote, quick at hand with stories of Stephen Crane and Arthur Machen, whose fugitive tales he has collected in much-prized volumes, a khaliff lost in an industrial Baghdad and dreaming dreams of scimitars and lutes and Scheherezade.”

We may never recover that copy of the book, but we shall speak again, and again, of Schlogl’s.  In January, Ray Betzner remarked to me that his idea of going to heaven would be having lunch with Vincent Starrett at Schlogl’s, and Ray speaks for more than himself alone.
(March 10, 2013)

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That Cop Who Got Rough with Sherlock Holmes
In the revived organ featured below, I write about the New York Police detective who protected Christ Cella’s speakeasy while the BSI gestated there, and why he said “To hell with Sherlock Holmes!” in his 1930 book You Gotta Be Rough (published by a charter member of the BSI).

$5 postpaid from Donald K. Pollock, 521 College Avenue, Niagara Falls N.Y. 14305.

And in the article I wondered: “Did Mike Fiaschetti ever sit at that table in Christ Cella’s kitchen while Chris Morley was there with his friends gassing about Sherlock Holmes? We may never know.”

Or we may.  I’ve found a plug for Fiaschetti’s book in Morley’s “Bowling Green” column in the March 21, 1931, Saturday Review of Literature, calling Fiaschetti Mike rather than Michael, as the book gave the name.  So I went further back to Morley’s column in the February 1, 1930, SRL, and found this:

THE Cavaliere Fiaschetti, Chevalier of the Crown of Italy, otherwise Big Mike of the New York Police Department, found the right collaborator when he narrated his memoirs to Prosper Buranelli. Between them—I like to imagine them sitting down for long evenings over plentiful ravioli and asti spumante—they have put together a grand book. The serious-minded student of crime must not allow himself to be put off by the rather rowdy jacket; nor by the slangy title, “You Gotta Be Rough.” (The title seems to have been a publisher’s afterthought, for in the running heads throughout the book it reads “One Must Be Rough.” I much prefer the argot version.)

    I take it as proven that Mike Fiaschetti, former chief of the Italian Squad in the New York Police Department, is a rattling good narrator, and Mr. Buranelli’s skill and charm have made this “essay in constabulary biography” a work of eminent satisfaction. The portrait of Fiaschetti that emerges is attractive indeed: “a Renaissance bravo turned into a New York policeman,” with the vehement gestures of Italy and the hard jaw of a Center Street cop. Fiaschetti, who is still only in the middle forties, was the son of a Roman bandmaster and is himself a musician. For sixteen years he was a New York police detective, and in his six years’ command of the Dago Squad he sent twelve murderers to the chair.

    His account of the detective business is rather different from the romantic fictioneer’s. “How the Detective Really Gets His Man, or to Hell with Sherlock Holmes” is the lively caption of one of Mr. Buranelli’s chapters. We learn that false whiskers and the analysis of cigar ashes play comparatively little part in the grim routine. The novelist would fear to make such use of coincidence as happens in actuality. One of Mr. Buranelli’s best episodes—of which Detective John Cordes was the hero—began by a conversation overheard from an adjoining telephone booth.

    There is an engaging frankness about Mike Fiaschetti that is entirely captivating. He tells how he first got into the police by cribbing from a young Irishman who sat next to him in examination. So successfully indeed that Fiaschetti came out 20th in the papers and the Irishman 86th. Indeed there is none of the Philo Vance esthete about Mike; this book would cause the cultured Vance many a painful shudder—partly, perhaps, because it is written so much better than any of Mr. Van Dyne’s maunderings. There is an extraordinary ring of truth about it. What could be more genuine than the tale of the spaghetti-joint keeper who did not report the murder until mid-afternoon because to do so earlier would have spoiled his luncheon business, and he had already bought his supplies for that meal.

    Natural shrewdness, obstinacy, and guts are presumably the foundation qualities for detecting, as most likely for anything else; but the central necessity, according to Mike Fiaschetti, is a wide acquaintance among stool pigeons—i. e. squealers. You trade freedom for information, says Fiaschetti, and remarks with his seasoned wisdom of the world that freedom is always a valuable commodity. You don’t always succeed: he gives us a pretty broad hint, for instance, that the Dot King case was stopped by high influence; but when you don’t, if you are Fiaschetti, you utter his favorite Italian malediction, Managia i fiscetti and tackle the next problem. It is not a romantic picture he gives us, but a damned cruel and dangerous one. As he frequently remarks, The more you look into a thing the crazier it gets. The humor and skill of these offhand narrations will not blind you to the savage and terrifying realities behind them.

    Fiaschetti, I understand, is now doing some lecturing on his police adventures. Those lectures should be worth hearing.

Case closed.  I was glad to see also, though, in that 1931 column of Morley’s, a direct if veiled reference to Christ Cella’s speak: “In still another quiet hideaway, the headquarters of the Grillparzer Club, where they have the best veal cutlets in a crust of cheese ever tasted anywhere . . .” --- so now we know what his favorite dish at Cella’s was, at least as of March ’31.

“Debonair and Splendid”

Peter Blau’s memento at last month’s BSI weekend was about Luther Norris, who died in 1978.  (Text here, in Black Peter’s logbook at the Red Circle of Washington  D.C. website.)  Luther was one of the great joys of 1960s and ’70s Sherlockia, creating at his Culver City, Calif., home an entire parody of the BSI called The Praed Street Irregulars, based on August Derleth’s Solar Pons stories — an ever-lengthier membership list, all of us with investitures (I was “Ebenezer Snawley,” from The Adventure of the Unique Dickensians), a journal, The Pontine Dossier, with its own Writings About the [Solar Pons] Writings, an annual dinner, and more.  Luther himself was, I wrote in his obituary in the March 1978 Baker Street Miscellanea, “a strange, marvelous, eccentric gentleman like a character of Charles Dickens come to life.”

To continue from it:  “his small house was like Nathan Garrideb’s, more of a museum than a home, cluttered everywhere one looked with a collection of Sherlockian memorabilia that was hard to surpass.  Statuary in particular, of Holmes and Watson and other canonical characters; his BSI investiture of ‘M. Oscar Meunier, of Grenoble,’ was a tribute to his renown as a collector and patron of Sherlockian statuary.  It was a magical little house.  To visit it for the first time was to think oneself a child again, entering a particularly splendid toy shop.”

Peter in his memento remarks that Luther, born in 1920, served in Alaska in World War II.  He was on Adak, in the Aleutian islands, and worked on the base newspaper, and one of the others on it was no one less than Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, and other American detective story classics.   Here is a photograph of that wartime staff, Hammett seated center, and Luther Norris second from left above.

(February 17, 2013)

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The BSI weekend’s most remarkable history discovery
is described, pictured, and wondered over here.

The 1936 BSI annual dinner notice and attendees explored.

(January 18, 2013)

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A third discovery by Mattias Bostrom.
In Irregular Memories of the ’Thirties, George Fletcher (“The Cardboard Box,” BSI) surveys  in chapter 4 the famous Grillparzer Book of Christopher Morley’s Three Hours for Lunch Club and Grillparzer Sittenpolizei Verein, the BSI’s forerunner(s).  On pp. 68-69 he lists many of the people who signed it at those three-hour lunches at Christ Cella’s speakeasy, and later licensed restaurant, as was the custom of the club.  One signature belonged to James B. Reston.  In my day, “Scotty” Reston was a legendary newspaper columnist for the New York Times who’d been born in Scotland in 1909 and immigrated to America with his parents in 1920.  His career began in Ohio briefly, before coming to New York and joining the Associated Press.  There, while yet 24 years old, he began writing a syndicated column called “A New Yorker at Large,” which he later said made him “a welcome unpaying guest all over town, with tickets to the shows and the opera and even the run of all the big restaurants.”

Also small ones, and Mattias has found Reston’s “New Yorker at Large” column of May 17, 1935, as published in the Findlay, Ohio, Republican-Courier, reporting the Three Hours for Lunch Club and the early BSI at Christ Cella’s.  Reston’s remarks do not constitute a revelation, but have unarguable charm and are now added to our historical record thanks to Mattias:

Christ Cella’s little restaurant on 45th Street can boast a long list of famous patrons. Here meets daily the Three Hours For Lunch Club, which bars no interesting man. Since only columnists are permitted to take three hours for lunch, it is not possible for me to divulge the membership of this astonishing group, but the tales told here, the ideas discussed, the intrigue premeditated, are beyond description. 
Chris is also host to the Baker Street Irregulars, another organization which solves the problems of the world once each week. I mention Chris’s place at the peril of my life, for Chris enjoys the presence of these organizations mainly because he enjoys the presence of few other customers, and it is feared that if I tell you about it, you and many another will scurry the street until you find it. I have been asked to remind you that you’re not welcome.

Two discoveries by Mattias Bostrom.
Working on a forthcoming book on Sherlock Holmes as a cultural phenomenon, Mattias has unearthed and sent along two newspaper stories of interest from long ago.

The first is an AP dispatch found in the Salt Lake Tribune of December 8, 1934:

Sherlock Holmes Fans ‘Dissect’ Character at Novel Convention

NEW YORK, Dec. 7 (AP)—Sherlock Holmes was perpetuated, in fact dissected, by his “constant readers” tonight. 

     Over roast goose “a la Henry Baker,” Alexander Woollcott, Gene Tunney and other “Sherlock” fans digested points in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysteries that may be obscure to the average “thriller” fan, but are meat and drink to the devotees of the peak-capped sleuth.

     It was the convention of the “Baker Street Irregulars,” numbering perhaps 20, meeting in a brownstone-front restaurant in the East Forties. 

     Christopher Morley, the writer, and president of the “Irregulars,” started it, diners said, with a crossword puzzle in a weekly magazine that is to the literati what fat pork and chittlings are to the southern negro.

     The answers to the puzzle were obscure points in Sherlock Holmes stories, and the winners automatically became members of the “Irregulars.”

     Woollcott, described by Morley and some of the other more serious Conan Doylers as a scoffer, arrived a half hour late in a hansom cab, flaunting a typical “Sherlock” hat in violent plaid and a huge magnifying glass. 

     Tunney preceded him, and entered immediately into a spirited discussion dealing with Sherlock’s behavior and misbehavior.

     One of the main points of the issue was Dr. Watson’s wound, variously described, the members said, as in the shoulder and in the left leg.

     The “Irregulars” have set up a headquarters at the scene of tonight’s festivities, with busts of Sir Arthur and critical works of “Sherlock” here and there.

     Bullet holes shot in the wall and other cryptic symbols made up the “stage” for tonight’s dinner. 

     The Baker Street Boys, as “Sherlock” readers know, were urchins called in by the detective from time to time on major cases.

It would be interesting to know who was the writer of, and the source for, this rather breathless and politically incorrect account of the BSI’s first annual dinner.  It is far different from the later AP account of December 14th written by Charles Honce with his friend Vincent Starrett as his source.  That one, more detailed and accurate, will be found on pp. 108-10 of my Irregular Memories of the ’Thirties.  Honce would become an Irregular himself, one of the first crop of Titular Investitures in 1944, as “The Empty House.”  He appears in the foreground of the photograph below, at work at AP’s New York offices in 1937.
Mattias’ second discovery is a newspaper column in the Massillon, Ohio, Evening Independent of April 16, 1943.  At the time, the press was steamed up about being excluded from some newsworthy wartime activities, and so forced to cope with their unhappiness was Elmer Davis, then the Director of the Office of War Information in Washington, D.C.  Author  in 1934 of the BSI’s Constitution & Buy Laws, the tale of its origins has been told in Ch. 4 of my “Certain Rites, and Also Certain Duties.”  The syndicated newspaper column that Mattias Bostrom has unearthed, one Charles P. Stewart’s “Washington At A Glance,” indicates that Elmer’s impatient journalistic colleagues had long memories of their own, going back to 1915:

Some fresh complication almost daily threatens to throw a crimp into the plan for a series of conferences, at various out-of-the-way places throughout this country, by the United Nations’ representatives, to agree on a post-war program guaranteed, if possible, to insure future world peace. 

     Washington would seem like the natural city for these conferees to gather in, but, as pointed out by President Roosevelt, it is impossible, here, to prevent them from being publicized too fast.

     Hence the argument in favor of concentrating them in a few comparatively unknown rural burgs, where accommodations are lacking for prying reporters to horn in. The original scheme was to exclude them altogether, but that raised a worse row.

Newsmen Protest Exclusion
American newspapermen naturally were the first folk heard from. In an effort to quiet them, it was announced from the executive mansion that Director Elmer Davis of the Office of War Information would cover all the proceedings and make as full reports to the press generally as was considered expedient. This immediately drew attention to Elmer, and a story promptly was circulated relative to his activity among members of the Ford peace party early in the last war.

     True, he was with the tourists, not as a peace delegate, but as a news correspondent for one of the New York dailies. The scribes soon decided, though, that the whole affair was ridiculous, and Elmer, as one of their number, hit on the notion of organizing a society, to make it as much so as they could manage.

     Being the scheme’s originator, Elmer drafted this group’s constitution and by-laws and christened it “The Vacillating Sons and Sisters of St. Vitus.”

     At their initial meeting in the steamship Oscar II’s smoking room, his fellow tourists unanimously chose him as the organization’s head under the title of “Grand Exalted Keeper of the Padded Cell.'”

     In his maturity of today I have no idea that Elmer would lend himself to such a piece of tomfoolery, but current journalism was not slow in proclaiming that it didn’t fancy being made entirely dependent, for information concerning the coming post-war discussions, upon the “grand exalted keeper of a padded cell” during the last conflict.

Perhaps not, but you can’t pretend it made Elmer unsuitable for the Baker Street Irregulars.  For full details about the original episode in Elmer Davis’s life, see “The Friendly Sons of St. Vitus” in my book.  

And my thanks to “The Swedish Pathological Society”!

Update: the New York Times sailing list of the Peace Pilgrims in 1915 shows that Charles P. Stewart was on that voyage representing United Press, which ought to make him and his accompanying wife members of The Vacillating Sons & Sisters of St. Vitus themselves.  But in the surviving constitutional records of the Sons & Sisters, reprinted in ch. 4, pp. 31-32, of my book “Certain Rites, and Also Certain Duties,” Mrs. Stewart is mentioned by name as a charter member, but not Mr. Stewart.  Did he disapprove of such frivolity?

At any rate, Stewart remembered wrongly Elmer Davis being “Grand Exalted Keeper of the Padded Cell.”  That was A. E. Hartzell of the New York Sun.  Elmer was instead the “Egregious Eminent Epileptor,” top-dog of The Vacillating Sons & Sisters.  

An earlier column of Stewart’s, October 5, 1942, discussing Elmer Davis coming to Washington to be Director of the Office of War Information, was apparently the one that disclosed The Vacillating Sons & Sisters of 1915 to the rest of the press working under OWI’s rules.  Stewart in his later column said “a story was promptly circulated relative to [Elmer Davis’s] activity among members of the Ford peace party early in the last war,” and it appears to have been non-member Stewart himself who did that, closing his earlier column with this:

When I first knew Elmer he was a plain newspaper correspondent (not yet a radio commentator), attached to the Ford Peace party. He was one of the most turbulent members of it, too, and that’s no mild statement to make.
He’s developed more of it since then, however. 
They say Henry Ford shudders when he’s mentioned. He says that trip was the worse mistake he ever made. Elmer did his fair share toward making it so. He was the first (and only) president of a society known as the Vacillating Sons and Sisters of St. Vitus, formed while the expedition was afloat, and supposedly representative of its membership.
Elmer was a kid then. Now he’s more serious, but he’s no less strenuous. No censorship can compete with him.

Me, I admire a man who could make the looney Henry Ford shudder.  Scott Monty, take note.