by Barb, arriving back in Maine today
Why does he wear a deerstalker hat? Why does he say, “Elementary, my dear Watson?” None of these things appear in the canon.
The answer is these now familiar traits either originated or were popularized by American actor, writer, and stage manager William Gillette (1853-1937). I recently toured his home, Gillette Castle, in East Haddam, Connecticut.
Gillette grew up in the Nook Farm section of Hartford, Connecticut, where his neighbors included Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain. His father was a US Senator and his mother a descendant of the Puritan founder of Hartford. One of his much older brothers went off to California where he died, another was killed in the Civil War, but William’s path was different. After a short apprenticeship in New Orleans as an actor, Gillette was recommended by Twain to appear in The Gilded Age in Boston. Twain also encouraged him to write and create his own material.
Gillette did write plays and act. In his role as a stage manager he received a patent on an invention that made the sound when the horses’ hooves go clippity-clop. But he found his greatest role as Holmes. With Conan Doyle’s blessing and support, he adapted the stories for the stage and performed as the detective over 1300 times. He gave Holmes his curved pipe. The deerstalker hat had appeared in an illustration in the Strand Magazine, but Gillette popularized it. He added the phrases, “Elementary, my dear fellow,” and “my dear Watson,” separately to his scripts, but never used them together. That came later.
As his success climbed, he lived permanently aboard his yacht, the Aunt Polly, traveling to gigs up and down the east coast. A tour of England, playing Holmes, netted him $100,000, (over two million in today’s money). Those are the funds he used to build the home where he spent his retirement. (Like many good actors, he retired multiple times.)
He never called his home a castle, though everyone else did. Inside it’s a sort of craftsman style with built-ins and a dining table and desk that move on gliders. You can tell the owner lived on a ship for many years. Everything has its place. He entertained many people there, including a very young Betty Davis and her mother.
In retirement, Gillette continued to tinker. He built a three-mile railroad track around his property, complete with station, bridges and a tunnel and gave train rides to his guests. Down the hill from the castle, he designed an elegant small home for Yukitaki Ozaki, his longtime dresser, valet and friend. (Except when Izaki’s wealthy family, descended from Japanese nobility, came to America. Because Izaki feared they’d never understand why their son worked as a servant, Gillette worked as his butler’s butler during their visit.)
Gillette made a silent movie of one of his Holmes performances in 1916 that was thought lost for decades until it was rediscovered in 2014 at the at the Cinematheque Francaise, a film archive in Paris.
In the library, one of the guides, acting as Gillette, acting as Holmes.
I very much enjoyed touring Gillette’s home and picnicking on the grounds of his estate. I felt that unbroken line from Gillette to Basil Rathbone to Jeremy Brett and onward to Robert Downey, Jr, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Jonny Lee Miller, in that most enduring of detective roles.
Visit if you get a chance. Check the website for opening and tour times. http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2716&q=325204&deepNav_GID=1650%20