William Gillette, America’s Sherlock Holmes has had a wonderful year, and of course everybody was ecstatic when it appeared.
“You did it,” declared old friend Lon Anderson. “Never mind that I was just graduating from kindergarten when you lined up your first publisher and announced its imminent printing.”
Fellow Gillettean Susan Dahlinger asked, “Are you still carrying it around the house, petting it?”
And my ever faithful, loyal, supportive wife asked me if I wanted to sleep with it.
Rolf Rykken, fellow reporter at the Delaware State News in my other life, saw a hundred pages of footnotes and expected a dry, boring academic tome. Then he read into it and added, “Looks great and what little I’ve read so far, nicely written.”
It’s a big book, 600 pages of text and photos. BUT, this is the first full biography ever published about one of America’s major stars, so I wanted to be thorough. Still, Steve Jensen asked if I was trying to emulate Charles Dickens, who was paid by the word. And Mike Berdan added that he could not imagine “how it won’t be considered the last several hundred thousand words on the subject for many years to come.”
But Anderson wasn’t through: “So how does it feel to be a real honest-to-goodness book author? Head still fitting through the door? Wear sun glasses outside so somebody doesn’t mistake you for Tom Clancy?”
Actually, I’d considered that.
“Complaining about writers’ block? Offers coming in yet to write your biography? How are the movie rights coming along? Can’t wait to hear the details….”
I was wondering whether to get Brad Pitt or Hugh Jackman to play me.
Reviews have been most positive, particularly for my sprightly writing and the depth of my research. Amazingly, while I was told that people would be coming out of the woodwork with errors they had spotted, I had only two factual errors in the entire text and one errant photograph. All were quickly corrected.
My first book-signing was at the 26th annual Sherlock Holmes/Arthur Conan Doyle Symposium in Dayton, Ohio, in May. I had a beautiful table setup with my books, Gay’s new personalized Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson cartoon, and one of her battery-powered candles for ambiance. I sold 24 books that day, but among old friends there was Gordon Shriver from Atlanta, author of an excellent biography of film legend Boris Karloff.
The slide show and I made an appearance in June at the Torists International SS Sherlockian Society near Chicago, hosted by Don and Patricia Izban. Great dinner, an enthusiastic audience and a wonderful time with the Izbans. But, then, time with the Izbans is always wonderful.
My first “book tour” was a week in Connecticut, beginning at Gillette Castle where I posed with Tyke and Teddie Niver, who portray William and Helen Gillette. I made a book-signing appearance at the Polk County Museum in Hadlyme, near the castle, and the end of the week saw me at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center with my books and slide show .I finally got to meet my good friend Steve Courtney, Connecticut historian and author of two books on Mark Twain’s best friend, the Rev. Joseph Twichell. Steve was my Connecticut historical fact-checker.
The book has received great reviews, but the slide program got the best of them all from Beth Burgess, Collections Manager at Harriet Beecher Stowe. She was impressed to see me fit 98 slides into 30 minutes.
Reception was equally enthusiastic in Tryon, NC, where Gillette lived from 1891 until 1910. I was interviewed by a magazine writer and showed the slide program at a local eatery where the crowd enjoyed it. This was followed by a book-signing afterward at the Book Shelf on Trade Street which displayed the books handsomely.
I made several appearances in the Fall, signing books and showing the Gillette slide show, including a wonderful weekend in Toronto with the Bookmakers of Toronto. The audience was huge and also enthusiastic. I also took the slide program to Cambridge, MD, for a bay side dinner with the Denizens of the Barque Lone Star, who were equally enthusiastic.
Every Fall, the Waukesha public libraries host a Waukesha Read in which people throughout the community read a work of classic literature. This year, the book chosen was the most famous murder mystery of them all, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.
In conjunction with this, the Waukesha Public Library hosted my Gillette slide program, and a room full of more than 25 people, including a dozen high school students, enjoyed the program.
I was made an official Hound at the Hounds of the Baskerville dinner in Skokie, Illinois. Good friend Dan Stashower greeted me with “I hear of William Gillette everywhere since you became his biographer,” parodying the line by Mycroft Holmes when meeting Dr. Watson for the first time.
The next morning I was part of an Arthur Conan Doyle symposium at the Newberry Library in Chicago, following excellent presentations by Stashower and Jon Lellenberg on a long-lost Doyle novel now seeing the light of day, and Jacquelynne Bost Morris on plans to renovate Doyle’s home, Undershaw.
But, speaking of hearing of William Gillette everywhere, Scott Monty interviewed me on his famous podcast, I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere, and that was a most enchanting experience. It was Episode 34: William Gillette, America’s Sherlock Holmes, dated August 26, 2011.
It was my last interview of the year, but earlier I had three fascinating on-line interviews with James Zeruk’s Hollywood Sign Girl website, the Kindle Author website, and the Eerie Digest. This was a unique experience where they sent me the questions, I inserted my answers and sent them back, and they posted the interview.
My best slide show performance ever was on November 13, when I was among a list of outstanding speakers at From Gillette to Brett III in Bloomington, Indiana. There I renewed my acquaintance with actor Curtis Armstrong, currently appearing on The Closer, where his character is getting rid of Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson because Kyra Sedgwick is leaving the show. Curtis had written a blurb for the back of my book.
I also again saw former Hollywood producer and scriptwriter Michael Hoey (son of Dennis Hoey, who played Inspector Lestrade to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes), and Sherlockian author Leslie Klinger. I got the biggest laugh of the day on Armstrong. During his earlier talk, he told the story of how he had auditioned at age 29 for the part of Billy the Pageboy in a Sherlock Holmes show. He didn’t get the part.
So, in my program, I mention how the pageboy was already in the Holmes canon but it was Gillette who named him Billy (which is true); but here I added, “thus paving the way for the role to be taken over by Curtis Armstrong.”
It got the biggest laugh of the day.
But, I nearly topped it at Les Klinger’s expense. In Klinger’s presentation, he was trying to read lines from a script to The Speckled Band, Doyle’s stage play based on the story, and he wasn’t looking like Oscar-material. He even said, “Curtis, why aren’t you up here doing this?”
So, in my slide program, I mentioned how “Gillette showed actors for the next hundred years how Sherlock Holmes was meant to be played, whether by Eille Norwood, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Leslie Klinger, or any of the other bad actors.”I may have ruined Klinger’s budding stage career.
Finally, announcing my appearance at the Torists International SS Sherlockian Society, Leroy Woods wrote:
HE PLAYS THE PART…HE DRESSES THE PART… HE VIRTUALLY LIVES THE PART. That is probably the best way to describe Henry Zecher’s performance and Lecture on William Gillette, “America’s Sherlock Holmes.” Mr. Zecher will be with us at the TOURISTS’ meeting on June 27th to present this internationally famous discourse – a talk that is informative beyond belief, inspiring beyond all expectations, and entertaining for all Sherlockians everywhere, ALWAYS.
Informative beyond belief!
Inspiring beyond all expectations!
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
William Gillette, America’s Sherlock Holmes,
is available from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Xlibris Press.