And finally, the story for which the world has been awaiting

Part II of II

Ely Liebow


o bring our intrepid readers up to snuff, as it were, we left off the saga of the Baker Street Irregulars as they were just aborning, when, to quote Jon Lellenberg, pre-eminent Sherlockian historian, “Christopher Morley and his cronies created the whisky-and-sodality in which we imbibe today.” Once Christopher Morley and his brother Frank established Twelfth Night, Jan. 6, as Sherlock Holmes’ birthday, the singular game was indeed afoot.

The Baker Street Irregulars started meeting fairly regularly in 1934, just a few months ahead of the first Sherlock Holmes Society of London get-together. Throughout the 30s, notices and minutes were few; the Friday night dinner (at various New York restaurants) was the whole shebang.

All that was soon to change. The Irregulars started converging and staying at the famed Algonquin Hotel; in time, a Friday morning breakfast get-together was de rigeur; and although some sharp female souls completed Morley’s crossword puzzle (pre-requisite to membership, remember), almost from the outset, the BSI became an all-male enclave, the height of such behavior occurring in the early 80s when the group expelled a female New York Times reporter from its midst. Meanwhile, a group of bright, dedicated, unhappy female Sherlockians banded together as the ASHES (don’t ask), and decided to protest in their own inimitable fashion, but that is a tune from another opera, except to add that women were admitted in the 90s.

For awhile, on special occasions, a gentleman would arrive at Kennedy Airport just before Twelfth Night, clad in cape and deerstalker, and dripping honey (after all, remember Holmes retired to the South Downs to raise bees — probably in the bee-loud glade to echo Mr Yeats.) The New York Times usually had a reporter to greet him.

Now for 2002: This year the birthday festivities started midweek, when the ASHES held an ASH Wednesday supper at O’Casey’s and continued on Thursday morning with the Christopher Morley Walk, with the enthusiasts winding up at McSorley’s Saloon for lunch. Most Sherlockians arrive Thursday evening, and descend on that tiny Algonquin lobby like the locusts in The Good Earth. They haven’t seen one another for a year; they have books to trade; articles to refute; etc. The waiters come round with drinks, and, note, this is a group that can belly up to a bar with the best of them. Milton created the word “Pandemonium” just for such a scene. In time, half of them are getting drink tabs ordered by colleagues long gone.

They still tell the story of a dozen or so Sherlockians who descended on Luchow’s famed eatery for Thursday night supper back in the 70s. Soon, three or four left for the theatre; other Sherlockians arrived; then, a large contingent left for yet another theatre; etc. At the end of the evening, about a half-dozen well-fed Sherlockians were left, staring at a bill for well over $900.00 and very little money left behind.

This year, about a half-dozen of us went to Pete’s Tavern, on 18th St. & Irving Place, reportedly O’Henry’s headquarters when he wanted to write. Sherlockian and Caxtonian Charley Shields discovered the place awhile back. A couple of years ago we sat in O’Henry’s booth.

Before we dashed off to Pete’s, we attended Thursday’s main event, the Distinguished Speaker, who happened to be Bert Coules, a talented Englishman, who told wonderful tales about his work on the BBC Radio 4 series, doing all of the Holmes tales in a most creative manner.

“The Hotel Algonquin was a nice venue for an informal Mrs. Hudson Breakfast on Friday morning,” in the words of Sherlockian Peter Blau, who puts out the world’s greatest, most complete newsletter, Scuttlebutt from the Spermacetti Press. [Mrs. Hudson, of course, was the famed landlady of 221-B Baker Street.] More than 140 people turned out for the William Gillette Luncheon at Moran’s Chelsea Seafood Restaurant Friday afternoon; and festoons of Sherlockians visited one of their favorite New York haunts, the Mysterious Bookstore on W. 56th St., Otto Penzler’s gem of a bookstore. Otto, a publisher, editor, author, and Sherlockian, has an annual Friday afternoon Open House for all Sherlockians, replete with snacks, drinks, and book-signings on occasion.

More than 170 were present for the big event, the annual dinner of the BSI, held for the last few years at the Union League Club, only a short walk from the Algonquin. How does one describe what happens there? First, we are whisked into a long, book-lined room for a preprandial cocktail party that often seems to last forever. First order of business, some nice Sherlockian lady is declared THE WOMAN, the title Holmes bestowed upon the one person who supposedly out-foxed him, Irene Adler. In the old days, after the lady was given the honor and had a corsage affixed to her person, she was spirited out of the place and into the night. Now, she can stay. The aforementioned Jon Lellenberg was awarded a really special prize, “The Silver Penguin Award,” a 1930s cocktail shaker, full of Sherlockian memories. The dinner agenda was thoroughly international, with toasts, greetings, and reports by Sherlockians from Italy, Denmark, Canada, Japan, England, Germany, and Flatbush. All Sherlockians recite the “Buy-laws,” fashioned by famed radio commentator of yesteryear, Elmer Davis, then a Sherlockian, asks the questions that form one-half of the ritual from the story, “The Musgrave Ritual.” Everyone answers the questions in unison. This year, Enrico Solito, straight from Italy, asked the questions in Italian, and everyone answered in Italian (with the help from a little crib-sheet.)

Funny thing about “the Ritual.” Years ago, when some Sherlockians felt some of the questions asked by the murderers in T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” seemed to come straight out of “The Musgrave Ritual,” members of the Academic Community pooh-poohed the idea. Eliot would never do such a thing. When asked about it, Eliot said it not only came straight from Baker Street, but his description of McCavity, the Mystery Cat, was very close to Dr. Watson’s description of the evil Prof. Moriarty. Michael Whelan, now head of the BSI and former Chicagoan, had two Sherlockians lead the entire assembly in some rousing, patriotic songs (quite a departure), and it was most successful.

After many songs and toasts (the group almost always sings “We Never Mention Aunt Clara,” modeled, I’d say, along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s much shorter poem, “The Ruined Maid”), Mike Whelan, as Wiggins, “investitured,” or conferred Birthday Honours on ten deserving Sherlockians. Each received the “One Shilling Award.” If one does something uncannily meritorious, he (or in our case, she) receives the “Two Shilling Award,” and this year, Susan Rice, a former Chicagoan and a lovely person, received that honour. Each honoree is given a name from the Sherlockian Canon. Enrico Solito was dubbed “Gennaro Lucca,” a rather murky figure from the short story, “Adventure of the Red Circle.” Saturday morning, promptly at 9 a.m., the doors of “the Dealer’s Room” are opened on the second floor of the Algonquin, and for a couple of hours, thousands of books and artifacts, all Sherlockian, are bought and sold. The Annual Cocktail Party on Saturday afternoon at the National Arts Club attracted more than 230 people, where Sherlockian Al Rosenblatt reported in verse on the events of the previous evening and the previous year; and Peter Blau auctioned off prize Sherlockian objects to aid and abet the Dr. John H. Watson Fund. Some were still going strong Sunday morning, for over 70 hardy and famished Sherlockians gathered at the Baker Street Pub for a neat brunch, arranged by the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes. There now!

Program courtesy of Fred Kittle.

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