Vincent Starrett—A Chicago man of letters

Robert Mangler

harles Vincent Emerson Starrett was born on October 26, 1876, in Toronto, Canada. At first, the child was believed to have been born dead and was wrapped in that day's edition of the Toronto Star. In a short time, however, the baby began to cry and was quickly retrieved. Starrett told his fellow reporters that he had appeared "in print" at a much earlier age than any of them.

When he was 10, the family moved to Chicago, but he would go back to Toronto in the summer to visit with family. On one of these excursions, in his grandfather's book shop, he discovered a book of short stories. One of these stories was "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," by A. Conan Doyle. He became a dedicated Sherlockian for the rest of his life. (This is said to be Doyle's favorite short story also.)

Starett went to John Marshall High School, but left two months short of graduation, because he and a friend wanted to "go off and see the world." They got as far as St. Louis. So he had to go to work. He wanted to be a writer and thought the newspaper business was a good place to start.

There were seven daily newspapers in Chicago in 1906, but only the Inter-Ocean would hire him because he had no experience. Another cub reporter hired at the Inter-Ocean at the time was Ring Lardner. But after a year, Starrett moved to the Daily News. At the News, he met people like Eugene Field, Westbrook Pegler, Sr., and, later, Ben Hecht and Charles Mac Arthur. He met the real Walter Burns and the others on whom the Front Page was based. Starrett once told me that the story was very close to the truth.

In 1912, he got the opportunity to interview Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He wanted to talk about Sherlock Holmes, and Doyle wanted to talk about Spiritualism. They compromised—half and half. In 1914, he went to the Washington, DC bureau. He liked to see Walter Johnson pitch for the Senators baseball team and go book hunting with the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Of course, FDR was a Sherlock Holmes fan, too.)

In 1916, he was sent to cover the war against Pancho Villa in Mexico. As a war correspondent, he spent much of the time in the Cantina with Jack London and Richard Harding Davis. Since things were too quiet, they paid some of the soldiers to stage a battle. There was one casualty at the battle of Xochimilco—Starrett was hit by a stray bullet in the leg. "OUR CORRESPONDENT WOUNDED!!" the headlines screamed.

By 1917, he had some of his short stories published in Colliers and The Smart Set, edited by H. L. Mencken, decided to try to be a writer full time, and left the newspaper.

He wrote his first book of poetry, Estrays, published in 1918, a short story, "The Escape of Alice," and a critical study, "Arthur Machen: Novelist of Ecstasy and Sin," also in 1918. In 1920, he wrote "Ambrose Bierce," and for Sherlockians, the finest pastiche ever written, "The Unique Hamlet." This he sent to Conan Doyle, who wrote back to say he liked it very much, and his mother liked it too!

During the 1920s, he authored five more books of poetry. Carl Sandburg wrote to Starrett at one point about his poetry, "Put some guts into it, Vincent." He also edited Poetry magazine for a time and another literary magazine from 1922 to 1924. This high school drop-out also taught at the Medill School of Journalism.

During the 1920s, he wrote many mystery short stories—one collection The Blue Door, published for the Crime Club, and two collections of Jimmie Lavender stories. His Jimmie Lavender, a Chicago private detective, was named for a Chicago Cubs pitcher.

His first two novels were Seaports in the Moon (1928) and Murder on 'B' Deck (1929). Other novels were Dead Man Inside (1931); The Great Hotel Murder (1935); Midnight and Percy Jones (1936); and The Laughing Buddha, (1937) (revised and reissued as Murder in Peking (1946).

In the 1920s, he wrote bibliographies of Arthur Machen, Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce. He also produced eight collections of poems. His essays and articles, which were collected in over a dozen books, range in topics from book collecting to Sherlock Holmes to memorable meals. One collection of his columns, Book Column, was published by The Caxton Club in 1958. His weekly column "Books Alive," appeared in the Chicago Tribune Magazine of Books from 1940 to 1966.

He edited books on mystery stories, spy stories, and, of course, Sherlock Holmes. He was the key to the beginning of the "Baker Street Irregulars" in 1934 in New York. The chief organizer, Christopher Morely, wanted to have the first dinner meeting in June, but Starrett could not be there. So, it was postponed until December.

What a gathering! It included: Christopher Morely, Vincent Starrett, William Gillette (who portrayed Holmes on stage for 35 years), Fredrick Dorr Steele (who illustrated Holmes in Colliers), Gene Tunney, Elmer Davis of CBS, Alexander Wolcott, Anthony Boucher, and other notables.

This was too good an organization to let pass, so local chapters, "Scion Societies," began to form around the country and, eventually, around the world. The third such was created here in Chicago by Vincent Starrett, Charles Collins of the Chicago Tribune, Stanley Pargellis, Librarian of the Newberry, and Horace Bridges, in 1943. It was (and still is) "The Hounds of the Baskerville."

Although he had been a reporter, war correspondent, poet, novelist, short story writer, anthologist, biographer, and literary critic, he thought of himself as a "Bookman."

His colleagues held him in great esteem. When he was awarded the first Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America in 1958, Ellery Queen said, " essayist and columnist who has made a fine art of writing about books and bookmen; as an explorer in bibliography and a discoverer in book collecting; as a sherlockolphile and connoisseur without peer—as, indeed, the noblest gentleman and scholar in our ranks."

Like so many great men, when he died in 1974, he was without funds. A friend paid for his funeral. His grave in Graceland next to that of his wife Ray remained unmarked until many of his friends and fans joined together in 1986, his centennial year, to erect a suitable headstone. Some $7,000 was raised in three-and-a-half months, and the headstone was dedicated on his 100th birthday, October 26, 1986. The last words should be Starrett's: "What would we do without books—old books. It is raining tonight, a bit beastly and coldly—with an odd quality of permanence in its sound—as if it had been raining just this way since the beginning of things—and would continue to rain just so until the end. And I have about a thousand books breathing around me in this cheerful room, and I don't care a damn." v

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Starrett's grave marker in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago. Photo by Robert Mangler.


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