Elementary, My Dear Watson

by Elise Warner

Ferry across the Connecticut River, from Chester to Hadlyme, to a “Once upon a time,” kingdom. Perched on the summit of “The Seventh Sister” the highest of seven imposing hills, is the formidable Gillette Castle. Built of local fieldstone, the castle with its tower and turrets, reigns over the lower Connecticut River Valley like a medieval fortress on the Rhine.

Within the castle are secret passageways, a staircase that disappears, a mysterious hide-a-way and locks that would challenge anyone but Sherlock Holmes.

Begun in 1914 and completed in 1919, at the cost of one million dollars, the castle was the “retirement home” of William Gillette, the actor, playwright and inventor. Gillette gave the breath of life to Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional Sherlock Holmes, wrote two plays “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes” and earned over three million dollars, a hefty amount in those days, with his portrayal of the great detective. His creative mind produced spectacular lighting and stage effects and he directed the castle’s construction with the same sense of the theatrical he utilized as a playwright and actor.

William H. Gillette was born on July 24, 1853 to U.S. Senator Francis Gillette, a strong advocate of abolition, education and reform, and Elizabeth Daggett Hooker, cousin to Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and a descendent of the Reverend Thomas Hooker, one of the colonists who established the city of Hartford in 1636. The Stowes, the Twains and Charles Dudley Warner, the crusading editor of The Hartford Courant, all lived in Nook Farm, a community in Hartford, that enjoyed intellectual discussions and literary pursuits.

A love affair with the theatre began at Christmas, in 1866, with a book titled “The Art of Amusing.” The thirteen-year old boy followed the book’s instructions, entertaining family and friends with tricks, charades and tableaux. Three years later, he built a puppet stage, played every part and joined with Otis Skinner – who would later support Edwin Booth, star in classics and write extensively about the theatre – in producing several plays in the Gillette carriage house.

An honor student at Hartford Public High School, he went on to Yale, his father’s Alma Mater, but never graduated instead, Gillette chose to learn the craft of acting. His choice surprised his family, though his father was considered an excellent mimic and often entertained with imitations of fellow Senators.

Mark Twain encouraged Will and Twain’s house provided the setting for theatrical performances. Twain gave the twenty-one year old, a small role as the jury foreman in a touring production of his dramatic play “The Gilded Age,” based on his 1873 novel. Gillette uttered four words, “We have,” and “Not guilty.”

His apprenticeship continued at Boston University’s School of Oratory where the lectures included, “The Diseases and Hygiene of the Voice, Declamation, Acoustics and Aesthetics.” In 1914, in a New York Times interview, Gillette said he could not act as he chose in those early days instead apprentices were taught the “tricks of the stage” – the tragic walk, the proper comedy face, laughs, shrieks and properly executed gestures. Tall, handsome, slender and talented, Gillette must have executed the tricks with “force and personal vigor,” as he soon began receiving favorable press notices.

When his father became seriously ill, the young actor returned to Hartford. Wanting to write and direct his own plays, he completed and revised his first play, “The Professor,” during his father’s illness. With the financial help of Mark Twain, the play opened in New York on October 29, 1891, and ran for 150 performances a healthy run in those days.

Gillette claimed never to read critical notices. “By the time you open in New York,” he said, “there is nothing they can say that will help you.” “The Professor,” pleased an audience who enjoyed laughter and suspense. Gillette wrote and adapted twenty plays, primarily melodramas and farce, during his tenure in the theatre.

By the age of twenty-nine, a success as a playwright, leading man and matinee idol, he could afford to marry Helen Nickles of Detroit. The couple enjoyed six happy years together before Helen became ill, on September 1, 1888, and died of a ruptured appendix. Gillette promised his wife he would never marry again. An intelligent, witty and mischievous man, he was rumored to be engaged to almost all his leading ladies but though he enjoyed the friendship of many women, he never re-married.

Inconsolable, his health affected by his sudden loss, Gillette stopped performing for almost six years. He plunged into playwriting; writing that proved financially and artistically successful. His works won critical acclaim, were produced by names such as Charles Froman and featured actors like Gilbert Miller and a young ingenue named Maude Adams who went on to become a theatrical legend.

Gillette returned to the stage with “Too Much Johnson,” written while recuperating and then in 1895, wrote and starred in “Held by the Enemy,” the first of his successful Civil War plays. “Secret Service,” followed; the Civil War, after a cooling off period, had become a popular topic for the stage. The play opened, in New York, with Gillette in the leading role and scored a major hit. The playwright, adept in the use of realism, dialogue and detail, wrote an intricately plotted thriller that keeps its audience on the edge of their seats and “Secret Service,” has been revived many times over the years. A television production with John Lithgow, Meryl Streep and Mary Beth Hurt was re-issued in 2002.

Gillette became fascinated with Sherlock Holmes and began a correspondence with Arthur Conan Doyle in 1898. At their first meeting, he arrived at Doyle’s home wearing a long gray cape and a deerstalker cap. Sherlock Holmes incarnate – Gillette was the right age (in his forties) and at 6’2″, the perfect height – his patrician features and deep-set, blue eyes made him appear to have stepped out of the pages of Doyle’s book.

Gillette extensively rewrote a five-act play that Doyle had written; then cabled Doyle asking permission to “Marry Holmes.” Sir Arthur replied that “He could marry Holmes or murder him or do anything he like with him.”

“Sherlock Holmes: A Drama in Four Acts” opened in Buffalo on October 23, 1899 then moved to New York’s Garrick Theatre. A highly dramatic, theatrical moment occurred in the Stepney gas chamber scene when Homes smashes the only lamp with a chair and the theatre is abruptly bathed in blackness. Playing the part 1,300 times, his imprint on the character is still recognized in motion picture and television productions. Instead of the old, oily clay pipe used in Doyle’s books, Gillette introduced a curved Calabash pipe so he could hold the drop stem pipe in his teeth and display his distinctive profile while saying his lines. He wrote and introduced the most celebrated – “Elementary, my dear Watson.” When Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about Holmes appeared in Collier’s Weekly in 1903, the illustrator Frederick Dorr Steele used Gillette as his model.

In his autobiography, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes about the play,” It was written and wonderfully acted by William Gillette, the famous American. Since he used my characters and to some extent my plots, he naturally gave me a share in the undertaking, which proved to be very successful. I was charmed both with the play, the acting and the pecuniary result.”

Gillette presented another Holmes play in 1905, a one-act parody titled, “The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes,” a one-act play added as a curtain raiser for a less successful play titled “Clarice.” Gillette, as Holmes, remained mute for the entire play while the dialogue was carried on between a madwoman who wrecks the apartment and a pageboy – played by a sixteen-year old Charlie Chaplin. Though the critics enjoyed the joke, the parody couldn’t save “Clarice,” but Chaplin went on to perform and tour with Gillette in a production of “Sherlock Holmes”.

Gillettes acting technique would be right at home in today’s theatre. He believed an actor should use elements of his own personality in building a character and employ physical action in place of unnecessary dialogue. In 1913, he delivered an address titled “The Illusion of the First Time in Acting,” to the American Academy of Arts and Letters that was published two years later.

While vacationing on his houseboat, “Aunt Polly,” in 1913, he anchored near the Chester-Hadlyme ferry and became captivated with the hills rising above the river. He purchased the tallest hill and 122 adjacent acres and built his imposing 14,000-foot mansion constructed with tons of local fieldstone bought at a dollar a cartload from local farmers.

An aerial tram conveyed native granite from the river to the top of the hill while roads to the castle were cut into slopes. The manor’s framework is steel, oak covers the beams, while inside twenty-four rooms exhibit exposed stone. All forty-seven doors and every window in the castle is made of hand-carved southern white oak and furnished with different locks individually designed by Gillette. His sitting room mirrors Sherlock’s room at 221B Baker Street and the fourth level of the castle holds a secret hide-a-way. Entry to the hide-a-way, comfortably furnished with two windows and a fireplace, was by a ladder that Gillette would pull through a trap door. Hidden in the main hall, with walls, decorated with raffia matting and Japanese rice grass and floors made of hardwood, is a secret door through which he could make a grand entrance. In the conservatory, a fountain was installed where two pet frogs, Mike and Lena, had a hopping good time. The dining area holds a built-in table, that moves on tracks, and two Tiffany light fixtures. Here, Gillette told his guests to help themselves from the bar before going to the upstairs landing and, by glancing into mirrors on the French doors in the living room, watch his friends struggle with the bars spring-loaded lock. Gillette would then appear and show his guests the bars trick mechanism.

A man who loved cats, Gillette housed between fifteen and twenty felines. One day, readers of the Deep River New Era newspaper read the following advertisement: “Two perfectly black Tommy kittens to be given away, one all black, other black with white feet and underside. Both have double forepaws that is, seven toed. Not Persian, Angora or Siamese, But Real Cats they come of a family of great mousers. Anyone wanting one or both of these delightful felines must write stating qualifications. That is, we want to be sure that they do not go to stupid boobs who don’t know what a cat is. Would like to have a recommendation from last cats you have lived with, but probably that is asking too much. Address WG, Box 96, Hadlyme, Conn.”

Trains were another of Gillette’s interests; he constructed a three-mile miniature railway powered by two locomotives one steam and one battery. A complete railroad yard maintained the train called “The Seventh Sister Shortline Railway.” Visitors from Helen Hayes to Charlie Chaplin to Albert Einstein to President Calvin Coolidge were taken for hair-raising rides over bridges and through tunnels at twenty miles per hour. Gillette, at the throttle, costumed in overalls and a cap, drove the locomotive and passenger cars. The train departed from the bottom of the hill near the ferry and returned via the western ridge to “Grand Central Station.”

In 1918, while starring in “Dear Brutus,” a play by J.M. Barrie, Will met and became mentor to a young actress, Helen Hayes. The ingenue, about to be fired, was tutored by Gillette and her job saved. Hayes went on to become the first lady of the American Theatre and one of Gillette’s closest friends. With “Dear Brutus,” Gillette abolished the custom of actors receiving applause between acts but the cast received eighteen curtain calls opening night.

Gillette hired a young Japanese, Yukitaki Ozaki, to work as a cabin boy on the “Aunt Polly” and Ozaki became his dresser, manservant and friend. When his family, descended from prosperous, Japanese nobility, decided to come to America to visit their son, Ozaki told Gillette he had a problem. His parents would not understand why their son, worked as a servant.

“It’s not a problem,” Gillette said, “It’s a challenge.” Gillette successfully served as his butler’s butler during their visit.

He died at the age of eighty-three in 1937; in his will, Gillette asked his executors not to sell his estate to some “blithering saphead,” after his death. His wish was granted when the State of Connecticut bought the property in 1945 and invited the public to Gillette Castle State Park. William Gillette, with his eccentric castle, panoramic view of the Connecticut River and the aura of theatrical magic that floats over the estate, continues to offer entertainment to an appreciative audience.

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