Eerie Digest Interview with author
Henry Zecher June 1, 2011

ED- The Eerie Digest has a strong base with mystery readers everywhere. From students at UCLA and other colleges, as well as filmmakers, fellow writer's club members, and armchair enthusiasts, the lure of a good detective story is always fascinating. The most well known mystery writer is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the famous Sherlock Holmes mysteries. The person who brought the fictional character to life was an American actor though, by the name of William Gillette. With us today is Henry Zecher, author of the first full biography of Gillette ever published: William Gillette, America’s Sherlock Holmes, recently published by Xlibris Press.


ED - Henry, please tell our readers about your educational background.

HZ- I spent two years at Montgomery College, a local two-year commuter school, and joined the sports staff of the campus newspaper. Being the only one on the sports staff, that made me sports editor the day I first walked in. Instant promotion. But we had a great newspaper that was rated among the finest in the country. I went on to the University of Maryland and received my B.S. in journalism in 1971. In my years at Maryland, I wrote for the Diamondback, which had the distinction – on the one day when both metropolitan newspapers were on strike – of being the largest circulating daily in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area.

ED- Tell us when you first achieved an interest in writing.

HZ- I was in elementary school, probably 11 or 12 years old, when I began writing a history of the world. The problem was that I didn’t know anything about the history of the world, so it was a short-lived project. I wrote papers for classes and found I really enjoyed that, and wrote for my high school newspaper.

ED- What was your greatest influence in doing so?

HZ- Without question, my two greatest influences were sports writers: boxing/wrestling writer Stanley Weston and Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins, both fabulous writers and story-tellers. After graduation, I read The Complete Sherlock Holmes, and found another writing hero in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. At that stage in my life, it was primarily those three. C. S. Lewis and Mark Frost came later.

ED- After college, you became a sports writer. Tell us about this aspect of your life.

HZ- Those were the best years of my professional life. The Delaware State News is a small local daily, so we covered mostly local sports, but I loved it. Still, I got to do some really spectacular things: I rode with Richard Petty in his stock car around Dover Downs International Speedway, and rode around the same speedway with the Astonishing Neal, who was driving blind-folded.  I got into the ring with a professional middleweight boxer and wrote about it; I even served as a ring-side judge for a fight show in Wilmington, where on another occasion I interviewed boxing champion Jersey Joe Walcott. There were many other great adventures and great people to meet, but my all-time favorite was meeting and interviewing jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain. I played some jazz clarinet at the time, and Pete has always been my musical idol. He still is.

ED- You developed a love for history around this time. Please tell our readers what drove you to this new found passion.

HZ- I always found history interesting, but I really began reading it in junior high school. The Civil War, the world wars, and most of all the U.S. presidents, their lives and their tenures in office, the things they were involved in, the things that happened to them. Actually, while in elementary school I could name all the presidents, the years they served, and big things they did while in office. A major interest that I developed while in college was the work of Immanuel Velikovsky, particularly his reconstruction of ancient  Egyptian history. That interest led me to my greatest work, my analysis of the Papyrus Ipuwer, which Velikovsky thought was an Egyptian version of the Exodus story. He was correct to synchronize them, but he was wrong in believing they described the same event. Moses wrote Act I, took his people and left Egypt. Ipuwer stayed behind and described the aftermath.

ED- You wrote a number of articles for a well known journal about a number of historical figures. What is the name of the journal, and some of the personalities that you wrote about ?

HZ- The journal I wrote the most for in the 1990s was actually not well-known, but it had a large and loyal world-wide following. It was The Pipe Smoker’s Ephemeris, devoted to pipe and cigar smoking and anything related, like Sherlock Holmes. I chanced upon the Ephemeris about 1992. It consisted entirely of contributions from the readers, and the man who put it out – Tom Dunn of Long Island – published several of my stories. That got me writing more: about C. S. Lewis after Shadowlands came out, George Burns when he died, wrestler Buddy Rogers after his death, Sherlock Holmes and Gillette. My first major published work, however, had been my analysis of reformer Martin Luther’s influence on the English Bible. It was the cover story in Christianity Today Magazine at the time of Luther’s 500th birthday in 1983, and it has been reprinted several times. Most of these articles are on my website

ED- You even wrote about one of our favorite persons, Dracula. Describe the article and the protagonist that you wrote about.

HZ- That was for a satire magazine, The Journal of Irreproducible Results. Vlad the Impaler ruled a virtually crime-free society. Really! Criminals, no matter how much they were not deterred by capital punishment, were a little loathe to be impaled on sharpened poles rammed through their innards. Since criminals today too often get off easy, and perhaps on a night when the moon was full, I imagined modern sociologists searching for more effective criminal justice systems from the past. And, historically, Vlad’s was the only one that really worked. Not exactly politically correct, but it worked.

ED- Tell our readers about your upcoming biography, William Gillette, America's Sherlock Holmes.

HZ- I had always wanted to write a book, but I needed a subject. When I did a three-part series on Holmes in 1996 for the Ephemeris, I discovered that Gillette had first played Holmes in 1899. I saw a centennial coming, so I did a seven-part series on Gillette for the Ephemeris. That was all I intended to do, but I also put together a slide show on Gillette that I still perform, and volunteered it for the 1998 Holmes/Gillette festival in Tryon, North Carolina, where Gillette once lived. The festival organizer, Jerry Soderquist, accepted the offer and advertised me as the author of a book on Gillette. I reminded him that I had not written a book, only a magazine series, and he said, ‘‘Well, you better write one.’‘ So I did. I’ve now spent fourteen years bringing it to publication, but it was worth it, and it was terrific fun along the way.

ED- Please give us a glimpse of this real life character and his impact upon the famous detective that he portrayed.

HZ- Gillette was part of the vanguard of actors and playwrights bringing realism to the stage in the era of very unrealistic melodrama. He was tall, lean, a matinee idol of tremendous appeal. He was mesmerizing, described as one of Charles Dana Gibson’s notables. He was among those actors performing in a natural manner without the old melodramatic exaggerations, speaking and acting like real people instead of hysterical maniacs. He could be dramatic and comical, but he couldn’t take on roles that demanded great emotional depth. He could not emote on stage. So, with narrowly defined acting skills, he came to personify the strong, silent, triumphant hero standing tall, in command, in the midst of chaos. But, within a narrower range of roles, he was phenomenal. Helen Hayes later said she never saw such a combination of presence and dimension, substance and shadow, intelligence and control. She said she never again saw such timing as he had.

His treatise – The Illusion of the First Time – is still studied and referred to today. In it, he put forth the approach of making lines spoken on stage, and movements and actions, look as if they were being spoken and done for the very first time, not the one hundredth or one thousandth. His foremost desire was to create a ‘‘life situation’‘ each night on the stage.

As a playwright, he never dealt with controversial social conditions. He may have been, for a time, the very best at reading the public mind. He knew that his audiences wanted wholesome and heroic entertainment, and that’s what he gave them. But he was the first playwright to pay such exquisite attention to the realistic details of the mise-en-scène. Rooms in the homes he fashioned on stage looked like rooms you’d see in nineteenth century homes. The jail in Held by the Enemy, the telegraph office in Secret Service, and the Stepney Gas Chamber in Sherlock Holmes, all looked authentic and real. Among countless trivial details, the telegraph office featured a real telegraph key on which messages were tapped out in authentic Morse Code. No one at the time he appeared paid such close attention to details.

Unlike most other playwrights, then and now, he exalted women. His female characters were intelligent and strong. In Sherlock Holmes, Madge Larrabee is the dominant villain, rather than her husband; and the heroine – Alice Faulkner – actually defies Holmes himself, which even Irene Adler didn’t do to his face.

Held by the Enemy in 1887 was the first American play with a purely American theme to be both critically acclaimed and commercially successful in Great Britain at a time when the British held American arts in very low esteem. And Secret Service is still considered a masterpiece of its class, the closest Gillette came to the ‘‘well-made play.’‘ It is also the only play of his available on commercial DVD, and it gave us our first glimpse on film of a promising young stage actress named Meryl Streep.

His impact on Holmes was enormous. Aside from him naming the pageboy ‘‘Billy,’‘ the popularity of his play in England was carefully watched by publishers on both sides of the Atlantic who wanted Doyle to bring Holmes back from the grave. The Holmes icon – with deerstalker cap, curved pipe, profile, and ‘‘Elementary, my dear Watson’‘ – came more directly from Gillette, not from Doyle. The manner in which he played Holmes was copied, to varying degrees, by Clive Brook, Arthur Wontner, Basil Rathbone and every other actor playing Holmes until Jeremy Brett. And Sherlock Holmes created the formula, the template, for mysteries on stage and screen that we follow to this day.

ED- Describe William Gillette's home, life-style, and the many famous persons that he befriended.

HZ- Gillette grew up in the intellectual haven of Nook Farm in Hartford, Connecticut. His father was a crusading abolitionist and United States Senator, and his brother was later a member of the U.S. Congress. Among his neighbors and friends were Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Dudley Warner. Through the earlier years of his career his home base was in Hartford, but in 1891 he began building his mountain-top bungalow in Tryon, North Carolina, that later became a large house. Then, in 1914, he began building Gillette Castle, which is now the third most popular tourist attraction in the state. It’s every bit as eccentric as he was, and I have several picture pages of it in the book.

Gillette was as fascinating a character as those he knew, and his friends included Mark Twain, Frank Fuller, Arthur Conan Doyle, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Nast, Otis Skinner, Maurice Barrymore and his manager and close friend, Charles Frohman, who was the Stephen Spielberg of his day. Among those who visited the castle and took a ride on his miniature railroad were Calvin Coolidge, Albert Einstein and Yukio Ozaki, the great Japanese parliamentarian who gave us the cherry blossoms in 1912. That’s the kind of company he kept.

Privately, he was no party animal. He preferred solitude and the company of just a few friends; yet, if he ended up at a party, he was the life of it, and he made everybody glad he came. He could have been an architect or an engineer. He has five patents in his name. He designed and built the house in Tryon, and designed every nook and cranny of the castle, including secret entrances, trap doors and secret passageways.

He was truly a student of the theater and, while not a literary writer, he wrote an outstanding mystery novel – The Astounding Crime on Torrington Road – that is highly readable to this day. It would make a terrific movie.

Overall, his multitude of interests and endeavors is fascinating. If, as one writer claimed, he was most entertained by his own mind, I can identify with that because I was, too. He was often rude about being interviewed but otherwise he was good to people, kind and generous, helpful any time he could be. His neighbors in North Carolina and Connecticut all loved him dearly, not as a celebrity but as a neighbor and a friend. He was a genuinely good man who never had a scandal attached to his name. He actually made his world a better place for having been in it. You can’t ask any more than that.

ED- Where can people get copies of your book?

HZ- It is available from me through Paypal and the shipping is free, or from Xlibris Publishing Electronic versions will have to come from Xlibris.

ED- Henry, it has been an honor and a pleasure being able to introduce you to the legions of readers who follow The Eerie Digest magazine. We want to thank you for your time and ask you to keep in touch with us so that we can keep our readers well informed with everything you do.

HZ- My pleasure, Joseph. Thank you. I will. And, as Gillette would say at this point: Farewell, good luck and merry Christmas.

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