Interview with Ray Betzner

La Gazette du 221B : Can you introduce yourself and describe your Sherlockian journey?

Ray Betzner : I was born outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1950s and eventually studied journalism at West Virginia University. The first 10 years of my professional life were spent as a reporter for daily newspapers in West Virginia and Virginia. Then I changed careers and have been working in public relations for colleges and universities ever since. By the time this is published, I will have retired from my job as an Associate Vice President at Temple University in Philadelphia. Along the way I married my high school sweetheart, who has no interest in Sherlock Holmes, alas. We have one son who is married and lives in Virginia, which is where we will be living by the end of 2021.

As for my Sherlockian journey: My first real memory of the Sherlock Holmes stories was seeing two books in my local library as a teen-ager. One was The Complete Sherlock Holmes, with an introduction by Christopher Morley. I was captivated by Sherlock Holmes and his extraordinary mind. Holmes had an ability to put together clues in a way that others missed, which seemed like magic to me at the time. He was always cool and in control, just the opposite of how I saw myself at the time.

The other book was the 1960 edition of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes by Vincent Starrett. Starrett’s book had a chapter that talked about The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), a group of Holmes admirers that had been founded by Morley and met once a year in New York City. To think that there was a group of literate, witty and friendly folks who played with the Sherlock Holmes stories as adults was fascinating. I secretly wanted to be part of that group and am still somewhat surprised that I am.

At university, I saw a copy of The Baker Street Journal and discovered there was a scion (or chapter) of the BSI in our town. I interviewed its leader, Andrew Fusco, for the student newspaper and he invited me to a meeting. We remain good friends to this day. Andy also gave me John Bennett Shaw’s address and John really opened up the world of Sherlock Holmes fandom for me.

G221B : What first awakened your interest in Vincent Starrett and made you want to write a blog about him?

R.B. : As I mentioned, Starrett’s book The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes really had a big impact on me. Eventually I purchased a reprint of the original 1933 edition and fell in love with the book all over again. I liked the way Starrett shifted from talking about how Arthur Conan Doyle created the character, to treating Holmes like a real person. Starrett was deft at slipping back and forth between the “real world” and the Holmes stories. As John Bennett Shaw used to say, when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, “There’s a fine line between fiction and reality. We’re here to erase that line.”
Starrett was a poet and wrote about Holmes with warmth and love. He wrote this at the end of one chapter in Private Life:

“But there can be no grave for Sherlock Holmes or Watson … Shall they not always live on Baker Street? Are they not there this instant, as one writes? … Outside, the hansoms rattle through the rain, and Moriarty plans his latest devilry. Within, the sea-coal flames upon the hearth, and Holmes and Watson take their well-won ease … So they still live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart: in a nostalgic country of the mind: where it is always 1895.”

That perfectly captures how I feel about Holmes.

G221B : How do you chose the topics you want to talk in your blog, about and how do you do your research?

R.B. : You are the first one to ask me that question and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that there is no rhyme or reason to the choice of topic. Often what happens is that I will be reading something Starrett wrote and I’ll wonder what was going on in his life at the time or how his attitudes towards certain writers or topics changed over the course of his long life. (Starrett was born into the late Victorian era and died in 1974.)
The histories of his works also intrigue me. I’ve done deep dives into the writing and publication histories of his major works, especially Private Life and his famous poem 221B. Those have also been the most popular blog posts.
As for research, I’ve built a good Vincent Starrett library, have a respectable Sherlock Holmes library, and use online sources when practical. I am never so happy as when I am surrounded by books and newspaper clippings and, after pulling out bits and pieces from all of them, can shed new light about some aspect of Starrett’s life.

G221B : How did Starrett discover the world of Sherlock Holmes?

Vincent Starrett

R.B. : Starrett was a precocious reader as a boy and loved adventure tales. One day while exploring the home his two aunts shared in Toronto, he found a trunk of old books. A collection of the early Holmes stories were in there, and he was mesmerized. Here’s how he described it in his memoirs, Born in a Bookshop: « I sat down with it on the front steps in a blaze of summer sunshine. My aunts came and went on the porch above me but, in the words of the old Biblical writers, I heard them not. I was still reading Sherlock Holmes when the lamps were lit inside the house, and I was called to dinner. » It was the start of a lifelong love affair with Holmes.

G221B : The range of Starrett’s writing is huge, fiction, essay and poetry. As a writer, how did he understand himself?

R.B. : That’s a very good question. First, he thought of himself as a poet. It was the least successful of his various writing passions, but he felt he best revealed himself in his poetry.

His essays about books run a close second to his poetry. He believed his role in life was to get others excited about books, authors and reading. The one constant from his earliest essays in the 1910s to the pieces he wrote near the end of his life, is an affection for books and the impact they can have on your life. His early essays on books and book collecting, published in Penny Wise and Book Foolish, show him at his best.

He was largely known as a detective story writer in the 1920s and ‘30s, with dozens of short stories and a handful of mystery novels. Starrett largely gave up writing fiction in the 1930s when his type of intellectual detective story was being eclipsed by the hard boiled school. His favorite novel is also his least well-known: Seaports in the Moon. It’s a fantasy that blends historical personages with literary characters in a never-ending search for water from the Fountain of Youth. It is a playful work, full of humor and pathos, and was probably published before its time.

G221B : His writing can switch from humor and wit to deep melancholy. Did this reflect his personality over time?

R.B. : That’s a perceptive question. Starrett’s childhood went from the stability and love of his extended family in Toronto, to the sometimes chaotic life his father led them in when they left for Chicago. In their first 10 years in the city, they moved almost every year. Collecting books was, I think, a way of building stability in his early life that balanced the constant moving.

At the same time, he was always restless. He made his way to London as a teen cleaning up after cattle in a steerage ship. He nearly starved on his way home and had to wire his parents for money, an admission of defeat. His first marriage was not a happy one, and he divorced his first wife to marry the love of his life, Rachel (Ray) Latimer. Ray adored Vincent, but she was emotionally unstable and he had to care for her in an era when mental illness was not well understood.

Fletcher Pratt- Christopher Morley- Rex Stout-1944 – photograph by Herbert Gehr

On top of all this was his inability to control his book collecting, which meant he was often in financial difficulties. Starrett never took money seriously and spent it as quickly as he made it. He had to sell off large sections of his library on more than one occasion, and those were emotionally crushing decisions. Books were both his passion and his downfall. Through it all, he found solace in the Sherlock Holmes stories and in the fellowship of other Holmes fans.

G221B : Did he meet the other early Sherlockians…Ronald Knox, Christopher Morley, Edgar Smith and so on. What was their relationship?

R.B. : Starrett actually interviewed Sir Arthur on one of his trips to the States. Starrett wanted to talk Sherlock Holmes, but Sir Arthur was more fixated on Spiritualism.

I don’t know if he ever had a relationship with Knox. At least I can’t recall seeing any letters that went back and forth between the two men.

It was Private Life that brought Starrett and Morley together. Morley instantly recognized a fellow Holmes devotee whose passion for the 60 stories was equal to his own. He invited Starrett to the first formal dinner meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars and the two remained corresponding friends to the end of Morley’s life. Private Life also attracted the attention of Edgar W. Smith, who admired the book, but held strong views about Holmes that differed from Starrett’s. It wasn’t long before the three of them became the acknowledged leading voices about Sherlock Holmes in the United States.

G221B : I can’t resist to asking you to tell us about the only BSI dinner Starrett attended. Is there a reason why he didn’t return?

R.B. : It’s a sad story really. As I have mentioned, Starrett’s wife, Ray, was emotionally unstable and could not bear to have him leave her, even for a few days. At the same time, Starrett’s perpetual poverty prevented him from making the trip from Chicago to New York each year. That’s why he started The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic), or as he thought of it, the Chicago Irregulars. They were his way of enjoying Sherlockian sodality without having to leave the city and Ray.

G221B : What would be considered Vincent Starrett’s major Sherlockian works?

R.B. : There are three: First in its influence is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Before there was a Baker Street Irregulars, or The Baker Street Journal, there was Starrett’s series of essays that treated both Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes as individuals worthy of study. There was no other book like it on the U.S. market when it was published in 1933. Even though it was the height of the Great Depression, it sold well enough to go into a second edition and then a British edition in 1934.

But it was not his first Holmes work. In 1920, Starrett wrote a pastiche called The Unique Hamlet which used the devices of a Sherlock Holmes story to make fun of book collectors. Unique Hamlet was published in a limited edition of just over 100 copies and is probably the most well-known Holmes story besides those written by Sir Arthur. Original copies sell for several thousand dollars American when they go on the market, which is not often. Finally there is his sonnet to Holmes, 221B. Written during World War II, it’s a melancholy reflection on all that was lost in the war; but at the same time, it is a tribute to the British people as exemplified by Holmes and Watson, “two men who never lived, and so can never die.”

G221B : Which one is your favorite and why?

R.B. : Now that’s a tough question. I suppose 221B is my favorite. It still has the power to make me feel the depth of loss and desperate hope that are blended in its lines. Starrett’s poetry rarely exhibited so much emotion, but he created a classic when he wrote 221B. It is no wonder so many Sherlock Holmes societies end their meetings with it.

G221B : What is the legacy of Starett for Sherlockians of today? Not only his work, but also as a person ?

R.B. : Several years ago I heard from young Sherlockian who was disappointed when she read Private Life, because it seemed almost juvenile when compared with the articles about Holmes that are being written today. That’s an accurate assessment. You have to read Starrett’s essays on Holmes in their proper historical context, and remember that the kinds of Grand Game criticism we do today was still in its infancy when Starrett was writing. Indeed, the topics he discussed (the untold stories Watson refers to, the romance of life at 221B, the ways in which Sherlock Holmes has entered the popular culture, the artists and actors who have portrayed Holmes, etc.) were first explored by Starrett in his essays. I sometimes say that he taught us how to talk about the Holmes stories with a child-like wonder, without sounding childish. In many ways, he laid the foundations for the things we enjoy so much about Holmesian scholarship today.

At the same time, Starrett suffered the same fate as Sir Arthur: they both had a broad range of written works, but are largely remembered just for Sherlock Holmes. That’s why I write about his other interests in the blog, to remind folks that Starrett’s interests went well beyond Holmes. There’s one more point about Starrett that should not be lost here: He was an enthusiastic correspondent and wrote letters every day to Holmes friends around the globe. In the days before the internet made Zoom meetings with Sherlockians around the world possible, Starrett was a clearinghouse for Sherlockian news and gossip. Even as his health began to fail when he reached his late 80s, his enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes remained. For Vincent Starrett, his love of books and Sherlock Holmes were fixed points in a changing age.

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