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“Elementary, My Dear Watson”

December 11, 2014

William Gillette is someone most people have probably never heard of. A native of Connecticut, the name is a little more recognized here but his contributions to theater and culture are still not broadly known.  Much of what we associate today with Sherlock Holmes is due to Mr. Gillette.

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The Seventh Sister, William Gillette’s home
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Born in Hartford, Connecticut (in the same neighborhood that Mark Twain lived), William Hooker Gillette was the son of a former US Senator and his wife, a descendant of the Hooker family that founded Hartford.  He showed interest in the theater at an early age. At the age of 20, his big debut was the lead role in Twain’s play The Guilded Age (which Twain had recommended him for) at the Globe Theater in Boston.

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Already an established actor, Gillette took the role of Sherlock Holmes in a stage version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books. In developing the character for the stage, it was Gillette who introduced the now-familiar deerstalker cap, magnifying glass and curved pipe.

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The now-famous Sherlock Holmes hat DSC RX-100 Edited in LR

The now-famous Sherlock Holmes hat
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Gillette created a phrase for the play: “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow“, which became “Elementary, My Dear Watson” in the first spoken cinematic version of Sherlock Holmes. So without William Gillette, we would never have had many of the items we now assume have always been a part of the Sherlock Holmes character.

In his later years, Gillette purchased land on the southernmost hill in a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters (in East Haddam).  On this property overlooking the Connecticut River, he built a 24-room mansion resembling a medieval castle. He named it the Seventh Sister (although it is commonly, but incorrectly, referred to as Gillette Castle). Gillette supervised the construction and once he moved in supervised numerous improvements, many of them quite unique and inventive. The home has forty-seven doors, each one unique, and each one featuring intricate carvings for the latch. He installed mirrors so he could watch his guests struggling to open his custom-designed liquor cabinet.  He installed secret doors so he could make surprise appearance at the top of the stairs. He had his own railway on the grounds, complete with tunnels, bridges and stations.

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[See my other post for another unique piece of work]

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I believe this was once one of the train stations
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The State of Connecticut purchased the home and the grounds in 1943 from the executors of Mr. Gillette’s will.  He was very clear in that will, stating:

“I would consider it more than unfortunate for me – should I find myself doomed, after death, to a continued consciousness of the behavior of mankind on this planet – to discover that the stone walls and towers and fireplaces of my home – founded at every point on the solid rock of Connecticut; – that my railway line with its bridges, trestles, tunnels through solid rock, and stone culverts and underpasses, all built in every particular for permanence (so far as there is such a thing); – that my locomotives and cars, constructed on the safest and most efficient mechanical principles; – that these, and many other things of a like nature, should reveal themselves to me as in the possession of some blithering saphead who had no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.”

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Interior of the home, decorated for the Christmas season
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An interesting tidbit about Mr. Gillette – his valet and longtime friend was of Japanese decent.  The valet’s brother was the mayor of Japan and the one who gave Washington D.C. its first cherry trees.

Today the property is a Connecticut State Park. The home is open for tours and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Connecticut. The grounds are available for hiking and the bed of Mr. Gillette’s personal railway has been restored as a trail.

 

References:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Gillette#Coins_famous_phrase
http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?A=2716&Q=325204
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13 Comments
  1. This is funny Andy, as I thought both Holmes and Doyle as being quintessentially British and had never heard of Gillette! Your post has prompted me to dig deeper and as I find that, He was a stage performer and producer I now understand why. I did read that Doyle’s Versions were translated into French, German, Russian and Hindi prior to 1890 so I think he maintains the real authorship.

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    • I think the British can still retain credit for the original character – Gillette just made some embellishments that stuck.

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  2. Fascinating history and marvelous photos.

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  3. Tammy permalink

    Oh my, that is one fabulous stone home…love the shape and everything about it! I am so glad you gave us a glimpse inside of that grand home…kept saying as I was reading and looking at this pics I hope we get to go in!

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed them Tammy!
      The interior is a tough place to get shots, especially at Christmas. The cold weather keeps the outside quiet, but the inside is quite crowded. As you can see from the main interior shot, the lighting is very dim. Add the dim lighting and a dense crowd, and I couldn’t get many nice interior shots.

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  4. Julie permalink

    A very interesting story and beautiful photos to illustrate it. I love that grand interior shot in particular.

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    • Thanks Julie! I’m glad you like the interior shot – I would have preferred to have my wide angle lens, but the situation was such that I had my P&S.

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  5. I’ve reread the Holmes stories more times than I can count and watched lots of adaptations in films and on t.v. I am a big fan of all variations.

    It’s quite well known in Britain that a lot of the classic images of Holmes were not part of Conan Doyle’s stories about the detective.Conan Doyle did use the word “Elementary” and the Phrase “My dear Watson” in his works in the late 1800s and in the same story (The Crooked Man, 1894) but not together. PG Wodehouse (of Jeeves and Wooster fame) was the first to link them into a single phrase in 1915 in his book “Psmith, Journalist.” So I wonder if William Gillete was inspired by that to become the first person to do so on stage.

    Likewise, I wonder if his inspired idea of wearing a deerstalker on stage came from Sydney Paget’s original illustrations of the books Holmes is just once seen wearing one (The Boscombe Valley Mystery) though he was never described as wearing it in the books.

    It looks like a fascinating place to visit.

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    • The Wikipedia entry for William Gillette does reference the Sydney Paget illustration and having used the deerstalker hat.
      Gillette’s initial phrasing would have debuted with the play in 1899 (although I just found an interesting Snopes.com entry that questions whether Gillette really said it at all). The first use of the famous phrase in film does appear after the PG Wodehouse book.

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      • I don’t know if the BBC’s excellent modernised interpretation of the stories have been aired in the US. They have been cleverly continuing Gillette’s tradition of the deerstalker. If you haven’t seen them, they are worth watching. They are very different from the original stories with lots on “nods” to the originals.

        It is quite possible that the two uses of the “Elementary” phrase may have evolved quite separately. – these things happen. PG Wodehouse was (and still is) a hugely popular author in Britain. Was/is he as well know in the US?

        I guess that, like all history, it gets interpreted differently with each retelling. It becomes impossible to tell what the original truth was. This is usually pretty harmless when it is stories being remoulded; it is what has happened in the aural tradition throughout history. Hollywood does more than it’s fair share of reshaping both stories and history. Anderson’s and especially The Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales are changed beyond recognition, This might be a good thing as the originals can be a bit harrowing for kids. However, distortion of history in movies like U-571 and Braveheart and almost every Western ever made twist historical facts in a way that can be harmful.

        History is fascinating and have really enjoyed reading your blog over the last year. Merry Christmas, Andy.

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  6. Thankyou for bringing this interesting bit of history and drama to my notice, a pleasure to visit through your photography.

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  7. Always a fascinating history… No matter how often one visits!!! Great photos of this wonderful destination ( which luckily enough is here in town for me!). The castle the history are amazing and the grounds are a great space to walk talk and picnic with family & friends!!! A must see on any trip to CT! Oh and then to take the RiverQuest and see it from below!!! Awesome

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