A duet: With an occasional chorus

Evelyn A. Herzog

Peter E. Blau

[0.1] Abstract—A presentation at the annual dinner of the Baker Street Irregulars, January 15, 2016.

[0.2] Keywords—Baker Street Irregulars; Fan club; Sherlock Holmes; Sherlockians

Herzog, Evelyn A., and Peter E. Blau. 2017. "A Duet: With an Occasional Chorus." In "Sherlock Holmes Fandom, Sherlockiana, and the Great Game," edited by Betsy Rosenblatt and Roberta Pearson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 23.

1. Peter E. Blau

[1.1] The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) have always had women as members, as Al and Julie Rosenblatt reported in their far-from-trifling monograph The Sherlock Holmes Crossword, published by the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota in 1958.

[1.2] The crossword puzzle, composed by Frank V. Morley, was published in the Saturday Review of Literature on May 19, 1934, by Christopher Morley as a test for membership in the BSI. And there were women on the list of those who solved the puzzle, published in two later issues of the magazine, including the "Staff of Mrs. Cowlin's Open Book Shop in Elgin, Ind." The bookshop staff were Gladys Norton, Katherine McMahon, and Dorothy Beverly, who had collaborated and submitted a flawless solution. The Rosenblatts interviewed all three of them and wrote that they "keenly remembered Christopher Morley, who occasionally dropped in."

[1.3] "Did he mail the winning entry back to you?" they asked Mrs. Norton. "No, he handed it to me," she replied, "with his congratulations on becoming a Baker Street Irregular."

[1.4] Of course when Christopher Morley issued invitations to the first meeting of the BSI, he did not invite all those who solved the crossword puzzle, and he definitely didn't invite any of the women, creating a tradition that lasted for decades.

[1.5] But consider what might have been: Michael Murphy has noted that Logan Clendening wrote to Vincent Starrett on November 20, 1934, reporting that "I have written to Woollcott suggesting that we have one woman, Irene Adler—who is the only woman there was—at the dinner, and nominate Miss Katherine Cornell to play the part." We don't know whether Alexander Woollcott acted on Clendening's suggestion, but it was not until 1942 that a lady was honored as the woman, not at the annual dinner but at the preprandial cocktail party.

[1.6] It's possible that Helene Yuhasova and Edith Meiser shared the honor in 1942. Next came Gypsy Rose Lee, toasted in 1943, apparently invited at the suggestion of Rex Stout, who obviously wanted to offer his friends a chance to boast about having had a drink with the most famous ecdysiast of the era. Other ladies were invited to the cocktail party from time to time in later years.

[1.7] It wasn't until 1958 that a woman was awarded an investiture in the Baker Street Irregulars, thanks to Edgar W. Smith: Lenore Glen Offord ("The Old Russian Woman"). I had a chance to meet her, and she explained that Edgar had made it clear that, despite her investiture, she would not be invited to the annual dinner.

[1.8] Edgar died in 1960, and Julian Wolff, who in 1961 formalized the practice of honoring the woman every year at the cocktail party, continued the tradition of inviting only men to the BSI's annual dinner.

[1.9] But: to paraphrase what Bob Dylan sang in 1964, "The Times They Were a-Changin'." And it wasn't long before times changed in the world of Sherlockians.

2. Evelyn A. Herzog

[2.1] As Peter has made clear, there have long been women Sherlockians and there have long been Baker Street Irregulars, but for many years there were only disjointed relations between the two groups. Now things are different, and my own group, the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, played a part in effecting the change, though it was a peculiar part.

[2.2] The Adventuresses (ASH) got started in the 1960s at Albertus Magnus College—we were a bunch of new friends sharing an endlessly interesting hobby. We read and discussed the stories, pored over the BSJ, worked on articles, and ventured to write to eminent Sherlockians, all of whom turned out to be Baker Street Irregulars and all of whom were kind to us and encouraged us.

[2.3] Our most avid correspondence was with William S. Baring-Gould, the author of the biography Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street who was now working on his annotated version of the canon. We wisecracked with him, and he jollied us along. Peter says I must mention our great moment of pride and shame with Bill Baring-Gould: we decided to go to New York and invite him to dinner; he agreed, we dined at Asti's in the Village, and then, when the bill came, we failed to grab it and he ended up paying for at least half a dozen of us. Astonishingly, he remained our friend, though it's possible that this incident hastened his death, which occurred within the year, to our great sorrow.

[2.4] There was consolation for us in the correspondence that had already begun with such friendly notables as John Bennett Shaw, Peter Blau, and Ted Schulz, all (as I mentioned) BSI and all generous with advice, humor, and copies of homegrown Sherlockian memorabilia, the like of which we'd never imagined.

[2.5] We enjoyed our Sherlockian activities, including our growing correspondence with this greater world of Sherlockians, scions, and publications, but one thing still rankled—and it was a pretty big thing. The Baker Street Irregulars was the premier Sherlockian organization, with distinguished members throughout the country, and it was men-only. However good we got at the Game, we would never be good enough to dine with them. To make matters worse, there were in those days relatively few scion societies and—young and impoverished as we were—there was little chance of getting to meet them for some years. Besides, many of those groups were men-only, too. Curses!

[2.6] And then an unexpected glimpse at paradise opened up: John Bennett Shaw got us invitations to the Gillette Luncheon at the 1968 Birthday Weekend. And we realized that we would be in New York at the very time that the Baker Street Irregulars were having their yearly dinner. And we realized we had an opportunity to open their eyes to the error of their ways. Six of us bought our train tickets.

[2.7] I can hardly tell you what a thrill it was to climb the stairs at Keen's Chop House and lay eyes on Sherlockians who weren't us. Part of the magic was that Lisa McGaw (not yet a BSI herself) presided over a luncheon that was already the peaceable Sherlockian kingdom of our dreams—men and women lunching together, discussing Holmes and so much more—it was heavenly and uproarious. We confided to our neighbors about our cause, and they said "You should picket." We said that we were going to, and they smiled.

[2.8] We spent the afternoon writing slogans on posterboard—"We Want In!" "BSI Unfair to Women!" "Let Us In Out of the Cold!" Then we bundled up and went down to begin our picket line outside Cavanagh's Restaurant. It was indeed cold—and there was not much warmth in the then-fashionable miniskirts and fishnet stockings. BSI walked past us and into the restaurant—at least I suppose some did, since we didn't know what most of them looked like. And then business got slow, and we didn't know how to wind things up, but another wonderful thing happened—John Shaw and Peter Blau materialized and invited us into the downstairs public bar to talk things over. They bought us drinks and said they'd say something on our behalf, so we composed the following manifesto:

[2.9]Gentlemen, this is it! We have long been distressed by your apparent reluctance to admit ladies into the BSI. In order to bring our opinion to your attention, we have come here through the bitter chill of winter to ask you to reconsider and bow to the feminine influence. It is not for ourselves that we have come—oh, no! It is for those lovers of Sherlock Holmes everywhere (he did get around a lot). In conclusion, we hope that when you are choosing new members, you will give equal consideration to the feminine Irregulars.

[2.10] Honor was now satisfied. John and Peter headed upstairs, and we headed back to The New Yorker Hotel.

3. Peter E. Blau

[3.1] What happened upstairs was that someone arrived at the cocktail hour and told Julian Wolff that "some girls are downstairs picketing the restaurant." Julian, well aware of who might have suggested the protest, turned to John Bennett Shaw and issued an order: "Do something about your girls." John, presumably wanting to be accompanied by someone who was closer to the age of the girls than he was, said to me: "Come along." And of course I did.

[3.2] John happily promised to read the girls' manifesto to those assembled at the dinner, and so he did, explaining first that as a serious Catholic, he knew something about Albertus Magnus College, a seriously Catholic school for young women in New Haven, Connecticut. "The school is so Catholic," John told the BSI, "if a girl isn't a virgin when she arrives at the school, she is when she graduates." And then he read the manifesto, amazing or amusing the BSI.

[3.3] The next day John and I found on Times Square a shop that sold newspapers printed with headlines of your choice. We chose "Baker Street Sextette in Picket Line Protest" and duly sent it off to the Adventuresses.

4. Evelyn A. Herzog

[4.1] So we treasured our souvenir and hoped that our protest had had some effect on the Irregulars, but there was little sign of that. Still, though we evidently hadn't won our case, there were certainly some happy surprises in store. As many of you remember, the 1970s were a golden age for Sherlockians. Coed societies sprang up everywhere, and existing ones flourished. It became easy to be a woman Holmesian—there simply was no distinction made between male and female enthusiasts in these many clubs. On a practical level, there were endless ways for all of us to enjoy our favorite hobby. But deep in our hearts, we women still felt bad that we couldn't aspire to membership in the Irregulars.

[4.2] For the Adventuresses, the 1970s were a magical time because we Albertus graduates got to meet and become friends with comradely Sherlockian women from throughout the country. Our inactive little college group came roaring back to life with an influx of wild, wonderful women—and if you think I'm overstating it, you weren't there.

[4.3] The chance that placed ASH in New York City meant that in carrying out our own plans, we were able unofficially to do some of the BSI's work for them. We'd established a kind of spiritual home for interested female Sherlockians from around the country. We held an alternate Friday dinner, at first just for female Sherlockians but soon for both women and men who wanted to celebrate the Master's birthday with kindred spirits but were not on the BSI's list. Today that event is run by an independent team of New Yorkers and is known as the Gaslight Gala—they're whooping it up across town as we speak. Christopher Morley and the earliest Irregulars could hardly have envisioned the throng who would come to town in conjunction with a dinner that they could not themselves attend, much less foresee that some provision would have to be made for them, but that's how things worked out.

[4.4] In the years after the picketing, as I recall it, the Irregulars and the Adventuresses got along pretty well on a personal level—after all, now many of us rubbed shoulders regularly at our local scion societies. With Julian Wolff's passing, some thought that there might be change in the air, but the new head of the Irregulars, Tom Stix, was a hard man to read. The BSI's membership had to be the BSI's decision—we had stated our opinion all those years ago and were resigned to the fact that you can't force people to like you.

[4.5] Which brings us to the Saturday cocktail party of the 1991 Birthday Weekend. I still get all shivery when I recall that evening. Tom Stix took the microphone and quieted the throng in the big palm court to make his announcements, which went from the welcome to the astonishing. He announced first an investiture being made simultaneously in the UK, namely, to Dame Jean Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur's daughter; then one to Katherine McMahon, who had solved the Morley crossword puzzle all those years ago; then to Edith Meiser, who had brought Holmes to the radio waves. The investiture of these three distinguished women of such standing in our world set the room on fire. What a moment of joy! And then—no one could believe it—he went on and invested three Sherlockian women of our own day: Julie Rosenblatt, Susan Rice, and me. It was like a dream, except much noisier. Cheers, tears, and champagne are about all I remember for the rest of the day. The door to the upper room at Baker Street was now open to all, and the 25 years since then have seen many fine Sherlockians of both sexes walk in together, for which I thank you.

The authors speaking

Figure 1. The authors performing their duet at the annual Baker Street Irregulars dinner, January 2016. Photo courtesy of the Baker Street Irregulars. [View larger image.]