Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Excited as children about to enter an enchanted realm, my husband and I board a ferry that whisks us across the Connecticut River from Chester to Hadlyme. In front of us—at the peak of the highest of seven commanding hills, a hill known as The Seventh Sister, Gillette castle— a formidable fortress that belongs to the Middle Ages and the “retirement home” of William Gillette, the actor, dramatist and inventor— commands the lower Connecticut River Valley.
Gillette—intelligent, witty and mischievous—gave the breath of life to Sir 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 sum in the early1900s, with his portrayal of the great detective.
Begun in 1914, the castle was completed in 1919, at the cost of one million dollars—equal to about thirty million today. Beneath the castle’s tower and turrets are secret passageways and a staircase that disappears. The framework of the manor is steel and oak covers its beams while inside twenty-four rooms exhibit exposed stone and forty-seven doors and every window in the castle are made of hand carved southern white oak furnished with a different lock, individually designed by Gillette, locks that would challenge anyone but Sherlock Holmes. Gillette’s sitting room mirrors Sherlock's 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, is by a ladder, a ladder Gillette would pull through a trap door. Raffia matting and Japanese rice grass decorate the main hall, floors are made of hardwood, and within the room is a concealed door through which William Gillette often made a grand entrance. Gillette conceived and directed the castle’s construction with the same originality and sense of the theatrical he utilized as a playwright and actor.
In 1898, Gillette’s fascination with Sherlock Holmes led to a correspondence with Arthur Conan Doyle. At their first meeting, he arrived at Doyle’s home wearing a long gray cape and a deerstalker cap. Sherlock Holmes incarnate— in his forties Gillette was the right age and at the perfect height at 6’2”—Gillette’s patrician features and deep-set, blue eyes made him appear to have stepped out of the pages of Doyle’s book. 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.
Gillette extensively rewrote a five-act play that Doyle had written then cabled Doyle asking permission to “Marry Holmes.” Sir Arthur replied, “He could marry Holmes or murder him or do anything he like with him.” The original rewrite was lost in a fire at the Hotel Baldwin in San Francisco but Gillette reconstructed the play and sent the manuscript to Doyle. According to David Stashow’s 1999 book, Teller of Tales: the Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, Doyle’s reaction to the script was, “It’s good to see the old chap again.”
Sherlock Holmes – A Drama in Four Acts, produced by Charles Frohman, opened in Buffalo on October 23, 1899 then moved to New York’s Garrick Theatre on November 6. Gillette’s creative mind produced spectacular lighting and stage effects—musical themes and dramatic chords were also used to convey mood and emphasize conflict as it unfolds in the mystery melodrama. The setting is dark and gloomy Victorian London where Holmes rescues the lovely Alice Faulkner, saves a royal marriage and confronts his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty. Frissons of fear chill and delight the audience when at the end of Act I, in the Stepney gas chamber scene, Holmes places Alice behind him and smashes the room’s one lamp with a chair—the theatre is abruptly plunged into blackness. The only light left in the chamber comes from the glow of Holmes cigar.
“The public likes villains,” Gillette said in his opening night speech and since 1899, the audience has enjoyed a most satisfactory encounter between Holmes and his evil adversary, the reptilian Professor Moriarity.
Playing the part 1,300 times, his imprint on the character is recognized today. Instead of the straight, oily clay pipe used in Doyle’s books, Gillette introduced a curved Calabash pipe—he could hold the curved stem pipe between his teeth, display his distinctive profile and speak his lines. He wrote and introduced the most celebrated line—“Elementary, my dear Watson.
Gillette made his last stage appearance in the part in 1932 when he was in his seventies but his appearance, once seen on cigarette cards and a cartoon in Vanity Fair Magazine, still defines the fictional Holmes.
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.