Frederic Dorr Steele Drawing of Sherlock Holmes at The Player’s in NYC

Earlier last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to lunch at The Players, a club founded in 1888 by the noted 19th-century Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth (member of the famous/infamous Booth Family of actors). Housed in an opulent mansion (16 Gramercy Park) across the street from storied Gramercy Park itself - once called “a Victorian gentleman who has refused to die” by Charlotte Devree - The Player’s Club is akin to leaving the present day and stepping straight into the Victorian/Edwardian period: wood paneling, a carved staircase and pictures adorning almost every inch of every wall.

For example, there’s a very impressive portrait of Edwin Booth by noted American portrait painter John Singer Sargent:

[John Singer Sargent's Edwin Booth painting.]

In fact there’s an entire room called The Sargent Room in recognition of the three Sargents that hang on it’s walls. Adorning the other walls and rooms of the Player’s Club are many, many more outstanding works of art: the very famous and recognizable Edgar Allen Poe Daguerreotype (presented to the club in the magic year of 1895), Everett Raymond Kinstler's portraits of Katherine Hepburn and Gregory Peck, an oil painting of Mark Twain hanging under Twain's old pool cue, and the list goes on and on.

If you are a Sherlockian though, there’s one picture, hanging in ‘The Grill' room, that trumps all the others: an original Frederic Dorr Steele drawing of Sherlock Holmes:

[Stunning! ‘William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes’.]

According to Martin Dakin in his 1972 masterpiece A Sherlock Holmes Commentary, Frederic Dorr Steele’s “model for Holmes was the portrayal of the character by the American actor William Gillette and he was largely responsible for the association of Holmes with the calabash pipe and deerstalker hat.”

[Notice the Mark Twain drawing to the left - Twain was one of The Players’ incorporators.]

For those familiar with The Canon, the Player’s Club FDS drawing should bring to mind “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder" via Holmes’ scrutiny of a bloody hand print on the wall. In NORW a faked bloody thumb print is left at the scene of the crime in hopes of condemning an innocent man (also Holmes wouldn’t have been in his bathrobe since he was at a crime scene in Norwood, not his sitting room at 221B.

[Collier’s Weekly, featuring Sherlock Holmes - ‘The Norwood Builder’, published October 31, 1903, which I can only assume is based on the Player’s FDS illustration.]

Immediately below the gorgeous likeness of the Great Detective is an inscription referencing Gillette’s ACD-approved play Sherlock Holmes. In his lifetime, Gillette presented Sherlock Holmes approximately 1,300 times appearing “in many editions of the Sherlock Holmes canon and in magazines by way of photographs or illustrations, and was also well represented on the covers of theater programs.” 

[Rector: signed “Steele” lower right-hand corner.]

The bottom text reads: “‘William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes’ Mr. Gillette’s play “Sherlock Holmes” opened in New York November 6, 1899. This cover design, one of a series of drawings illustrates “The Return of Sherlock Holmes,” appeared in Collier’s Weekly in October 1908.”

The Player’s Club illustration wasn’t the only Frederic Dorr Steele drawing of Gillette qua Sherlock for Collier’s. In fact “Gillette was the model for pictures by the artist Frederic Dorr Steele, which were featured in Collier’s Weekly then and reproduced by American media. Steele contributed to Conan Doyle’s book-covers and, later, doing marketing when Gillette made his farewell performances. Conan Doyle’s series were widely printed throughout the USA, mostly with pictures of Gillette on stage. P. F. Collier & Son owned the copyrights of Steele’s illustrations and issued drawings in many editions.” 

[A typical cover for Collier’s Weekly - the U.S. Sherlock Holmes publisher post-Great Hiatus. Image from the Toronto Public Library’s Arthur Conan Doyle Collection.]

For more information on F. D. S.:

Frederic Dorr Steele: The Definitve Illustrator from the Friends of the Sherlock Holmes Collections (June 2002, vol. 6 No, 2). A short but very informative article about Steele’s life and work: “he met and corresponded with many of the most prominent Sherlockians of the day and attended a number of the annual Baker Street Irregulars dinners beginning in 1934, as well as maintaining a membership in the Players Club for almost forty years. His career declined during the 1930’s and a commission for The Limited Editions Club was a promising one.”

The Frederic Dorr Steele Memorial Collection by Andrew Malec is an interesting little catalog in PDF form published in recognition of the establishment of the FDS Memorial Collection in the University of Minnesota Library.

The Other Master: Frederic Dorr Steele - A Commemorative Essay by Andrew Malec (1984). Another PDF document published by the University of Minnesota Library.

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Coincidentally, while I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I happened to read “The Startling Events in the Electrified City: A Manuscript signed “John Watson,”” by Thomas Perry from Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger's about to be released A Study in Sherlock featuring Mr. Sydney Barton Booth - descendant of Edwin Booth (who was of course the brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth) - as a character who helps Holmes and Watson with his dramatic skills to pull off an extremely daring and high stakes ‘performance.’ 

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    Frederic Dorr Steel was born on 6 August 1873 at Eagle Mills, Marquette, Michigan. For Collier’s Weekly in 1903 he was...
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