A scion of one of Connecticut’s oldest and most prominent families, world-famous actor and playwright William Hooker Gillette was born in Hartford in 1853. He left Hartford at the age of 20 to seek his fame and fortune as an actor and stage producer and met with moderate success until 1899, when he landed the title part of Sherlock Holmes in a new stage adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective novels.
Gillette was the first man to portray Sherlock Holmes in a stage production sanctioned by Conan Doyle himself, and had personally assisted him in refining the original script to better suit the theater. His masterful portrayal of the Victorian detective was so popular that Gillette soon found himself touring the United States and Europe to sold-out audiences, and starred in a number of additional Sherlock Holmes dramatic productions for the next two decades. As the prototypical Holmes, Gillette was responsible for establishing some of the most iconic visual features of the fictional detective, including his “deerstalker” hat , curved pipe, his use of a magnifying glass, and his penchant for the violin. Once Conan Doyle began writing new Sherlock Holmes novels in 1901, he requested that Gillette be used as the visual model for the accompanying illustrations, forever linking the Connecticut actor’s stage identity with the “canonical” version of the character.
After years of basking in international stardom, Gillette unofficially retired from acting following a lukewarm revival of his role as Sherlock Holmes in 1923. However, the lifelong thespian found he couldn’t stay away from the limelight for long. In 1930, the 76-year-old actor announced a final farewell tour in which he would travel along the East Coast reprising his role as the world’s greatest detective. Connecticut newspapers were abuzz with the news that Gillette would perform at the popular Parsons Theatre in downtown Hartford for three days only.
Following performances in Washington, D.C., where he dined with President Herbert Hoover, and Baltimore, where he laid a wreath on the grave of Edgar Allan Poe on behalf of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gillette headed back to his home state and began his first Hartford performance on February 10. The next day, he was feted by some of the city’s most notable residents, who assembled a grand luncheon at the Hartford Club and presented the famous actor with gifts and accolades in honor of his legendary career and many contributions to the arts as an actor and playwright. Over 400 people were in attendance, and thousands more tuned in to hear Gillette endure plenty of good-natured roasting by old friends in a live broadcast on WTIC-AM radio.
Five years after Gillette’s death in 1937, the State of Connecticut purchased his estate in East Haddam, including his home, an eccentric stone castle perched on the banks of the Connecticut River which Gillette had designed himself. Today, the castle and grounds are open to the public as part of Gillette Castle State Park, one of Connecticut’s most popular attractions.
Emily E. Gifford, “Holmes at Home: The Life of William Gillette,” connecticuthistory.org
“Sherlock Holmes (1916 restored silent film),” youtube.com