February 12: The Connecticut Man Who Became England’s Most Famous Detective

 

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. Drawn early to the theater arts, he left the city at the age of 20 to seek his fortune as an actor and stage producer. He met with only moderate success for a quarter century, until 1899, when he landed the title part of the detective Sherlock Holmes in a new stage adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s internationally popular mysteries.

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes, 1916.

Gillette was the first man to portray Sherlock Holmes in a stage play sanctioned by Conan Doyle himself, and he personally assisted the author in refining the original script to better suit the demands of the theater. Gillette’s brilliant portrayal of the Victorian detective was hugely successful — so popular, in fact, that the actor was soon touring the United States and Europe to sold-out audiences. Gillette became the iconic public embodiment of the fictional English detective and starred in a variety of Sherlock Holmes dramatic productions for the next two decades. He was responsible for some of the most memorable characteristics we now associate with the eccentrically individualistic detective, including Holmes’s wearing a “deerstalker” hat, smoking a curved pipe, using a magnifying glass, and playing the violin. Gillette became so closely identified with the character he helped complete that when Conan Doyle began writing new Sherlock Holmes novels in 1901, he insisted Gillette be used as the model for the accompanying illustrations. This forever linked the Connecticut actor’s stage identity with the “canonical” print version of England’s most famous fictional sleuth.

Late in life, after years of basking in international stardom, Gillette unofficially retired from acting. However, like many a performer after him, the lifelong thespian found he couldn’t stay away from the limelight. In 1930, at 76, the actor announced a final farewell tour in which he would travel along the East Coast reprising his role as the world’s greatest detective one last time. Connecticut newspapers were abuzz with the news that Gillette would perform at the popular Parsons Theatre in downtown Hartford for three days only.

A photograph of the Parsons Theatre in Hartford, circa 1920. (Connecticut Historical Society)

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 for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gillette came back to his home state, opening his final Hartford appearance on February 12. The next day, he was feted by some of the city’s most notable residents at a grand luncheon at the Hartford Club. The guests – many of them lifelong friends and associates – presented the famous actor with gifts, accolades, and anecdotes marking his legendary career and contributions to the arts. Over 400 people attended the luncheon, 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.

At the end of his tour, Gillette retired to the unusual stone castle he had built high above the Connecticut River in East Haddam. Five years after his death in 1937, the State of Connecticut purchased the actor’s estate, and today the castle and grounds are open to the public as part of Gillette Castle State Park, one of Connecticut’s most popular attractions.

Further Reading

Emily E. Gifford, “Holmes at Home: The Life of William Gillette,” connecticuthistory.org

Sherlock Holmes (1916 restored silent film),” youtube.com