April 5, 2020

A View from My Porch: Keep Calm and Carry On

Original 1939 UK poster. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.

The title of this essay is derived from a poster designed by the British government in the late 1930s to maintain morale when war against Germany became imminent. This essay roughly considers “a day in the life” of Southeastern Connecticut residents as the COVID-19 pandemic impacts each of us and our collective ability to “carry on” our lives as usual. I will present the key elements of this crisis, drawing from the wealth of real data that have become available, and define some of the terms used by our public health professionals so that you can better understand the basis for the required actions.

The Statistics: 

The Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) reported on March 23 that there were 618 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state; with multiple cases in each of Connecticut’s eight counties. Fifty-four patients were hospitalized, and 12 residents have died. Over 60 percent of Connecticut cases are in Fairfield County.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported over 50,000 cases and nearly 700 deaths across the United States. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports over 415,000 cases and nearly 19,000 deaths worldwide. Note that these numbers change, and probably increase, daily. 

Excuse me in advance, but this isn’t our first rodeo; and we’ve successfully dealt with pandemics in the past. These include the HIV/AIDS crisis that began in the mid to late 1970s, and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. 

Unfortunately, our response to COVID-19 was late and disorganized with mixed and confusing messages coming from the highest levels of the federal government. As a result, testing for the disease started late, supplies of critical personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves for health care personnel became scarce, and were not replenished in a timely manner.  The same was true of essential hospital equipment like ventilators, which are the “breathing machines” used for treating patients in severe respiratory distress. 

And so, on March 10th, Connecticut Governor Lamont joined several governors in nearby states and declared both a public health emergency and a civil preparedness emergency. A public health emergency gives the state authority over quarantine, while a civil preparedness emergency grants the governor broad powers over state institutions, allowing him to restrict travel, close public schools, some businesses, and public buildings.

As a result, only “essential businesses”, which include: grocery stores, pharmacies, medical offices, hospitals, childcare, auto repair, banks, and emergency services remain open. Restaurants may remain open, but for takeout and delivery only. Schools were closed on March 31, and there is some thought that they may remain closed through the end of the semester. Hospitals have changed visitation rules.

I will not list the “non-essential” businesses. Tele-commuting is encouraged when at all possible. These restrictions and closures have resulted in significant displacement of workers and unemployment has grown.  

Important Terminology: 

COVID-19 is a disease triggered by a coronavirus, which is a relatively common virus that can cause both upper and lower respiratory tract infections. 

In the past, most coronaviruses weren’t dangerous and caused only mild respiratory problems. However, in early 2020, following a late 2019 outbreak in China, the World Health Organization identified a new type of coronavirus. Officials named this new virus “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus2 “(SARS-CoV-2)”. This highly contagious and virulent microorganism is the agent that causes COVID-19; which can lead to pneumonia, respiratory failure, septic shock, and death.

Older adults and any individual with a serious underlying medical condition are at higher risk for COVID-19’s more serious complications. The CDC notes that people may be most contagious when they are at their sickest. However, note that many cases are still mild to moderate and not life-threatening. These can be treated at home.

You may have also heard this virus referred to as “novel”, which, very simply, refers to a virus that has not been seen before, or has never infected humans before. As such, it’s unlikely that anyone will have immunity, or antibodies that protect them against the novel virus. 

Public health professionals stress the need to “flatten the curve” as a means of controlling this disease. The curve refers to the rate of growth of new cases displayed graphically (i.e., the projected number of new cases over a specific period of time). A “flattened” curve staggers the number of these new cases over a longer period, so that people have better access to care, and do not overburden the healthcare system. 

Transmission:

The virus is spread primarily from person-to-person, commonly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, saliva, or from some hard surfaces on which the virus may live for four or five days and remain infectious for even longer.

Prevention:

The best way to prevent this disease is to avoid being exposed to the virus. The CDC still recommends social distancing to reduce the probability of contact between individuals carrying the infection with others who are not infected. 

The goal is to minimize disease transmission, and its resultant morbidity, and ultimately, mortality. The minimum recommended measures include:

  • Allow six feet of interpersonal space, which means avoid crowded social activities, like going to pubs, bars, and restaurants, sporting events, theaters and cinemas.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently; use hand sanitizers.
  • Stay home when you are sick. 
  • Use the “usual” coughing and sneezing protocols.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe. 

Testing is a good thing:

It is correct that testing does increase the number of individuals identified with the disease, but it also provides the data required to target resources and plan for future needs. Testing is now widely available. All acute care hospitals have the ability to test, although for those that utilize the DPH lab in Rocky Hill, testing is reserved for patients that have been admitted to the hospital.

There are also a number of outpatient testing sites that use private labs, and do not need to comply with the admission restriction. All sites require a physician’s order, who, at present, must make an appointment for the patient.

Critical and Immediate Issues:

This crisis will not end soon. Only one source predicts an end by April 12, which is Easter Sunday in the United States. Most experts agree that an end date is difficult to predict, but 60 days is feasible.

There is currently no vaccine or “miracle” drug specifically targeting COVID-19 — no antiviral drugs are licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat patients with COVID-19. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and collaborators are working on development of candidate drugs for rapid testing and evaluating re-use of drugs approved for other diseases. Current treatments often focus on protecting against opportunistic infections and alleviating symptoms while the disease “runs its course.”

We do not yet know what the recurrence rate is for patients, who have recovered from COVID-19. 

Americans have never really faced the rationing of healthcare services. It is clear, however, that we must plan for a possible surge of critically ill patients and identify additional space in which to provide care. Unfortunately, it may be possible that our medical professionals will need to make decisions regarding assignment of scarce resources like ventilators. 

I am confident that the United States will allocate resources to support our citizens and small businesses that face economic hardships as we move through this crisis. 

Make certain that you know the source of the information about this disease. The most reliable data comes from Connecticut DPH, Ledge Light Health District, and the CDC. 

Finally, God save the United States if we ever reach the point when we have to value a life lost in this pandemic less than a life lost in an economic downturn (whatever that is.)

Share

 A View from My Porch: Who’s Played Sherlock? Who Did it Best?

Although more than a century and a quarter has passed since publication of Arthur Conan Doyle’s first story, Sherlock Holmes continues to inspire novels, movies, TV, and the stage. I will review some of the actors who played Holmes in this concluding essay in my Holmes duology; and assess how true each was to Conan Doyle’s artistic vision.

Where possible, I’ll contrast each actor’s portrayal with the Holmes described by Dr. Watson, which I have paraphrased as, “His very person was such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. He was rather over six feet, and so lean that he seemed considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, and his thin, hawk-like nose and prominent chin gave his whole expression an air of alertness, decision, and determination.”

Note that I occasionally will refer to the “canon” in this essay, which consists of the 56 short stories and four novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and published in the Strand Magazine.

This is no easy task. In 2012, one of the world’s most reliable sources, i.e., The Guiness Book of World Records, awarded the title for “most portrayed literary human character in film & television” to Sherlock Holmes, who had already been presented on screen, at that time, more than 250 times. He has been played. in some manner, by nearly 100 actors, including Michael Caine, Benedict Cumberbatch, Christopher Lee, Robert Downey Jr., Ian McKellen, Jonny Miller, Peter O’Toole, Christopher Plummer, and Basil Rathbone.

However, I will focus only on the MSM, that is, the Main-Sherlock-Media, and exclude the “Sherlocks” in parodies like Without a Clue, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, and The Great Mouse Detective.

Sherlockian Literature After Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Award-winning American playwright, Ken Ludwig, set The Game’s Afoot at a cast party in 1936 Gillette Castle. Published in 2012, the play was presented at the Ivoryton Playhouse in 2017. Jim Bennet, of Mystic, has written three historical mysteries regarding William Gillette under the pen name James Walker; in these, Gillette uses his stage persona as Sherlock Holmes to investigate murders and other crimes. 

In addition, a growing group of authors is writing short stories and novels “in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle”. Many of these “pastiches” are quite accurate in their portrayals and have begun to form a subcategory of popular literature.

Sherlock in the Cinema and on TV

Rather than attempt an exhaustive review of every actor who has portrayed Sherlock in any television or movie production, I will begin this review in the late 1930s with Basil Rathbone’s interpretation, and continue chronologically to the present. 

I feel that any review of Sherlock must also consider the associated Dr. Watson. However, I will not review the concomitant LeStrade or Moriarty characters in this essay.

I don’t pretend to have the expertise of Old Lyme resident David Handler’s character Mitch Berger of Dorset in judging these actors, but I can certainly distinguish good acting from bad; and sloppy dialog from a well-constructed plot. Moreover, in the spirit of some current American politicians, there’s absolutely no science in these assessments, although I’ll start with the null hypothesis that Basil Rathbone is Sherlock, and attempt to disprove that premise.

Basil Rathbone

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.

In 1939, Basil Rathbone played Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles with Nigel Bruce as Watson. They continued through 1946 and completed 14 Sherlock Holmes movies. Almost concurrent with movie production, they also starred in a serialized radio drama, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, that aired in the United States from late 1939 through mid-1947. 

With the exception of Hound, these films were only loosely based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon, but were updated to reflect the issues of the day. I’m not claiming that all 14 were great cinema; but they certainly were respectable wartime productions. 

So, by mid-century, the Rathbone/Bruce team was recognized and accepted in both America and Great Britain as Holmes and Watson. I’ll reference only two movies to support my claim. 

In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Holmes, disguised as an elderly book seller, smuggles a Swiss scientist and his advanced bomb sight into England just as the Gestapo prepared to arrest him and seize control of his laboratory. Many of the Holmes’ wartime movies ended with a soliloquy by Basil Rathbone. This one always brings a few tears to my eyes.

At the end of Secret Weapon, Holmes and Watson, with a contingent of the British war cabinet, are observing a squadron of Lancaster bombers equipped with the bombsight as they leave for Nazi Germany.
Watson: “Things are looking up, Holmes. This little Island’s still on the map”.
Holmes: “Yes. “This fortress – built by nature for herself; This blessed plot, this Earth, this Rome, this England”.
This latter line is, of course, from Act II of Richard II by William Shakespeare. 

In Sherlock Holmes in Washington, Holmes breaks up a Nazi spy ring operating from a high-end D.C. antiques shop, and recovers the secret microfilmed documents that they had stolen from a murdered British intelligence agent. 

As Holmes and Watson prepare to leave the District, driving towards Capitol Hill, the conversation goes like this:
Holmes: “Look up there ahead – the Capitol, the very heart of this democracy”.
Watson: “Democracy; the only hope for the future?
Holmes: “It’s not given to us to peer into the mysteries of the future, but in the days to come the British and American people will, for their own safety and for the good of all, walk together in majesty, in justice, and in peace”.
In citing Churchill’s then recent address to Congress, Sherlock reminds us of how great that legislative body once was.

While Basil Rathbone was Sherlock, both physically and intellectually, Nigel Bruce regularly presented Watson as a befuddled English gentleman and a somewhat slower associate of Holmes. His interpretation of Watson is inconsistent with the more intelligent Watson of Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon. 

Ronald Howard
In 1954, British actor Ronald Howard began a two-season run of 39 episodes on the American television series Sherlock Holmes. He played a relatively light-hearted and campy Sherlock along-side H. Marion Crawford’s Dr. Watson; who played a sharp, and sometimes aggressive Watson, unlike Nigel Bruce above. Of the 39 episodes, only The Red-Headed League was based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s original body of work. The series included such titles as: The Case of the Texas Cowgirl, and The Case of The Shoeless Engineer. However, there were occasional allusions to the Doyle canon. 

Douglas Wilmer
In 1965, the BBC began its presentation of
Sherlock Holmes with British classical actor Douglas Wilmer as the lead, and Nigel Stock as Watson. This sometimes “noirish” series continued until 1968, with 13 episodes wholly- based on the original stories. Wilmer plays a shrewd, but arrogant Holmes; and sports all the expected trappings: deerstalker cap, pipe, prominent nose, and obsessive nature. Nigel Stock is another affable, but intellectually inferior Watson. 

Jeremy Brett
In the Granada Television series that aired in the UK from 1984 to 1994, Jeremy Brett played a more emotional and physically graceful Sherlock than the predecessor Sherlocks described above. His manner was more “swaggering” with occasional outbursts of passion used to re-focus Watson or LeStrade

His sometimes overly-precise and dramatic presentation quality demonstrate his background in musical theater. He played Freddy Eynsford-Hill” in My Fair Lady. Here’s a clue for you: “I have often walked down this street before; but the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before. All at once am I several stories high, knowing I’m on the street where you live …” 

There were two Watsons over this decade-long series, namely David Burke and Edward Hardwicke. Both played the character as a highly intelligent and intuitive associate of Holmes, and true to Doyle’s canon. Many consider Jeremy Brett’s characterization of Holmes as the defining Sherlock performance. To get a feel for his style, watch this video clip to see Holmes leap the couch at 221B in The Red Headed League.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch during filming of ‘Sherlock’ in Chinatown, London. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.

Sherlock is a contemporized version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective now operating in 21st century London.  Cumberbatch is Holmes, and Martin Freeman is Watson. Thirteen 90-minute episodes were produced in this BBC/PBS series between 2010 and 2017. The Cumberbatch Holmes is more arrogant and self-centered than the predecessors described above, and less-willing to contend with Inspector LeStrade’s plodding manner.

The deerstalker cap is absent, although other traditional detective attire (long coat and scarf) frequently appear. I believe that, although updated with contemporary technology, and despite the unruly hair, Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the character is first rate. His Holmes still has exceptional intellect, is excitable, and delights in “solving puzzles no one else could solve.” 

Dr. Watson is a younger veteran of the Royal Army Medical Corps in the Afghan War than those reviewed above and is certainly played as a more independent “self-starter”. He blogs about their adventures rather than writing by hand for publication in the print media.

However, Watson’s blog provides the pair some unwanted celebrity and  the press begins reporting on the cases and Sherlock’s sometimes eccentric personal life. Their cases, like those in the canon, come from both ordinary people and the British government. 

Jonny Miller

Elementary first aired in 2012, and ran for seven seasons and over 150 episodes. There is little connection to Arthur Conan Doyle’s body of work beyond some character names and occasional allusions to the original stories. 

Elementary is really a “police procedural” with Jonny Miller as Sherlock Holmes, and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. Sherlock is a recovering drug addict and former consultant to Scotland Yard, who has re-located to a Brooklyn brownstone in present-day New York City for addiction treatment.

Watson is a former surgeon who has left practice, and is hired by Sherlock’s father to assist in his rehabilitation as his sober companion. Watson’s relationship with Holmes evolves from sober companion, to investigative apprentice, and into a professional crime-solving partnership with Sherlock and the NYPD. 

This Holmes is, of course, indifferent to proper procedure as he works with the NYPD. one critic describes the series as, “pretty good television; the stories are unpredictable, and often draw on contemporary issues like hacking, cyber-espionage, and corruption in international finance. I don’t recall whether the latter was Deutsche Bank. There is a definite “psychological component” underlying the series and the plots often include the characters’ struggles to deal with their many demons. 

Robert Downey Jr.

Downey is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Sherlock Holmes. Others disagree, as a third movie is apparently in progress, beyond Sherlock Holmes (2009), and A Game of Shadows (2011). His interpretation is more vulgar and more cynical than those reviewed above. There is significant violence in the plots, perhaps because the movies are targeting a less-sophisticated and/or a teenaged audience. The first two movies are totally lacking in subtlety and I think of them as the violent video games that you want your children to avoid. 

Some Final Thoughts

I always pass my penultimate draft by my wife, Christina. Her comments were that, “the essay is well-punctuated, but maybe a little obsessive.” I agree that I punctuate well. 

I have watched each of theafore-mentioned movies or TV shows at least once; either on DVD, or for the more recent ones, on television or in the theater. To explain, nine years ago next Halloween, I had just finished a two-year period during which I had almost unlimited time for reading and the media. I wasn’t incarcerated or unemployed; and, although I am a Navy veteran, I was not a member of a ballistic missile submarine team rotated ashore. 

I have also concluded that Senator Blumenthal does bear some resemblance to the Holmes described by Dr. Watson in the first paragraph of this essay; and certainly, his activities as Connecticut Attorney General also required some of the fundamental skills of a “consulting detective”. Our junior senator could, conceivably, be Watson. This is not a political column, so I won’t name any of the more obvious candidates for Moriarty.

The next essay changes focus from human icons to Connecticut’s iconic Long Island Sound and the rising water levels that I have observed from my porch over the past several years

Tom Gotowka

About the author: Tom Gotowka’s entire adult career has been in healthcare. He’ will sit on the Navy side at the Army/Navy football game. He always sit on the crimson side at any Harvard/Yale contest. He enjoys reading historic speeches and considers himself a scholar of the period from FDR through JFK.

A child of AM Radio, he probably knows the lyrics of every rock and roll or folk song published since 1960. He hopes these experiences give readers a sense of what he believes “qualify” him to write this column.

Share

A View From My Porch: An Appropriate Day to Remember Connecticut Icon William Gillette

Gillette Castle, former home of the iconic movie star and playwright, Connecticut-born William Gillette, who died in 1937.

Editor’s Note: Tom Gotowka sent us this piece last week, but we had always planned to publish it today. By an extraordinary coincidence, we now find — thanks to an article sent to us this morning by our friend and regular correspondent George Ryan — that today is the 90th anniversary of William Gillette’s final performance as Sherlock Holmes, given Feb. 12, 1930 at the popular Parsons Theatre in downtown Hartford.
Timing is everything … so many thanks indeed to George for his gem of information and Tom for his fascinating insight into the life and work of Mr. Gillette.

I am going a few miles upstream in this essay towards East Haddam and its medieval gothic castle to consider William Gillette’s impact on how Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed in movies and television. My goal in these essays is to cover the subject thoroughly enough to either satisfy your curiosity, or to pique your interest to pursue some additional research.

Assuming the editor’s forbearance, I will also review, in a subsequent essay, several of the actors who played Holmes or Watson to judge how true they were to either Gillette’s or Arthur Conan Doyle’s artistic vision.

Gillette was born to a progressive political family in Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood where authors Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and Charles Dudley Warner each once resided. His mother was a Hooker, that is a direct descendant of Connecticut Colony co-founder Thomas Hooker. Gillette is most recognized for his on-stage interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. He may have been America’s first matinée idol or to put it another way, the era’s rock star.

The Sherlockian Literature

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. See below for photo credit.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels between the 1880s and the early 20th century that comprise the “canon” of Sherlock Holmes. The stories were first published in Strand Magazine and two of the novels were serialized in that same periodical. 

Holmes defined himself as the world’s first and only “consulting detective.” He shared rooms at 221B Baker Street in London with Dr. John H. Watson, who was a former army surgeon wounded in the Second Afghan War. 

Holmes referred to Watson as his “Boswell” because he chronicled his life and the investigations that they jointly pursued as did 18th century biographer, James Boswell, of Dr. Samuel Johnson.  Watson was described as a typical Victorian-era gentleman and also served as first-person narrator for nearly all of the stories.

Holmes was known for his incredible skills of observation and deduction, and forensic science and logic, all of which he used when investigating cases for his myriad clients, which often included Scotland Yard. He played the violin well and was an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman. He summarized his investigative skills for Watson this way, “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” and, “It is my business to know what other people don’t know.”

However, Holmes had shortcomings. He was a very heavy smoker of black shag pipe tobacco, which he kept in the toe of a Persian slipper on the fireplace mantel at 221B. He also smoked cigars and cigarettes. A very difficult problem was called a “three pipe problem.” 

He used cocaine and morphine to provide “stimulation for his overactive brain” during periods when he did not have an interesting case or as an escape from “the dull routine of existence.” This was not really unusual in that period because the sale of opium, laudanum, cocaine, and morphine was legal and often used to self-medicate or for recreation. This habit was worrisome for Dr. Watson, although he once said of Holmes, “He was the best and wisest man whom I have ever known.”

The Holmes stories were immensely popular and Doyle’s last publication in Strand, “The Final Problem,” elicited such public (and Royal Family) outrage, that there were mass subscriber cancellations bringing the magazine to the brink of failure.

William Gillette. See below for photo credit.

Doyle decided to write a stage play about Holmes, set earlier in the detective’s career. He was probably compelled to do so because there already were several Sherlock Holmes on-stage productions, which provided him no income, and were of such poor quality that he felt the need to both protect his character’s legacy and improve his own income stream. 

He drafted the play and shared it with his literary agent, who sent it on to Broadway producer and impresario, Charles Frohman. Frohman reviewed it and said it needed substantial work before anyone would consider production. He suggested that William Gillette be offered the rewriting task. 

At that time, Gillette was already well-known as a talented actor and a successful and prolific playwright. His approach was a significant change from the melodramatic standards in the American theater of the time. He stressed realism in sets, lighting, and sound effects. Holmes Scholar Susan Dahlinger described Gillette’s acting style this way, “He could be thrilling without bombast, or infinitely touching without descending to sentimentality.” 

So, Doyle agreed with Frohman, and Gillette began the project by reading the entire “canon” of Holmes stories and novels. He began drafting the new manuscript while touring in California with the stage production of “Secret Service,” which he had also written.  He exchanged frequent telegrams with Doyle during the process and, with Doyle’s blessing, borrowed some plots and detail from the canon in adapting Doyle’s original manuscript into a four-act play. 

Unfortunately, neither Gillette’s first draft nor Doyle’s original script ever reached stage production. A fire broke out at Gillette’s San Francisco hotel and both manuscripts were lost. So, Gillette began a complete redraft of his lost script, and Doyle was finally able to present a play before the century’s end that he deemed worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

It is worth noting that Frohman perished on the Lusitania in May, 1915, after it had been torpedoed by a German submarine.

In 1899, Gillette was “predictably” cast for the lead role in “Sherlock Holmes A Drama in Four Acts.” Initially presented in previews at the Star Theatre in Buffalo, NY, it opened that November at the Garrick Theatre in New York City, and ran there for more than 260 performances before beginning a tour of the United States and then on to a long run in London, where it received great critical and public acclaim.

He starred in that role for more than 30 years, and about 1,500 productions in the United States and Great Britain. He also starred in the 1916 silent film, “Sherlock Holmes,” which film-historians have called, “the most elaborate of the early movies.”

Playing a role for so many years was not unusual at that time in American Theater. For example, James O’Neill, father of playwright Eugene, played Edmond Dantès, The Count of Monte Cristo, more than 6000 times between 1875 and 1920.

Some Key Elements of Gillette’s Sherlock

Although William Gillette is really no longer a “household name” — except perhaps,here in Southeastern Connecticut, where much of how we imagine Holmes today is still due to his stage portrayal of the great consulting detective. 

Gillette actually bore some resemblance to the Holmes described by Dr. Watson in “A Study in Scarlet.” Watson notes, “His [Holmes’s] very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.” 

Gillette’s Holmes appeared in deerstalker cap and Inverness cape. He smoked a curve-stemmed briar pipe, and carried a magnifying glass.  He crafted a phrase that eventually evolved into one of the most recognized lines in popular culture: “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Gillette’s direct style was said to lend a bit of arrogance to Holmes beyond that which Doyle had depicted —  that arrogance has become a hallmark of Holmes’ portrayal in contemporary movies and television.

And finally, Gillette introduced the page, “Billie,” who had actually been played by a certain 13-year-old Charles Spencer Chaplin during the London engagement. At the end of the run, Chaplin began his career as a Vaudeville comedian, which ultimately took him to the United States and movie stardom as the incomparable Charlie Chaplin. 

Some Final Thoughts

I first learned of William Gillette a few summers ago when I visited his remarkable home, “Gillette Castle” built high above the eastern bank of the Connecticut River. I left that visit impressed with Gillette’s creativity in his design of the doors, light switches, and some of the furniture; wondering about his secret multi-mirror “spying” system, and with the assumption that he was just an eccentric artist who liked trains. 

However, I enjoy the Sherlock Holmes literature; and began reading the “canon” at age twelve. I have certainly re-read many of the stories a few more times. Over the past several years, I began to read several authors who write Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels “in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle.” Some of these “pastiches,” as they are called, are quite accurate in style and continuity of Doyle’s themes. 

In researching this essay, I was surprised with the breadth of scholarly work that is currently available regarding Sherlock and Gillette. There are several national and international literary organizations that have also developed around Doyle’s work.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth offers a “Study of Sherlock” course, wherein students engage in critical reading, thinking, and writing by studying the iconic detective.

Our local expert on Holmes is Danna Mancini of Niantic. He has lectured and conducted seminars on The World of “Sherlock Holmes.” He is active in at least two Holmes literary organizations: The Baker Street Irregulars (NYC) and the Speckled Band of Boston.

Of some note, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) tasked by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze” during World War II, had its headquarters at 64 Baker Street and was often called, “The Baker Street Irregulars.”

So, the ‘consulting detective’ continues to inspire novels, movies, and television.

As noted above, I will review several of the actors who played Holmes or Watson in these media in my next essay, and judge how true they were to either Gillette’s or Arthur Conan Doyle’s artistic vision.

Photo credit for the photo of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is as follows: By Arnold Genthe – PD image from http://www.sru.edu/depts/cisba/compsci/dailey/217students/sgm8660/Final/They got it from: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/photodraw/portraits/,where the source was given as: Current History of the War v.I (December 1914 – March 1915). New York: New York Times Company., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=240887

Photo credit for the photo of William Gillette is as follows: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. William Gillette Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-e15c-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Tom Gotowka

About the author: Tom Gotowka’s entire adult career has been in healthcare. He’ will sit on the Navy side at the Army/Navy football game. He always sit on the crimson side at any Harvard/Yale contest. He enjoys reading historic speeches and considers himself a scholar of the period from FDR through JFK.

A child of AM Radio, he probably knows the lyrics of every rock and roll or folk song published since 1960. He hopes these experiences give readers a sense of what he believes “qualify” him to write this column.

Share

A View from My Porch: Lyme Native Ezra Lee was World’s First Commander of an Attack Submarine in Battle

There was a time before our time,
It will not come again,
When the best ships still were wooden ships
But the men were iron men …

Sgt. Ezra Lee, 1749 – 1821, is buried   in the Duck River Cemetery in Old Lyme. Image from Wikipedia Public Domain: painter and engraver unknown, from The Story of the Submarine by Farnham Bishop.

I believe this eloquent verse from Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet’s ode to New England’s “Clipper Ships and Captains” can also be used to describe Ezra Lee, the first man to command an attack submarine in battle.

In this essay, I will describe the heroism of this native of Lyme, Conn., and present some key elements of this remarkable period in Connecticut’s history. However, I think that one must have some understanding of his primitive submarine in order to fully appreciate Ezra Lee’s courage.

Bushnell’s Genius

This first submarine, named the Turtle, was designed and built by David Bushnell in what is now Westbrook, Conn.

Bushnell was a farmer, but left the family farm in the care of his brother, Ezra, in 1771 to pursue his education at Yale College. He graduated in 1775. His last year at Yale coincided with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, i.e., the beginning of the American War of Independence.

By that time, several other important events leading to the war with the British had already occurred. They included the Boston Massacre (1770), the Boston Tea Party (1773); and enactment of the Boston Port Act, which was one of five “Intolerable Acts”, implemented in 1774 to punish the colonists after the Tea Party. The law, was enforced by a British naval blockade of Boston harbor, which effectively shut down all commerce and travel in and out of Boston and the Massachusetts colony.

Bushnell was a fervent patriot and felt strongly that defeating the mighty British Navy would require unconventional tactics. He began a collaboration with another member of the Yale community, Phineas Pratt. One of their first projects was the development of an underwater bomb with a mechanical time-delayed detonator – a distant forerunner of contemporary naval mines. It is noteworthy that part of his Yale tenure overlapped with Nathan Hale’s, who graduated in 1773.

Bushnell felt that he could use this underwater explosive against the British if he could develop the means to deliver it to a targeted warship and place it below the waterline.

So, having returned to Westbrook after graduation, Bushnell’s small team, which now included his brother Ezra, turned its attention to developing a vessel that could transport and attach these explosive devices to enemy warships … and the idea of a “sub-marine” was conceived. Bushnell recognized that, to be effective and avoid detection, the vessel would have to be completely submerged for some period of time during the mission; be able to move through the water; and, when ready, return safely to the surface.

Colonial Era Engineering Limitations

With little real successful precedent on which to build, Bushnell’s submarine would be a “true” invention. Clearly, there were many significant engineering and design problems that the team had to resolve. They included building a watertight, pressure-proof, and vertically stable vessel; propulsion – both vertical and horizontal; steering, and vision; and the actual weapons-delivery system.

A key issue was that of developing the means to vary the vessel’s ballast in order to enable submersion and re-surfacing. Bushnell eventually solved these problems and introduced some innovations. For example, he equipped his vessel with an early snorkel-type breathing device and a two-bladed propeller for propulsion.

The Turtle

‘Turtle’ model on dsplay at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, England. The image is published under this license.

I realize that I am over-simplifying here, but I’m trying to avoid getting stuck in the sea-weeds of the Turtle’s design and construction.

The Turtle resembled two tortoise shells, bound together. It was constructed of oak timbers, which were shaped, joined, and caulked at the joints. The vessel was bound with iron bands and covered with tar to ensure water tightness.

It was about 7 ft. long, 4 ft. wide, and 8 ft. from its keel to the top of its brass “conning tower,” which protruded about eight inches out of the water. It had no periscope, but the conning tower contained six glass ports.

The submarine was capable of only carrying one person, who sat upright on a seat roughly resembling a bicycle seat (see photo at left.) Moreover, Turtle was equipped with a depth gauge to measure distance from the surface. a compass for navigating, and a crude ventilator to supply the vessel with fresh air at the surface.

Controls included hand-cranks and pedals for operation of the propellers; a rudder, located behind the operator, controlled by foot; and; an “immersion chamber,” for flooding when additional ballast was required. Turtle submerged and surfaced via brass pumps that took in or expelled seawater as ballast, and 700 pounds of lead weights, which could be let out or retracted as needed.

The Turtle had no real ballast tanks; and the incoming seawater simply flooded the floor of the cabin – leaving the operator knee-deep in water until it was eliminated with the pumps when it was time to surface.

Two tubes, which passed through the conning tower hatch provided fresh air when near the surface. The air supply would last only about 30 minutes, and would soon become foul when the submarine was submerged. The exterior was equipped with a large screw that could be twisted into the planks of a ship’s hull. The screw was tethered by a rope to one of Bushnell’s timed explosive devices.

It is interesting that Bushnell had actually consulted fellow revolutionary, Ben Franklin, to solve the problem of illuminating the Turtle’s interior – who suggested using phosphorescent “foxfire.”

Sea Trials

Turtle was tested after completion of construction in 1775 in the relative safety of the Connecticut River. Ben Franklin observed the initial tests from the shore and was favorably impressed and understood its potential in naval warfare. The Turtle was also recommended to George Washington by Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull. Ezra Bushnell had been trained in operating the Turtle and had assumed that role during testing, and presumably, would also pilot the vessel in battle.

As noted, the Turtle held only a single person, and that person was wholly responsible for bringing the craft to the target and attaching and arming the explosives. That person required substantial physical strength and stamina, incredible focus, and the utter absence of claustrophobia.

There are replicas of the Turtle in Groton’s Submarine Force Museum and the CT River Museum in Essex; which has a cut-away display in which one may experience Turtle’s cabin.

The Bushnell Farm house is located at 1445 Boston Post Rd., Old Saybrook, CT.

The First Mission

The Turtle was ready for deployment by the spring of 1776 – and may have originally been planned for use against the British warships blockading Boston Harbor. However, by that time, the British had ended their blockade and moved their ships north to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Ezra Lee’s Mission

In July, 1776, a British naval force began to move into New York Harbor, carrying supplies and soldiers. General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe had essentially shut down western Long Island and New York to the colonists.

The Turtle was transported overland through Connecticut to New York Harbor, which was still in American hands. After arriving in New York, Ezra Bushnell developed a terrible fever, possibly Typhoid, and was unable to carry out any mission.

Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons, also from Lyme, then recommended three men to train to pilot the submarine. One of those men was his brother-in-law, Ezra Lee. So, to avoid discovery by the British, David Bushnell returned to Connecticut with the Turtle, and began intensive training of the three recruits. After a month of training, Lee was chosen to make the first attack on a British warship.

General Washington gave permission for Turtle’s first mission on Sept. 6 – an attack on the HMS Eagle, Admiral Howe’s flagship, which was anchored in New York Harbor, south of Manhattan. Near midnight on the 6th, Turtle was towed by a pulling boat from the Battery towards the Eagle. Halfway, Ezra Lee entered the Turtle and secured the hatch over his head. – and a submarine was engaged in battle for the first time against an enemy ship. Later, Lee wrote several letters describing this mission.

It took Lee nearly two hours of pedaling to reach the Eagle. Once there, he took on some ballast, and submerged completely. When he thought he was under his target, he pumped out a small quantity of water from the ballast tank, until a bump indicated he was beneath Eagle, with the auger screw against the ship’s bottom.

Unfortunately, Lee’s attempt to attach the explosive with the auger screw failed, possibly because a metal plate covered the area where he was trying to drill. He was forced to re-surface to replenish his air supply. He submerged again and attempted to drill into another spot in the hull. On that second dive he was unable to stay beneath the ship, and eventually abandoned the attempt.

It is possible that the tide turned during the second attack and Lee was unable to compensate. Lee’s mission was near the southern tip of Manhattan, where the Hudson River and the East River merge. The currents tend to be strong and complex there. So, Turtle would only be able to attack a ship moored in that area during a short period of time when the incoming tide balanced the river currents.

Lee was exhausted, and the outgoing tide threatened to take Turtleout to sea. He ejected all the ballast water and began pedaling with his remaining strength. With the ballast water pumped out, one third of Turtle’s hull stuck out of the water, making it clearly visible in daylight. As the day grew lighter, the British spotted the Turtle, and set out in small boats to confront it.

To divert the patrol and to lighten his craft, Lee released the explosive device that he had tried to attach to Eagle. It drifted towards the East River and soon exploded. In Lee’s words, it, “went off with a tremendous explosion, throwing up large bodies of water to an immense height.” Lee returned safely after several hours on the water and received Washington’s congratulations in person.

Lee did make a second unsuccessful attempt against the British frigate HMS Cereberus, but was discovered and forced to retreat.

An Ignominious Victory

Although Turtle’s missions were unsuccessful in that no damage was inflicted on any British vessel, some historians feel that the venture was, by no means, a failure. They suggest that the explosion led to Admiral Howe ordering the British warships to be repositioned further off the harbor, from which they could no longer maintain their blockade of New York.

Perhaps an intangible psychological victory might also be claimed simply through her use as another unconventional weapon of war employed by the colonists. These also included the guerilla tactics employed by the self-trained and highly mobile militia, which was organized to assemble rapidly and deploy where needed, and aptly named the “Minutemen.”

Note that the National Archives possess a letter that George Washington wrote to Thomas Jefferson in September,1785 about the Turtle, saying, “I then thought, and still think, that it was an effort of genius.”

David Bushnell – After the Attack on Eagle

Bushnell loaded Turtle aboard a fast sloop, hoping that the sloop could slip unnoticed past the British into Long Island Sound and back to Connecticut. A British frigate discovered the sloop, however, and, according to the British, sank her and her cargo. Note that there are many versions of the Turtle’s final days.

In 1778, General Washington proposed the formation of a new military unit to be known as the “Corps of Sappers and Miners” (i.e., combat engineers.) It was organized in the summer of the next year. Bushnell was given command of the Corps with the rank of captain-lieutenant in August, 1779.

Ezra Lee – After the Attack on Eagle

Lee was moved by Washington into the secret service/special forces. He later participated in the Battles of Trenton, Brandywine and Monmouth.

Lee died in 1821. His obituary in the “Commercial Advisor” (November 1821) stated: “Died, at Lyme, on the 29th October Captain Ezra Lee, aged 72, a revolutionary officer. He died without an enemy. It is not a little remarkable, that this officer is the only man, of which it can be said, that he fought the enemy upon land–upon water–and under the water…”

Lee is buried in the Duck River Cemetery in Old Lyme. The inscription on his original grave marker was: “EZRA LEE. / DIED / Aged 72 Years. / He was a Revolutionary / Officer, / and esteemed by / Washington.” Unfortunately, during the colonial era, gravestones were often made from softer types of stone, such as sandstone and slate, which were easier to cut and carve. However, they deteriorated. Lee’s original marker has been replaced with a granite obelisk, but without the full original inscription.

Some Observations by the Author

I am not a native of southeast Connecticut. Rather. I am an émigré from West Simsbury in Connecticut’s northwest hills. I knew almost nothing about David Bushnell and Ezra Lee before visiting the Connecticut River Museum, but I was encouraged to learn more.

Stewart Holbrook, author of “Lost Men of American History,” has claimed that “… had a Longfellow fastened upon him, Ezra Lee would be as well known today as Paul Revere, and it is a pity that he isn’t.”

“Bushnell’s Infernal Machine” sung by New England balladeer Larry Kaplan

This song provides a view of Turtle from the inside. Kaplan is known for his songs of New England and its seas. Visit this link to see the song performed.

Editor’s Note: The author is going a few miles north on the Connecticut River for his next essay to visit William Gillette and review his impact on the cinematic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.

Tom Gotowka

About the author: Tom Gotowka’s entire adult career has been in healthcare. He’ will sit on the Navy side at the Army/Navy football game. He always sit on the crimson side at any Harvard/Yale contest. He enjoys reading historic speeches and considers himself a scholar of the period from FDR through JFK.

A child of AM Radio, he probably knows the lyrics of every rock and roll or folk song published since 1960. He hopes these experiences give readers a sense of what he believes “qualify” him to write this column.

Share

A View from My Porch: The Second Renaissance of Miss ElizabethTashjian (Connecticut’s “Nut Lady”)

Editor’s Note: We are delighted to welcome a new columnist to our LymeLine family today. Tom Gotowka will write an occasional piece under the title, “A View From My Porch,” and we are going to let him introduce both his column and himself in his own words.  We hope you enjoy Tom’s offerings — as always, let us know your thoughts!

Author’s Note: “A View from My Porch” is a new column that will cover a range of subjects that I believe will be of community interest. It might be literature and the arts, an event, or even something to do with healthcare. I may occasionally stray into a political issue, but this column will not be partisan political (Other publications have that more than covered.) In reality, all I see from my porch is my wife’s studio, a red barn, a network of beautiful gardens, and a salt marsh, but, of course, “a view” is so much more than what one actually sees.

To give you a sense of the experiences that “qualify” me to write this column, my entire adult career has been in healthcare. I’ll sit on the Navy side at the Army/Navy football game. I always sit on the crimson side at any Harvard/Yale contest. I enjoy reading historic speeches and consider myself a scholar of the period from FDR through JFK. A child of AM Radio, I probably know the lyrics of every rock and roll or folk song published since 1960.

My first few columns will take a fresh look at some of Old Lyme’s cultural and historic icons. As such, this first essay is titled “The Second Renaissance of Miss ElizabethTashjian”. The second column covers Naval hero Ezra Lee.

Eliazabeth Tashjian appeared several times on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson.

The Second Renaissance of Miss ElizabethTashjian (Connecticut’s “Nut Lady”)

Connecticut College’s exhibition, “Revisiting the Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian,” has just closed. I posit that this gallery display of her paintings, drawings, and sculptures, together with the recent Florence Griswold Museum Samuel Thorne Memorial Lecture by Professor Christopher Steiner, “Performing the Nut Museum,” represent the culminating events in this “second Renaissance.” Let me walk you through the facts that led me to this conclusion.

I was introduced to Elizabeth Tashjian more than a quarter century ago (holy cow!) by Colin McEnroe, who now hosts his own show on CT Public Radio and writes a weekly column for Hearst Communications. My wife and I were not yet residents of Old Lyme. This essay begins with a synopsis of her life. However, the crux of this column is my assertion that she became masterful at managing the media, and playing the role of quirky, eccentric artist.

Miss Tashjian was born into privilege in Manhattan in 1912, the daughter of wealthy Armenian immigrants. Her parents divorced when she was 7 years old, and she continued living in Manhattan with her mother. She showed great promise as a concert violinist and pursued music early — and before pursuing her interest in art. She studied at the New York School of Applied Design for Women and the National Academy of Design.

Elizabeth and her mother moved into a 19th century Gothic Revival mansion on Ferry Road in Old Lyme in 1950. Her mother died in 1959 and she continued living there alone. Her father pre-deceased her mother and left no estate.

Nuts were always her passion. This began during her classical arts training in New York City, where she created many paintings of nuts and nutcrackers. These themes would continue throughout her life. She was an active member of Lyme Art Association and frequently displayed her works there.

In 1972, she opened the Nut Museum, which was housed in the dining room on the ground floor of her home. The Nut Museum collection was largely comprised of her own artwork, including over 100 paintings, 20 aluminum sculptures, nut jewelry, and a Nativity scene made completely of nuts. Her art has been described as “visionary”, “avant-garde”, “surrealist”, and/or “outsider.”

She remained unmarried throughout her life. I could not find any reference to any real employment, which allowed her to concentrate wholly on her art. Like her mother, she became a Christian Science healer in mid-life, which may have provided some modest income.

Susan Campbell, writing in the Hartford Courant, described her visit to the Nut Museum: “The first time I met Elizabeth Tashjian, she swooped down the stairs of her Old Lyme mansion to greet me, and I was immediately in her thrall. I remember there was a cape.”

In 1981, Tashjian appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” for the first time. She and Carson “clicked” and her success with him led to many other television appearances, including Letterman, Leno, and others. Her TV appearances usually included one of her songs (e.g., “Nuts Are Beautiful” or the “March of the Nuts.”)

She did not have the same rapport with the other hosts that she had developed in her two appearances with Carson. She often brought a 35-pound coco de mer nut with her to these appearances. The coco de mer, or “nut of the sea” is native to the Seychelles and has an unfortunate resemblance to a woman’s buttocks. She told Carson that “the existence of such a sexually provocative nut utterly refuted Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” Professor Steiner (see below) said “it was arguable whether she was exploited by the media, or exploited it.” His suspicion was that she was the joker, not the joke.

She became known as the “Nut Lady”, which she hated. Preferring words like enthusiast, advocate, culturalist, or visionary.

Miss Tashjian became increasingly reclusive from the mid-1990s through the turn of the century; and her health began to fail. Fortunately, she had found a “champion” in Christopher Steiner, a professor of art history and museum studies at Connecticut College, who was determined to protect her artistic legacy. He remained her supporter and advocate for the rest of her life.

By 2002, she was nearly indigent, in serious debt, and very frail. I won’t provide the terrible details; but she fell into a coma, was declared incompetent, and a ward of the State. The Courts put her house on the market to pay her debts. Despite refusing medical treatment because of her religious beliefs, she recovered, but was confined, apparently against her will, to a nursing home where she died in 2007.

The contents of the Nut Museum had been removed by Professor Steiner while her home was being sold. He had successfully petitioned the Old Lyme Probate Court to recognize the historic and artistic significance of the collection. Unfortunately, Tom Selleck and Henry Winkler were not yet pitching reverse mortgages as financial salvation for the indigent elderly.

And so, begins her “second Renaissance.”  In 2004, the Lyman Allyn Museum in New London launched a show of her work at which she was the guest of honor. Documentary filmmaker Don Bernier completed “In a Nutshell: A Portrait of Elizabeth Tashjian,” a feature-length video about the artist highlighting the diverse roles she assumed during her lifetime, which debuted at Connecticut. College.

Her obituary appeared in the New York Times Food Section in 2007: under the heading,“Elizabeth Tashjian, 94, an Expert on Nuts, dies,” which would have certainly appealed to her sense of irony.

The New Yorker carried “The Nut Lady Returns” in 2005.

The Armenian Weekly provides a detailed account of the Connecticut College exhibition.

Lee Howard’s recent article in The Day, “Reimagining the Nut Lady and her Art,” provides a friend’s perspective:

Share