Basil Rathbone's 3-Day Visit to the Wayne Campus

Hosted by the Maiwand Jezails Scion of the B.S.I.
November 4, 5, 6, 1965

By Richard D. Lesh, B.S.I.

Two letters to Richard D. Lesh, Commandant, dated July 29, 1965 and September 11, 1966, are concerning an appearance of Rathbone on the Wayne State College campus. As a professor of art, I was a member of the Special Programs Committee and it was due to my efforts Rathbone was invited to perform at the campus Fine Arts Theater. The original date was set for either September or October, 1965, but after signing the contract, Rathbone begged off because he had a lucrative movie offer that would engage him at that time.

The officious campus business manager, Russ Owen, was unduly upset and threatened to sue Rathbone for breach of contract. The President of Wayne State, Dr. William A. Brandenburg, who was a personal friend and ardent Sherlockian, found favor with my plan of simply rescheduling Rathbone's appearance for Thursday night, November 4, 1965.

I had taken the precaution to write in Rathbone's contract that he attend a Maiwand Jezail's (a Scion of the Baker Street Irregulars) dinner that week-end and give a 20-minute presentation. He did not like the idea, but due to my efforts to calm the waters so that he could do the movie and also receive the princely fee for his Wayne performance, he went along with my plan. The letters are in gratitude for my efforts in his behalf, and touch on Sherlockian matters.

Rathbone detested all Sherlock Holmes fans and especially the Baker Street Irregulars. He felt he had been held back in his career by being typecast as Holmes. He told me that he "was sick of people calling to me on the street, 'Hi Sherlock, how's Dr. Watson?'"

After his performance, I had a short meeting with Rathbone; we took some photos and I outlined our week-end activities. He was weak and tired and recovering from a cold. I had made elaborate plans for a magnificent Sherlockian week-end; 50 Maiwand Jezails came to the campus. His plane was met in Sioux City, Iowa by a member in his Rolls Royce, who was his chauffeur for 3 days. The next morning we had a Bloody Mary brunch at a member's home, and a luncheon prepared by a master German chef, and then Rathbone cut the ribbon for the opening of the world's first and only "John H. Watson Reading Room" at the campus Library. A bronze plaque was affixed to the door of a room resembling the sitting room at 221-B Baker Street. Rathbone forbade any live television coverage and two TV station teams had to be turned away. He was very vain about his aging appearance. He wouldn't even tell us the title of the movie he just made--he was ashamed of it, but the money was good. He was driven back and forth from his hotel as he needed his rest. He did inscribe and sign some 50 8x10 glossy portraits I had prepared for our members.

At our magnificent dinner he was even more relaxed from the cocktail hour at my home and was warm and congenial to all when he found 50 men who held him in such high esteem. He gave Vincent Starrett's "221-B" and a wonderful talk on the filming of the 14 Sherlock Holmes films. This was recorded on tape. Rathbone was in my home with the Maiwand Jezail members for two evenings and he accepted willingly membership in our Scion Society. It was the only Sherlockian membership he ever had accepted or wanted.

My members presented me with a solid silver medal sent from Buckingham Palace for "good conduct and long service," supposedly from the Queen's equerry and on official palace stationery. Rathbone, an Englishman, was most impressed and we never let on that it wasn't authentic but rather from one of our members, Capt. Rolf Burberry, in the R.A.F., formerly the Queen's representative at S.A.C. in Omaha and then stationed in England.

Rathbone recounted two amusing incidents that took place during his last visit on the campus in Wayne, Nebraska. I had arranged for a wealthy member to act as his chauffeur driving him in a Rolls Royce from his hotel to campus and our homes. Rathbone, not knowing his driver was the owner and assuming that we had provided commercial livery service, asked "how he enjoyed driving such a fine motor car?" and was embarrassed when the driver responded that this one was the best of the three he owned.

On Friday, 7 a.m., the town siren went off as was the custom in many small towns. It was located directly across the street from his hotel room and Rathbone sat bolt upright in bed, confused and thinking it to be an air raid. He phoned the desk and was warned to expect the next 150 DB blast at noon and 6 p.m. He thought it to be a strange custom and not especially charming to have his actor's sleep disturbed.

A long-time friend and B.S.I., Bill Rabe, couldn't believe that Rathbone had really consented to come to a Sherlockian meeting. He called me repeatedly from Detroit and when assured, he flew in for our week-end with Rathbone. He recounted an incident when Rathbone was insulted after a performance by the jesting attitude of his audience. Rathbone repeatedly refused invitations to the New York City B.S.I. dinners from our leader, Dr. Julian Wolff. He wanted none of the Sherlock Holmes groups. With this history we were doubly honored that Rathbone was so warm and gracious to us the entire week-end in our homes and at brunches, luncheons and dinners. He really was relaxed, enjoyed his meals and libations, and basked in the adoration we felt for him as "the greatest Sherlock Holmes of the 20th Century."

Post note:
Actually--Rathbone accepted scion memberships in Los Angeles and Chicago--but the foregoing is exactly as related by Rathbone in 1965.

 

Source:
Richard D. Lesh, "Basil Rathbone's 3-Day Visit to the Wayne Campus," Shoso-in Bulletin, Vol. 6 (1996): 40-42.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2013