Written by Ward Morehouse.
William Gillette was a gallant figure in the American theater, a brilliant worker as an actor, playwright and director for more than four decades. A New Englander of culture, courtesy, and unfailing humor, he had a sure sense of craftsmanship as a dramatist and in his acting he could dominate a scene with an inflection, a glance, a nod, a shrug. He had a way of holding an audience completely as he stood motionless and in complete silence—tall, dignified, impassive, imperturbable. “During my years in the theater,” reported the beautiful Marie Doro, of the lovely profile and large bright eyes, “I was hypnotized by two men. One of them was Charles Frohman. The other was William Gillette.”
Gillette was a man of many fascinating eccentricities. He had great fondness for using his stage costumes as his regular, off-stage wearing apparel. One of his leading women, invited by him to lunch, was greatly impressed by a bluish-gray coat that he wore, a coat that had a jaunty, military effect and was lacking only in brass buttons. She later learned that he had had the buttons removed and that the coat was one that he had worn in his Civil War melodrama, “Held By the Enemy.” And when he again invited her to lunch she was so startled by his costume she almost lost her appetite. He called for her in his clothes from “Sherlock Holmes.”
He was an actor-playwright-director who disapproved of the women of his companies being seen in public places; he wanted them always to remain aloof, elusive and mysterious. Such was Charles Frohman’s policy in guiding Maude Adams to her enduring stardom—and to her life of elusiveness and self-effacement. Gillette liked supper after his performances and he would often consume two dozen raw oysters at a sitting. He had a passion for Chopin, he enjoyed the stories of O. Henry and he liked reading from them aloud. Cats were sacred to him—alley cats or pedigreed. He liked tinkering with things, such as old clocks, and he often rescued a clock that had been pronounced beyond repair, putting it to ticking and to perfect time-keeping. He collected bird cages for years, a hobby that puzzled his associates. Many of them wanted to ask him just why but none of them ever did.
Gillette was a star who never forgot his manners and who seldom lost his temper. He did close <sic> it completely, however, near the close of his Civil War spy melodrama, “Secret Service,” the best play he ever wrote. He was delivering his big, final-act speech when an actor playing a Confederate soldier sneezed. Nearly every player on the crowded stage broke up. They all turned from the audience in an effort to conceal their chuckling, but shaking shoulders were beyond their control. When the curtain fell Gillette was white with rage. He glared at his company and said these words in a low voice: “You people have no right to stand on this side of the curtain. You are only useful out front. That’s where you belong. Out there you can giggle your heads off. There are always many idiots in every audience.” Then he turned and walked away.
Gillette was witty in conversation, charming in his correspondence, and he wrote many notes, using black ink and red in most of them, and these notes were precise, laconic and frequently profane. For all of his attractive qualities, he had a reputation for being stingy, particularly in little things. His “nearness,” as some of his co-players called it, particularly amused Charles Frohman, who was devoted to him. On one occasion, during a trans-Atlantic voyage early in the century, Jessie Busley, an excellent actress who was a member of the company that he was taking to London, had a headache and Gillette gave her two powders. In telling Frohman that her headache was relieved Miss Busley said, “Willie G. gave me two headache powders.” And Frohman, his eyes twinkling, said, “Not two.” But there was also the story of “Matches Mary,” who used to peddle her matches outside the New York theaters. During Gillette’s revival season at the Empire Theater in 1910—he did five of his famous plays, including “Secret Service” and “Sherlock Holmes”—he invited Mary and her family to occupy a box for the Christmas Eve performance of “Secret Service.” Mary’s party had the box bulging with humanity of all ages and sizez <sic> and after the performance the great actor entertained his guests with backstage refreshments. When Mary finally decided that it was time to thank him and say goodnight he slipped an envelope into her hands. There were tears in her eyes when she opened it on the sidewalk. It contained her host’s check for $100.
Gillette’s soundly constructed “Secret Service,” written while he was recovering his health in the mountain air at Tryon, N.C., was a drama that told of the love of a Southern girl for a Northern spy, with its big scene in the War Department telegraph office. At the climax of this scene the spy, Lewis Dumont, posing as Captain Thorne, a Confederate officer, renounces his duty as he places love above patriotism. Gillette, who had replaced the illustrious Maurice Barrymore, father of Ethel and John and Lionel, in the leading role, gave an electric performance, one that held the playgoers of New York in its spell. He later had great success in the same part in London. But the most memorable performance of his long and distinguished career came with his playing of Sherlock Holmes in the engaging and exciting play that he wrote from the stories of A. Conan Doyle, and a play to which he brought his compelling stage presence and a voice that was a dry, crisp, metallic, almost shrill. “Sherlock Holmes” was first presented at New York’s Garrick Theater in November of 1899 and it’s a tribute to the play’s durability, and to the finesse of Gillette, that it seemed to have lost none of its enchantment when it was revived by him thirty years later.
I saw Gillette in that revival of “Sherlock Holmes” and, some years earlier, in “A Successful Calamity” and in Barrie’s “Dear Brutus.” I’ve always felt cheated in having not seen him as the heroic Captain Thorne in “Secret Service.” I first met him prior to the revi- <sic> of “Three Wise Fools”, his last play for the New York stage, and there then began a friendship that was an infinitely rewarding one (to me, at least) until his death in 1937.
I made my first trip to his fieldstone castle, Seventh Sister, high above the Connecticut river at Hadlyme, Conn., when he was nearly eighty. He was then greatly enjoying his fortress-like retreat and his miniature railroad, which ran over a narrow-gauge track that wound for three or four miles around his vast estate. I shall always cherish the memory of him as he stood beside his undersized locomotive, wearing blue overalls, an engineer’s cap and heavy gloves. He was proud of his locomotive and his passenger car and his miles of track—an expression of the mechanical gifts of a man who turned to the stage instead of to engineering. He took me whirling past thickets of birch and hemlock and several minutes later brought me back to out <sic> starting point. He then suggested that we go back into his medieval castle and have tea—with rum. Half an hour later, wearing black, with a gold watch looped across his waistcoat, he made an appearance on the balcony above the living room—calm, erect, dignified, commanding. Then he came down the stairs and he spoke—laconic, crackling and shrill. I then had the feeling that the great Mr. Holmes had somehow slipped into the big stone house and was standing before me beside the open fireplace.
He turned to his butler, Takizawa, who shared his love for cats, and said faintly and good-humoredly: “You can make the tea strong with rum, Takizawa. It’s a little chilly in here and we want our New York guest to be comfortable.”
Takizawa brought the rum-flavored tea and then, for two fascinating hours, William Gillette, reviewed his career from the great days of Charles Frohman to that very moment. “I’ve had a fine life,” he said. “Certainly I’ve known great people. It’s been a satisfying life and I now fear it’s near an end.”
William Gillette died in 1937 at the age of 81.