David Hammer: Sherlockian Traveller, part two
Nashville Scholars / David Hammer Interview by Gael Stahl, part two
GS: I don't suppose you can estimate how many trips you've made overseas since the early 1950s.
Hammer: No. I like to travel and I find it broadening and to a degree pleasant. Of course, once you get into writing, the law benefits writers in allowing them to deduct their expenses.
GS: As long as you have some income to show?
Hammer: Yes. Formerly you couldn't do it until the book was published, but now you can do it before.
[We take a break here to go to from the chilly Algonquin Hotel library to a warmer room. Hammer, a young 68, semi-retired from law but not from writing, was to have a prostate operation three days later in Iowa and didn't want to risk lowering his resistance to a cold. We began talking about Hammer's slide presentation of Sherlockian sites at the BSI dinner that evening.]
GS: Although you became a part of the Sherlockian world in the late '70s or early '80s and got into contact with Shaw and Tracy, did you ever belong to a scion of the BSI?
GS: Is there one in your area?
GS: So your interest was always at the scholarly level.
Hammer: I wouldn't say that, but it wasn't on the scionic level. It was through Tracy that I got invited in maybe '83 or '84 to an Irregulars' dinner. In one of the "Baker Street Journals" there is an article I was asked to write about my first BSI dinner. They were going to have a lot of people do it. I guess they gave up after mine. But it was an interesting experience. I bring it up in one of my books too. Given the people who were at the table it was just an incredible experience. [See "BSJ", March 1993, Pages 25-26.]
At Hammer's table were Banesh Hoffman on his right, Al Rosenblatt across from him, and a man with mutton-chop sideburns on his left. Hammer asked him what he did.
"I'm an author."
"So am I," said Hammer, proud of having just had his first book published about Holmes.
"How many books have you written?
"264 as of Tuesday, 267 by next week.
"Should I know your name?(General laughter ensued.)
"You should, if you are a living American," said Isaac Asimov, one of the most distinguished of the Irregulars.
Later, Hammer's tablemates congratulated him for his delightful deflating of the towering figure. Hammer was puzzled until his children explained the depth of his ignorance of the author of the "Foundation Trilogy."
GS: What was the book in which you tell the story of your first meeting?
Hammer: It would be one from the last few years. It's title reflected the fact that Holmes filled his pipe with the plugs and dottles of the day before. And this book has my plugs and dottles, pieces that I wrote over several decades on diverse subjects. [The Before Breakfast Pipe. See Gasogene Books 20 titles at P.O. Box 68308, Indianapolis, IN 46268 or (317) 767-0381.]
GS: Gordon Speck said last night that a lot of people do not know that you write and publish poetry.
Hammer: It was done under another name. ["Poems from the Ledge" by Evan Rhys, Shepherd Publishing, Dubuque, Iowa, 1984. (319) 557-1051] One of my early law partners said I probably should have written my Sherlockian stuff under a "nom de plume" instead of the poetry. I still write poetry but put out only that one book, the only non-Sherlockian book published. But it smells too much of a vanity press operation, although the publisher was supposed to make more of an effort than he did to market it. The editor, who made the selections, said there were five books in the material that I gave her. I have probably eight or nine volumes with 100 or so poems in each volume typed up in little books at home that are not even bound. I do it for my own amusement.
GS: I enjoyed your Ledge poems more than "The 22nd Man." That lost me by page 30. Thanks for explaining it in "A Dangerous Game."
Hammer: In the end, I explained the genesis of it, which was some articles in the "BSJ." The editor had me really set it up, and had his friend Jon Lellenberg respond. Jon sent me copies of what he was going to publish and we had two or three go arounds. "BSJ" let Lellenberg have the last word. I decided there were some things that should have been said ,and I couldn't even get them published as a letter. So I wrote the book.
GS: Have you ever participated in the BSI dinners before tonight?
Hammer: Once, some years ago, Tom Stix asked me to give a talk, (laughs) and I was never asked to give another one, so I guess it wasn't satisfactory though it was something that was later published. It was about how Violet Hunter sent a telegram saying, "I'll be there at 10:30 a.m." The story, "Copper Beeches," confirms it was 10:30 when she arrived. When she left, she said "Good evening, Mr. Holmes." I wasn't smart enough to pick that up but one of the of Sherlockians did, and shared it at a gathering. It stuck with me. I thought it was worth commenting on.
About the only other time that I have talked at the BSI dinner, and I'll be honest, it's more fun, I think, to go than to participate, was when Tom had me read the invocation on occasion. For me the pleasure is seeing the guys -it literally was guys- and to listen to what they have to say. That's the fun part.
There are no real breakthroughs that I anticipate in the Sherlockian scene. We've all been over just about everything so many times and it would have to be a very odd and queer twist. The joy is just getting together with the Sherlockians, because after 15 years without missing a year, there's the sodality I find interesting. On the other hand, three days are about enough. There are a lot of nice Sherlockians who come here, but the giants are gone.
GS: Or going.
Hammer: I think they're gone. We're probably 25 years past the founders, the people who were the movers and the shakers. I think our group has lost something. There are 180 some people who come and attend the dinners. That's too many for the repartee and the give and take. I've written this: with the institutionalization of any idea you lose a lot. Spontaneity is one of them. And that's been one of the problems, I think, with the BSI. It is not what it was. For one thing because of numbers. Another thing is because of the people. Those were pretty amazing guys who were active in the beginning. We have a few who are odd. I've been told I'm in this group. And some that aren't. But I don't think anyone touches the kind of people who were the founders.
GS: Do you collect?
Hammer: My Holmes library was usually adequate, mostly reprints that I used for writing purposes. I got an interest for the originals. I didn't really go out of my way but every now and then something would come, so I would buy it. Then I realized I really had some things that were of interest. A few years ago, I managed to pick up a book Montgomery created from some of the first editions of the "Strand" magazines as they came out monthly with the Sherlock Holmes stories. And I got a book that Morley inscribed to Montgomery, some other things like that. So I thought well, I'd better fill in the cracks. I ended up then with one of the Sherlockian books that Doyle had inscribed to somebody. I started picking up single Strands, which I found were easier to get than the bound ones. I believe I have every single original "Strand". It's not a bad Sherlockian library. I don't mean to brag when I say that. I don't collect a lot of things.
When I got what I thought was a fairly adequate collection of things, I put a provision in my will for the stuff to go to the University of Minnesota. The other day, people from the library came down to look at what I had, and I think it will fit in nicely. They are at liberty to sell anything they want to but the money has to be used for the purchase of other Sherlockian stuff. They are getting all of the Gasogene typescripts. There is some of Harrison's stuff in there, all of mine
and other people's, so I think that may help them a little bit. One of these days, I may give them the rights in my lifetime to keep them, but I don't want to lose for my estate the benefit of whatever the tax advantages are.
GS: We haven't talked a lot about Audrey in this but even though she claims not to be really Sherlockian she goes to conferences with you and has been a faithful companion on most of your trips, no?
Hammer: I have trouble now sometimes removing her from the trips because she has arthritis that really slows things down. So the last several trips I made to England have been without Audrey. That is a source of discomfort to her, but you have only limited amount of time and a great many things to see, and a hell of a lot of walking.
GS: Did you see Mollie Hardwick on your last trip as you hoped?
Hammer: Oh, yes, we had lunch. Mollie's husband was dying when I commissioned a book. He did the best he could. So she wrote a touching 25 or 30 pages entitled "Don't Forget About Watson." So that will be included in the book, "Underfoot". Let's see, I had two people whom I got to agree to write a book of the history of the Baker Street Irregulars and the Sherlockian movement and the stories of their own lives.
GS: Oh, really? I had no idea.
Hammer: Oh, yes. Nobody had done it, and I could not understand it. I mentioned it to our leader at the time, Tom Stix, and I said I've got Bliss Austin, who was one of the last of the almost-originals. A very literate guy "a very pleasant guy" to do it. I guess he lived about a year after that. He never got to it.
GS: Has this series been continued? Is anybody creating these biographies or interviews?
Hammer: No. After I had mentioned the idea "I don't keep secret my ideas" Lellenberg heard about it and decided he would write the history. He never told me that but he did tell Tom Stix, and Tom mentioned it to me. But I felt that the tragedy was that it hadn't been done 20 or 25 years ago when these people were still around, you know. So you are to be commended for what you are doing.
GS: We didn't know you wanted to do this. I just felt that the telephone has deprived us of letters making it hard for those coming later to find background about the giants who preceded them. We've lost valuable material on the last generation, and one day will lose people like you who can say something about them. "Like, could you introduce the new Wiggins, Mike Whelan, to those of us across the country who don't know him?
Hammer: Mike Whelan is a Middle-westerner. He's a very remarkable guy, and when he was living in Chicago many years ago, he was a Sherlockian who went out of his way to meet some of these people like Vincent Starrett. I think he may have had some correspondence with him, and with some of the other people in Chicago who were important in Sherlockian things. So Mike is a living link between some of the early Sherlockians, and you ought to get him out to Tennessee to talk about that.
I don't know how far back Paul Smedegaard goes, but he's someone you might want to interview. He's a clever guy, and he knew some of the early people who were in Chicago, and he's been head of one of the Chicago groups. The one that has more historicity than some others. He was head of the society when one of the ladies tried to get in. It had been a male organization. She passed the test, apparently, with flying colors, and the next thing that happened was that he admitted her, and they threw him out of office. They still are male only and have no affiliation with the BSI. Smedegaard is a bit of the history that the BSI is still living and an interesting guy.
You've already talked to Don Izban (see Izban interview March 1998). Don is a latecomer, as I am. But Don makes up for it.
GS: You've both made up for it. It's hard to believe you both started late. I've heard about you since you got involved.
Hammer: I probably spent time doing things that gratuitously or maybe flukely had some interest like trying to find the sites. The thing that got me interested was Schliemann and Troy. I figured that, Good heavens, if Schliemann can find Troy based upon the Iliad, someone ought to be able to find the Holmes places based upon the canon. And that was what got me involved.
GS: In your books you mention the preparatory work, research, and writing ahead to contact property owners.
Hammer: You have to. And sometimes it's necessary, once you're there, to just wander around talking to people. Oral tradition is a very important method. That's how Audrey and I located Baskerville Hall. The irony of it is that had I researched it, I probably would have learned the London Society had located Baskerville Hall, and it would have saved me time. But I didn't know about that. Before I came along, there weren't too many people who had a special interest in locating the sites. Just a couple of people in England.
So in a way I was an intruder who had to learn the hard way. I had no knowledge, being an outlander, about these wonderful English ordnance maps that are put out by the government. They are available, and they certainly facilitate your finding places.
But that's how I learned about Baskerville Hall, by talking to somebody in one of the villages. They said, "Oh, we all know where Baskerville Hall is. That's old Mr. Pye's house. But don't go out there. The bloody bastard will shoot you.
He's long since gone to his reward and I understand that the people since are kinder, although some woman told me she did go up and Mr. Pye invited her in and showed her the amenities of the house. Actually, I got a picture of it because I went through somebody else's woods. I asked the people and they had no objections. So I did get a picture of the house. It is not the kind of house one would imagine to have been Baskerville Hall. Doyle had never been there. And so he took his information about the house from a friend of his, Fletcher Robinson.
GS: I thought he'd been down there with him.
Hammer: I don't think so. It was a golfing trip when they were together - in Norfolk, where the inn in which they stayed had some dancing figures written by the son of the innkeeper. I've also read they had met on a boat coming back from the Boer War. There is no Baskerville Hall anywhere in the west of England. There is a Baskerville family that has a very respectable mansion that is now a bed and breakfast out in the western borders of England, but not the West Country near Wales. The Baskervilles did live there. There has been some writing about that place; one of the Canadians wrote about it, and also one of the English doctors, whose book I reviewed. I've been there. It is very interesting.
GS: So the name came from Dartmoor. I read that the hall's architecture was based on Stonyhurst, the Jesuit school Doyle attended.
Hammer: With Doyle, often a name came from a different place than the place itself. He did not conflate them. He deliberately related them, and that's artistry. Most of the stories "I surmise maybe all, but I cannot prove it" most of the stories were places Doyle had seen.
His first marriage was not as happy as it was in the beginning. Louise Hawkins, I gather, was a very nice lady but was not the intellecual stimulant that Doyle needed. So he took a lot of long walks (and noted places he later used). He also found a lady friend. But in deference to the living daughter, who is now deceased (Lady Jean died two months before this interview), everyone accepted the version that nothing sexual had occurred between them, and that may well be true. I know some ladies who are good friends of mine, who are just wonderful people, and I feel very close to them, but it isn't sexual. But I haven't married any of them, (laughs) and Doyle did marry this lady (Jean Leckie) so I would say there was some desire there beyond companionship. Or at least, a search for greater intimacy.
I don't know. As far as I'm concerned, it's enough what the man wrote, and none of us really have any business fooling around with his private life. Except, if what's said about him, he was even more exceptional that we've been advised.
GS: Who are your personal heroes?
Hammer: Well, Schliemann. Not a nice man. And I think Jung will be regarded as one of the greatest men of the 20th century. He also was not a very nice guy --seducing his patients while staying in the forefront of the medical profession. He regarded it as part of the therapy, apparently. And it may well have been. But I'd hate to have explained to some patient's husband that it was part of the therapy.
If you want to get a viewpoint of someone who is not an American, read some of the books by Robertson Davies, the Canadian author. Probably one of the kindest things you can do for a friend is to introduce an author that is wonderful. And Robertson Davies is that.
He was a newspaperman. He had a big white beard. I met him because I went to Waterson's Bookstore in Edinburgh where he was autographing copies of his books. He died a couple years ago. There are probably 30 books that he's written and each one of them absolutely fascinating.
GS: I read about him while flying somewhere --an article in the airline magazine. I was intrigued.
Hammer: I saw that. It was American Airlines. That's the guy. And whatever you do, pick up a book. It doesn't make any difference whether you get into the middle of a trilogy or not. If you take anything away from this meeting, the name of Robertson Davies will repay you well. Davies is a Welsh name. Davies was, I think, one of the best writers of our time. Certainly, the best Canadian writer. There are not that many. Stephen Leacock. Not many others.
GS: Do you have any major personal interest? When I corresponded with John Bennett Shaw, we wrote more about Chesterton than Holmes. He collected him -[and gave the collection to Notre Dame, his alma mater]-, and met him once in Chattanooga. Do you have that kind of dominating interest outside your Sherlockian interests? You've mentioned so many people.
Hammer: It's broad rather than deep, I'm sure, which may not be good, but oh yes, I have many interests in things even other than writing. Arts are important to me. I have a rather nice art collection, everything from perhaps a real Picasso to some that are more legitimate. That was sold as legitimate but I don't think so. Oskar Kokoschka, then in New York, in fact, the last auction of Parke Benet. I went into prints as I couldn't afford oils. Everything from Malliot to Albrecht Durer to fourth or fifth Rembrandt prints. Things that I liked and bought "and all of a sudden you have a collection. It's just like Sherlock Holmes. But what I would love to do is have enough time, enough lives, to spend a life solely enjoying music, or gardening. There just isn't enough time. We don't live long enough. Someone who is very wise said that a well-lived life is one in which you have a little less time than you require and a little more money than you need.
I do love literature. About all I read now for fun is biography. But I do love literature. I'm sure it goes back to my mother.
GS: I'm looking for your first Game book, the one in hard cover.
Hammer: They are hard to find. I saw one in the Mysterious Book Store last year. It came from the estate of someone (Stanley McKenzie), who died a couple of years back. A young Sherlockian found it at Otto's and bought it. They go for about 60 bucks. But ask Otto Penzler. He can look for it for you. Or anyone. Not many copies have come on to the market and usually it's when someone dies. Tracy did a beautiful book. No question about that. He was just besieged by penury and the only way he could respond to it was dishonorably.
I have a picture of Tracy that someone took at one of the BSI dinners. Tracy is sitting by himself. That suggested to me the title, "Tracy and his friends." Well, two of the guys said they were going to beat the bejesus out of him; one was a lawyer. Tracy had charged them $80 each for a special edition of Harrison's book (that was never published).
Note: At this point we ended the interview practically in the middle of a sentence due to continued and increasingly prolonged interruptions. Friends streamed by greeting Hammer. Mike Whelan (BSI's Wiggins) and Don Izban stopped to talk, and there was a Gillette Luncheon to prepare for. The recorder was turned off and general conversation ensued.