Remembering John Bennett Shaw
1913 - 1994
As was my habit while visiting Santa Fe, I was browsing in Nick Potter's book store just off the plaza, when I asked him if he had seen John Shaw lately. "Oh!", he said with a bit of a start. He died last week. Didn't you hear about it?"
It had been a couple of years since I had been in "the slumber room", the private library of the world's greatest collector of "things Holmesian". Every summer during our family's annual visit to Glorieta, my children and I would go to the Shaw's on a Saturday morning and spend an hour or so swapping stories about Oklahoma, the funeral business, the oil business, and Sherlock Holmes.
It was easy to find the Shaw's adobe abode. Turn right off the old Pecos Trail, onto Zia, then left on Ft. Union, where it became a dirt road, and look for the 221B tiles on the adobe and the car with the SHERLOK New Mexico tag. We would tap the car horn so John could come out to greet us and bring us safely into the library. Otherwise his two large dogs would not treat us with much respect. Once in the room, they were puppy dogs, up in your lap and licking your nose if you let them.
John was great with kids. He made sure Hannah and Travis (our children) had something Sherlockian that a kid could really enjoy. One of his favorites was a picture book of The Mouse Detective, a Shaw favorite. And he spoke easily with children, always making them a part of the conversation. Travis, now 24, still has fond memories of John Shaw, and remembers how Dorothy, The Woman in John's life, would, without fail, have a snack ready for them in the kitchen. With that taken care of, serious Sherlockian discussions could take place. And we never left empty-handed. John would inevitably choose a book or flyer or poster to send home with us.
These memories came flooding back to my mind as I attended the dedication of the John Bennett Shaw Library** at the University of Minnesota in October of 1995. Upon arrival the weather was balmy, with temperatures in the 60's. But by next morning we were back to the real Minnesota, with the mercury in the 30's, and the wind howling.
I longed for the warmth of Santa Fe inside the Holiday Inn Metrodome. Gathered there were some of the greatest living Sherlockians from around the world, and I do not exaggerate. Australia, Japan, Norway, England, Canada, (and Texas) were just a few of the countries represented. Mixed in the crowd were several of the Minnesotan Norwegian Explorers, a local scion, second only to the famous BSI ,the Baker Street Irregulars of New York, the Mother of all Sherlockian groups, or scions.
Several BSI members were present, of course, since Shaw had been a long-standing member of that venerable group. Every January 6, Sherlock Holmes' birthday, Shaw would gather with the other BSI members for a festive celebration. I once heard him interviewed on National Public Radio while celebrating at that very party in New York at the Algonquin Hotel.
Tears flowed as Pennsylvania bookseller Enola Stewart, proprietess of the famous Gravesend Books(est. 1971), shared how sad this world would now be knowing that John would never again ring her from New Mexico looking for that certain canonical book. She never made it to Ft. Union Drive, but she certainly knew John Shaw.
Their relationship was the epitome of what is possible when one seriously endeavors to "keep green the memory" of Holmes. It was a love affair of wit, humour, intellect, sharing, and caring about the honorable truths one discovers in the written word. It was a love of life that flowed through John and enlivened all those who came into his presence, either by phone or in person, or through one of John's famous letters.
How Shaw ever found the time to write as many letters as he did no one will ever know. He was a tireless scribe, answering the enquiry of the lowliest neophyte from some far-flung hamlet or the most erudite Sherlockian scholar from London, Norway, or Australia. His home-made stationery showed Holmes, with deerstalker and pipe and magnifying-glass in hand, poring over a map of New Mexico with the town of Moriarty in view. Moriarty, the town, was important to Shaw's local scion, The Brothers Three of Moriarty. Their annual trek to that pitiable village was called the Happy-Birthday-You-Bastard-Moriarity.
Perhaps that was the key to John Shaw, and consequently to participation in Sherlock Holmes society. All Sherlockians meet on common ground. The love of the stories, the characters, the era, and the clever plots and outcomes become the focus, not the status of the participant. As I sat in John's library, he never drew attention to the fact that I was in the presence of one of the all-time superior Sherlockian minds. His encyclopedic knowledge of Sherlockiana did nothing to distance him from me or any devoted Holmes fan. In fact, John was a great evangelist for Holmes and an encourager of beginners like me to become active, start a local scion, and spread the gospel of Sherlock. And like himself, he trained me to be a collector with "the selectivity of a vacuum cleaner." It was fun, and friendship flourished.
I was in for an even greater thrill, however, as we entered The Library, John's lifetime collection of treasures. There on the wall was the poster of Young Sherlock Holmes, the very one the kids and I had given John on our last visit with him in Santa Fe.
He had shared with us the story of how Steven Spielberg, who owned a house in Santa Fe, had called him unexpectedly from Hollywood. Spielberg was desperate to have the script for Young Sherlock verified for Holmesian authenticity within the next 48 hours. John agreed, even though he was preparing for a Brothers Three dinner the next day. Spielberg chartered a jet, flew the script to Santa Fe within the next two hours, raced it to Ft. Union Drive, and waited while John completed the task. When we presented the movie poster to John that summer, he was delighted. I'll always remember his remark: "I never got a damned thing from Spielberg!"
My kids and I had actually given John Bennett Shaw something Sherlockian that he didn't have and was thrilled to receive. He had given me and my children memories for a lifetime, and a friendship and comradeship that lives to this day.
(Submitted by Jim Hawkins / 2000)
1. University of Minnesota Sherlock Holmes Library - Video Tour / Tim Johnson, Curator
2. Newsletter of Friends of the Sherlock Holmes Collection: article on J.B. Shaw
3. Dedication Remarks - John Bennett Shaw Library / UMN
4. Rare audio interview by John Shaw of Edith Meiser, actress and writer / UMN
4. Listed in the Sherlockians List in the Shaw Library @ UMN: Jim Hawkins
3. Eve Titus: Basil and the Lost Colony (Google Books Link) | Basil of Baker Street (Wikipedia)
4. ASH (Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes) article on John B. Shaw