NEW YORK -- "He disliked and distrusted the sex, but he was always a chivalrous opponent." Thus Dr. John H. Watson on his friend Sherlock Holmes's attitude toward women.
Friday night, at the annual Baker Street Irregulars dinner here, the chivalry was in evidence and the dislike and distrust muted to the barest murmur. After 58 years as a Men Only organization, the Irregulars -- the American equivalent of England's Sherlock Holmes Society -- were admitting women not only as members, but to the dinner itself.
In the gilt and mirrored ballroom at 24 Fifth Avenue, 15 or so white-clothed tables were set up for the very English meal of thick, rare roast beef (melon to start, apple strudel to finish). At each, among the seven or eight men, sat -- history being made! -- a woman. And throughout the dinner, and at the cocktail party preceding, and at the reception the next day, the men went out of their way to make the women feel welcome.
Graciousness. Courtesy. Noblesse oblige. All the old-fashioned words and phrases applied. The Baker Street Irregulars' purpose, after all, is to "keep green the memory of the Master" (i.e., Holmes), and that memory includes the ultra-civilized Victorian world in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories (published from 1887 to 1927) take place. It's a fairy-tale world -- a variety, in spite of the London setting, of pastoral. Decency and fair play are meant to be the norm; if they are not, it's a gentleman's duty to find out why.
The BSI dinner attire included a number, though not a preponderance, of deerstalker hats. Some men sported the Irregular tie: Its three colors -- mouse gray, purple and faded blue -- are those of the famed dressing gowns that Holmes was wont to lie around in while musing on an abstruse problem or dreaming his cocaine dreams. There was an amazing variety of lapel pins: the door of Holmes's flat at 221-B, little enamel plaques of scenes or characters from the stories, a guardian angel, a door knocker, a deerstalker, a pig (see "The Adventure of Black Peter").
Several attendees wore black tie. At least one boasted handsome gray gloves and spats. After the dinner everyone headed, as is the custom, over to the after-party held by the distaff Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, "because frankly," one member confided, "what's the point of getting all dressed up unless there's someone to admire you?"
Ah, the ladies. "Women are never to be entirely trusted," Holmes told Watson, "not the best of them." In spite of this, the Sherlock Holmes Society in tradition-bound England (founded in 1952) has always been coed; its first president was Dorothy L. Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. It is the Irregulars who have been more like the cliche of the English club -- faintly eccentric, a bit snobbish, stag. The group mutated out of three casual little clubs started in the '30s by Christopher Morley, that jack of all letters who at one time or another was a critic, a columnist, a theatrical producer, a novelist, a lecturer, a poet -- and who had a hand in the founding of both the Book-of-the-Month Club and the famed Gotham Book Mart (across 47th Street, from his office).
Morley loved to start clubs. Sometimes they met for the first time on the occasion of their founding (often a spontaneous action over drinks or dinner) and then never again. But the BSI persisted. It took unto itself a constitution and "buy-laws" (drinking was never far from members' minds), and there is evidence in those buy-laws that women were not necessarily to be excluded: A couple of clauses refer to members as possibly being "of opposite sexes." And three women successfully completed the Sherlockian crossword puzzle devised by Morley's brother as an entrance exam.
Still, somehow, the membership remained all male. (It has included one editor of The Washington Post, Felix Morley, and, honorarily, two presidents: Truman and FDR.) There have been a couple of exceptions through the years -- Lenore Glen Offord and Lisa McGaw -- but both were informed that they could never come to the dinner. The present head, or "Wiggins," of the BSI, Tom Stix, instituted a practice of inviting all "investitured" Irregulars to the dinner. McGaw was planning to attend in 1990, but between the invitation and the event, she died.
It may have been this sobering incident that determined Stix's actions at the reception the day after the 1991 dinner. Unlike the dinner, the reception was open to both sexes -- and Stix chose the occasion to announce the investitures of six women.
"The room could not be quieted," said Susan Rice, one of the six, hastening to add that the noise was enthusiastic. "It was a phenomenal and electric moment -- completely unexpected."
Good-natured and dry-witted, she recounted the story of how in 1987 she was voted into the all-male Hugo's Companions (one of the "scion," or regional, societies) and then -- after an emergency election purged the officers and installed new ones -- voted right out again. When she received her BSI investiture, she could not resist going over to those who had rejected her in Hugo's Companions to see if they would congratulate her. "Manfully, they did."
Manfully. At Friday's dinner, when Evelyn Herzog, the founder of the Adventuresses (who was also among the first six women investitured), advanced to the podium to much applause, one fellow referred, quite audibly, to an excretion associated with bulls. At another point, when Stix announced that women were present for the first time, the man booed. He sat much of the time with his hand over his eyes, perhaps to avoid having to look at the woman seated directly across from him.
Asked to go on the record about his views, he preferred not to comment. Some conversation revealed that he had retired early from his job at Los Alamos because "another thing I disagree with is people being allowed to keep their jobs until they're mentally incapacitated and can no longer do them." He was also an Episcopal priest -- a member of a group that has had to endure many alterations in tradition in the past 20 years, not the least being the loss of that masterpiece of English prose, the Book of Common Prayer. "I'm not a conservative," he snapped at one point. "I'm a reactionary."
"What's that?" inquired a man across from him. "Somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun?"
This man was one of the many who had made sure a woman guest felt welcome. Unsolicited comments included things such as "I've been waiting 20 years for this" and "It's about time women were admitted."
No one could say exactly why they had been left out all these years. The word "tradition" came up a lot. One member said he had changed his mind about admitting women when it was made clear to him that "the BSI was the pinnacle of Sherlockian recognition, and why should women be denied? It was hard to argue with that."
And Stix -- the benign dictator who perpetrated this velvet revolution -- said female membership became "inevitable when it was pointed out to me that it is only the BSI who are taken seriously as a scholarly organization, not the Adventuresses."
Scholarly? Definitely. The Irregulars operate on a charming conceit: that Holmes really lived, that Watson wrote the stories, and that the putative author, Conan Doyle, was only a literary agent -- or, as the Irregulars refer to him, the Literary Agent. Doyle -- er, Watson -- wrote rather carelessly, and there were many discrepancies in the stories (also known as the Canon, or Sacred Writings). It's unclear, for example, whether Watson's first name was John or James, how many times he was married (at least twice) and where exactly a Jezail bullet entered him (shoulder or leg). Then there are the more serious questions -- such as whether Holmes went to Oxford or Cambridge. With 56 short stories and four novels there's a lot of ground to cover. Scholarly papers are offered at the dinner each year. The most scandalous was Rex Stout's 1941 "Watson Was a Woman."
Women, again. Was admitting them really an issue worth such opposition? Does their presence change anything? It's admitted that insulting one-upmanship among members may not be as harsh as before. And possibly the poems and toasts may not be as "blue." "Blue" was the word used, in these days of the Hill-Thomas hearings and televised rape trials. The word "ladies" was also used -- without irony or condescension, or any woman bristling or taking offense.
Everyone was, in fact, what would once have been called "well-bred." The men welcomed the women. And the women took their admittance with graciousness and gratitude, not as if they were "owed."
"I had no desire to see the small all-male Sherlockian societies go coed," said Herzog. "Women like to hang around women and men like to hang around men, and I can't see anything wrong with that." It was only exclusion from the founding organization, the BSI, that "just wasn't right. I feel great gratitude to Tom Stix and appreciate his sense of fair play."
Rice, with her humiliating in-then-out experience at Hugo's Companions, was slightly less sanguine. She remembered walking into that meeting and feeling "invisible and naked simultaneously" as the men stared then quickly looked away. For her, her investiture into the BSI was so wonderful that she still thinks of it to cheer herself "when times get tough."
Were the men just having a tantrum in a teapot? Or did they indeed, out of gallantry and a sense of fair play, give something up? At the dinner, with only 20 or so women among the approximately 150 present, the atmosphere was relaxed. There was comradeship, a sense of let's-be-silly-and-to-hell-with-it, a cigars-and-whiskey ambiance.
At the mixed-sex reception the next day the atmosphere was perfectly cordial and unstrained. Yet it was there -- that faint tension men exhibit in female company, the understanding that if they look stupid or do something dumb it won't be merely in front of forgiving male eyes but under the gaze of ... women. Who may actually say something about it. Who may, possibly, remind them about it in the future. Who, in the worst possible imagining, might, if they chose, tell jokes about it.
For the sake of the ladies' feelings, the gentlemen laid themselves open to this risk.
"They're nice guys," said Rice. "Even the ones who voted me out. I can't really get mad at any of them."