"she had indeed been a very remarkable woman." [VEIL]
With every passing year, the world of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts loses some of our own. While it's to be expected as part of the circle of life, it's heart wrenching each time we have to stand "on the terrace" for our dearly departed friends.
And no more so than in the case of Susan Rice, ASH, BSI, 2s. ("Beeswing"). Susan received her investiture in the Baker Street Irregulars in 1991 and the Two Shilling Award in 2002. Her investiture in the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes was "A Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations Upon the Segregation of the Queen," granted in 1981.
We've known Susan for almost as long as we've been involved in Sherlockian circles, first having met her at an Autumn in Baker Street in the mid-1990s. And despite being the resident wordsmith around these parts, we were struck dumb upon her death on September 28.
Even if we did find our voice to properly honor her memory at this time, it simply wouldn't be enough. You see, Susan's impact on the world of Sherlock Holmes deserved more than a single voice remembering her. She touched many lives and touched them deeply—so deeply that we thought it appropriate to have her honored by a number of voices, and particularly voices of those who were closest to her.
Susan ran ASH Wednesday gatherings until recently. She took over the annual William Gillette Luncheon from Lisa McGaw and ran it for decades before passing it along as well. Obviously, there are decades more that preceded these recent organizations, but Susan was an able administrator who ran things with a schoolteacher's stringency and a loving hand.
John Bennett Shaw, BSI ("The Hans Sloane of My Age") has been called the Johnny Appleseed of the Sherlockian movement, planting his influence all over the country as he met people, corresponded with them, and brought them together for his conferences.
Susan Rice might be best remembered as the Lady Liberty of the Sherlockian movement, welcoming everyone, regardless of how they came to Holmes, what their interests are, or any other aspect of their lives. Susan made her home in New York City, lifting her lamp beside a golden door to Sherlockian circles, offering a warm welcome to anyone who wished to enter:
"A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame."
Rather than nattering on in a way that doesn't do her memory justice, we'll turn this over to a small group of people whose lives Susan undeniably touched.
The first goes back the farthest.
Curtis Armstrong, BSI ("A Fine Actor")
Susan Rice, while a young teacher at the Kingswood School in the toney Bloomfield Hills suburb of Detroit, lived in an apartment many teachers would’ve given their eye-teeth for. When I close my eyes, I can still walk through it.
Not that that was difficult, because it was a two-room, tiny place, with a kitchenette and bathroom, but to me it seemed like heaven. For one thing it was located in Cranbrook Gardens, the park surrounding the old Dodge Estate. Not near the gardens—smack in the middle of them, overlooking the walled gardens themselves, what may have been the original kitchen garden of the estate. Her apartment was in one the towers in this eccentric layout, and it was beautiful, especially when the park itself was closed to the public, in the winter and after a snowfall.
Anyway, it was what happened once you got inside the apartment that the real magic happened. I keep meaning to look through the boxes of old Baker Street Journals that I have stored away somewhere to find that issue of the Journal that changed everything for me. One reason I particularly would like to find it is because Susan and I, in after years, could never remember if it was 1969 or 1970. It doesn’t matter and I have always said it was 1969. It announced the formation of a new scion Society in Bloomfield Hills, calling itself The Trifling Monographs. The contact information was Susan’s address in Cranbrook Gardens. I wrote her, requesting information about the next meeting. I don’t recall a phone conversation, though there may have been one.
Sometime later, I received a packet in the mail. Everything in that packet was donated years ago to the BSI Trust, including things like the By-Laws and Initiation. I did keep a copy of Susan’s cover note to me, invited me and a friend of mine at the time, Cheryl, who was experiencing a fleeting interest in Sherlock Holmes, to the next meeting the following Saturday.
|Susan's note to Curtis (courtesy of Curtis Armstrong)|
I remember being particularly impressed by the fact that she had to change the time of the meeting because she had a luncheon in Detroit. Not lunch. Luncheon!
Our meetings consisted of discussions about previously assigned stories, imaginatively designed quizzes, and just socializing. We were nerds, after all, and Susan’s apartment was a safe space for us. One of the rare Monograph meetings not held at Susan’s was a dinner at my house, celebrating The Master’s birthday in January 1972. As Susan later reported it in the Baker Street Journal, the menu consisted of “grouse and a little something choice in wines.” (We had all turned 18 by then). I can guarantee that her description made it sound better than it was. As I recall, Cheryl and I had prepared Cornish Game Hen, and garlic bread. To choke down the feast, we had a bottle of Liebfraumilch or something equally lethal. My parents, good eggs that they were, had made themselves scarce that evening, giving the Sherlockians the run of the place.
And Susan, bless her, had made special arrangements for the evening. One of the guests that night was none other than Robert G. Harris, BSI ("The Creeping Man"), of the legendary Amateur Mendicant Society. Probably the biggest “get” in the Detroit Sherlockian community at that time, Bob Harris, accompanied by his wife, arrived bearing a Tantalus, a gasogene and a lot of stories. This was a man who, when referring to Christopher Morley, called him “Kit.” Truly, Jupiter had descended that night. Harris was Susan’s Sherlockian mentor in the same way that she was ours.
There were never any restrictions placed on discussion within our little group, and I felt free to talk there in a way I just didn’t with my school friends. We all of us had an instinctive sense of where the limits were, and were we to go too far astray, Susan had the good educator’s ability to rein us in without seeming to.
She was never a collector, but she did have books that we didn’t have, the cherished Writings on the Writings, which we could borrow if we were interested. There was only one book on her shelves she refused to lend us and that one still makes me smile.
She had been to Greece, she told us, and while there had found next to her on a bus, a paperback book left behind by a previous rider. The title was The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by J.Watson. There was much laughter and she let us leaf through it but the book remained on the restricted list. Many years later, after moving to New York, I found a copy of the book in, of all places, Christopher Morley’s favorite bookshop, Medoza’s, on Ann Street. It has remained in my collection, unread, ever since.
On moving to Los Angeles, I reconnected with one of my erstwhile Monographs, Lucy Chase Williams, who I hadn’t seen since Detroit days. We agreed to meet in a bar in Hollywood and I jokingly said she should wear something distinctive, so I would recognize her. As I walked in that evening, there she was, at the bar, prominently displaying her copy of The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes for me to see. It appears that during the Monograph’s diaspora, acquiring a copy of Susan’s forbidden book had become a kind of badge of honor!
Years later, Susan invited me to my first BSI weekend, and the year after, I was invited to my first dinner. As the evening ended, with famous Irregulars as far as the eye could reach, Susan dropped into the seat next to me.
“Okay,” she said, smiling. “Who do you want to meet?”
Thanks to Susan Rice, I never looked back.
Nancy Holder, BSI ("Beryl Garcia")
|Susan, sporting her classic beehive at at the Gillette Luncheon|
Over on the Studies in Starrett blog there's a slight detour titled "This is a Fan Letter." These are some excerpts.
Ray Betzner, BSI ("The Agony Column")
|Courtesy of Ray Betzner|
Susan was one of those rare folks that everyone admired. That was born out with the ear-splitting cry that went up when Tom Stix called her name as one of the first round of women invested into the BSI. (You can hear it yourself via Episode 89 of I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere. If you were there, it is a grand memory to relive. And if you weren’t there, this was a historic moment you may enjoy.)
It wasn’t until the 1992 BSI dinner that she and I chatted for a while and we learned of our mutual admiration for Vincent Starrett. Susan had long been a fan of his work and I was just beginning my fascination with the fellow. Susan, who owned many of his books while always claiming not to be a collector, encouraged me to get a hold of Starrett’s books about books. I made a note to do so.
It was a pleasant talk, the first of many along those lines.
Then a wonderful thing happened. I got a letter from Susan Rice in the mail. It was my first (and only) fan letter. I know this was a fan letter because Susan states clearly at the top: “This is a fan letter.” I don’t know many shades of crimson that went across my face as I read it, but looking at it now, 28 years later, I am still floored that she would recall those little bits where our paths crossed and thought them worth writing about.
|Susan's fan letter to Ray|
For the next few decades after that letter, I became her devoted follower and we delighted in every opportunity to sit and chat. Susan was one of the wittiest folks I’ve ever known, and being with her encouraged me to try my hand at matching her bon mot for bon mot. I rarely rose to her level, but the competition was always delicious.
Al Rosenblatt, BSI ("Inspector Bradstreet") and Julie Rosenblatt, BSI ("Mrs. Turner")
|Courtesy of Mickey Fromkin|
Betsy Rosenblatt, BSI ("Lucy Ferrier")
|Mickey and Susan|
Susan's decision to turn over the reins of the William Gillette Luncheon was a big one.
Jenn Eaker, BSI ("Mary Sutherland")
|Courtesy of Charles Prepolec|
Janice Fisher, ASH ("A Violet-Tinted Pencil")
"Long before I knew I could be a BSI, I had a fantasy of being named The Woman and seizing the microphone after the toast to give the BSI what-for. In my fantasy, I was so witty and charming in my invective that the fellas melted before me and changed their ways. Luckily, I was present to see Janice fulfill that fantasy, except of course that there were women in her audience because the BSI had actually managed to change their ways earlier."
"I was surprised to hear of [Steven’s] comic collection, though something tells me I learned of this once before and then filed it in that bulging folder of miscellaneous interesting things that soon become obscured by the very thickness of the file. How many-parted we all are, and that's a sort of consolation when the world goes all awry. I can still look into friends and find something new."
|Susan with Sherry Rose-Bond|
Steven Rothman, BSI ("The Valley of Fear")
|Peter Blau bringing out Susan's smile at the Gillette Luncheon|
One privately-submitted response indicated an important aspect to Susan's collecting habit: that despite her strenuous objections, she was indeed a collector. But unlike so many other Sherlockians who amass books, artwork or tchotchkes, Susan collected friends. And many of them were on the young side, from her aspiring students in Detroit to the more recent fandom. She was a mentor to all of them.
There's so much to process with these wonderful perspectives.
While we could write a thoughtful reply or essay to each one, here's a through-line that's worth considering: Susan made everyone feel at home. Like they could be themselves.
We're not just talking about in Sherlockian ways; look again at the above. She made misfits feel as if we had a rightful place at the table. Nerds, LGBTQ+, noobs, comic book collectors, awkward types. Not only did she collect people, but she put them together and gave them a sense of belonging.
To make someone feel as if they belong is the ultimate act of love.
And Susan dispensed it liberally.
Farewell, Susan. The air of the Sherlockian world is forever sweeter for your presence.
|Courtesy of Mickey Fromkin|
Do you have a particular memory of Susan? Feel free to leave it in the comment section below.