I went with a friend of mine yesterday to Gillette Castle State Park here in Connecticut. Gillette Castle was built by William Gillette, the actor famous for inventing the role of Sherlock Holmes for the stage, and coining the term “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought Gillette was the most authoritative actor to play the part of Holmes.
Gillette’s father was Francis Gillette, one of the first Republican senators, elected from Connecticut in 1857. Back in the 1850s, the Republicans were a radical party — they weren’t the party of big business then, but rather the party of labor unions and abolitionists and rabble-rousers (how times change!) Young Will grew up at Nook Farm, on the edge of Hartford, a stone’s throw from the house of Samuel Clemens (famed to the world as “Mark Twain”), and caddy-corner to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Abraham Lincoln himself said to her face, “So… you’re the little lady that has wrought this great and terrible war by writing that book.”
Both of Gillette’s brothers were soldiers, and both of them died in the service. Gillette himself was a very private man throughout his life, but he got his start in Civil War melodramas, where various archetypes of the Union and Confederacy did alternately horrible and honorable things. The American melodrama scene in the 1880s and 1890s was closely connected to the spiritualist movement, which was about using mediums and what we would call today “channelling” to communicate with the dead. Americans would go to the theater, see this highly emotional play, leave in tears because of some dead brother or dead son, and mediums — who made it their business to attend these productions — would stalk the bereft widows, widowers and orphans as they departed. For a small fee, of course, the medium would host a seance, and get the living in touch with the dead.
Foreign visitors to this blog must remember that the American Civil War killed around 800,000 people, at a time when that was the total population of the city of New York. Today, New York is one of the planet’s megametropolises, but in 1861 it hadn’t broken the million-person mark. There wasn’t a city or town anywhere in the country that didn’t lose a hefty block of people, and some towns never recovered from the loss. GIllette, who was from a prominent family, had no reason to see both of his brothers die in the war, and yet they did.
So Gillette was sent into theatrical production and acting, because that, at least, was safe. He met leading literary lights in the English-speaking world on both sides of the Atlantic, and among his friends was this woman, Pamela Colman Smith.
You may remember PCS as the painter of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, which is probably the most famous Tarot deck in the world these days. She has an extremely distinctive style of art, and in Gillette’s house overlooking the Connecticut River, there is a set of rather fine watercolors by her, of William Gillette.
The paintings are… not to put too fine a point on it… sort of creepy. And they’re in a rather creepy house. Finished in 1919, ten years after the publication of the Tarot deck, Gillette Castle is called that today — but its official name, the one that William gave it, is The Seventh Sister, which is a reference to the hill it sits on, and the Pleiades star cluster, which has ancient astrological meanings of both good tidings and risky fortunes.
Gillette burned most of his papers upon his death, but the setup of his house is quite instructive. The front entrance leads into a stone-vaulted staircase to the great hall; a secret passage through one side allowed Gillette to pop out of his study and greet his guests, or slip by them and avoid them if they were people he did not wish to see. The house has forty-seven doors, each of which has a complicated rack-and-pinion door latch of Gillette’s own design, and they are carved with symbols that are… if not exactly magical, at least suggestive symbols of protection, good fortune, and power. The house’s four or five main bedrooms are all small, and all reached by a common balcony overlooking the great hall; the kitchen and dining room are set up for entertaining only a very small number of guests, and there are porticoes and porches all around the house, with astounding views of the river a few hundred feet downhill. From the main patio, the School of Saint John is visible across the river, as is the ferry.
BUT… up on the third floor, at the top of a narrow staircase, is his art gallery and library, containing this picture of Gillette in his whites, by Pamela Colman Smith — the occultist and artist. The gallery spaces are arranged in an figurative set of open rooms, reminiscent of the layout of the Hebrew letter zayin. At one end of this is a door (now blocked open) into a small parlor or waiting room; and a door out the other side of this parlor opens into a narrower, winding staircase, up to Gillette’s “Meditation Room”.
The meditation room is off limits. “Fire safety prevents us from allowing tours up there,” I was told. But I WAS told what was up there — windows in every direction, which (from the ground) I could tell were oriented to the four points of the compass. A door out onto a very narrow balcony that winds three-quarters of the way around the tower. And another door that opened onto a short stairway onto “the roof”.
From the ground, this “roof” is surrounded by a tall wall, so that no one outside can see inside. These walls are angled so that someone inside can probably see out. I’d say there’s an area about 40 feet square in that courtyard. And the view from Google Maps confirms that assessment.
Here’s where it gets interesting, for me. Gordon calls these things “Fireflies”, by which he means actual, real things clustered around unusual places and people. Gillette designed this house, and built it, and called it the Seventh Sister. He was regularly visited by all kinds of theatrical and literary people; it looks like he knew Yeats, Doyle, Smith herself, and a number of other people who we can’t confirm were members of the Golden Dawn, but at least moved in the same circles. Just before his death, he collected his papers from his “Meditation Room” at the top of the house, and burned all of them.
All. Of. Them.
His library survives, though, and my friend and I found some suggestive titles. He owned a book called “Pre-Christian Christs” and “The Golden Bough”, and a number of other volumes that ‘touched’ very lightly on occult themes. A lot of novels, a lot of classical literature, and a group of volumes which were wrapped in white paper covers, and unreadable to us as visitors.
Smith being followed by WIlliam Gillette, by Smith herself.
It’s tempting to think that he was “one of the magicians” right now. He built his own three-mile long railroad on the property, and in his will he hinted that he was planning on sticking around to make sure that whoever owned his land next wouldn’t make a mess of things. The painting Smith made of herself and Gillette suggests that he was a horn dog, who nevertheless had rigid self-control. And, if this was not enough, he is sometimes credited as being one of the first great international theater celebrities. And yet he lived a very lonely and retiring life, in a house designed specifically and especially to make him more powerful and more knowledgeable than anyone else could possibly be.
It’s tempting to think of him as a magician, though, is it not? A member of the Golden Dawn, perhaps, who has so far escaped our notice?
Click through to Flickr by means of the photographs to see the other Pamela Colman Smith paintings of William Gillette, and see if you agree.