William Gillette was one of the most famous stage actors in America in the late 19th and early 20th century. He brought Sherlock Holmes to the theatre. Gillette was an eccentric man with an unusual house – actually, a castle full of theatrical flairs. It towers on a cliff overlooking the Connecticut River.
Gillette came from a prominent Hartford family – no relation to the razor maker. One of his neighbors was Mark Twain. And in fact, Twain gave him a recommendation for his first acting gig. Gillette was a triple-threat – he wrote, directed and starred in his plays.
“But Sherlock Holmes is what people would probably remember him as,” says Sarah Lucey, a tour guide at the old Gillette Castle. She says Arthur Conan Doyle retired Sherlock Holmes from his short stories in the 1890s. Gillette saw an opportunity. He asked the writer if he could take on the character in a play.
“Doyle basically said murder him, marry him, I don’t care what you do with Sherlock Holmes. The character is yours,” says Lucey.
Gillette took inspiration from drawings of Holmes in a popular magazine. He wore a plaid hat and draped a sleeveless cape over his shoulders. And he added a prop – a curved pipe that became an iconic part of the outfit.
“When people saw his debut in 1899, they saw Sherlock Holmes come to life,” says Lucey.
Gillette played Holmes more than a thousand times. But – after a century of actors from Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch putting their stamp on the role – most people don’t remember William Gillette.
His real legacy might be a three-story stone castle on the banks of the Connecticut River. Here’s another castle tour guide, Paul Schiller.
“He never really had any true home before the castle was built,” says tour guide Paul Schiller.
He was away a lot, acting, but he did have a fully decked-out houseboat he named the Aunt Polly.
“It was like a floating palace. Very beautiful, very luxurious,” says Lucey.
Gillette was on the Aunt Polly one day in 1913, sailing down the Connecticut River, when he came to a particularly beautiful bend in the river. Seven hills lined the shore – they were called the Seven Sisters.
“I think it was the view,” says Lucey. “Maybe because he spent a lot of time portraying Sherlock Holmes in Europe, he saw that view that reminded him of it. Supposedly the castle was a copy of a castle he saw on the Rhine in Germany.”
The castle was finished just after the end of World War I. The outside is a maze of turrets, towers and balconies, all cobbled together with thousands of stone blocks.
Inside, it’s even more striking. I’m led into a dimly lit chamber with high stone walls.
“This is the main entrance hall of the castle,” says Schiller. “It’s meant to look dark and creepy as though it’s an old castle, but it’s dramatic effect. The actual house itself is very bright, very comfortable.”
Gillette did a lot of things for dramatic effect. Like the doors – most of which have elaborate wooden puzzle-box-looking contraptions on the front. Wooden levers and gears turn every time we open a door.
“They’re all hand-carved, all with their own unique designs and mechanisms, no two doors are alike, and William Gillette designed everything in the house himself,” says Schiller.
The entrance hall opens up into a sprawling main hall, lined by balconies. Ornate wooden carvings are in every nook and cranny.
“And then we have what we refer to as a secret passage door,” says Schiller.
It’s not actually a secret – just hard to see. It’s tucked away in an alcove on a landing halfway up the stairs to the second floor. It opens onto a private office.
“If William Gillette wanted to sneak up on his friends when they were coming upstairs, he could do that. If he wanted to get away from them while they were already upstairs, it makes for a quick escape.”
Gillette had some interesting friends. Charlie Chaplin and actress Helen Hayes visited him at the castle. And he loved to play tricks on them. He built a liquor cabinet with a secret locking mechanism – he’d tell his friends to pour themselves a drink then watch as they couldn’t get to the liquor.
“He was very theatrical, very dramatic, but he also had a wicked sense of humor,” says Schiller.
And he’d often take his famous friends on a three-mile train ride that wound all around the property. Schiller says it was more like a roller coaster.
“He built sharp turns over cliffs, he built a tunnel just for the sake of the thrill of it.”
“He terrorized poor Albert Einstein on the train,” says Lucey. “Albert Einstein took one ride, that was it.”
Gillette might be more remembered today if he embraced the then-new medium of film. He appeared in one silent movie – playing Sherlock Holmes, of course. But Gillette was meant for the stage. His last role in a play came just a year before he died in 1937.
“In his will, he had put a stipulation that he did not want the home to fall into the possession of some blithering sap-head, having no idea what surrounds him,” says Lucey. “He basically didn’t want it developed.”
So the state of Connecticut stepped in and bought the property in 1944. Gillette Castle and its surroundings became a state park – and today, one of its most popular state parks. Gillette’s wild designs and creations are still here. The train is gone, but you can still enjoy its path – it’s been turned into a hiking trail.