About Golf, and Rudyard Kipling,

and Vermont, and Other Things . . .



One of the nicest things about the Sherlockian world is the many opportunities it offers to visit the 19th century, or at least give some thought to the 1890s and the many centenaries that Sherlockians can now celebrate. And it was most pleasant indeed to be able to celebrate two centenaries in 1894 in Vermont, where one finds both Bennington (where The Baker Street Breakfast Club sponsored a splendid Sherlock Holmes conference honoring the return of Sherlock Holmes to London and the events recorded in "The Adventure of the Empty House"), and Brattleboro (where Rudyard Kipling lived in the 1890s).

Kipling married into Vermont, in effect, through the Balestier family. After his return to London from India he met Wolcott Balestier, with whom he wrote a novel, and Wolcott's sister Caroline. Wolcott Balestier died of typhus in December 1891, and a few weeks later Kipling married Caroline, and on their honeymoon visited her home, where Kipling was enchanted by the "white velvet" of a Vermont winter. And they built a new home, which he christened "Naulakha" (the title of the novel he had written with Wolcott Balestier), and lived there happily, writing five books, including Captains Courageous, The Jungle Book, and The Second Jungle Book (and if all you know of Kipling's work is the Disney animation of "The Jungle Book," I urge you to read the stories that Kipling wrote, which have far more power and color than will be found in the Disney film).

It was at Naulakha that Conan Doyle and his son Innes came to visit, during his tour of the United States in 1894, and to share the Kiplings' Thanksgiving Dinner. "I had brought up my golf-clubs and gave him lessons in a field," Conan Doyle recalled in his autobiography Memories and Adventures, "while the New England rustics watched us from afar, wondering what on earth we were at, for golf was unknown in America at that time." The passage will be found both in the book and in the serialization in The Strand Magazine, and I recommend the magazine, which has many illustrations that are not in the book, including a delightful view of Kipling and Conan Doyle playing golf, observed by a rustic. The illustration appeared in the April 1924 issue of the magazine, drawn by an anonymous artist who deserves more recognition than the editors of the Strand provided.

But there is a bit of a mystery about Conan Doyle's reminiscences of that visit to Vermont, and his suggestion that "golf was unknown in America at that time." Not quite. Historians of golf report that Robert Lockhart had purchased six golf clubs and two dozen balls from a golf shop in St. Andrews, Scotland, at the request of John Reid. And that Lockhart and his sons tested the clubs in an open area at the northwest end of Manhattan, and in February 1888 Reid introduced five friends to the game, playing on a crude three-hole course cut from a cow pasture adjacent to Reid's home in Yonkers, New York.

The first known mention of golf in the United States in the press was in 1889, in the Philadelphia Times. In 1892 Reid's golf club had more than thirty members and had moved to a larger course, and the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, New York, opened the first clubhouse in America (designed by Stanford White). In 1893 Shinnecock Hills created a separate nine-hole course for members' wives and daughters, establishing a precedent of discrimination that only a few country clubs in America manage to uphold today.

In 1894 five American golf clubs met and formed the United States Golf Association, and the Spaulding company sold the first American-made golf clubs. But surely we can forgive Arthur Conan Doyle for not knowing about all of that history, or even part of it. My excuse is that while I have played golf, I only played it once, and didn't finish the first hole.

There is a bit more to be said about golf, because (as with so many other things) golf is mentioned (more than once) in the Canon. "It was after tea on a summer evening," Watson reports in the first reference, "and the conversation, which had roamed in a desultory, spasmodic fashion from golf clubs to the causes of the change in the obliquity of the ecliptic, came round at last to the question of atavism and hereditary aptitudes."

That's in "The Greek Interpreter." which was published in The Strand Magazine in September 1893, and in Harper's Weekly on September 16, 1893. The story was collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, which was published both in Great Britain and in the United States in 1894, well before Conan Doyle arrived for his lecture tour. So the readers of the Sherlock Holmes stories in America had at least heard of golf by the time of the visit with Kipling. But it may well have been true that the New England rustics, watching and wondering from afar, were indeed unfamiliar with the game.

In any case, there's additional evidence that golf was known in the United States in 1894: to the Kiplings, in fact, because Caroline Kipling's diary includes an entry somewhat before Conan Doyle's visit that reports: "Golf with the Cabots." Gerald O'Hara, a Canadian admirer of Conan Doyle who has done a great deal of research on Conan Doyle's travels in Canada, has, by the way, a score sheet that shows that Kipling and Conan Doyle defeated Innes Doyle and Beatty Balestier by one stroke.

Beatty Balestier was Caroline Kipling's younger brother, and there's more to be said about him. Conan Doyle returned to England, and before long Kipling was in serious trouble with Beatty Balestier, who had long been the black sheep of the Balestier family. Beatty was intemperate and improvident and ill-tempered, and eventually his sister refused to support him any longer, to which he took offense, and in May 1896 Beatty Balestier threatened to kill Rudyard Kipling, who charged his brother-in-law with assault.

And there was publicity (unwanted), and newspaper coverage (not merely local), and embarrassment for the Kiplings (Caroline had, it seems, tended to act rather like the lady of the manor, and of course her husband was a foreigner), and sympathy for Beatty (whose threat was regarded by many of his neighbors as less than serious). And Beatty was ordered to post bail, and to appear for trial in September.

But there would be no trial in September 1896, because by then Rudyard and Caroline Kipling, disheartened by events, had packed up, and with their two daughters had sailed to England, never to return to Vermont.

But Naulakha remained, lived-in for some years and then left empty for almost half a century, until it was purchased by the Landmark Trust (whose other properties are all in Britain), and found to be almost as it was in Kipling's time. The house has now been carefully restored, and it can be rented by the week or the holiday, and it is quite popular, so one needs to book well in advance. Naulakha is spacious and well-designed, and the Landmark Trust has an office in Brattleboro. If you would like to see some photographs of the house as it was then and is now, I happily recommend an excellent article by Michael Frank in the May 1994 issue of Architectural Digest.

The house sleeps eight, in case some admirers of Conan Doyle wish to spend a holiday at Naulakha. The guest room is still there, in case you want to sleep in a bed that Conan Doyle slept in. And Kipling's golf clubs are displayed on a rack on an enclosed porch (he continued to enjoy the game after Conan Doyle left, of course). And Kipling enjoyed other sports in Vermont: Christopher Redmond has discovered that in 1895 Conan Doyle sent Kipling a pair of skis from Norway.

It is nice to think about those two grand tellers-of-tales, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. Consider what a delightful evening it would have been, sitting and listening at that dining-room table when Conan Doyle visited Kipling in 1894. And imagine, if you will, what it was like to be a child, and say, "Daddy, tell me a story," when your Daddy was Arthur Conan Doyle or Rudyard Kipling. Wouldn't that be fun!

The Editor's Note;

This is adapted from a paper delivered to The Five Orange Pips of Westchester County on October 12, 1994.