BIOGRAPHY, general biography, LETTERS
Comments 7

A 1914 Letter from Basil Rathbone

Rathbone as a young noble

Basil Rathbone, a member of F.R. Benson’s Shakespeare Company, in 1913 or 1914

While doing some research on Basil Rathbone I came across this gem that was published in The Liverpool Daily Post on April 8, 1914. It’s a detailed letter written by Basil to his father. When he wrote the letter, Basil was in El Paso, Texas, touring North America with Frank Benson’s Shakespeare Company. Basil was 21 years old and unmarried. What a wonderful snapshot of this moment in Basil Rathbone’s life! Just two years later, he would be in the army, fighting in the First World War.

The portion of the letter that was published begins just below this map showing the locations of El Paso and Juarez, which are mentioned in the letter.

Never in my life have I spent such days of wonder! These last three days in El Paso have been, in certain ways, the most wonderful in my life. I think the sight that struck me most in San Antonio was that of all these fine broad-chested, tanned-faced, healthy, strong Mexicans, working all over the town in their particularly picturesque blue costumes under tall, big-brimmed straw hats. … We left San Antonio at eleven o’clock on Sunday, and travelled through the most lovely scenery we have yet seen; we travelled down the Rio Grande valley and over some wonderful drainy land, covered with aloes and mimosa and magnolia trees. The aloes were just flowering, and some were white and some yellow and some pink. The soil was sandy rock, and it was a fearfully hot day. About four o’clock we got down alongside the Rio Grande river, on the other side of which is Mexico and war! The hills now grew bigger and bigger, and if possible the scenery more and more beautiful. Two photos I am sending, taken from the end of the train, will give you some idea of the magnificent rock canyons we passed through. At 6.30 we passed over the second highest bridge in the world—the only higher one being the Forth Bridge, our own, own make! It was a wonderful bridge, 302 ft. high, and over a groat rocky canyon dividing some beautiful hills, behind which set the sun in all his glory. He had gone down a golden mass so bright you couldn’t look at him, and faded in every shade of orange, pink, and red known to mortal or immortal hand, and then sunk out of sight leaving a glorious afterglow, which silhouetted the hills around until nearly eight o’clock. I never saw anything like these sunsets and sunrises out here. They are inspiring beyond words.

We arrived at El Paso after an all-night journey at 6.30 a.m., and had great difficulty in settling our hotel, as the town was full of Federal refugees. We managed to “fix up” about an hour later in a very good hotel, in which each room had a lovely hot and cold shower bath. … After breakfast and a good wash down and shave, we found some exquisite shops full of beautiful Mexican work; I also found out that there was an excellent race meeting in Juarez, across the border in Mexico. Juarez is the headquarters of Villa and his constitutionalists, and also where W. S. Benton, the Englishman, was shot. We went back for “Jack,” had some grub, and took the train over. The car was stopped on both sides of the river, and three officers, American and Mexican, on their respective sides, entered and carefully scrutinized every one. Anyone carrying a parcel had to open it. Kodaks they are quickest on, as not long ago a man was caught with a Kodak full of bombs! For all of us it was our first race meeting, and, personally speaking, I have never seen more exciting sport. Of course, we didn’t bet.

There were some thrilling finishes, and the seven furlong world’s record time was officially broken. There were some beautiful horses and some of the closest of finishes. I did enjoy it. When we came out we walked back into Juarez, and saw some very quaint sights. Families living in mud huts; mounted patrols returning from duty twenty-five miles out. These patrols are armed to the teeth with rifle, revolver, and sword, and belt upon belt of cartridges. They ride these thickly-made shaggy horses of from thirteen to sixteen hands. Some of them are dressed in semi-civilian, some in semi-military, but no one in a uniform dress. A great number wear the lovely tall, broad-brimmed straw hat; but the things they prize and spend all their money on are their saddles, exquisitely worked and fashioned; their big gauntlets, and splendid riding boots. These little batches of mud huts, the greater part open to the sky, were most picturesque. The Mexican children are very beautiful, and stand or play about in batches, clothed in many bright colours. But the Mexican men are the creatures to look at: big, strong, clean-shaven faces, fine noses, big dark brown eyes, and black hair; their complexions varying from deep olive to dust-red. I must admit it is a rare experience for me, but I fail to admire the women! The men seem to swamp them in every way.

Walking along “willy nilly,” we came on Villa’s house, also Benton’s house, now riddled with shot and cannon balls. It is astounding how few houses remain unmarked by the late fighting. We then came on the headquarters of Villa’s army. A gipsy crew of marauders they looked. A curious-looking batch were playing weird music, others stood idly about or fed their horses, or relieved incoming patrols. There was a tense atmosphere of excitement and mystery, for even we knew that any day we might receive news of the great battle of Torreon. Several men eyed us very suspiciously, and we were told afterwards that had it not been for the girls we should have been probably very carefully cross-examined. Just then a small, very ugly, moderately-dressed little American came up and asked if he could help us find any place. He said he was just touring round, and was in Juarez for a day. He got us into the bull ring, but, worse luck, no bull-fight was on. I didn’t trust the little devil from the first, and kept an eye on him all the time. He then begged us to spare a minute to see the cock-fighting ring. We went—and what a sight. Two crowing chanticleers faced each other, chained and ready, as soon as their spurs were fixed, to fly at each other. The little man asked us if we would like to see the spurs used. We hadn’t time to see a fight, and wouldn’t have stayed if we had had time. Curiously enough, the spurs were kept by a man who owned a kind of gambling table. I wonder why he had them! I saw through the game; of course, we were soon invited to play. Our little American friend played first and won. The Mexican expressed astonishment and annoyance—rogue! We played 50 cents each, lost! —75 cents, lost! —1.00, lost! It wasn’t very hard to see we won or lost at his will. If I had had any more money to spare I would have thrown it away (for throwing it away it is ) on this game to try and find out how he did it. I have got one tip, I think. I love experiencing everything, and I wanted to see this thing through—even if I got knifed! No, really, it was a sight to see these rogues at their own games, and that cockpit surrounded by the vilest looking lot of devils that ever the earth nourished. I said nothing to the little American, but determined to come over and see if he was still there, and not just on a visit as he had said, and so prove him an accomplice. We went back after a great day fearfully excited, but determined to say nothing.

View of El Paso, by Leon Trousset

The next day (Tuesday) we went out to Fort Bliss to see the American camp of Federal Mexican refugees, who are kept as prisoners—5,000 of them. El Paso is surrounded by beautiful mountains, and the trip out to the camp was really very nice. The camp was very interesting, but not quite so exciting as our previous day’s experiences. They are enclosed by barbed wire, and sentries with fixed bayonets and loaded rifles. It was terribly hot, as on the previous day (92 degrees in the shade). We walked a good deal of the way out and back, and got very tired. The showers in our hotel were a joy when we got back. As our train did not start till 6 p.m. next day we had all the day to ourselves. At ten o’clock we went along to some stables (Jack would not come), and each took a horse—the first time I had been up since Africa. I fell back into it at once. I was so pleased. I got my trot at once, and as soon as we got sand just outside the town we galloped a hard mile or so. We soon reached the foot of the hills, and started to wind our way carefully up. We very soon lost all tracks and had to climb up the steep hillway on rough loose rocky ground, our dear old horses picking the best way without assistance. Before long we realised it was impossible to take the horses any further (a man below said these mountains had never been crossed on horse), and very few people ever went to the top walking. I determined to be one. The other two would not come, but agreed to stay by the horses and rest. I think they slept! It took me about half an hour to climb the rest over rough loose rock covered with big cactus and tropical growth. I fell twice and pricked my hands rather badly, as the cussed pricks are so long and won’t come out, but break in your hand. I took a huge one out of my horse’s foot soon after. We started again; well, up and up I went, and hotter and hotter I got, and more and more did I puff and blow! The last fifty feet was practically sheer straight and I had to go hand over hand and pick my every foot and hand hole. It really was quite exciting. I got right to the very top, and what a reward! I have never seen such a lovely view—miles and miles of plain, then hills beyond. El Paso down in the hollow, hills beyond, then hills and mountains for mile upon mile. I took off my shirt and waved to the others below, standing in my vest and trousers. It took me nearly as long to come down. I had to be so careful. I was quite “done” when I got back to the others, so had a good fifteen minutes’ rest.

We then wended our way down again, devilishly thirsty. Before long we came across a little settlement of mud huts, and made signs we were thirsty to a very picturesque woman standing outside her door. She brought us water in a cup, made out of a half fruit, like a grape fruit dried. We then got a lovely sandy stretch in El Paso of some one and a half miles, which we galloped, and then Frank and I raced for a finish, and I just beat him by half a length. We walked through the town and into Juarez. We again saw our little American friend with two of our staff, just coming out of that very same place we were in. I rode straight up to him and asked him if he had won any more money. He didn’t see I was getting at him, until M—, in a perfect frenzy said, “You little devil!” He literally fled when he saw we knew him—It really was rather funny. I wish we could have got him over on the other side. We then rode all round the town, and went into the Church (R.C.). It was the quaintest thing you can imagine, there being no seats, all the people squatting or praying kneeling on the floor. We got back at 3, after being out from 10 a.m.

We bathed, packed, fed, and caught our train, which was two hours late. When I woke up this morning we were in a desert, mile after mile of sand. About ten o’clock we broke into mountainous country, covered with enormous cactus, some twelve to fifteen feet high. we took some wonderful turns, our engine literally at times was nearly opposite us. We have just stopped at a place called Yuma. Indians were squatting all round the station, selling their bead work. I bought Bea a necklace. There were some wonderful trees of big white and pink flowers in the station.

The letter—or at least the portion that was published in the newspaper—ends here. The next paragraph in the paper explains that Mr. Edgar Rathbone (Basil’s father) decided to publish the letter to appeal for financial donations to the wife and family of Edward A. Warburton, a member of the Benson company, who while touring in America had suffered a mental breakdown and was forced to leave the company. His wife, being unable to maintain her family of five, the youngest of whom was five and the eldest eleven, had to allow four of them to enter the Actors’ Orphanage and the youngest to be adopted by a friend. She proposed to return to the stage.

The final paragraph of the letter includes this line: “I bought Bea a necklace.” Bea undoubtedly refers to Basil’s sister Beatrice. But who was Jack, mentioned earlier in the letter? (“We went back for Jack … Jack would not come.”) If we assume that “Jack” was a nickname for John, Basil may have been talking about John Maclean, an actor who was a member of Benson’s Stratford-upon-Avon Players and who participated in the North American tour. Of course there also could have been a man named John or Jack among the crew. Perhaps we’ll never know. The fact that Basil mentioned the name casually in the letter suggests that Basil’s father knew Jack, or knew who Jack was. Basil may have written about Jack in previous letters.


    • sherlockholmesfanjb says

      Hi! This is me replying to your latest comment you sent me over on the “Bad Men and Good Acting” article. I was having trouble sending you my comment there for strange some reason.
      That is wonderful! I am so glad that you and your friend are having a great time watching the movies together, even if it is through video chat. There is a way to watch movies with your friends using the app Zoom (for free) here is a tutorial on how to do that if you are interested I have only seen clips of ‘Tovarich’ but I plan on watching the whole movie soon, from what I’ve seen in the clips the film looks enjoyable and hilarious   Ever since quarantine started my family and I have been keeping ourselves busy by doing yard work and fixing things up around the house, but I also have been watching some old movies in my free time and posting stuff on my Instagram @oldmoviesfanatic where I post clips of some of my favorite movies and I have another account dedicated to Basil Rathbone @razalbathrobe if you have an Instagram you can check the accounts if you’d like.
      I hope you and your family stay well during these times and hopefully a cure for this pandemic is found soon!
      (Sorry if you get several notifications of this same message but every time I try to reply to you, my comment doesn’t seem to show up in the comment section)


      • rockhyraxx says

        Hi! So nice to hear from you! I’m glad that you and your family are doing well! I’m terribly lucky that I can do home office + university switched to distance learning so I can continue attending all the courses. So I too was kept busy so far. But the whole situation does have some upsides as well. For example, we had to make a short video for a course (my groups topic was the connection between the Spanish flu and ww1, pretty cool stuff) and I always wanted to know how to work with video editing software, but never had the motivation to find out for myself. Now I was practically forced to do so and it was a lot of fun. I will definitely use my newly acquired “skills” for future Basil projects.
        Never knew that Zoom was free. We do use it for home office, but the management told us they had to buy a special licence, so we should not use it for other purposes. I guess it does make a difference if you use it as a private person or not… Maybe I’ll just create a new account with a different email address 😉 thanks for the tip!
        I definitely recommend Tovarich it is one of my all-time favourite movies! But sadly it is kind of hard to find. I guess it is not free from copyright yet…
        Damn I don’t have Instagram (my cell phone has far too little free memory for it which is like always a huge problem, but I love my phone way too much to change it, it has the ideal looks and the perfect size to fit into the teeny-weeny front pockets of my jeans). In the past there was somehow the possibility to look at accounts on the computer, which I just tried, but apparently the function no longer exists. Too bad. I think I will ask my little brother if I can borrow his account for a short time 😉
        (Don’t worry I only got one notification 🙂 I don’t know why this disappearing happens sometimes, I always struggle with that too) I hope it works this time!


        • rockhyraxx says

          I also hope you and your family stay safe. Its bad times but we will manage somehow 🙂


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