The 'Charm City' Of H. L. Mencken - NYTimes.comNote: While it appears that the original 1988 New York Times story included photographs, those were not available with the archived article. The images included here come from other sources. To see The New York Times referenced archive, go to http://query.nytimes.com
By CHRISTOPHER CORBETT, a novelist who lives in Baltimore.
Originally Published: September 4, 1988
PILGRIMS coming to pay homage to the "Attila of critics," H. L. Mencken, in his hometown, may find, as the sage of Baltimore himself did late in life, that many of charm city's old charms have vanished. But there are still a few fragments of that old port on "the immense protein factory," as Mencken called the Chesapeake Bay, to be savored. The scourge of Rotarians and revivalists, chiropractors and Congressmen, God and golfers, Mencken continues to attract and fascinate a new audience more than three decades after his death and half a century since he wrote the etymological milestone "The American Language."
H. L. Mencken House - 1524 Hollins Street, Baltimore, MD 21223
"There's never a shortage of interest," says Arthur Gutman, president of the Baltimore-based Mencken Society.
Casual readers of Mencken, familiar with his coverage of the Scopes trial, may find it hard to believe that the old boy had a soft spot in his cynical heart, but such soft spots existed, and one was for Baltimore. Mencken became a bit of a booster, though he denounced others for such enthusiasms.
"I have lived in one house in Baltimore for nearly forty-five years," Mencken wrote in his memoirs. "It has changed in that time, as I have - but somehow it still remains the same. No conceivable decorator's masterpiece could give me the same ease. It is as much a part of me as my two hands. If I had to leave it I'd be as certainly crippled as if I lost a leg.
"I believe that this feeling for the hearth, for the immemorial lares and penates, is infinitely stronger in Baltimore than in New York - that it has better survived there, indeed, than in any other large city in America - and that its persistence accounts for the superior charm of the town."
In Baltimore, Mencken declaimed, the food was incomparable and the women more beautiful and the citizens more honorable than anywhere on earth. He commuted to New York by train but never really left home. "The old charm, in truth, still survives in the town, despite the frantic efforts of boosters and boomers who, in late years, have replaced all its ancient cobblestones with asphalt." The sage would not be surprised to see that the boosters and boomers have been busy, chiefly in the city's much-publicized Inner Harbor area, a maze of skyscrapers and fern bars. Baltimore is no longer a "wicked seaport" that smells "like a billion pole cats" in the summer months, as Mencken remembered it, though its waters are still not suitable for bathing. Little of the city Mencken knew remains among the gleaming glass and shining steel towers in the downtown. But west along Lombard Street a mere 15 blocks, Mencken's old neighborhood at Union Square survives surprisingly untouched.
Established in the mid 1800's, when Baltimore was trying to give itself a touch of class with a few city squares, Union Square remains a green and shady oasis even on the hottest of summer days in a city famous for its humidity. Union Square, which is open dawn to dusk, is in many ways a slice of 19th-century Baltimore little disturbed. Although one side now boasts a howlingly ugly public school building, the rest of the square still consists of tall, three-story brick row houses, a style of architecture that is well preserved in the city. These were the homes of the Baltimore burghers from whose ranks Mencken sprung - mostly German stock, middle and upper middle class. The steps of the houses are mostly marble and broad with an occasional aged black iron bootjack or even a hitching post or rail, remnants from times long gone. The windows are narrow and tall with interior wooden shutters, the doors solid and decorated with bright brass knockers. The fronts of these houses are almost all bedecked with black wrought-iron window boxes or railings around the ground-floor level, planters overflowing with ivy and bright geraniums. And in the morning here, as elsewhere in the city, the passer-by may still see someone scrubbing marble steps.
Union Square, restored to something of its 19th-century finery in recent years, has many dark green park benches for strollers to rest. The H. L. Mencken Fountain at the center of the square, ringed with 32 decorative metal bookleaves commemorating the author's works, was donated by old friends, including the publisher Alfred Knopf and the owner of Baltimore's old German restaurant, Haussner's.
Mencken looked out his second-floor study window at the square nearly every day of his life. He worked mostly at home, 1524 Hollins Street, an address as famous in American letters as any. From the house he wrote to Ezra Pound and Theodore Dreiser, Amy Lowell and Upton Sinclair. It was Mencken's home from shortly after his birth until his death in 1956 at the age of 75, with the exception of the few years he and his wife, Sara Haardt, lived in an apartment near Mount Vernon Square, closer to downtown.
MENCKEN'S home seems as if he might return at any moment, perhaps for a game of checkers. The family checkerboard is at the ready in the parlor. "He preferred checkers to chess because he believed that you should be able to remember the rules of the game after you'd had a few drinks," says Michael Szimanski, assistant curator.
The dining room at the rear of the first floor is replete with a sideboard groaning under the weight of various bottles of Mencken's favorite drinks, including a flask of bathtub gin and a pint of an ominous looking elixir labeled "90 proof corn whiskey." Mencken was to describe himself as "ombibulous" and he left proof other than the corn liquor - including 80 bottles of various potables from around the world. The sage engaged in manufacturing his own spirits during the noble experiment, as he was fond of calling Prohibition. The making of beer was also considered the work of the Lord at 1524 Hollins, particularly during the nation's dry years. "He would teach people to make beer 10 at a time under the condition that they would teach 10 more people," Mr. Szimanski said. "He hoped to educate the whole country but then Prohibition was repealed."
Mencken's brother August - his brass nameplate is still on the front door - lived on at 1524 Hollins until his death in 1967. He gave the property to the University of Maryland, which housed social workers on the premises for a time - "headquarters for a profession he ridiculed," William Manchester, a Mencken biographer, would recall. The social workers have decamped, and, in a swap with the university, the city acquired the property a few years ago.
On a sweltering Baltimore summer morning with the promise of temperatures in the 90's looming, the back door of the house was ajar to the 100-foot narrow garden at the rear. It is a green and quiet bit of peace in the city where one does not much notice the rumble of traffic on Baltimore Street. The brick-walled back garden, with various ornate tiles and an inlaid Beethoven death mask - which Mencken installed himself - contains a grape arbor and a gazebo.
The writer's study has also been restored, including paste pots and a battered Underwood typewriter, along with a spike.
A stack of Bibles is displayed. Curators note that Mencken delighted in liberating these Gideons from hotel rooms and mailing them to irreligious friends with a note "compliments of the author." Mencken's favorite cigars are still on his desk. Havanas for smoking and Uncle Willie's - of the 5-cent variety - for chewing.
In the parlor are rows of antique beer steins and finely bound volumes of Shakespeare and Nietzsche, along with family photographs and German memorabilia.
Visitors to Mencken's home first see a short film on the writer's life and the city that shaped him. It is a splendid introduction for the newcomer and a refresher for old Mencken hands, containing rare recordings of Mencken's voice - with more than a touch of a Baltimore accent - made during his later years. It is the unmistakable voice of a man with no shortage of opinions as well as that of a brilliant raconteur.
The film chronicles a colorful and controversial life - the newspaper days, chiefly with The Baltimore Sunpapers, and the days of The Smart Set and The American Mercury with George Jean Nathan. And of course Mencken's days of glory, in "the hills of Zion," as he was to call them, covering the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn. Mencken was never in better form than in his dispatches covering the title bout - evolution versus Genesis. The master of 1524 Hollins Street is said to have planned the campaign with Clarence Darrow, who was pitted against William Jennings Bryan. And there are some splendid bits on the old Saturday Night Club, a gang of Mencken's cronies who gathered for 40 years to savor Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and beer.
From the Mencken House and Union Square it is only three blocks to Hollins Market - a city institution much loved by the writer. One of seven public produce markets still operating in Baltimore, the old emporium, housed in a mid-19th-century Italianate hall, is a bit of the Baltimore Mencken would recognize.
IN the Hollins Market a slab of German chocolate cake is 65 cents at Sophia's Bakery, and the fishmongers at Johnnie's Seafood have their tables piled high with the fruit of the Chesapeake, iced down against the hot weather, great mounds of oysters and crabs and fresh fish. Mencken knew this market as a boy and much like venerable Union Square, it has changed little.
"I would say that the character of Hollins Market is closer to Mencken's day than any of the public markets in the city," says Richard Davis, administrator of city markets.
And there is still a Baltimore street scene that would be familiar to Mencken today.
"All Spring the streets swarmed with hucksters selling such things: they called themselves, not hucksters, but Arabs (with the first a as in day), and announced their wares with loud, raucous, unintelligible cries, much worn down by phonetic decay," the author wrote in his memoirs.
The narrow side streets of Mencken's neighborhood have more cars now, but there are still plenty of street peddlers selling fruits and vegetables off horse and pony carts, clanging down the narrow alleys behind block upon block of row houses, their strong voices ringing out.
"There is a saying in Baltimore that crabs may be prepared in fifty ways and that all of them are good. The range of oyster dishes is much narrower," said Mencken, who was as enthusiastic a trencherman as any cook could hope for. It would cheer him immeasurably to know that there are a few venerable eating houses of his day still in business. They don't actually prepare crabs 50 ways at Haussner's on Eastern Avenue but two specialties of the house would be familiar to Mencken - Maryland crab cakes and crab imperial. Established in 1926, Haussner's, which still serves a wonderfully eclectic mix of German and Maryland cuisine, was a Mencken haunt. The restaurant is famous as well for its art collection - more than 600 original paintings at last count - including works by Rembrandt, Van Dyke, Whistler and Gainsborough. "Mencken's Baltimore was provincial and cosmopolitan at the same time," recalls R. P. Harriss, who at 86 is the dean of the city's working journalists, still writing a regular Sunday column for The Baltimore Sun. "It was a lively place with a great deal of charm."
There is no better place than Marconi's, on Saratoga, where that combination of the provincial and the cosmopolitan still thrives. Many of the waiters look old enough to have served Mencken creamed spinach or sweetbreads or soft shell crabs, all specialties of the house. Founded in 1920, and looking pretty much unchanged since then, Marconi's remains a much beloved dining institution. The floor is linoleum, the waiters still mix drinks at the table and leave the bottle, and they still don't take reservations. Marconi's menu is famous for entrees ranging from lobster cardinal to poached eggs.
Around the corner is the central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, an essential stop for any pilgrim, particularly on the one day each year when the library opens its Mencken room. The Menckenfest, Sept. 10 this year, is a rare opportunity for his admirers to see the Mencken Room, which is normally open only to scholars. In the room is the most extensive collection of Menckeniana in existence.
Self-educated after secondary school, Mencken was a lifelong supporter of the city's public library, to which he left the bulk of his literary estate. And the library remembers its benefactor by organizing the event. "It's really a merry mix of a great number of people who have learned to love Mencken," says Averil Kadis, director of public relations at the Pratt.
The library's Mencken collection is testimony to his thoroughness as a record keeper. "Everything he wrote, he kept. We have every column he ever worked on," says Ms. Kadis. In addition, Mencken left many of his personal papers and much of his personal library to the Pratt, including signed copies of works by major authors whom he befriended and supported such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Theodore Dreiser.
Mencken had only the simplest of funeral services and his ashes are buried in Loudon Park Cemetery on the west side. Another biographer, Carl Bode, found the musings of a Washington preacher appropriate final words: "He loved his drunken pals. He loved to swear in the presence of ladies and archdeacons. To him, everything was a racket - God, education, radio, marriage, children."
Pilgrims will not be disappointed at the memorial to Mencken at 1524 Hollins Street. In the front hall, not far from the box of Uncle Willie's Cigars (free to visitors) is a plaque with the epitaph Mencken wrote for himself. For many years it hung in the lobby of The Baltimore Sun, for which he worked for 50 years.
"If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."
A FAVORITE SON IS CELEBRATED BY HIS FAVORITE LIBRARY
An excellent time to do a Mencken tour is on the day of Baltimore's annual celebration of the critic and gadfly, newspaperman and roisterer, comforter of the afflicted and afflicter of the comfortable. The Menckenfest this coming Saturday marks the 108th birthday of the man Walter Lippmann called "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people."
The H. L Mencken House (1524 Hollins Street, Union Square; 301-396-7997) is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. Admission is $1.75, $1.25 for students and older people, and 75 cents for children between 6 and 18. A guided tour of the house and a viewing of the film on Mencken's life takes about an hour.
Hollins Market (26 South Arlington Street; 301-396-9049) is three blocks east of Union Square. One of seven public markets in the city, it is open Tuesday through Thursday from 7 A.M. to 6 P.M., Friday and Saturday, 6 A.M. to 6 P.M.
The Mencken Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library (400 Cathedral Street; 301-396-5487) will be open to the public from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. next Saturday. The celebration will feature a showing of a documentary film, "Mencken's America." The featured speaker is the writer Ruth Goetz, the daughter of Philip Goodman, the producer and a friend of Mencken's.
The Belvedere (1 East Chase Street; 301-332-1000 or 800-692-2700; doubles $80 to $115) was built in 1903 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is home of the very popular Owl Bar, much beloved by the ombibulous.
The turn-of-the-century Society Hill Hotel (58 West Biddle Street; 301-837-3630) has 15 guest rooms. Rates are $90 or $110 for two people, including Continental breakfast and parking. The bed-and-breakfast hotel has a restaurant and bar, and is across the street from the Myerhoff Symphony Hall. Other lodgings include Society Hill Government House (1125 North Calvert Street; 301-752-7722; doubles $70 to $110), an 18-room bed and breakfast near an antiques dealers' district, and the 25-room Shirley Madison Inn (205 West Madison Street; 301-728-6550; doubles $70 to $95) in a Victorian district.
Haussner's (3244 Eastern Avenue; 301-327-8365) offers German cuisine along with lots of seafood; in addition every inch of wall space is covered by an extraordinary collection of art. Good dishes to try include sauerbraten ($9.50) or Wiener schnitzel ($12.50).
Marconi's (106 Saratoga Street; 301-727-9522) was another Mencken haunt, and a wonderfully eccentric place. Try lamb chops ($15), sweetbreads ($10.75) or lobster cardinal ($16.25).
Mencken wrote of the "celebrated oyster houses of Eutaw Street." Try John W. Faidley's Seafood (301-727-4898), an institution now in its 101st year, in the Lexington Market, open Monday through Saturday 8:30 A.M. to 6 P.M. Mencken knew and loved the city's public markets and there is no better place for a thirsty pilgrim to wash down a half dozen prime Chincoteague oysters ($5) or a crab cake ($2.95 or $4.95) with a glass of National Premium beer ($1).
Mencken in Print
"The Vintage Mencken" compiled by Alistair Cooke (Vintage, $3.95 paperback) and "Prejudices: A Selection" (Vintage, $4.95 paperback) edited by the novelist James T. Farrell are two excellent anthologies.
Two splendid biographies of Mencken include William Manchester's "Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken" (University of Massachusetts Press, $8.95 paperback) and Carl Bode's more detailed "Mencken" (reissued in 1986 by the Johns Hopkins University Press in paperback at $9.95).
This in-depth and lengthy 1988 article from The New York Times archive described Union Square to a worldwide audience - for many, it was probably the first time they read about us. It is a fascinating snapshot from a time when the community was still in its early stages of redevelopment. As such, it is a "must-read" for many current residents who first arrived during the decades since the article was originally published. Descriptions of Union Square park, Hollins Market, the homes, the neighborhood, and the city (plus a harsh reference to the Steuart Hill elementary school) frame an interesting glimpse of our most famous resident - H. L. Mencken - and his house facing the park. The article recalls a time when the H. L. Mencken House was still regularly open to the public, when Haussner's was still in business, and when "Arabbers" were more commonplace throughout the neighborhood.