WebPost Note: This story is about H. L. Mencken, one of the most influential newspaper columnist/journalist/ editors in the United States during the first half ot the twentieth century. The story was originally published in 1963.


A Friend in Baltimore*


H. Allen Smith

THE SUBSTITUTE CLEANING WOMAN tried to throw it away today. This is the second time it has happened. Our regular cleaning woman was halfway to the garbage can with it when I caught her and snatched it out of her hands. It is the only keepsake that I own, outside of a paperweight off the desk of Gene Fowler, and it is probably my most cherished possession; yet everybody who sees it in my office says, "Why in the world do you keep that old thing around here?" It probably cost, originally, ten cents or maybe as much as fifteen cents.

It is a gnarled, fire-scarred, twisted bit of metal called by some a "copy-spike" but known to its former owner, Henry L. Mencken, as his "copy-hook." Any newspaper city room contains a forest of such copy-hooks. This one was the first item released by the Mencken estate following his death in 1956. I inherited it.

It may be an ugly, misshapen thing, but for me it has a fascinating history and a sentimental significance. I knew Henry Mencken for thirty years and he was always a hero to me, and always kind to me, even when I was a dirty-shirt reporter with a residue of moisture behind my ears. I knew about his copy-hook, which stood on top of a bookcase in his workroom at the famous Baltimore address, 1524 Hollins Street, where he lived all but the first three years of his life and where he died in his sleep. I knew the story of that copy-hook and the reason he kept it always in view when he was working. It was an important symbol to him.

The story goes back to a February morning in 1904 when Henry Mencken, at the age of twenty-four, was already city editor of the Baltimore Herald. On that wild and blustery morning the greatest fire in the city's history swept downtown Baltimore and before it had burned itself out, it had destroyed a square mile of the business district.

Mencken and his staff, forced to evacuate their own building, went to Washington and used newspaper facilities there to get out a four-page paper; then they traveled to Philadelphia, a hundred miles from Baltimore, and put together the Herald in that city for the next five weeks.

"It was brain-fagging and back-breaking," Mencken wrote years afterward, "but it was grand beyond compare_an adventure of the first chop, a razzle-dazzle superb and elegant, a circus in forty rings."

In the month following the fire the young city editor, destined to become one of America's greatest literary stylists and the nation's most flamboyantly acerb critic, made his way back to the blackened and gutted Herald building. Its frame was intact and Mencken managed to shinny up to the fifth floor where the city room had been. "It was easy to find the place where my desk had stood," he recalled, "though the desk itself was only a heap of white dust, for its hardware survived and so did the frame of the goose-neck light that had stood upon it. I also found my old copy-hook, twisted as if it had died in agony. . . ."

He described his adventures during the great fire, and his return to the Herald city room, in one of his autobiographical books, Newspaper Days, published just twenty years ago. Shortly after that I wrote to him and hinted that I would greatly enjoy having that old copy-hook some day. Promptly came his reply.

That copy-hook will become yours the day I am translated to bliss eternal. I have left orders that my carcass is to be stuffed and deposited in the National Museum at Washington. I had planned to ask the taxidermist to put the copy-hook in my hand but that request is now canceled and you will get it in due course.

When he died I was so upset that a month passed before I remembered the bequest. I wrote to his brother, August, who is almost a carbon copy of Henry in physical structure and caustic manner of speech, and told him about the copy-hook.

Back came a letter from August, telling me that the executors of Henry's estate, the Mercantile Safe Deposit & Trust Company, had instructed him to let nothing go, however small_that it would take about a year and a half to wind up the estate. August suggested, however, that if I would send along Henry's letter, the Mercantile Safe Deposit & Trust Company might unbend a bit. And so it did. Thus it came about that a solemn mandamus was issued by the Mercantile Safe Deposit & Trust Company releasing into my custody and ownership one crippled and fire-scarred copy-hook, relic of the Baltimore fire of 1904.

August Mencken now had trouble locating it. After about a week he wrote to me that he had found, in Henry's workroom, "a paper spike which is made up of a wire spike fixed to a small cast-iron base and which looks as if it had been through much worse things than the Baltimore fire." He wondered if this could be my inheritance. By return mail I informed him that it was indeed, and he, an amateur cabinetmaker, constructed a neat little crate to hold it and shipped it off to me.

It stands today on a shelf in my office, not far from a panel containing two photographs of its former owner_a Pinchot portrait he gave me off the parlor piano in 1935, and the last photograph taken of him before his death, sitting beside his famous woodpile in the backyard of the Hollins Street home.

There remains only the need to outline the symbolism of the copy-hook. A few months after his death the CBS Radio Workshop did a fine half-hour program, written by Allan E. Sloane, dramatizing the fabulous career of H. L. Mencken_the copy-hook serving as a device through which the old and dying Mencken remembered the glorious time of his youth. Standing there in his workroom where he turned out such prodigious quantities of slam-bang, iconoclastic prose for so many years, it reminded him of "how full of steam and malicious animal magnetism I was when I was young."

But more to the point, the copy-hook was emblematic of a transition that came to him with the Baltimore fire; it was a sort of badge representing the time, the moment, when he reached maturity. He sometimes said that he had gone into the disaster a boy, "and it was the hot gas of youth that kept me going." When he came out of the adventure at last, "I was a settled and indeed almost a middle-aged man, spavined by responsibility and aching in every sinew."

For several years I spiked no single piece of paper on the copy-hook. But now it carries a piece of white cardboard on which is lettered the warning:


It will stay with me as long as I live.

I first saw Henry Mencken plain on a spring afternoon in 1930. He was standing at the entrance to a Fifth Avenue office building, talking to another man, possibly Alfred Knopf, and I recognized him instantly. I had but lately come to New York from the West and I had looked at all the major sights, from the Statue of Liberty to the Chrysler Tower_but this was the greatest scenic wonder of them all: H. L. Mencken in the flesh. As I've said, he was a hero to me then, as he remained all the rest of his life, and and as he remains in fond memory today.

I was twenty-two years old that day I saw him on Fifth Avenue. He looked then much the way he would look for many years to come_a short, stubby man of brisk movements, a squarish face dominated by a snub nose and remarkable china-blue eyes, hair parted in the middle and pasted down, and dressed like a Nebraska farmer on his way to church. For a few moments I toyed with the notion of walking boldly up to him and introducing myself. I even took a couple of steps toward him, but then my knees turned to jelly and I walked slowly away, filled with a strange sort of throaty embarrassment.

Within a couple of weeks, however, I had decided that he might be a human creature rather than a god, and so I arranged to do an interview with him at the Hotel Algonquin (where he always lived when he was in New York). When at last I sat in his presence I was astonished to find that he was interested in me. He asked me questions about my job and my family and where I came from and how it was in Denver and what I hoped to achieve in New York and so on. I came away from that first meeting convinced, against all reason, that I now possessed some sort of electric personality, some new dynamic quality, that could compel this greatest of living men to hang on my every word.

That was one of his glowing attributes: the easy ability to make every person he met feel that he, above all others, was the favorite person of Henry L. Mencken. He demonstrated this quality over and over during all the subsequent years I knew him. For a dozen or more years he made me believe that he preferred my company to that of almost anybody else on earth. "When are you coming to Baltimore?" he would write me. "I long to see you and sit with you and talk of literary whales and the power of prayer." Or, "What are you doing these days?" I haven't heard from you in months. Fill me in." I could scarcely believe the evidence of my senses when he wrote me one day and asked me to autograph one of my books for him.

On those occasions when I did go to Baltimore to visit him and listen to his marvelous talk, he would convince me that I was doing him a great favor. He would accompany me to the door, at the end of such a visit, and say, "For God's sake, don't stay away so long." What this sort of thing did for me is far beyond evaluation.

The day came when I found out that there was a thousand others who got the same treatment from him. A thousand others who believed that they were the chosen ones. A thousand others who were told that he missed their company, that he wanted them to visit with him in Baltimore, that he itched to see them, that he was anxious about the projects they were working on. When I found out the truth I might very easily have been resentful, but I was not. The man's capacity to inspire affection was so great that I felt not a shred of chagrin.

I used to interview him so often that it became an office scandal. "Good God!" they'd exclaim at the United Press, "here comes Smith with another Mencken interview!" Actually there was never any objection, for the reason that no Mencken interview could ever possibly be dull. Newspaper editors all over the country were always eager for more copy about the salty sage of Baltimore.

It often confused and irritated me that such a courteous and kindly man as Mencken should have such a fierce reputation. Back in 1912 he was writing a daily column in the Baltimore Sun, a column in which he first established himself as a spike-tailed monster spitting sulphur and cinders over the Maryland landscape. One day a Sun artist named McKee Barclay turned out a hideous caricature of "The Subconscious Mencken." The man he pictured was the Mencken visualized by the multitudes of good souls whom he outraged with his writings. The portrait was that of a mean, bulbous-nosed, white-mustached, malevolent old man_the most unpleasant looking character imaginable, with a puss so sour it would clabber spring water. As a joke Mencken occasionally would run this picture in connection with his column, and before long the portrait was being printed in other cities, and everywhere people assumed that it was a true likeness. I'm told that to this day there are people in Baltimore who believe Mencken actually looked like Barclay's fusty old curmudgeon.

Mencken often described the intent of his work as "stirring up the animals" and stir them up he did, with the consequence that he in turn was almost constantly under bitter attack. He was abused and reviled in print so much that he once gleefully put together a book containing the printable invective that had been fired at him (Meckeniana: a Schimpflexicon). He was called a dirty buzzard, a maggot, a ghoul of new-made graves, a polecat, a howling hyena, and "a cheap blatherskite of a pen-pusher." Clergymen and editors and politicians had at him alike. He was called "a disappointed, dishonest, distrustful, disgraceful, degraded, degenerate evolute of a species fifty-seven varieties lower than a turkey buzzard." A minister said that Mencken had "a dilated brain impregnated with ego, indigo and gangrene." And another said, "If he ever had a real idea, his skull would pop like a rotten pumpkin."

One reason his reputation suffered was the fact that he employed a stylistic device common to the American humorous writer, namely, gross exaggeration. During the period of his marriage to Sara Haardt when he lived in Cathedral Street, I was walking with him in that neighborhood and he poked a thumb toward one of Baltimore's landmarks_a statue of George Washington standing on a high pillar. "The first American gentleman," said Mencken, "and the last." He didn't really mean that there have been no American gentlemen since the time of Washington. It was his way of saying that there is an acute shortage of gentlemen in America, that there are not nearly as many gentlemen in this country as there ought to be.

There remain, to this day, many people who for want of better information believe that Mencken was a gross and evil man, satanical and antisocial. Yet the plain truth is, Henry L. Mencken was one of the most polite and considerate gentlemen this country ever produced. He was a good man. He was a prime example of the philosopher who abominates the human race for its congenital and incurable foolishness, yet loves and respects individual members of that race. Mark Twain was of the same breed and it is worth noting that the writings of Mark Twain were largely responsible for Mencken's decision to become a writer rather than a tobacco merchant. It is further worth noting that he wrote blistering, bruising things about people and they hated him deeply until they met him, and then invariably they succumbed to his warmth and his personal charm.

He was famous for the amount of hard work he got through each day, hence time was valuable to him. Still, he gave of it freely to almost anyone who came along. He was a man who appeared to thrive and prosper by doing things for other people. He usually spent two afternoons of each week visiting people in hospitals. He was almost a landmark at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He would arrive bearing gifts_bottles of wine and boxes of candy and armloads of books_and the word would travel through the long corridors. Immediately there would be a sort of mass movement in his direction; doctors and interns and nurses hurried to greet him and when he entered the rooms of various patients they would follow along because they knew he always put on a good show, delivering mock lectures on medical topics, spouting the old-time religion in the accents of Billy Sunday, or simply littering the premises with quips and drolleries. If a top editor of the Sun were in a hospital, Mencken would be at his bedside regularly; but he also visited the Sun's Negro elevator operator, or his wife or his children, if they were sick.

The man so long regarded as the embodiment of churlish evil could evoke from those who knew him best such expressions as George Jean Nathan's, "He is above the malice and envy of little men." Or Alfred Knopf's, "The private man was . . . sentimental, generous, and unwavering_sometimes almost blind_in his devotion to people he liked." Or Jim Tully's, "His comrades for years have never known him to do a small thing." Or Walter Lippmann's, "He denounces life and makes you want to live."

Lippmann, incidentally, once described Mencken as "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people." There is no estimating the number of younger writers who were not only influenced but given active aid by Mencken. He was a major factor in the careers of such literary whales as Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James T. Farrell and James Branch Cabell. Yet there is many a lesser author or journalist obligated beyond measure to the Baltimore iconoclast. Thumbing through the thick reference work Twentieth Century Authors, it is amazing to find so many writers who say such things as, "With the active assistance of H. L. Mencken . . ." and, "Then H. L. Mencken persuaded me to . . ." and, "At the urging of H. L. Mencken I wrote . . ." Speaking of Mencken's relations with younger writers, Gerald W. Johnson, the Baltimore historian and scholar, has remarked, "To say that he was generous, even lavish with sympathy and assistance for them is true enough, but not the whole truth; he also gave them the rarer gift of genuine admiration, and this to some who, as writers, did not deserve it."

Newspapermen idolized Mencken. At the political conventions and other major news-producing carnivals he was often a greater attraction than the main show, and he knew it, but he never held himself aloof from his fellow reporters, no matter how undistinguished they might be. As a magazine editor he never retained a manuscript longer than three days. He knew that most writers urgently needed money and he felt they were entitled to a quick decision on their work. He was equally and famously punctilious in his correspondence. It was his practice to answer every letter on the same day he received it. He never abused people by mail. Much of his incoming correspondence was scurrilous in the extreme, yet he answered the most abusive letters with politeness and tact. He had a delightful method of dealing with people who were in violent disagreement with him. He would write: "Dear sir (or madam): You may be right. Very truly yours, H. L. Mencken." He carried on a running dispute with Upton Sinclair for years, but the quarrel was over principles. Once Mencken wrote to Sinclair: "I find your note on my return from Europe. As always you are right_save in matters of politics, sociology, religion, finance, economics, literature and the exact sciences." They remained warm personal friends to the end.

Julian P. Boyd, former head of the Princeton University Library, considers Mencken to have been one of the great letter-writers of this or any other age, and Boyd once launched an ambitious project for the collection of Mencken letters. Before he resigned to edit the papers of Thomas Jefferson, he managed to gather up eleven thousand letters written by Mencken to about five hundred individuals. Boyd tells me that, even then, he had only scratched the surface_that there were many thousands of additional Mencken letters in the possession of people all over the globe.

Mencken himself has said that recognition came to him first in England and France, rather than in the United States, so it is not remarkable that a young Frenchman, Guy J. Forgue, collected and published in 1961 the only book of Mencken correspondence yet in print. It comprises something over four hundred letters dealing mainly with literary matters_four hundred out of a possible fifty thousand in existence.

Mencken has been called the American Swift, the American Voltaire, and "one of the great comic spirits of world literature." He was a man of almost wildly unorthodox views, yet he was not a forward-looking man. He was old-fashioned, bitterly opposed to many material things which we have come to associate with progress. He was reactionary in almost everything except affairs of health and matters of beauty. I have been told that he, more than anyone else, was responsible for the purification of Baltimore's water supply and the control of diphtheria, typhoid, and intestinal sickness in his home city.

He was a train man, and refused to fly. He hated to use the telephone and instead wrote one-line notes to his Baltimore cronies, proposing meetings for lunch or dinner. It was his opinion that the telephone was a contrivance designed specifically for bores, and he avoided it as much as possible.

He rode trolley cars and taxis. "Back in 1918," he once told me, "I owned an automobile. One morning I drove it up in front of the Sun building and stopped at the curb. A cop came up and said, 'Hey, you can't stop here.' I said, 'The hell I can't.' He said, 'The hell you can!' So I said, 'Why the hell can't I?' And he said, 'We got new rules. We got a parking law.' Well I looked at him a minute and then I said, 'Nuts to that,' and got in the car and drove it around the corner and sold it and invested the proceeds in booze. I've never owned a car since that day."

A few years ago I went back to Baltimore to prowl his old haunts and talk to some of his old friends and visit with his brother August. I went to lunch with Philip M. Wagner, editor of the Sun. Wagner's hobby is winegrowing and he is an authority on American winemaking. He had a tank of his own vintage in his car and we delivered it to Haussner's, a famous Baltimore restaurant. In the car Wagner mentioned the fact that Henry Mencken was largely responsible for his interest in wines and the growing of grapes. And at Haussner's he remarked that the restaurant had been no more than a lunch counter until Henry Mencken started whooping for it.

Later I dined with Robert P. Harriss, a columnist who was once associated with Mencken at the Sun. For some years Harriss was editor of a successful Maryland magazine called Gardens, Houses and People. "The magazine's success," he said, "was due mainly to suggestions that Henry gave me."

The next day I was at the home of Gerald Johnson. "I was a small-town newspaperman in North Carolina," he said, "when a man named H. L. Mencken got in touch with me about something I had written. We carried on a correspondence for a while and then he recommended me for a job as editorial writer on the Sun. So here I am."

I went to a famous restaurant operated by an Italian woman. She said that Henry Mencken had been responsible for her success. When she first opened he came in and told her that she should take down the big Spaghetti sign out front, that she should de-emphasize spaghetti and go in for more esoteric Italian dishes; otherwise the public would regard her place as just another spaghetti joint. He gave her other suggestions, she followed his advice, and she prospered. And so it went: He influenced every life he touched, often profoundly.

He was inconsistent in many directions. He scoffed at joiners, yet for forty years he was the moving spirit behind the Saturday Night Club, an organization of amateur musicians and beer drinkers (he was a pianist). And toward the end of his life he joined the sedate Maryland Club because, he said, he had grown tired of saloons and wanted a quiet and dignified place to entertain visiting whales. He ridiculed churches, yet he was married in one by his own arrangement. He spoke of religion as pure superstition, yet he hung horseshoes around his house and refused to do a lick of work on any Friday the thirteenth. Of the many contradictions between his writings and his personal life George Jean Nathan once said, "Consistency is unimportant. Mencken and I both used to believe in Santa Claus and the wisdom of the President of the United States, but the passing years have changed all that." My own way of excusing him is to quote the lines of Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; (I am large_I contain multitudes)."

Mencken was a confirmed agnostic, as his father was before him. Yet in his later years, according to Edgar Kemler, he undertook to copper his bet and rehearsed himself for his first day in Heaven just in case he should wake up and find himself there. He pictured himself arriving before the judgment seat, surrounded by the Twelve Apostles, and in this setting he planned to say, simply, "Gentlemen, I was wrong."

During the stay in Baltimore I made my way, to be sure, out to the Hollins Street house, remembering other visits there. I recalled the time he complained about the deterioration of the neighborhood, speaking of an influx of "morons from Appalachia," and yet I knew that toward his neighbors, toward these Appalachian "morons," he was the friendliest man in all of West Baltimore.

August Mencken greeted me at the white stoop. When Henry had his stroke in 1948, August, an engineer, retired and devoted his every hour to his older brother's comfort and well-being. He waited on Henry hand and foot, read to him, escorted him to the movies, carried breakfast to his third-floor bedroom, and sat for long hours talking with him in the back garden or "on The Cement" in front of the house. The Cement was a concrete slab at the inner edge of the sidewalk, almost as common an institution in Baltimore as the white stoop. August did all these things happily for Henry, because Henry, as he was known to the family, was also a great hero to him.

August and I sat all afternoon in the garden. It is ninety feet long from the back of the house to the alley gate, and twenty feet wide, and within this narrow enclosure Henry Mencken spent not only the happy days of his childhood, but he dozed and puttered about here during the last eight years of his life when he was no longer able to read or write. On the west side of the garden is the famous eight-foot brick wall which he built back in the 1920's. Set into the wall are various decorative tiles, the Mencken family coat of arms, and a mask of Beethoven. At the back of the garden, next to the alley, stands a small square wooden structure_the stable that was built for the Shetland pony which the Mencken boys had when they were children. Henry kept this stable painted in vivid colors, inside and out, right up to the time of his death. In front of the stable stands the woodpile, a stack of old lumber daubed with red and yellow and blue paint so that from a distance it has the look of an abstraction. One day the Mencken lawyer was due for a visit and Henry, all his life something of a prankster, said to August, "When he gets here I am going to be busy painting the woodpile. You let me know what he says." The lawyer arrived and stepped into the garden and there sat old Henry, daubing away at the lumber. "Well," said the lawyer, "after seeing this, I don't think I'll have much trouble getting the both of you put away."

On the east side of the garden is a white wooden fence and I noticed that a step had been attached to its base. August explained it. Next door, in the garden beyond the wooden fence, lives a boy called Butch. When Butch was four years old it was his habit to call out, "mencken! mencken!" Whereupon Henry would climb up and pop his head above the wall and talk to the child. Butch had no idea what a "mencken" might be, but he knew the word would almost always fetch that head, and it was a friendly head and it had some hands that sometimes supplied candy and toys, and so Butch continued calling out the magic word "mencken!" until his parents found out about it and taught him to call out "mister mencken!" Even as August and I sat talking about it I heard the voice, crying "mister mencken!" We both mounted the fence and there was Butch, now seven or eight years old, and August told him he was making a sailboat for him and it would be ready in a few days.

Henry had little time for pets. Yet he loved the family dog, Tessie, now buried in that back garden, and he once had a pet turtle which he named Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy. August told how one lazy afternoon Henry was sitting in the garden, half asleep, when a squirrel came over the wall and climbed up his leg and perched on his shoulder. He grew fond of the animal and could summon him by whistling and he had August go out and buy a large bag of roasted peanuts. The squirrel became a steady visitor, always on Henry's shoulder. On chilly days the brothers would take chairs out and sit on The Cement where the sun would strike them. Henry loved to watch the children coming from school and he'd try to talk to them about their lives and their friends and their lessons. The children had no realization that they were talking to a famous man; to them he was just an old geezer sitting in the sun, wanting to be friendly but succeeding only in being a trifle boresome. The squirrel would come from the little park across the street to get his peanuts, and all was peace and contentment until the animal disappeared. A week or two went by with no sign of him and Henry insisted that they cross to the park and search for him. "He may be sick," said the man who was the scourge of the twenties. They went over and found the tree where the squirrel lived, and they scattered peanuts around it. Now the squirrel started crossing the street to visit his friend again. Then came the afternoon when Henry and August were sitting out front; they saw the squirrel come out of the park and start loping across Hollins Street. Suddenly an automobile swished by, killed the squirrel, and went on without slacking speed. Henry was livid with rage. He cried out against the driver of the car, insisting that the man had hit the squirrel deliberately, calling him a murderer and worse, howling that the gallows would be too good for such a villain. "He got madder at the man," said August, "than he ever got at the Anti-Saloon League."

We sat in the garden and then we prowled through the big old house, spending some time in Henry's office which August has kept just as it was when torrents of inflammatory prose were pouring out of it_literally millions of words and never a dull sentence in the entire output. It was a great and exciting and stimulating day for me, there in the surroundings where Henry Mencken spent almost his whole life, down to the night he died in his sleep in the little bedroom on the top floor. I thought about some of the things he had said or written, things that seemed to me to crystallize the ideas and beliefs he had been expounding all his life. A reporter once called him "the man who hates everything" and Henry protested, saying that he was quite favorably inclined toward some things in life. "I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty and common decency," he said. On another occasion he summed up his personal creed: "I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than to be ignorant."

Finally, I thought of that gay yet poignant epitaph he once composed for himself: "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 a homely girl."

Any man possessed of the sense and sensibility implicit in those lines . . . well, that man is qualified to be a hero. I have only one loud complaint to make against him. There are, in existence, seven volumes of autobiographical writings, concerned with his life as an author, an editor, and a newspaperman. Those seven manuscripts are tightly sealed in wooden boxes and stored in the vaults of the Baker Library at Dartmouth. By Mencken's own orders, those boxes are not to be opened by anyone until the year 1991. I feel quite certain that I will not be around then, and I'm pretty sore about it. Dartmouth College is straight north from where I live, about a five-hour drive. I could get there in five hours, arriving late at night. That Baker Library can't be too big. Ten sticks of dynamite ought to do the job.

*Reprinted from A Short History of Fingers and other state papers Copyright © 1963 by H. Allen Smith.

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