By His Own Rules
H. L. Mencken, a cigar always in hand, was the most influential commentator of his time.
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94
On December 31, 1898, August Mencken, successful owner of August Mencken & Bro., a thriving cigar factory in Baltimore, suddenly collapsed in his living room with a kidney infection. As his eldest son ran into the cold and blustery night to fetch a doctor, the boy suddenly realized the full import of his father's illness. Struggling through snowdrifts, he kept repeating to himself: "If my father dies, I'll be free at last."
The boy was Henry Louis Mencken. If his father had not died, he might not have become what Alistair Cooke has called "the most volcanic newspaperman this country has ever known." His father's death, Mencken later said, was perhaps the "luck-iest" thing that ever happened to him. The three-and-a-half years he spent working at his father's cigar factory were so unhappy, he never mentioned them in his memoirs. If he had remained there any longer, it would have been, he confided to poet Edgar Lee Masters, "probably to my permanent damage."
Instead, his rise was meteoric. By 1903, at age 23, he was city editor of the Baltimore Morning Herald. By 1905, he was managing editor, and the following year, editor in chief, the youngest in the United States to hold that position at a major paper. After the Herald folded in 1906, Mencken signed on with the Baltimore Sun, an association that continued for the next 40 years, until his debilitating stroke in 1948.
Whether readers either found him "a public nuisance" or agreed with Walter Lippmann that he was "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of American people," invariably, the phrase of the day was: "What do you think of Mencken?" As editor of Smart Set and later American Mercury, he helped the careers of Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He regularly promoted the works of African-American and Southern authors and was hailed as an instigator of the Harlem and Southern literary renaissance. Among his books are works of literary criticism, theology, political theory, ethics and his monumental study, The American Language.
Considering the breadth of Mencken's interests, it is futile to attempt to classify him at all. But when the occasion arose, he considered himself a journalist. With an ear for verbal delicacies, he was able to dispose of something or somebody in a single phrase: Washington, D.C. was "a hundred thousand miserable botches of ninth-rate clerks." Store-bought bread was "the tasteless, gassy sponge that all Americans now eat." Sparkling wines were similarly dismissed: "Americans like such rubbish because, after a few glasses, they begin to imagine they are making whoopee in a bordello." President Warren G. Harding's prose style reminded him of "stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically though endless nights."
Pounding out copy with two fingers on his typewriter, his ever-present cigar at a rakish angle, crowds huddled and craned their necks to watch him on assignment at political conventions (events, he noted, "not without their charms to connoisseurs of the obscene"). He stood out among journalists, wrote one colleague, because "honesty and courage are what made him great." Not only did he battle Prohibition, fraud, segregation and lynching, he also fiercely defended freedom of speech and the civil liberties of every American. This not only included the right to order Pilsner at a restaurant, but extended to Mencken's belief that a man should have the freedom to smoke a cigar wherever and whenever he pleased.
Mencken began smoking cigars at 16 at the suggestion of his father, who reasoned that the boy was going to spend the rest of his life in the tobacco business and might as well learn how. Mencken rolled his own cigars with the best Havana leaf from his father's factory. ("My father, of course, assumed I was using far less expensive material.") The cleanest, mildest and best-made five-cent cigar, according to Mencken, were "Uncle Willies," produced by the Schafer-Pfaf Co. of Baltimore (now T.E. Brooks Co. of Red Lion, Pennsylvania). There were always several bunched in his coat pocket for ready use: "Most of the advertised brands selling at eight cents are like garbage beside it."
Once a month, Mencken ordered 300, in bunches of 50, without bands, to be sent directly to his home at 1524 Hollins Street in Baltimore. Although Mencken was rarely photographed without a stogie in hand, he smoked fewer cigars than one expects. "Chewed most of them," recalled his brother. Hay fever--an annual onslaught that made him feel "as depressed as a Christian"--made it virtually impossible for him to smoke cigars during September, when his bleary eyes and snuffling nose were at their worst.
At one point, when doctors at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital ordered him to give up the weed, the absence of tobacco reduced Mencken to complete mental incompetence. "It is quite impossible to do any writing on chewing gum," he moaned, and went back to the cigars--and to the writing that made him, according to The New York Times, "the most powerful man in America."
During his early years as a columnist, when a group of women complained that cigar smoking should be prohibited on Baltimore streetcars, Mencken (who habitually joined a diverse group of congenial smokers at the rear of the car) retorted to their outcry by writing: "Women, in general, are not nearly so delicate as romance makes them. A woman who can stand half an hour of the Lexington fish market is well able to face a few blasts of tobacco smoke," adding, "not one in 10,000 can tell the difference between good tobacco and bad." (It should be added that it was the principle at issue: when a suffragette lit up a cigarette on a train and was arrested, Mencken promptly took up the cause, championing her right to smoke.)
Despite some feminine aversion to his cigar, "America's foremost bachelor" was picked in a national poll as being one of the "most fascinating men in the United States." Although he was the patron saint of single men, he enjoyed the company of women and remained popular among them. He was celebrated for such statements as: "Bachelors know more about women than married men; if not, they'd be married, too." "A man may be a fool and not know it--but not if he's married."
But at 50, he succumbed to the charms of Southern writer Sara Powell Haardt, 18 years his junior, and married in 1930 as newspaper headlines gloated: Mighty Mencken Falls. If Sara minded pungent clouds of cigar smoke in their elegant apartment, she did not say. What she recorded instead were somewhat worshipful notes, headed "Henry: Oct. 12. Talked about cigar making. Curved his hand to show how cigar was made." Somehow one cannot imagine her booting him out the door to smoke his cigar on Cathedral Street.
Cigar-making was a skill that had been passed through two generations of the Mencken family. By the time Mencken's father, August, had reached his own teens, he had been trained at the business by his father in the old-fashioned manner: at the bench, learning the manual art of selecting the leaf fillers, trimming the binder, smoothing on the wrapper and pressing the finished edges of a cigar into shape.
In 1875, when August was 21 and his brother Harry was 18, the two boldly launched themselves as August Mencken & Bro. Their total cash capital was $35; Harry ran the sales and August the factory and office. They were successful from the start. The South, recovering from the Civil War, had no cigar factories of its own and few wholesalers. Baltimore became rich in supplying that region with cigars and held the monopoly for years.
Ever-resourceful, August made profitable connections: he received a contract to supply cigars to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad dining cars, then a novelty. During the late 1880s, August and his brother, who were fond of baseball, named a cigar after the famous pitcher Matt Kilroy of the Baltimore Orioles, then the boy wonder of baseball, and hired Sam Trott, the veteran catcher, to sell it. (Indeed, until his death in 1925, Trott remained in the cigar business.)
By the mid-1880s, August Mencken & Bro. was rated at more than $100,000 first credit. The popular cigars from the factory were "La Cubana," "Havana Rose," "El Cabinet" and "Daisy," which, along with "La Mencken Paneta," were considered "repeaters" in the field. Most of the ci-gars had some domestic tobacco, but a great deal consisted of superior Havana leaf and were rolled in high-quality Sumatra wrappers.
August Mencken was a shrewd tobacco buyer and competent manager of men. He could tell exactly which varieties of tobacco had gone into a cigar by smoking it. He bought his own tobacco in the field--in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Cuba. Most of his cigar makers were German. He would not permit any women or machines in his factory, the latter then gaining prominence in the mid-1880s. He greatly enjoyed bargaining; his struggles with Sumatra-wrapper salesmen lasted for days. He was a hard trader, but he paid cash for everything and never borrowed money. He advised his own team of salesmen to obtain as much information as they could on their customers and to reject an order if a customer's financial standing did not justify shipping.
"All mankind, in his sight, was divided into two great races," recalled H. L. Mencken. "Those who paid their bills and those who didn't. The former were virtuous, despite any evidence that could be adduced to the contrary; the latter were unanimously and incurably scoundrels." August Mencken liked to live well, but not extravagantly, and when he died at 45, he left a home in Baltimore, a country place and a comfortable sum of money to his widow and children.
He was, in his son's eyes, a man of "illimitable puissance and resourcefulness. There was never an instant in my childhood when I doubted my father's capacity to resolve any difficulty, or beat off any danger." A large, sturdy man of medium height, August began each day with a substantial hooker of rye whiskey (he said it was the best medicine for "toning up" his stomach), before devouring a huge breakfast of eggs, fish or meat, with pancakes or waffles, washed down with gallons of coffee. Though he was easily stricken with bouts of pneumonia, he more easily shook them off.
To his small, thin son, the exploits of August Mencken must have seemed heroic. At the height of his prosperity, when the workingmen of August Mencken & Bro. went out on strike with the Knights of Labor, August retaliated by operating a closed shop, paying union wages, but refusing to deal with any of the delegates and later formulating a scheme that he believed finished the union in Baltimore during his lifetime.
The panic of 1893, which crippled the South, came close to ruining the firm, and a fire in December of that year threatened to annihilate it. The fire began at nightfall as August was closing shop. Suddenly the wall of the adjoining building crashed into the room, a mountain of flame poured in and, as August made his exit, the ceiling dropped to the floor with a tremendous roar, leaving the place where he had stood a moment before littered with brick and timber.
Outside, clattering in frenzied circles over cobblestones, terrified horses and mules ran from a burning stable. In a half hour, the four-story factory of August Mencken & Bro. had become a roaring furnace as more than $25,000 of tobacco leaf, cigars and wooden cases went up in smoke. Twelve other buildings suffered similar losses--at a total value of $360,000. Undaunted, August was already supervising construction of a new warehouse a few days later; the following week, he was sailing for Cuba to replenish his stock of tobacco leaf. In another year or so, the business was thriving.
August's routine at the factory was methodical. After breakfast he put on his hat and went to work. On a normal morning, the cigars were arranged in long rows awaiting his inspection. "If he found a bad one," his son later wrote, "he would take the sick cigar upstairs, holding it at arm's length as if it had smallpox" and bawl out the offending cigar maker. The cigar would then be dropped in a drawer that supplied complimentary smokes to visitors.
August spent the rest of the morning figuring and calculating row upon row of tiny numbers that told what it cost the firm to produce 1,000 of the 20 or more brands on its list. Job complete, the notebooks were put in a drawer at his desk, and that was the last anyone--even the bookkeeper--ever saw of them, save for perhaps a polite glance from his brother. Before 1 p.m., August went to lunch, usually at home, then fell asleep in a lounge in the dining room. After 30 minutes of loud snoring, he awoke with a start, looked about him wildly and raced back to the office in great haste. Once there, he calmly spent the afternoon reading Tobacco Leaf or The Sporting Times (for baseball news). At 5:30 p.m., he went home.
On Fridays, August visited the branch of his business located at the corner of Seventh and G Streets, N.W., in Washington, D.C. When H. L. Mencken was a small boy, he began to accompany his father on these trips. Like other cities of the 1880s, Washington was a mecca of cigar smokers. It was not an uncommon sight to see congressmen puffing cigars during sessions, peering through wreaths of smoke to catch the eyes of members behind them. Nor was it uncommon to see ladies in the galleries becoming faint because of the smoke.
After working on the accounts with the Washington manager, Frank Cross, father and son would make the rounds of the restaurants and the cool, marble-floored saloons on Pennsylvania Avenue, owned by customers of the firm. While August socialized, young Henry would sit at the brass rails, munching pretzels and sipping sarsaparilla, alternatively patted on the head by a passing Supreme Court justice, or watching, wide-eyed and curious, how the owners of saloons were more solicitous to senators than to congressmen. When he later inquired why, he was told congressmen were too numerous in Washington to be of any note.
August was, his son reflected, "a curious mixture of snob and Philistine." He had an aversion to clubs and associations, yet belonged to the Freemasons and marched in Shriners' parades, and wore a massive, Masonic watch-charm. As part owner of the Washington Baseball Club, he entertained the ballplayers and magnates at his home on Sundays to the delight of the neighborhood children, who crowded at the back gate to see the show. In religion, he was an agnostic, yet he had all four of his children baptized and sent to Sunday school (if only to get some sleep).
August trained his son for the cigar business from an early age. There was the tutor in mathematics and another to learn Spanish--a useful language to know when bartering for tobacco leaf in Cuba. (A German tutor who spoke Spanish was hired, but when August's Cuban friends told him that his son was acquiring a German accent, the tutor was promptly fired.)
In 1896, three months short of his sixteenth birthday, Henry Louis Mencken graduated from the Baltimore Polytechnique with the highest marks ever achieved by any pupil in the history of the school. Impressed, August made suggestions regarding college, but they were, as his son sensed, halfhearted. It didn't matter whether Henry wanted to go to college or planned, with a school chum, to become a journalist. The decision had already been made: he was to work at the family cigar factory and be groomed to succeed his father.
At first, the tobacco business was not disagreeable to the young boy: indeed, he found it romantic to sniff the heady smells, to handle the long, pointy leaves that had come from mysterious lands. Then, too, there was the magic of blending the tobacco into cigars. That first summer he ran errands and helped as janitor, but soon he was at the bench rolling cigars.
Drawing upon his love of chemistry, he tried to invent a method in which cheaper Pennsylvania leaf could be moistened with scuppernong wine and given the aroma of a genuine Havana. He tried to design a machine that would paste up containers to cheroots and even tried growing his own tobacco in the garden at home. (Result: tasteless.)
But when H. L. Mencken was promoted from the factory floor to the office, he became "intensely unhappy at once." He started as an office boy and assistant bookkeeper. After he broke the screw press, he was ordered to sell tobacco and cigars to grocery stores. It is not difficult to understand why it would be a depressing experience for him. There were salesmen in the factory who managed to sell up to $1,000 worth of cigars in four weeks, but in his first six months, Mencken squeezed out only $171 in business: during the entire month of August he made only one sale for the grand total of $3.50. "In the end," he wrote, "it became apparent, even to my father, that I was hopeless as a salesman."
He was banished back to the office, where the mystifying tasks of running a business made him feel as if he knew next to nothing. When he went to the bank to make deposits, he made mistakes; when he made out the bills, he made worse ones. Moreover, he was still required to sell cigars. The winner of the Alumnae Medal and class honorary speaker of the Polytechnique must have felt like a dismal failure, especially when he compared the fate of his best friend with his own. There was Arthur Hawks, happily free to greet each new day with the exciting prospect of another adventure as a reporter for the Baltimore Herald, while Mencken himself could only look forward to endless tedium, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., miserably seated within the confines of a factory less than a mile from his house.
His evenings, however, were his own. Mencken spent his time reading the classics as well as books on journalism. He entered a correspondence course with the Associated Newspaper School of Journalism in New York, writing on his application of his hopes to "begin as a reporter and after that trust to hard work and luck for something better." Over time, he approached his father and told him of his journalistic ambitions. But this only led to an explosion or to a distressed response; it was plain August hoped his son would change his mind. Instead, the boy contemplated suicide, wallowing in melancholy, "the green sickness of youth."
The days dragged on, then months, then years. Rides to and from their country home during the summer were "devoted to lectures on the mysteries of tobacco and credit, the accursed nature of workingmen, the laziness of drummers, questions of freight, relations with the Internal Revenue, etc." For the entire ride, which lasted an hour, August was the assiduous businessman.
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