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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

(continued from page 2)

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.


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