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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

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.)

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