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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 1)

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.


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