Mencken's Last Days

McHugh, Robert

The Alternative: An. American Spectator August/September 1976 Volume 9, Number 10 Robert McHugh Mencken's Last Days A In my salad days, I earned my bread and grape in a cave of frenetic...

...The garden was a pleasant area, enclosed by a huge brick wall, part of which Mencken had constructed himself...
...A table and several chairs stood at the head of a brick path to the pony stable, against which leaned stacks of wood neatly trimmed to even lengths and tied with string...
...I should not go sailing on Chesapeake Bay because it was a treacherous body of water and "something dreadful" might happen...
...When I told him I had been privileged to sample the Miller Brothers version, he rose halfway out of his chair and exclaimed, "My God, isn't it gigantic...
...I'm a wreck," he said with a grimace...
...I can't be sure, but I believe the one that set off the greatest display of indignation went as follows: "I find it impossible to conceal my disgust in the presence of a man who believes he has an immortal soul, composed of some vaguely gaseous nature, that will go on cluttering up the Universe some fifty billion years after he has been shoveled away...
...His best book, he thought, was Treatise on the Gods...
...I kept notes on all my subsequent visits, but Hurricane Camille blew them somewhere out into the Gulf of Mexico, together with my home...
...It was...
...They weren't proper media for news and no civilized man woulc listen to either, he said...
...On rare occasions, Mencken would offer advice...
...I asked August Mencken about that after Mencken's death...
...I called the Mencken home, talked to the Sage's brother, August, and asked if I could come for a visit...
...But on those nights when he was feeling better than usual, he would join in the talk a little more freely...
...Mencken, Baltimore's most famous citizen...
...On the appointed day, I stepped out of a taxi at 1:00 p.m...
...He had stuffed them away in some obscure place where they remained unti uncovered by the sharp eye of Mrs...
...My visits became part of the family routine...
...Mencken was giving no interviews...
...That needed his attention every day, and wouldn't I like to see it...
...The prevailing wisdom in our office was that Mencken would talk to no newspaperman other than Will Manchester, who had recently published a Mencken biography, Disturber of the Peace...
...We have eight dead and there will be a lot more," he said...
...But the picture of a truly hard-drinking Mencken collapses if one measures his literary output...
...He also spoke frequently of his daily labors in the garden...
...Mencken was fond of dissecting the various menus of the better-known restaurants...
...What did he do, then, to pass the time...
...to have rendered him incapable of speech...
...Mencken always drank exactly two drinks, both of heroic proportions, before saying goodnight promptly at 10:00 p.m...
...The first matter to be settled would be the drinks...
...They're ghastly but sometimes they're amusing...
...And then the procession through the kitchen and out into the backyard and the garden when the weather was good...
...He couldn't read, he said...
...I jammed a piece of copy paper into the typewriter and tried to compose myself to prepare a bulletin...
...Sinclair Lewis had ample talent, but he was a terrible drunk...
...I asked if I could take it home so I could write about it for the next day's Associated Press news budget...
...The day news editor shook his head and suggested we inform our New York office that Mencken was seeing no one since a recent stroke, which was believed Robert McHugh is the executive editor of the (Biloxi) South Mississippi Sun...
...He was in favor of the churches because he felt their hell-and-damnation doctrines placed restraints on believers...
...But each time I came, it was as if I had returned from some long and dangerous voyage to renew an old and valued friendship...
...Lohrfinck, Mencken' secretary, had found an unpublished book manuscript...
...Manchester saw Johnson as a believer plagued with doubts and Mencken as a doubter plagued with temptations to believe...
...Just look at this one, Harry, August would say as he fondled what was once a chair leg or a section of a scarred table top...
...The two brothers had their own little games of communication that might elude a stranger...
...And it was destined for publication as Minority Report...
...The manuscript was a wild collection o 6 The Alternative: An American Spectator August/September 1976 chunks of paper of different sizes and thicknesses...
...It's horrible, he said...
...The commode was on the top floor, a hard climb for the bibulous, no matter how distinguished...
...Mencken let me see the manuscript...
...Those of us who constructed sentences for dissemination on the AP's international system of news wires attempted daily to astonish the world by describing ship fires, murders, police scandals, the frailties of politicians, and other juicy doings that could be categorized as news...
...Cigars would be offered quickly...
...He preferred to listen to others talk about what was going on currently in Baltimore, rather than reminisce...
...I was told that I would be welcome, but that Mr...
...Finding that Mencken's ability to communicate had not been completely destroyed, I nudged the talk carefully in his direction...
...For religion fascinated Mencken...
...A man ought to be able to hold his liquor, and if he couldn't, civilized people should shun him...
...Just as the last takes of the obituary were being punched out on the national A wire, the telephone rang...
...I was told that the Mencken brothers combed the neighborhood alleys for old pieces of discarded furniture, boxes, and other objects of wood, all destined for the guillo*I confidently place quotation marks around those words because they were the first I heard Mencken utter and I am certain of them...
...The caller was Charles Whiteford of the Sun...
...It seems a shame to burn something as fine as that, Mencken would mourn...
...There was an FM radio station that broadcast good music, and he went to bed every night soothed by Beethoven or Bach...
...The story had already resulted in several telegrams and a half-dozen letters from outraged readers sent into a frenzy over some particularly irreverent passage which had been culled from the manuscript...
...When I was alive," he would say as the introduction to some event recalled from time...
...I was greeted at the door by August Mencken, a man then in his mid-sixties who had the inquisitive blue eyes of his brother, an air of authority, and a way of stringing words together briskly, like an expert carpenter hammering nails into a board one after the other...
...in front of 1524 Hollins Street...
...I learned later that others experienced this same exuberant welcome...
...I was assigned the task of writing his obituaryand a sidebar describing our last meeting...
...Scott Fitzgerald was even worse...
...People could ge news only from newspapers...
...On one fallow day in 1954, a message came clattering down on the B wire from New York to the effect that one of the newspapers we served (probably from America's Heartland) wanted to know what had happened to H.L...
...Loht finck...
...On one evening, Mencken talked briefly about some of the authors with whom he had associated...
...My God, August, look who's here," Mencken would say if he answered the door...
...August said his brother was delighted with the denunciations that were coming in and was looking forward to more...
...He held up his hand like a traffic cop, a habit he had when unnerved, and said he didn't think it should leave the house...
...The death of the most explosive newspaperman and author of this century will be crowded off the front pages by a tragic fire...
...Its characterization of Mencken as a kind of libertine and an insensitive and vulgar figure can be attributed only to Angoff s colossal lack of a sense of humor or a subconscious attempt to inflate his own importance as a superior member of the literati at Mencken's expense...
...Just as I began to inquire about his brother's health, a door to the parlor opened and the slightly stooped figure of H.L...
...But through it all was the central theme of his despair...
...Oh, I go to the movies with August, he said...
...It was pure Mencken...
...It consisted largely of transplanted lantanas and great patches of ivy languidly climbing the brick walls...
...Mencken overruled him...
...I volunteered to try getting a story, not because of concern for the needs of a newspaper in America's Heartland, but because I wanted to meet this man, enfeebled or not, whose books had given me such joy...
...It wasn't wise to press him because the effects of the stroke could frustrate him when he couldn't grasp a neededword or recall the name of some author he had known for years...
...But on them the vowels flew, the consonants exploded, and targets fell under the bombardment of bombast...
...Mencken predicted, accurately enough, that Charles Angoff, who had been employed as an assistant in the of-fice of the old American Mercury, would rush into print with a book about him after his death and that it would be unfriendly...
...But in the end, both would agree with a sigh that it had to go, and sparks would erupt cheerfully as it was sacrificed to the comfort of those in the room...
...The Alternative: An American Spectator August/September 1976 5 tine to ensure a winter's supply of fuel for the fireplace...
...I don' know why I don't croak...
...He replied that the only time he ever heard his brother discuss the matter seriously was a day or two after the death of his wife...
...To be sure, August acknowledged that when he and his brother were younger, it was nothing to have "six or seven drinks" before venturing out to dinner...
...I believe Mencken falsely cultivated a reputation as a lusty drinker as part of his campaign against national prohibition...
...Mencken had died in his sleep...
...Or the slow sigi and, "My God what a wreck I am...
...It is certain that he never drank until evening, and then only when his work was done and there were pleasant companions at hand...
...No author worked more assiduously, and no writer overly fond of strong drink could have accomplished as much...
...But those notes, alas, are probably in the belly of a jackfish lurking in the Sound somewhere off Cat Island...
...Standing in front of a window and looking out on a rainy scene, he sighed and said that now he could understand why people would want to believe...
...Mencken entered the room...
...The house has been replaced...
...I asked what new crime he had committed against the morals of the Republic to pre cipitate such a felicity, and August re plied that Mrs...
...That concoction" was the worst gib-son that ever drenched human tonsils...
...It evolved that the discovery was actu ally a collection of notes Mencken had jotted down over the years, probably a themes to be expanded upon later as es says...
...I tried to suggest in the obituary the irony in the last years of a man who had written some two dozen books and literally millions of other published words enduring the suffering of being unable to read or write...
...Baltimore, being the teeming city that it was then and remains today, supplied us with ample material for our prose...
...I became aware of this on subsequent visits when they went through the ritual of selecting a piece of wood to be added to the fire...
...On Saturday I chatted with August over the telephone...
...Dreiser was a fine novelist, but he couldn't write gracefully...
...It was half vermouth, half gin, with no ice, and at the bottom of the glass was an unpretentious cocktail onion that managed somehow to look as if it had seen better days...
...He stuffed the collection into a large envelope, forced it on me, and led me to the door, over August's continuing murmurs of dissent...
...American Spectator August/September 1976 Volume 9, Number 10 Robert McHugh Mencken's Last Days A In my salad days, I earned my bread and grape in a cave of frenetic activity cut into the foundation of a building on Fayette Street in downtown Baltimore...
...The ivy at the back wall was greenest, he vowed, because over the years it had been watered by America's most distinguished authors, comfortably supplied from the Mencken cellar...
...each Wednesday...
...Mencken would usually shrug and say, "Oh, just let me have that concoction you make, August...
...They're going to be denouncing ma again," he announced happily...
...Knowing Mencken's obsession with punctuality, I presented myself promptly at 8:00 p.m...
...Some of Angoff's Portrait from Memory seemed to have been carved out of the language with a switchblade knife...
...On the evening of January 25, 1956, came as usual and was greeted by a re newed Mencken...
...I write therefore from memory and must do my best to paraphrase Mencken's words, using quotes only where I am confident they are his...
...And Manchester had fled from the Baltimore Sunpapers to take up residence as a professor in a quiet college in New England...
...The approach was simple...
...Will Manchester, in Saturday Review, compared Mencken and Samuel Johnson...
...I should never permit the use of the shortened version o: my name (Bob) on a by-line because read ers might confuse me with "those ghastly Jims and Jacks and Joes on the television and radio...
...Just think of what some of those barbarians might do if they didn't think it would send them to hell, he once mused...
...I know of no one who knew Mencken who recognized him in Angoff s book...
...The terrapin stew served at Miller Brothers Restaurant in Baltimore, he said, was better than anything you could get in New York because the barbarians in that unenlightened city creamed it instead of lacing it with sherry...
...We were casually introduced and Mencken pulled up a chair and began to speak...
...On the next morning, the AP bureau chief called me at home to tell me that H.L...
...We thought something dreadful had happened to you...
...He suffered from a form of semantic aphasia that made printed words no morethan infinitely garbled smudges of ink...
...Where on earth have you been...
...It was in this bleak dungeon, located only a block or two from the lewd palace where Blaze Starr achieved fame by transforming the simple act of undressing into an art, that the Associated Press chose to house its Baltimore bureau...
...I don't know why I don't croak...
...August was horrified...
...And then, best of all, there was the garden in the backyard...
...There was a gentle quality of intimacy in this kind of covert humor that passed between the two...
...As time went by, I lingered to talk with August and to sample such beverages as ginger beer and gin (a drink once favored by Mencken when he was with the novelist Joseph Hergesheimer), various brands of bourbon, scotch, ale, beer, or whatever my palate called for...
...There's a bad fire at a church oyster roast...
...I endured this mixture until I learned that I could choose anything I wanted, that it was readily available and no trouble to produce from an abundant and varied supply of potables...
...But August quickly pointed out that those words were far removed from a confession of faith...
...I was ushered into the parlor where August and I exchanged pleasantries and where I learned, through a courteous and tactful aside, that it was the custom of the house not to serve alcoholic beverages until after sundown...
...Conversation with Mencken during that period of his terrible illness wasn't always easy...
...It's amazing what people will throw away, Mencken purred with obvious satisfaction as he showed me the treasures rescued from his profligate neighbors...
...But in the back of my mind was the fleeting thought: One more irony...
...He knew the value of an original Mencken manuscript, and he didn't want anything to happen to it...
...I wrote the story that night and returned the manuscript the next day, a Thursday, much to August's relief...

Vol. 9 • August 1976 • No. 10


 
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