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Happy Birthday, Henry – A Mencken Mystery

H.L. Mencken(1880-1956) and his fellow journalist at the Baltimore Sun, Robert Preston Harriss(1902-1989) in a 1949 photograph taken by Baltimore photographer Jack Engeman. R.P. Harriss began his career as Mencken's assistant in the 1920s and remained with the Sun for the next six decades. His last column appeared in the paper September 24, 1989 less than a week before he died. Henry Louis Mencken and Robert Preston Harriss, 1949, Jack Engeman, Slide Collection - slide_engeman-00, MdHS.

H.L. Mencken(1880-1956) and his fellow journalist at the Baltimore Sun, Robert Preston Harriss(1902-1989) in a 1949 photograph taken by photographer John T. “Jack” Engeman at Mencken’s home. R.P. Harriss began his career as Mencken’s assistant in the 1920s and remained with the Sun for the next six decades. (Henry Louis Mencken and Robert Preston Harriss, 1949, Jack Engeman, Slide Collection – slide_engeman-00, MdHS.)

(Editor’s note, 10/21/2013 – Thanks to the kind assistance of one of the best sources on all things Mencken, Mr. Vincent Fitzpatrick, Curator of the Mencken Room at the Enoch Pratt Library, the mystery of the Mencken photographs has been solved. (Captions for the photographs reflect the updates.)

According to Mr. Fitzpatrick, the photograph of Mencken and Robert Preston Harris was taken at Mencken’s home at 1524 Hollins Street. The two Baltimore Sun reporters are sitting at the northwest wall of Mencken’s parlor.

The remaining color photographs were all taken on October 26, 1949 at a ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone for the new BaltimoreSunBuilding on North Calvert Street. The Mencken Room is in possession of the renowned journalist’s personal ledgers, which contain black and white photographs of the same event taken by another photographer. Mencken identified the event and many of the people in the in his neat, compact writing.  Attendees included Governor William Preston Lane, Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alessandro, architect Edward L. Palmer, John E. Semmes, a director of the Sunpapers, Paul Patterson, Sunpapers president from 1919-1951, his wife, and other Sun employees.

Thanks also to former Baltimore Sun Columnist Bill Zorzi and Maryland Historical Society’s own President, Burt Kummerow for providing additional identifications of Governor Lane in photograph #0007.)

Sixty-eight years ago today, Baltimore journalist Henry Louis Mencken turned 65. In his diary entry for that day, he took the opportunity to ruminate on his life up that point:

“My sixty-fifth birthday, and I am, as usual, in the midst of severe hay-fever. I began taking vaccines from Dr. Leslie N. Gay last Winter, but they have failed completely, and I have been very uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I have managed to keep at my desk, and my record of my magazine days has made some progress since I resumed it in the early Summer…

When I was 40 I had no expectation whatever of reaching 65, and in fact assumed as a matter of course that I’d be dead by then. My father died at 44 and my grandfather Mencken at 63. Perhaps I have lasted so long because my health has always been shaky: my constant aches and malaises have forced me to give some heed to my carcass. To be sure, I have always worked too hard, and taken too little exercise; moreover, I have eaten too much and maybe also drunk too much; but on the whole I have been careful. If I live long enough I hope to add an appendix to my magazine chronicle giving my medical history…

I often wonder, looking back over my years, whether I have got out of myself all that was there. In all probability I have. I got a bad start and have vacillated more than once between two careers… Meanwhile I am getting my records in order, and even if I die tomorrow they will be in pretty fair shape. There is, indeed, probably no trace in history of a writer who left more careful accounts of himself and his contemporaries. I have tried hard to tell the truth. At bottom, this is probably subjectively impossible, but I have at least made the effort.”(1)

Mencken did indeed leave a careful account of himself, bestowing to posterity his vast array of professional writings, along with his beloved home, a diary, his personal collection of books, and a wealth of correspondence. Being one of the most celebrated journalists of his time, he also left his familiar visage well documented on film. And while there are hundreds of black and white photographs of Mencken, there may only be a handful of color images of the famed Baltimorean.

Henry Louis Mencken and unknown men (slide_engeman-0004)

H.L. Mencken and unidentified men at a ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone for the new Baltimore Sun Building on North Calvert Street on October 26, 1949.
(Henry Louis Mencken and unidentified men at a ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone for the new Baltimore Sun Building on North Calvert Street, October 26, 1949, John T. “Jack” Engeman, slide collection, slide_engeman-0004, MdHS.)

In early August, while examining a partially inventoried collection of over 1000 slides that had been sitting long untouched in the photograph storage room, the library staff came across the color 35mm transparencies of H.L. Mencken featured here. There is scant information available on the collection other than that most of the images were snapped by John T. “Jack” Engeman (1900-1984) a Baltimore photographer who was known for his photographs of the architecture and cultural life of the city. Other than that, most of the slides have very little additional identification, organized very basically by subject. Of the eight photographs of Mencken found, only the image of R.P. Harriss and Mencken above is identified. The remaining slides are simply organized under the heading “Mencken.” The fact that some of the photos are extremely blurry does not help in the identification process either.

We have a theory of where and when these photos were taken, and who some of the people in them are, but we’d like to poll our readership. If anyone has any insights on the photos, please add your ideas to the Comments section at the bottom of the post. In the meantime, just enjoy some rarely seen photographs – both in color and black and white – of the Sage of Baltimore. (Damon Talbot)

Click on the slideshow below to see more color images of Mencken taken by Jack Engeman as well as some rarely seen black and white images of  him from the Maryland Historical Society’s collection.(scroll over the image for captions) 

 

Aside from the anniversary of Mencken’s birthday, the editors of underbelly have another reason to celebrate – tomorrow is the one year anniversary of this blog. On September 13 of last year our first post appeared, Maryland on Film@mdhs, promoting an event on October 13 exhibiting eight silent films from our collection. Since then we’ve been posting new content every Thursday, from tales of cockfighting in Baltimore County to the history of  Hampden’s plumbing. Thanks to all of the readers of the blog for tuning in.

Footnotes:

Fecher, Charles A., ed., The Diary of H.L. Mencken (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publisher, 1989), 380-382.

Sources and further reading:

Arnett, Earl, “Photographer retains zest” The Baltimore Sun, August 21, 1974.

Fecher, Charles A., ed., The Diary of H.L. Mencken (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publisher, 1989)

Goldberg, Isaac, The Man Mencken: A Biographical and Critical Study (New York: Simon & Shuster, Inc., 1925)

“John Engeman, photographer, dies,” The Baltimore Sun, August 12, 1984.

Obituary, “R.P. Harriss, Journalist, 87,” The New York Times, September 29, 1989.

Discussion

2 Responses to “Happy Birthday, Henry – A Mencken Mystery”

  1. Happy Birthday, Henry. And thanks for showing us that HL Mencken could be so self-deprecating (sp?).
    Baltimore is full of so many creative characters – living and gone elsewhere – it is hard to wonder why we are so down on our city recently. History like this should remind us all of our rich literary heritage.

    Posted by Ellen Marshall | 13. Sep, 2013, 12:05 pm

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  1. [...] Judge Morris A. Soper and famed Baltimore journalist Henry Louis Mencken (who was featured in last week’s birthday post). This correspondence between the two men gives unique insight into their personalities,  reveals [...]

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