H.L. Mencken was known worldwide as “the Sage of Baltimore.”
He was one of the nation’s most colorful and influential public figures, as the leading intellectual and magazine and newspaper editor of the Roaring ’20s.
Despite graduating from Baltimore Poly at the top of his class, he declined to go to college, even though his voracious reading made him one of this country’s top intellectuals.
By the time he was age 25, he had become editor of Baltimore’s Morning Herald. Moving on to the Baltimore Sun, he became a reporter, editorial writer, columnist and Sunday editor.
Mencken persuaded the renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow to serve as defense attorney in the classic Scopes anti-evolution trial – against the great spellbinder, William Jennings Bryan.
His first biographer, Carl Bode of the University of Maryland, wrote:
“He had a genius for seizing the unexpected and abusing word, for making the irreverent comparison and for creating a tone that was not acid, but alkaline and helped make him the most readable of American essayists.”
But as the familiar aphorism has it: “Into each life, some rain must fall.”
And in December 1934, when he was invited to be the main speaker for “The Loyal Opposition” at the famed Gridiron Club in Washington, he bowed to the other main speaker, President Franklin D. Roosevelt – whom he proceeded to insult with the following diatribe:
“Mr. President, Mr. Wright and fellow subjects of the Reich … Every day in this great country is April Fool’s Day.” He concluded with the following:
“Some time ago, I took a pastor around Washington. After the tour, he said to me, ‘My boy, you cherish a chimera if you ever hope to turn out the smart fellows who now own and operate this government. They have enlisted for all eternity, but they’ll still be on deck after eternity is passed and forgotten. They have, night and day, keys to the White House. They carry Congress in their vest pocket, and even the Supreme Court is far too dignified to menace the feet of their pantaloons.’”
When President Roosevelt began to speak, in his ripe Eastern accent, he lustily attacked his hosts themselves, members of the press:
“Most of the evils that continue to beset American journalism today, in truth, are not due to the rascality of owners, nor even to the Kiwanian bombast of business managers, but simply and solely to the stupidity, cowardice and philistinism of working newspapermen.”
(His hearers, as one recalled, sat quiet.)
“I know of no American who starts from a higher level aspiration than the journalist. He is, in his first phase, genuinely romantic. He plans to be both an artist and a moralist – a master of lovely words and a merchant of sound ideas.
“He ends, commonly, as the most depressing jackass in his community – that is, if his career goes on to what is called success.”
(That evoked a few embarrassed snorts.)
“A Washington correspondent is one with a special talent for failing to see what is before his eyes. I have beheld a whole herd of them sitting through national convention without once laughing.”
(That evoked scattered guffaws.)
When, at the conclusion of this speech, FDR announced that these dire quotations all came from what the president declaimed as: “My old friend, Henry Mencken!” The crowd roared.
“Grinning his triumphant grin, Roosevelt was wheeled out.”
This public humiliation left a deep mark on Mencken. He several times assured people at the Sun: “We’ll even it up!”
But he never could.
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