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The Lady and the Tiger

ISSUE:  Spring 1988
Mencken and Sara, A Life in Letters: The Private Correspondence of H. L. Mencken and Sara Haardt. Edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers. McGraw-Hill. $22.95 cloth.

In May 1923, Henry Louis Mencken went to Goucher College to speak with Professor Harry Baker’s class about “The Trade of Letters.” The topic seemed appropriate for this distinguished newspaperman and influential literary critic. Mencken, however, turned waggishly to another subject, “How to Catch a Husband,” that probably seemed incongruous to his audience. One of America’s most notorious bachelors, Mencken had published, five years before, his raucous In Defense of Women, an irreverent discussion of a timeless subject—the bumpy passage of men and women through this vale of sorrow—that to this day delights some and infuriates others. Man’s supposed attractiveness, Mencken remarked, is nothing more than the “superficial splendor of a prancing animal.” Mencken chose livelier analogies for the female form: “It has harsh curves and very clumsily distributed masses; compared to it the average milk-jug, or even cuspidor, is a thing of intelligent and gratifying design.” Men and women court with “solemn buffoonery,” Mencken explained, and the boredom which arrives soon after marriage hardly bothers the average man: “He is weary when he gets home, and asks only the dull peace of a hog in a comfortable sty.” While Mencken never lost such iconoclasm, his refusal to inflate either the human animal or the human estate, this talk marked the beginning of his demise as a bachelor. Mencken met Sara Powell Haardt, at 24 the youngest member of the Goucher faculty, an aspiring writer from Alabama 18 years his junior. Together, Mencken and Sara embarked on what he recalled winsomely as a “beautiful adventure.”

By October 1923, Sara was writing to Mencken that “for a mortal with a sense of humor you are the most perfect gentlemen I have ever seen or heard of.” “I suspect that I am mashed on you,” Mencken exclaimed gallantly four months later. Their courtship, however, sometimes bumped along. Sara was put off by the highly publicized rumors of Mencken’s involvement with other women; the tabloids had him marrying a Hollywood star and an opera singer. Moreover, the couple spent considerable time apart: with Mencken’s travel abroad, his coverage of the presidential conventions, his frequent trips to New York City to edit the Smart Set and the American Mercury, and Sara’s sojourn to Hollywood in 1927 as a script writer. Sara’s poor health, however, proved the most disruptive factor. Tubercular, she was confined to a sanitarium in Maryland throughout 1924, and she spent all of the following year and part of 1926 in Alabama. But Mencken kept calling, attracted by her ability as a writer—she was quiet while he was loud—her charm, her courage in the face of illness, perhaps above all by the sense of humor so evident in her willingness to laugh at him. The New York Times called Mencken “the most powerful private citizen in America.” But Sara called her suitor the “Palm of Learning” and, perhaps because he glistened during the humid Baltimore summers, the “Duke of Palmolive.”

They married on Aug. 27, 1930. Mencken liked his beer and cigars; Sara preferred Coca-Cola. Her taste ran to the Victorian, but one of Mencken’s favorite possessions, a huge lithograph of a brewery, hung prominently in the dining room. Both Mencken and Sara were old enough, and sensible enough, not to try to change the other. Sara found Mencken “the dearest husband in the world,” and his love letters belied his public reputation as a curmudgeon. Unfortunately, Sara’s health continued to decline, and she died in May 1935. “I feel completely dashed and dismayed. . .,” lamented the usually stoical Mencken. “What a cruel and idiotic world we live in!”

With his penchant for order, and ever mindful of posterity, Mencken presented their correspondence, about 700 letters, to Goucher College in October 1935. With the publication of Mencken and Sara, Marion Rodgers, a Goucher alumna, makes quite a significant contribution to the literature on each figure. Annotated with skill and thoroughness—Rodgers resourcefully uses oral history as well as all the pertinent papers—these letters illuminate each individual’s most important personal relationship. Carl Bode’s definitive biography of Mencken (reissued in 1986 by the Johns Hopkins Press) and Sara Mayfield’s The Constant Circle both detail Sara’s background, courtship, and marriage. In her lengthy introduction, however, Rodgers provides a more extensive biography, a portrait that, instead of focusing on Haardt as Mrs. Mencken, succeeds admirably in its exploration of “the deeper and more valuable essence of her character.”

In general, Rodgers understands Haardt better than Mencken, and some of the editor’s statements give one pause. For example, the contrast of Mencken the Northerner to Haardt the Southerner is convenient but inaccurate. Maryland was a border state—Baltimore literally split its allegiance during the Civil War—and Mencken found Southern values more palatable than their Northern counterparts. Mencken was Faulknerian in his recognition of the influence of time past upon time present. Mencken was also, despite his considerable skill as a humorist, an unshakable fatalist whose despair generated courage rather than acquiescence. It was hardly surprising that, when he finally decided to marry, he chose a Southern woman. Moreover, Mencken the literary critic hardly advocated a “mixture of realism and romanticism.” This “materialist of the materialists,” as he called himself, endorsed mimetic fiction and likened the romance to a “warm bath . . .a thing to be enjoyed and forgotten.” Such quibbling aside, Rodgers’ introduction succeeds more often than not. With Mencken and Sara, she has edited an engrossing collection that portrays, with a mixture of comedy and poignance, the convergence of two lives. During these 12 years, Sara developed professionally and personally: from an uncertain young writer to a successful author of short stories and a novel, from a woman awestruck in Mencken’s presence to a confidante and wife—a “soulmate,” to borrow Rodgers’ term. Mencken moved happily, if a bit uncertainly, from tutor to suitor and later, with great regret, from husband to elegist.

Mencken and Sara includes fewer than 100 of Haardt’s letters. She wrote less frequently than Mencken did, and Rodgers suggests that Mencken may not have saved everything. In any event, Haardt’s letters fall into three periods. The 1923 correspondence depicts the fledgling author whose “dearest dream” was “to write a sky rocket” for the American Mercury. The letters written after the marriage range from bread-and-butter notes about paying the household staff to comments on her works in progress to declarations of love. During the fall of 1927, she wrote more than 30 times from Hollywood—”Moronia,” Mencken dubbed it, and “Sodom”—and these letters, many of considerable length, show an artist with growing confidence who cast a cold eye on the movie industry. “Take the thing as a comedy,” Mencken characteristically advised when she fretted over a screenplay or the intrigues of her supervisors, “not as a tragedy.”

Mencken advised her as well about her writing—eminently practical suggestions from one of America’s finest prose stylists—and published her work in the Smart Set and the American Mercury. He gratefully accepted her contributions to “Americana,” a Mercury feature carrying items gleaned from newspapers all across the land. Designed to show the imbecility of the American mind, “Americana” told of the young man who, believing that fasting would improve his health, died of starvation, and the woman who divorced her husband because, at the breakfast table, he took the milk for his coffee directly from a goat’s udder. Mencken joked about himself and his family. After his mother died in 1925, Mencken was concerned that his younger sister Gertrude would lack companionship. “All my female relatives, unfortunately, are either married or insane,” Mencken wryly wrote Sara. “Many are both.” Mencken assessed his fellow authors—Ring Lardner “knows more about writing the short story than 200 head of Edith Whartons”—and commented pointedly on publishers. He hated censors of all sorts and wrote triumphantly after being acquitted in the “Hatrack” trial in Boston in 1926. The trial of John Scopes the previous year generated lively correspondence as well as his most accomplished journalism. “The show is five times better than I expected,” Mencken exulted to Sara from Tennessee. “That such a place as Dayton exists is really staggering, and a superb testimony to the virtuosity and daring of God.” In brief, the Baltimorean’s correspondence ranged over the American scene which alternately disgusted and delighted him. A kindred spirit, Sara joined Mencken’s enlightened minority, those skeptics who relished the moronism inherent in what he labeled this “Eden of clowns.” These letters, one suspects, gave writer and recipient a great deal of fun.

But nothing so good could last forever, and the letters sometimes conveyed a quieter tone, a melancholy note of impending loss. Mencken’s father had died in 1899 at age 44; as he approached 50, Mencken experienced repeated intimations of his own mortality. Sara’s mortality was everpresent. From the beginning, Mencken assumed the role of optimistic physician, reassuring Sara that she would recover completely. This role became more difficult as her illness worsened; before they married, he knew that the doctors gave her no more than three years to live. When Sara was hospitalized in April 1935, the man who distrusted hope as much as he despaired of democracy wrote touchingly: “[Doctor] Baker tells me that your temperature has been down for two days. Grand news! A couple of days of sunlight, and you’ll be ready to sign off.” Mencken wished that it were so; the next month, he watched her struggle “magnificently in the shadows” before she died.

Mencken’s reputation fell before Sara’s death. The show in Eden closed down and, although neither Mencken nor-Sara made much of it in their correspondence, the Depression swirled outside during their marriage. Just as their courtship had witnessed Mencken’s apogee, their married life saw his nadir. Mencken’s critics seized the chance to lambaste his refusal to change with the times. He stepped down as editor of the American Mercury in December 1933. Less than two months after Sara’s death, one newspaper, in a remark that to this day seems unconscionably cruel, spoke of “the late H.L. Mencken.”

But the reports of his death were premature. Mencken’s reputation rose again during the 1940’s with the publication of the Days books, his autobiographical trilogy. This American elegist, a role in which Mencken felt eminently comfortable, extolled a more colorful, less hurried past, an age which he called, among other things, “The Days of the Giants.” It was not until 1956 that Mencken joined Sara in the quietly attractive Loudon Park Cemetery, down the road from the old Saint Mary’s Industrial School which educated Babe Ruth, another of Baltimore’s native sons who had enthralled America during a better day. Thirty years later, thanks to Marion Rodgers’ resourcefulness, Mencken and Sara recounts this “beautiful adventure” of the lady and the tiger, a union marked above all by courage and decorum.


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