Tout Baltimore, or at least as many as the hall could hold, last night attended the first of two sold-out banquets honoring the centennial of H. L. Mencken, at the Belvedere Hotel.
Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, died 25 years ago after a dazzling career that produced 5 million words -- many of them funny, and most of the infuriating to some group or other.
His old publisher, Alfred Knopf, was on hand, celebrating his own 88th birthday, and waving his walking stick like a shepherd's crook to make points.
One young reporter from the Baltimore Sun, where Mencken worked for 43 years, asked Knopf what Mencken would have said about newspaper writing today. "He would have emitted a loud f-rt," Knopf replied.
It was mentioned that Knopf used to call the novelist Thomas Mann "Tommy."
"Yes," he said, "but I always called Willa Carter, who was as good a friend as Mann, Miss Cather."
Governor of Maryland Harry Hughes got up to recite the Mencken witticism that an honest politician is rare as an honest burglar, and was about to say something further when enthusiastic applause burst from the room.
"Why are you clapping over there?"
It all went quite well in the elegant old hotel that looks a bit like the palace at Fontainebleau, only with running water. Dinner was nuggets of beef on skewers but since Mencken was not present, all the other animals were safe.
Alistair Cooke presided, duly noting he was a number of things Mencken despised (except he was a good friend); Englishman, Methodist, creature of a liberal newspaper, broadcaster (Mencken said all broadcasters suffered from perfumed tonsils) and so on.
Furthermore, when he once asked Mencken why there was a crowd at some hotel, Mencken replied:
"I expect they are honoring some dishonorable crook."
An unidentified wit sent a telegram to the banquet announcing an equestrian statue of Mencken was being shipped to Baltimore "with front legs splayed in the air; rear legs ditto."
It was not generally known that Cooke served as toastmaster without a fee. Another old Mencken friend, Louis Cheslock, unable to attend, recently gave valuable Mencken papers to Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library and when he was reminded he could take a handsome tax deduction, said:
"Oh, no, I could never make any kind of profit from my friendship with Henry."
A telegram, purportedly from Mencken in heaven, brought down the house.
Episcopalians up there, it said, were scandalized to discover the number two man was a Jew Mencken added there were few publishers, no professors, and not a single Pope, And it's not true, he went on, that angels are sexless. Quite the contrary. Unfortunately, he said, Franklin Roosevelt was not only in heaven, but was in full throat.
"Things are not much better here. Heaven's not what it's cracked up to be. Right now it's raining. Yours in Christ," signed H. L. Mencken.
Cooke said Mencken's reputation will endure and increase as a humorist: "An American humorist out of Mark Twain, and a great American reporter out of nowhere."
Old Knopf, who keeps first things first, asked of the celestial telegram from Mencken, "He sent it collect?"