"Mr. Mencken came in here. A very congenial man. He used to have broiled seafood and fine Rhine wines."
The speaker is the long, lean gentleman who's played host at Marconi's Restaurant since 1926. But John Brooks isn't discussing food, Baltimore's preferred pastime. Instead, he's taking a rare moment to talk about arts and letters.
"John Dos Passos came in. James M. Cain. Hemingway, who had a place in Chadds Ford. Scott Fitzergald came often with his daughter." Here Mr. Brooks lowers his voice, leans forward confidentially. "He was sort of a problem child, you know. Had a little problem drinking. Always looked like he had something going on in his mind. Used to mumble to himself." He stops and shakes his head. "But the poor man's gone now. No need to bring all that up again."
Baltimore has long been famous for "what the English, in their real estate advertising, are fond of calling the amenities" -- as Henry Louis Mencken wrote in his childhood memoirs. But aside from Mencken and Edgar Allan Poe -- Baltimore's other favorite literary son -- the town is seldom linked with writers.
This is a shame, because Charm City has its share of literary shrines.
One of them happens to be Johns Hopkins University. "The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States," Eugene Ehrlich and Gorton Carruth's near- definitive work on the subject, counts F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe as patients at the university hospital where Wolfe died of a brain infection in 1938. And Gertrude Stein studied medicine there before writing the novel, "Three Lives," whose fictional setting, Bridgepoint, seems to be Baltimore thinly masked.
Like his contemporaries Dos Passos and Mencken, Fitzgerald lived at several addresses about town. In 1933, he was leasing La Paix, a Towson mansion that has since burned down. The next year, with his wife Zelda receiving psychiatric treatment at a succession of Baltimore clinics, Fitzgerald sent his friend "Menck" an inscribed copy of "Tender Is The Night" -- from a stately row house at 1307 Park Avenue. Later he took up residence at the Cambridge Arms Apartments, 1 East 34th Street, where he is said to have written "The Crack-Up," a chronicle of a writer's disintegration.
Dos Passos rented one Baltimore flat after another during his last 20 years, but practically lived on Mount Vernon Square at the Peabody Library, which favors submarine- warfare tomes and genealogical tracts. At a mahogany table in the Peabody's rococco reading room, a plaque reads: "John Dos Passos. Novelist and Social Historian. 1896-1970. He spent many hours in research at this desk"
Mencken, the redoubtable Sage of Baltimore who died in 1956, was a child of the 1880s in a handsome brick townhouse at 1524 Hollins Street, facing Union Square. The square is still a tree-shaded park, but now boasts a commemorative Mencken Fountain sporting a circle of dancing figures flashing saturnine grins. During his five-year marriage to Sara Haardt, Mencken lived on the second floor of a brownstone at 704 Cathedral Street, but moved back to the Hollins Street house after her untimely death. The brownstone on Cathedral abuts the Third Church of Christ Scientist, which might explain why Mencken named a prized pet turtle Mrs. Mary Baker G. Eddy.
Many of Mencken's effects, including his typewriter and personal library, are housed at the Enoch Pratt Free Library at 400 Cathedral Street. The Mencken Room is open to the public once a year, and the next time will be September 10.
Among other literary lights, Upton Sinclair grew up in what is now a vacant lot in the 500 block of North Charles Street, and Ogden Nash threw many a bash at 4300 Rugby Road. Leon Uris flunked English at Forest Park High School, but Russell Baker passed it at City College. And such as Ann Tyler, John Barth and Hugh Kenner are currently Baltimoreans proud and true.
For all the time he spent here -- a mere four years -- it's heartening that Edgar Allan Poe cuts so grand a figure in Baltimore letters. In the years since his death in 1849 -- after being found unconscious in the 900 Block of East Lombard Street -- his admirers have worked long and hard to keep his reputation flourishing. There is, for instance, a handsome bronze statue in Wyman Park.
Courtesy of the Poe Society, a plaque at 11 Mulberry Street reads: "In this home, then the home of J.H.B. Latrobe, there was awarded in October 1833 to Edgar Allan Poe the Baltimore Saturday Visiter's short-story prize, which brought him recognition as a writer of prose."
He won the $50 award for "Ms. Found in a Bottle," which he wrote, along with such horrifying classics as "A Descent into the Maelstrom," while living with his aunt Maria Clemm and cousin Virginia Clemm in a modest brick house with green shutters at 203 North Amity Street. The house, which contains scant period furniture and a few newspaper clippings, can be inspected from Wednesday through Sunday.
Poe departed Baltimore in 1835 with 13-year-old Virginia, whom he took as wife, and returned only briefly to depart for good. He's buried with his relatives in Westminster Presbyterian Churchyard, West Fayette and Greene streets, where a secret admirer in a black cape annually leaves a rose and a bottle of cognac, and where Mencken and his cronies -- far from admirers -- are said to have left other liquids..