The Mail 9/24/14

Mencken Unmasked

I saw with interest your cover story, "The House That Mencken Built" (Feature, Sept. 10). Here is a question that still has yet to be fully answered: Was the Sage of Baltimore pro-Nazi—or at least pro-German—in both of the 20th century's World Wars? The answer might be yes, at least to the second part, anyway.


In the November 1975 issue of Baltimore magazine, I reviewed the book "A Gang of Pecksniffs: And Other Comments on Publishers, Editors, and Reporters," on Mencken's writings. The book contained "A Profile of Mencken as Newsman" by then-Sun editorial writer Theo Lippmann, Jr. I quote now from my review then: "Lippmann points out some unusual tidbits from Mencken's life: the fact that the great reporter and editor favored the cause of Germany in two World Wars, and therefore had to take forced leaves of absences from the Sunpapers until they were over." If true, this spanned a total of 10 years in all: 1914-18 and 1939-45, and I doubt that management removed from its staff the most prominent journalist of the day and the leading light of its own newspapers without due cause.

As an ethnic journalist by heritage, Mencken was certainly not alone in being against the cause of four of the world's all-time greatest imperialist powers—Great Britain, Republican France, Tsarist Russia, and Japan. The Brits occupied India and Ireland, the French North Africa and Indochina, Russia Mongolia, and the Japanese all of today's split Korea.

When I visited Mencken's home on Union Square, I duly noted the signed portrait of German Kaiser Wilhelm II that graced the landing at the top of the stairs to the second floor. I saw none of any Nazi leaders, however. (I'm the author of 11 illustrated books on German history, with the newest coming out in late 2014, "Kaiser Bill! A New Look at Germany's Last Emperor Wilhelm II, 1859-1941.")

Writers and authors covering Mencken should not ignore this dark chapter of their hero's life, nor that while at The American Mercury in New York as its editor in 1943, he published one of the best ever and most accurate accounts of the 1941 flight to Scotland of Nazi Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess. If they do, though, it will be a disservice to both history and his right to have his own political viewpoint, whether his literary admirers of yesteryear, today, and tomorrow like it or not.

Blaine Taylor

I wouldn't exist (literally) if my father (journalist R. P. Harriss, brought to The Sun around 1937 by Henry Mencken) had not been introduced by Mencken to my mother (German-American educator and Greenwich Village divorcee, the latter being a circumstance Mencken was very much interested in). So, as one of the last people to see Mencken alive (I was a teenager, and, as my mother predicted, talking to him made ME feel brilliant), I feel sort of proprietary about Henry. ("Regular people" like my mother did not call him "H. L.")

Background noise.  Sorry about that.  My point is this: Congratulations and thank you. Your recent coverage of the annual Mencken celebration was superb. From Bynard Woods' piece (so well done, and so resonant with my own response to Mencken's books re: Baltimore) through the photos, through, well, everything, including the delightful interview in which clever Larry Gibson evaded all efforts to out his thesis: You, City Paper, were wonderful, and you show once again how essential to Baltimore City Paper really is.


(Gibson's was definitely one of the finest talks on Mencken I've ever heard, and hey, I've been attending Mencken Day for decades, most recently as a member of the Mencken Society, up till now as the only female.)

Clarinda Harriss

On a visit back to Baltimore this week, a friend brought me a copy of the City Paper with the Mencken cover. Looking that over and reading about his presumed anti-Semitism, I was reminded of an experience in Israel where I was stationed as The Sun's Middle East correspondent in the 1980s (Jerusalem being one of eight overseas bureaus The Sun had in those days!).

During an interview with Uri Kellner, about a new fine wine being produced by the Carmel Vineyards of which he was the managing director, he told me that his aunt had had a lifelong correspondence with Mencken, whom I think he had met in Vienna in the 1930s before she emigrated to Palestine–much to Mencken's consternation, according to voluminous correspondence between the two of them that Kellner shared with me a while after the interview.

(Kellner later gave me photocopies of all this correspondence, which, before moving away from Baltimore, I turned over to Dr. Vincent Fitzpatrick, curator of the Mencken collection at the Enoch Pratt Library.)

Kellner had another surprise for me. It was that Mencken had visited Palestine in 1934 in a tour organized by the Zionists and had heaped praise on their successes and scorn on the indigenous Arab population.

Of the Jewish settlers he wrote, they "look like Americans even when they are Poles or Rumanians (sic) . . . they have good cattle, modern farm machinery and decent houses. Their colonies, seen from a distance, are extraordinarily charming, what with their red-roofed houses, their prospering orchards, vineyards and wood-lots and their green fields. And at close hand they turn out to be swarming with glossy Holstein cows and fat, well-dressed children."

The Arabs he described with utter disdain as pathetic people farming with the same tools their ancestors must have used to till the land a millennium before. "They raise the same crops year after year and never fertilize the soil. Their draft animals look as starved and flea-bitten as they do themselves."

Well, he was an anti-Semite. In this case his prejudice happened to be against the other Semites who inhabited the land called Palestine.

(My articles on these topics appeared in The Sun on July 15 and 17, 1984.)

 G. Jefferson Price III
South Dartmouth, MA

Corrections and ommisions: In "Best Use of Music in a Play," we credited "Two Suns Over Thebes" solely to Alex Hacker, whereas Mason Ross co-driected and was responsible for the music, and we also negelcted to mention that Gerrit Welmers contributed music to the play. In "Best Collaboration," which went to the Gene Clark No Other Band, we neglected to mention the contributions of Steve Strohmeier and Mike Lowry. City Paper regrets the errors.