Poetic passions, tragic partings among Baltimore's greatest romances

Virginia Clemm and Edgar Allan Poe
(Sun File photo of Clemm; AP file photo of Poe)

Baltimore has witnessed love and loss.

From the banks of the harbor to Mount Vernon's cobblestones to the grassed-over burial plots of Greenmount Cemetery, embedded in this city are vestiges of some of history's great romances, stories of people coming together and people coming undone.

Pamela Regis, a professor of English at McDaniel College and as director of the Nora Roberts Center for American Romance, something of a scholar of the heart, sees romance in the possibility suggested by the harbor, in people coming together and separating at Penn Station, in the centuries old neighborhoods where generations courted, married and grew families. In fact, if Baltimore, with its straightforward sensibility, was in a romance novel, it would probably marry the prince, she suspects.

"Baltimore has an earthyness, a practicality, a directness," she says. "In romance people think it's all pink boas and impossibility but real romantic heros and heroines, the ones in the books that prevail, are the clear-sighted, practical, reasoning, sympathetic folks. They're the characters we root for because the perfect ones? Who cares?"

Love runs through the stories of some of Baltimore's most memorable characters. Here's how cupid treated some of them.

H.L. Mencken and Sara Haardt

Stout and middle-aged, H.L. Mencken was nevertheless his day's consummate bachelor. Women wanted him and men admired his staunch singlehood — how he'd say things like, "Bachelors know more about women than married men. If not, they'd be married, too."

After an evening with a preoccupied Mencken, the brunette Anita Loos wrote the novel "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

But all that ended when he met brown-haired, brown-eyed Sara Powell Haardt, a 25-year-old writer on the Goucher College faculty.

They courted for seven years — a slow and uneven romance, according to Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, the Mencken biographer and editor of "Mencken & Sara: A Life in Letters." That was partly due to the 40-something Mencken living with his mother at the family home on Hollins Street.

Their dates, Rodgers says, included lunches at Marconi's and discreet nips at Timanus Rock Mill near Druid Hill Park. Mencken, who hated the telephone, wrote Sara hundreds of letters.

When they got engaged, newspapers heralded the news that "America's foremost bachelor" was no more. "Mighty Mencken Falls," one headline read.

Haardt understood Mencken's commitment to his work. He appreciated her independence. They were two level-headed agnostics who loved Baltimore.

"He used to say, when you reach a certain age, what you're looking for is peace," Rodgers says. "It was a very mature love."

They married on Aug. 27, 1930, at St. Stephen the Martyr church, then on North Avenue. He was 50, she 32 and already succumbing to tuberculosis. Though she'd survive only another five years, Mencken would call his time married to her "a beautiful adventure."

"When she died, he was inconsolable," Rodgers says. "He did say to people that after her death there was no other. He still went out with women for lunch and that sort of thing, but there was no one that captured his heart."

"I still think of Sara every day of my life, and almost every hour of the day," Mencken wrote in his diary on the fifth anniversary of his wife's death. "Whenever I see anything that she would have liked I find myself saying I'll buy it and take it to her, and I am always thinking of things to tell her. ... I can recall no single moment during our years together when I ever had the slightest doubt of our marriage."

Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia Clemm

Edgar Allan Poe arrived in Baltimore in his early 20s to stay with his aunt in a tiny home on Amity Street. There he met his 6-year-old cousin, Virginia. Seven years later, he'd marry her.

What did a 13-year-old see in a cousin twice her age? John Ward Ostrom, editor of "The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe," wrote in The Sun in 1980 that he imagined Poe cut a dashing figure. "Hadn't this handsome cousin already served in the Army, been a cadet at West Point, published two volumes of poems and several short stories," he wrote.

Mark Redfield, vice president of Poe Baltimore Inc., considers Poe a flirt.

"He probably wore his emotions ... and I'm sure that was attractive to certain women," he says. "He's not the Marlboro man. He's somebody a woman might like to care for, with flashing penetrating eyes, luscious brown hair and a smooth complexion."

Poe tended toward melodrama. At one point, when his aunt was planning to send Virginia away, he wrote her, "blinded with tears," begging her to reconsider — else he would die.

"Ask Virginia. ... Let me have, under her own hand, a letter, bidding me good bye — forever — and I may die — my heart will break, but I will say no more," he wrote.

He signed off: "Kiss her for me — a million times ... Eddy."

The couple married in Richmond on May 16, 1836. Some believe they might have secretly married here first. Redfield, in fact, is planning an event at Westminster Hall to mark the anniversary of the would-be Baltimore nuptials.

The two were married — happily — for a decade but never called Baltimore home. "She, most of all, gave composure to his life," Ostrom said.

Virginia wrote a Valentine's poem for Edgar in 1846. It's an acrostic, with the first letter of each line spelling out his name. She sent it with a lock of her hair. Among the lines:

Ever with thee I wish to roam —

Dearest my life is thine.

A year later, she was dead.

According to a paper by Richard P. Benton, "Friends and Enemies: Women in the Life of Edgar Allan Poe," Poe friend R.D. Unger observed Poe's drinking and devastation, writing that "the loss of his wife was a sad blow. He did not seem to care, after she was gone, whether he lived an hour, a day, a week or a year."

He lived only two more years.

Betsy Patterson and Jerome Bonaparte

She was the Belle of Baltimore, yet all she wanted to do was leave the city in her dust.

"She felt that there was nothing here but businessmen devoted to making money and wives who had nothing to talk about but raising her kids," says Helen J. Burn, author of "Betsy Bonaparte," published by the Maryland Historical Society in 2010. "She loved Florence. She loved Paris. She enjoyed London and Geneva. She hated being here."

Patterson grew up on South Street, the daughter of one of the country's wealthiest men. Burn says she was cursed by intellect.

"She wanted to be somebody," Burn says.

And at 18, Patterson saw her chance in Jerome Bonaparte, the 19-year-old brother of Napoleon, emperor of France. Booted from the French Navy, Jerome had come to Baltimore, lured by a sailor's promise that it was where to find America's most beautiful women.

Jerome was a dandy and, Burn says, a brat. William Patterson told him he wouldn't be marrying his daughter.

But Betsy and Jerome married on Christmas Eve 1803. When Napoleon heard, he was livid and told Jerome to leave her.

Defiant, the couple toured America for two years. "Napoleon said, 'You come home or stay there the rest of your life with no money,'" Burn says. "He gave in."

When the couple's ship arrived in Lisbon, Napoleon's emissaries intercepted Jerome while Betsy waited on the boat. He never returned.

Seven months pregnant, Betsy declined Napoleon's parting gift, a pension that amounted to $12,000 a year, a huge amount then.

"Tell your master that Madame Bonaparte is most ambitious and will receive the honor due to her," Burn says Betsy replied.

Betsy saw Jerome just once more, Burn says. Napoleon had forced him to marry a chubby German princess. Betsy spotted them at a Florence art gallery. She opened her cloak to show Jerome her still-flawless figure. They didn't speak.

Betsy eventually settled into a miserly life in Baltimore, frugally burning candles to save on gas money in a fifth-floor walk-up at St. Paul and Lexington streets.

She died at 94, waving away the chance to be buried in the family plot, choosing instead a solitary grave in Greenmount Cemetery. On the stone, she had inscribed: "After life's fitful fever, she sleeps well."

Wallis Warfield Simpson and King Edward VIII

Baltimore's closest thing to a Cinderella story is that of Bessie Wallis Warfield, the daughter of a boarding-house owner, destined to marry a king.

But this fairy tale comes with divorces and scandal.

Wallis, as she preferred to be called, went to private school in Baltimore but only because her mother rented rooms in their East Biddle Street house and worked as a housekeeper to pay for it.

Despite not having much money, Wallis became part of Baltimore society and when she turned 20, married a Navy man. She divorced him about 10 years later to marry Ernest Simpson, an American-born British citizen who lived in London, cavorting in royal circles. It was with him that at 34, Wallis first met the Prince of Wales.

"In January 1931, Wallis Simpson ... realised the daydream of every middle-class woman in England," reads the introduction to "Wallis and Edward: Letters 1931-1937." "She was introduced socially to the great idol of the day."

There was no reason the prince would give a second glance to this "unexceptional married woman," wrote editor Michael Bloch. And yet he did, first with private dinners then skiing trips and finally, in 1933 with an invitation to vacation in France and Italy, where their relationship, as they say, crossed the line. He became king three years later.

One of the king's confidants wrote in his diary at the time, "It appears that the king is Mrs. Simpson's absolute slave and will go nowhere where she is not invited."

She filed for divorce in 1936. When news finally broke that the king planned to marry a twice-divorced American, it was considered a threat to the monarchy — and a massive scandal. Wallis fled to France, but the king couldn't live without her.

He abdicated the throne on Dec. 10, 1936, with the announcement that had women swooning worldwide: "I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility ... without the help and support of the woman I love."

"He renounces the throne and all that it means and goes essentially into exile from the royal family," says Regis. "Whoa. And he does this for the woman he loves."

He became the Duke of Windsor and Wallis the Duchess of Windsor, after a wedding in 1937. But Wallis considered it a lifelong humiliation that the royal family denied her the right to be called "your highness."

The couple exiled themselves to France, largely ignored by Britain's royals until Edward was on his deathbed in 1972. When Wallis died in 1986, Queen Elizabeth II allowed the duchess to join her husband at Frogmore, Windsor Castle's cemetery.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

"The names Scott and Zelda can summon taxis at dusk, conjure gleaming hotel lobbies and smoky speakeasies, flappers, yellow phaetons, white suits, large tips, expatriates, and nostalgia for the Lost Generation," wrote the couple's granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, in an introduction to a book of their letters called "Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda." "And even though they are my grandparents, I can't fail to mention that Scott's alcoholism and Zelda's madness are a powerful part of the myth."

And also the part of their story written in Baltimore.

When F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald arrived here in 1932, they'd been married more than 10 years, the glamorous ones well past. They came to Baltimore so Zelda, who had suffered her second breakdown, could be treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital's Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic.

Suffering from schizophrenia, she was mentally unraveling. His career had stalled and he was drinking himself into stupors. They'd both had affairs. Yet when they got to town, they still had hope, both for their careers and their relationship.

"A love story it kind of wasn't by this time," says Margaret Galambos, a longtime member of the Fitzgerald Society who led a bus tour through Baltimore during the organization's 2009 national conference in Baltimore. "It was not their best of times."

When they arrived, they rented a gabled Victorian called La Paix, off York Road on the ground of what's now St. Joseph Medical Center. As their money dried up, the Fitzgeralds moved to a less expensive apartment on Park Avenue in Bolton Hill. When things got even worse, it was the seventh floor of the Cambridge Arms near Johns Hopkins University.

Despite their addictions, both Scott and Zelda were artistically productive in Baltimore. She wrote a novel, plays and became an accomplished painter. Scott struggled to finish "Tender Is the Night," a critical success but a financial flop.

Zelda became increasingly withdrawn, at times even catatonic. She moved to Sheppard Pratt Hospital, and eventually Scott moved her to another institution in Asheville, N.C.

"He was so intent on getting her well," Galambos says. "He finally had to admit at the end of his time here that she was never going to be well."

He left Baltimore in 1936 after giving his daughter, Scotty, then 15, a ruinous dance at the Belvedere Hotel where he got — as Scotty would later write — "quite drunk," and proceeded to dance with her friends. He ended up hospitalized for a week.

"All his romantic ideas," Galambos says. "They were supposed to have this perfect romantic life and they did for a while.... They were big celebrities in New York and in Paris and they had an amazing life. As she wrote, 'We were swell.'"

Though his hopes and dreams were dashed in Baltimore, Fitzgerald never blamed the city.

"I belong here where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite," he wrote in a letter not long before he left. "And I wouldn't mind a bit if in a few years Zelda and I could snuggle up together under a stone in some old graveyard here. That is really a happy thought and not melancholy at all."

He died four years later at age 44. Eight years later Zelda died in a hospital fire. They're both buried in Rockville.


Recommended on Baltimore Sun