ABOUT 8 in the morning of Dec. 14, 1939, the phone rang in the home of Henry L. Mencken, awakening Himself. Mencken (or so the story goes) picked up the phone with a grumpy "Hello! Hello! This is H.L. Mencken. What? Yes . . ." Mencken then apologized, "I just got up."
The caller was a reporter, informing Mencken that one of his favorite haunts, the famed Rennert Hotel, which had occupied an irregular plot at the southwest corner of Liberty and Saratoga streets since 1885, was finally going under. Ironically, it had survived the Depression, but there wasn't enough business in 1939 to keep it going.
A few hours later, Folsom Taylor, the hotel manager, called Mencken. Taylor invited Himself to be there for the Last Meal that same evening. A small group of Rennert habitues would sing "Auld Lang Syne" and close the place down in style.
"I'll be there," Mencken said. He said he would bring his music and his brother, Gus.
It's hard to separate the Rennert from the late 19th century and early 20th century history of Baltimore. Its fame as a hotel was much less than its fame as a gathering place for politicians -- and for its dining room. Its lobby, bar and dining room were a City Hall away from City Hall, a State House away from the State House and a congressional lounge away from Washington. Everybody who was anybody (that meant only men in those days) who made things happen in the city or the state (and sometimes the nation) ate or drank or (occasionally) slept at the Rennert.
Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Benjamin Harrison dined and paid their political respects to the political establishment gathered at the Rennert. Baltimore City boss John J. ("Sonny") Mahon is said to have run City Hall from a chair in the rear of the lobby. Sen. Isador Raynor lived at the hotel, and so did boss Arthur P. Gorman.
As for Mencken's reminiscence: "I ate lunch there every day from 1906 through 1915. The place used to be a political headquarters, but all of that ended with Prohibition. The Rennert made much of its reputation with its excellent food. It specialized in Maryland cooking: Maryland oysters, terrapin, wild duck. They pursued the old custom of serving seven oysters to half a dozen and 13 to a dozen. When the game laws stopped the hotel from serving wild duck, that was a hard blow."
The Last Meal was served to about a dozen guests selected by Taylor, starting about 6:30. The kitchen, which had not been restocked in days, did its best with what it could scrounge up. As midnight approached, the mourners formed a chorus around the piano. WBAL radio was there to broadcast it live in a special 15-minute segment. Mayor Howard W. Jackson ordered coffee. His waiter brought him tea. "It's all we have left, sir," he explained.
The old Rennert, a rich piece of Baltimore history for more than half a century, had run out of coffee -- and of time.