James M. Merritt, 90, owner of produce business, essayist


James M. Merritt, who turned a lifetime around the city's racetracks and markets into carefully crafted free-lance reminiscences, died of heart failure Wednesday at the Caton Manor Nursing Home. He was 90.

For 30 years before his retirement in the mid-1970s, Mr. Merritt operated the wholesale produce business founded by his grandfather in the old Marsh Market at Lombard Street and Market Place.

But his memory extended to the founding of The Evening Sun in 1910, to his childhood days on what he called "upper Bolton Street," and to several famous runnings of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

After he retired, Mr. Merritt became a regular contributor to The Evening Sun's opposite-editorial page. For several years, he contributed an anecdotal piece published the Friday before the Preakness. The article usually had a redeeming message about an evil jockey given a comeuppance or a down-on-his-luck bettor given a lucky second chance.

Other essays concerned Baltimore's early 20th century homeopathic doctors, the city's street a-rabs and, of course, The Block.

Describing the dancing of Hinda Wasau in a Block nightclub, Mr. Merritt wrote in 1994: "She would palpitate her cheeks, singly or in unison, in perfect time with the orchestra's martial tempo. From these descriptions, it should be clear that I approached these exhibitions with the objective attitude of an art critic called to judge a recently discovered cache of nudes by Rubens."

Said Mel Tansill, a Charlestown Retirement Community spokesman who became a close friend of Mr. Merritt's: "He was a role model for anyone with a love for the written word."

Mr. Merritt's last article for The Evening Sun concerned that newspaper's demise last year -- the paper "would not be caught dead" in the company of those read at the White House, he observed. However, he continued writing until last month, when the Charlestown monthly newspaper published his recollections of World War II service in Europe with the 102nd Infantry Division.

Two years ago Mr. Merritt collected his Evening Sun essays in an anthology, sold copies for $5 and donated the proceeds -- about $2,500 -- to the Charlestown Benevolent Care Fund.

Mr. Merritt was born in 1906 and spent his childhood around the waterfront wholesale produce markets. He graduated from City College in 1923, then earned a law degree at the University of Baltimore, although his wife, Katharine, said he wanted to become a journalist.

Several of his uncles and Mr. Merritt operated the Merritt Produce Co. until Mr. Merritt assumed full control in the 1960s. He sold the business and retired in 1976.

Mr. Merritt's first wife, the former Vera Jower, died about 1980. In 1982, he married Katharine Jefferson. The couple moved to Charlestown in 1989.

Mr. Merritt was a member of the General Society of the War of 1812 and for a time was that organization's secretary. He was also a member and historian of Wilson Memorial United Methodist Church.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. today at Hubbard Funeral Home, 4107 Wilkens Ave., Baltimore.

He is survived by his wife and numerous cousins.

Pub Date: 12/16/96

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