Friends, Writers, and Other Countrymen

A Memoir

Sidney Offit

Thomas Dunne Books

Friends, Writers, and Other Countrymen
Random Encounters from JHU to NYC: 1940s and 1950s
H. L. Mencken: Lessons in Smoking and First-Edition Best Bets
Circa 1946
I learned about smoking and collecting from H. L. Mencken by way of Ellen Glasgow. When I returned to Baltimore from Wayne, Pennsylvania, during the years I attended the Valley Forge Military Academy, 1942 to 1946, I had few friends and, with the exception of my kid brother Benson, no one with whom to share enthusiasms. One of my classmates had mentioned the novels of a Virginian friend of his family--Ellen Glasgow. John Copley Travis, whom I considered the most literary and sophisticated of my chums, spoke about his father's collection of first editions. These slight references were all the inspiration I needed at the age of sixteen to become a collector of Ellen Glasgow first editions.
This hobby mystified both my mother, who loved books but saw no particular virtue in the rarity of the edition, and my dad, whose reading was restricted to the racing form and the local papers. Nonetheless, my mother didn't discourage me and my father bankrolled my passion with a modest investment.
I would walk from our family's apartment on Lake Drive past the islands of grass on Park Avenue, across the busy intersection at North Avenue. Then I'd cut over the railroad bridge to Charles Street and continue on to the Peabody Book Shop, where it was not only possible to search through used books but also to sit in a pleasant atrium and feast on bratwurst, knockwurst, German potato salad, and a mug of local beer.
It was at Smith's Books on Howard Street, however, that I began my Glasgow collection and often encountered Henry L. Mencken. I recall a portly, shining face, hair parted in the middle, mouth engaged with a corncob pipe or cigar as he chatted with Mr. Smith.
I recognized Mr. Mencken from my childhood. In the thirties my father was one of Baltimore's most successful bookmakers. Although his professional talents were unknown to me at the time, I was aware that on our Sunday outings we visited the best restaurants and hotel dining rooms in town. My father seemed to be known by everyone. Bartenders, headwaiters, the best-dressed guests, and certainly every man smoking a cigar greeted him. Although there was little conversation, I detected an unmistakable respect, even reverence in their regards.
Not exactly so with Mr. Mencken. As we made our way to the main dining room of the Rennert Hotel, he would be sitting at the bar with a cigar over a drink and as we passed he would acknowledge my father with a vaguely amused nod of the head or a chipper "How do you do?" My mother always identified him: "That's H. L. Mencken. He's a newspaper man."
I had heard that my father sold newspapers on the streets of Baltimore when he was eight years old and made enough money to contribute to the support of his five brothers and sister. My dad, too, smoked cigars from time to time, so I assumed H. L. Mencken, like my dad, stood on street corners hustling papers.
That impression was so indelible it remained even after my mother later expressed admiration for the magazines Smart Set and American Mercury, or quoted two of the more famous wrap-ups to his "The Free Lance" columns in The Baltimore Sun--"Swat the fly ... Boil your drinking water."
I felt sufficiently comfortable with this vague but "historic" connection that I began to mimic the "Sage of Bawlamer" by plunking a cigar in my mouth when visiting Smith's. I'm not sure if Mr. Mencken was in the shop when I purchased my first edition of Glasgow's In This Our Life, but I do recall he celebrated my acquisition of Vein of Iron by passing along to me a free cigar and the advice, "Never relight a stogie once it dies on you, my boy. Read the message from above and treat yourself to another blessing from below."
That was not all I learned. After I lit up, he suggested with a voice that remains in my memory a blend of W. C. Fields and Winston Churchill, "You'd be better advised to collect Willa Cather."
FRIENDS, WRITERS, AND OTHER COUNTRYMEN. Copyright © 2008 by Sidney Offit. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.