Actor offers sage advice from Sage of Baltimore

September 10, 1990|By Nancy Lawson | Nancy Lawson,Evening Sun Staff

His pants held up with suspenders and his hair parted stylishly down the middle, the 38-year-old H.L. Mencken called Sunday school "a prison in which children do penance for the evil consciences of their parents."

The Sage of Baltimore then moved on to politics, telling his listeners that there was "no grander show on Earth than American democracy."

And in a timely observation -- state primary elections are conducted tomorrow -- Mencken said, "What is any political campaign? It's a concerted effort to put out the politicians who are initially bad and put in the politicians who are thought to be better."

It wasn't really Mencken who was talking yesterday. It was David Keltz, 46, a local actor who portrayed the prolific, sharp-witted journalist at the Baltimore City Life Museums commemoration of Mencken's 110th birthday Sept. 12.

Known best for his political and societal commentary in The Evening Sun, The Sun, American Mercury and Smart Set, Mencken seemed alive again as Keltz filled the famous Baltimorean's old study at the Mencken House with words taken from three autobiographies and a Smithsonian Institution interview.

Tour guide Dorothy Greene, who maintains the Mencken House and gardens on Hollins Street in West Baltimore, recalled last winter's furor when, 33 years after his death in 1956, Mencken's private diaries were made public, revealing racist and anti-Semitic attitudes.

Greene seemed unfazed by Mencken's perceived racism, saying such attitudes were typical of his time.

"I have a lot of people come here and sympathize with me because they say, 'You're black, and you're working here.' I tell them Mr. Mencken didn't like anybody. He didn't leave anybody out. I don't go with that. . . . This is history," Greene said.

Teresa Herold, a Baltimore resident and writer who helped with Keltz' script, agreed with Greene and said people need to look at Mencken with a broader perspective.

"I think the man had a great wit, and I think he was a big-hearted man. Everybody's talking about the narrow, little things," Herold said.

Greene told the visitors about some of Mencken's prized possessions in the house where he lived and worked. The items included a piano bought for $175 in the 1920s and restored by the museum for $5,000, one of the only four gold masks of composer Ludwig van Beethoven in existence, some of Mencken's collection of 1,000 wood carvings, and encyclopedias and books on religion.

"And Mr. Mencken was not a religious man . . . as you'll see in the movie," Greene said.

A pre-tour movie recounts the highlights of Mencken's life -- his first job as a reporter at the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1898; his Monday columns in The Evening Sun, where he worked from 1906 to 1948; as co-editor with George Jean Nathan of Smart Set from 1914-23; and their founding of American Mercury in 1924.

Mencken also wrote nearly 20 books, including "The American Language," "George Bernard Shaw -- His Plays," "Happy Days, 1880-1892," Newspaper Days, 1899-1906," and "Heathen Days, 1890-1936."

Keltz, as Mencken, said he was glad to have been "spared the intellectual humiliation of a college education" and praised the life he had led as a young newspaper reporter. "I believe today it was the maddest, gladdest, damnedest existence of any mortal youth."

Mencken's sense of humor touched all aspects of his life, as Greene pointed out.

"Mr. Mencken made his booze in the basement right here," she said, and showed visitors a sign that the famed writer kept on the entrance to the basement.

"This vault is protected by a device releasing chlorine gas under 200 pounds of pressure," the sign read.

In the Smithsonian interview, Mencken had this advice for drinkers:

"Never drink when you've got work to do. If I've got a job to do at 10, I don't drink up to that time. And never drink alone. That's the way to become a drunkard. Thirdly, never drink when the sun's still shining. Wait until after -- that way you're close enough to bed to recover."

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