When Baltimore was a swell town

Gwinn Owens

April 29, 1991|By Gwinn Owens

THE CONVENTIONAL wisdom around Baltimore today is that it has been Harborplaced into a national attraction, that before 1980 most people thought it was just outside Washington or in Ohio someplace, that the train didn't even stop here.

In truth, Baltimore -- on one level -- got a lot more national attention in the 1930s and early '40s than it gets today. That one level was old-school social swank. Baltimore had an ingrown elite, provincial but self-assured and powerful, and obsessively devoted to its own institutional events, such as the Maryland Hunt Cup.

Saturday marked the annual running of the event, among the nation's most celebrated point-to-point races. Staged in an idyllic setting in the Worthington Valley, it is still popular and still a wonderful spectacle.

In the 1930s, however, it was not only the third of three storied races (preceded by My Lady's Manor and the Grand National, as it is today); it was also the colorful climax of the opulent social season. It was the total devotion of Baltimore's elite and country gentry that made it so.

In the mid-1930s, in full color in the New Yorker magazine was a prestige advertisement for the Lincoln automobile. It showed a cluster of dapper, tweedy socialites gathered around a lustrous town car, with the verdant Worthington countryside in the background. The caption said, "The Lincoln at the Maryland Hunt Cup," and the text explained that one could drive one's Lincoln in comfort from New York and arrive in time for the race.

Furthermore, year after year the New York Times ran a story of the Maryland Hunt Cup on the front page of its Sunday sports section. In 1940 20th-Century Fox produced a movie called "Maryland," starring, among others, John Payne, Brenda Joyce and Hattie McDaniel. It was, of course, about the Maryland Hunt Cup, filmed on location, with some other scenes shot in Ruxton.

If the Hunt Cup was the grandest happening of Baltimore in the 1930s, it was only one of many such social events. Not many Baltimoreans are around who remember that the Metropolitan Opera had an annual season at the Lyric Theater, with all the top stars on hand and an abundance of top hats in the audience. (Ironically, the Lyric's name has since been changed to the Lyric Opera House, but the greatest of opera companies are gone.)

One of those top stars, Rosa Ponselle, married the son of the mayor of Baltimore. Rosa (the New York Times called her "the greatest dramatic soprano of all time") brought her glamour to the Monumental City and added her talent and luster to the Baltimore Opera Company. But as good as that local organization has become, it will never give Baltimore the social panache that emanated from the presence of the Met every year.

The cream of Guilford or Ruxton or "the Valley" sneered at the part-time Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s, leaving its patronage to comparative peasants. The proper place to be seen was at the six concerts of the Philadelphia Orchestra, whether you liked music or not. It was usually a sell-out, even in the nadir of the Depression.

The social scene as reflected in music and at the spring racing bacchanal had its counterpart on a more intellectual level. The Evening Sun, if we are to believe its survivors, had the "most quoted editorial page in the United States." (That was according to one of its writers, the late R.P. Harriss.) Its star, of course, was H.L. Mencken, but its stable of writers included historian Gerald W. Johnson, syndicated humorist Francis F. Beirne (who wrote under the name Christopher Billopp, Philip M. Wagner (still famous as an oenologist), Harriss, who was a successful novelist, and its editor, Hamilton Owens.

Mencken, whom the New York Times called America's "most powerful private citizen," was irrationally devoted to his home town. Whether his devotion was justified is beside the point; the fact that such a commanding literary figure was living and working in Baltimore focused attention on the city. Meanwhile, for much of the '30s, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had moved to the area for treatment of his wife's mental illness, held his own court at "La Paix," his rented country home in Towson.

In 1937, when Mencken, Owens, Johnson and Frank R. Kent wrote "The Sunpapers of Baltimore," celebrating the 100th anniversary of The Sun, it was widely reviewed in out-of-town papers. Four years later, the Times gave Owens' history, "Baltimore on the Chesapeake," a full page. To my knowledge, none of the subsequent books on Baltimore, not even Harold A. Williams' comparable (and I think better) 150th anniversary history of The Sun received such lavish national attention.

Why such notice of Baltimore then? It reflected, I believe, an essentially less democratic era. It was a time when cultural institutions could survive by drawing only on the devotion of an elite patronage. In books, newspapers, opera and music, one needed only the support of the upper crust. For example, in 1934 a book that sold 15,000 copies could make the New York Times best-seller list.

Baltimore provided this hard-core elite -- a coterie of the mostly Anglo-Saxon well-heeled, attended by black servitors. They clamored to attend the opera or the Philadelphia Orchestra or the point-to-point races; it was almost a social sin not to be there.

The ultimate tribute to Baltimore swank was an expensive new car introduced by Auburn-Cord and lavishly advertised in fancy magazines. Perhaps the fact that it flopped was a harbinger of the city's future.

The car's name? The Ruxton. You can look it up.

Gwinn Owens is Hamilton Owens' son and the retired editor of this page.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.