A Feast Fit For The Press


May 05, 1991|By Carleton Jones

An unusually heavy load of prosperous-looking males detrained at various Baltimore railroad stations on April 9 and 10 in the year 1899.

They were men who puffed cigars, traded jokes and assembled their luggage on the train platforms. In the crowds at receptions to meet the well-dressed visitors were local journalists -- sturdy, broad-faced Max Ways, a popular editor at the Baltimore Herald, who that year was breaking in a cub reporter, H. L. Mencken; several Abells, owners of The Baltimore Sun; budding correspondent Frank Kent, who later would earn laurels as one ** of the country's most astute political analysts and as the unchallenged dean of the Maryland press corps; and Gen. Felix Agnus, chief of the Baltimore American.

The visitors were also journalists and they had come here from all over the country to attend a four-day convention -- one of the biggest up to that time -- of the International Convention of Press Clubs.

During the day they had a full program of trolley tours, assemblies and flag-waving receptions. At night, those interested in the finer things musically were off to the Lyric Theatre for a sample of the four-night stand of the Metropolitan Opera. It was a mind-boggling cast of opera legends, including Emma Eames, Pol Plancon, Marcella Sembrich, Lilli Lehmann, David Bispham, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Lillian Nordica, and Edouard and Jean de Reske. Sembrich brought down the house with "Sempre Libera!" from "La Traviata." (For lighter fare, the press could choose "El Capitan," John Philip Sousa's smash hit, at a local theater.)

The convention finale was a grand dinner with entertainment by a concert band and singers at the Masonic Hall downtown. At every one of the 300 places was a solid silver paper cutter emblazoned with the logo of the ICPC. Among those seated at the head table were John Hay, U.S. secretary of state and former secretary to Abraham Lincoln, and Charles E. Smith, the country's postmaster general.

"A Feast of Rare Beauty" was the way The Sun headlined the show. The accompanying article rose to levels of windbaggery unscaled by the convention speakers themselves as it described a place "ablaze with hundreds of electric lights, gorgeous in its heavy yellow and black drapery, fragrant with beautiful flowers, filled with song and eloquence and with the rippling waters of a central electric fountain playing and flashing prismatic colors."

How anyone managed to get through dinner was a mystery. It began with sherry on a table garnished with caviar, olives, celery and radishes. A first course of lobster chops in cream sauce and sweetbreads in puff paste followed, accompanied by Moselle wine. Then the Pommery wine came aboard with terrapin a la Maryland, Horn Harbor oysters, capon, mushrooms and fresh asparagus. Intermission brought Roman punch and cigarettes. This breather was followed by Le Chambertin (the greatest of white Burgundies), along with canvasback duck served with creamed hominy, Smithfield ham and lettuce and mayonnaise.

Desserts and finale flourishes were many. Ices, wafers, bonbons, "fancy cake," salted nuts, fruits, coffee, creme de menthe, Apollinaris water, cigars and cognac were offered.

Huzzahs and cheers sounded as the band played "The Star-Spangled Banner," then "Dixie" and then "Maryland! My Maryland!" A banqueter, Sen. Louis McComas, told a story about how a reporter lost in Africa supposedly had been beheaded by natives.

"A good reporter," the senator added, "never loses his head."

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