Timeless romances bloom in city square Tour: A new tour visits the homes of Mount Vernon's romantic figures, including Mencken and Peabody, whose love stories often ended in tragedy.

October 03, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Kelly Kallaur, a 29-year-old optometrist recently arrived from New York, wanted to surprise her husband Greg, 33, with something special for their first wedding anniversary. She asked him to meet her at an elegant Charles Street restaurant, the Brass Elephant, and told him to dress for outdoor weather, but said no more about what was in store.

What followed was a walk in the autumn sunset through the scenes of some of Baltimore's most famous old love stories. Joining the latest and perhaps most unusual addition to the list of Baltimore guided tours, the Kallaurs were among the three dozen people who took the first "Romantic Legacy" tour through Mount Vernon.

Here is the statue of George Peabody, a lifelong bachelor, unlucky in love and spurned twice by Baltimore society girls. Across the square on Cathedral Street is the gracious apartment building where H. L. Mencken lived with his young wife, Sara, in the five years they had together before her untimely death.

Not far from that is the fashionable townhouse at 8 W. Mount Vernon Place, where the Duke of Windsor stayed when he visited the hometown of his wife, Baltimore divorcee and "the woman I love," Wallis Warfield Simpson.

"Architects give tours on how the buildings look, but what's even more important is to tell the stories behind the buildings," said tour leader Jamie Hunt. "The people who lived here and what happened here is what engages emotionally."

Hunt, whose enthusiasm for the people in the stories he tells is catching, is the 35-year-old executive director of the Mount Vernon Cultural District.

Bonaparte romance

The first romance on the free tour may have been as well known in its time -- the early 1800s -- as the romance that cost a king of England his throne more 100 years later. The earlier one also involved a celebrated Baltimore beauty and a member of a famous European family.

Elizabeth "Betsy" Patterson met a dashing French naval officer, Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, at a society dance in Baltimore. "I'm going to marry that man," she reportedly said, but she did not count on the opposition of the world's most powerful man, her intended's brother.

Napoleon won. Betsy bore Jerome's child, but Napoleon refused to allow his brother to marry an American. She lived unhappily every after, Hunt said, "wealthy but bitter," in a West Read Street townhouse off the square.

In Hunt's telling, George Peabody, the enormously wealthy and benevolent merchant, comes across as the most sympathetic character. Though he was an eligible bachelor by almost any standard, two Baltimore fathers decided that Peabody's humble origins were not good enough for their society daughters -- practically a plot in a Henry James novel.

Peabody died rich but single in 1869. His statue stands today by the white-marble music conservatory that bears his name.

Charles and Sue Kachalo, an Ellicott City couple who described themselves as "displaced city peo- ple," shook their heads in sympathy at the romantic rebuffs Peabody suffered. "I was born in Baltimore, but I didn't know all these tidbits," said Sue Kachalo. "I always thought Mount Vernon was romantic."

'A deep mark'

Mencken made it to his 50th year before finding his soul mate in a younger woman, Sara Haardt, who was a Goucher College instructor when Mencken came to campus to give a lecture titled "How to Catch Husbands."

"It's amazing what a deep mark she left on my life," wrote #F Mencken, who moved from his beloved Union Square in West Baltimore to set up house with Sara in an apartment at 704 Cathedral St. Sara was 37 when she died in 1935 after five years of marriage.

Mencken wrote five years after her death: "It is a literal fact that I still think of Sara every day of my life, and almost every hour of the day. I can recall no single moment during our years together when I ever had the slightest doubt of our marriage, or wished it had never been."

Mencken contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, knew Mount Vernon well. They stayed at the Stafford Hotel when they came to visit Baltimore. On hotel stationery in 1935, Fitzgerald confided in a letter: "I love it [Baltimore] more than I thought. It is so rich with memories. I belong here where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite."

Author's refuge

Baltimore was a refuge for the Fitzgeralds. Zelda was treated here for her mental illness. They lived in Bolton Hill, and it was here that the author of "The Great Gatsby" tried to revive his writing career.

As Hunt's tour group passed the grand Garrett-Jacobs Mansion west of the Washington Monument, home of the Engineering Society, Lee and Fiona Diemer, both in their 30s, said that was where they held their wedding party a few Novembers ago.

Another couple on the tour, Rob Bundy and Dana Lipski, said their imagination was sparked when they visited the book fair in Mount Vernon last weekend. After taking a literary walking tour, Bundy said, he insisted they return for the romantic legacy tour.

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