Mencken feted defeated politician Consolation: When Kansas Gov. Alfred E. Landon lost his presidential bid against FDR, the Baltimore newsman who backed him held a sumptuous banquet in his honor.

Way Back When

October 24, 1998|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

One of the more celebrated moments at the soon-to-be-demolished Southern Hotel was a private dinner that newsman H.L. Mencken gave for Gov. Alfred E. Landon after he was defeated in the 1936 presidential landslide by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

As early as 1935, Mencken, in a letter to a friend, had observed, "If he [Landon] actually gets the nomination he'll be lucky, for I begin to believe that it will be possible to beat Roosevelt in 1936 with a Chinaman, or even with a Wall Street broker."

As it turned out, the Kansas governor was indeed the Republican Party's nominee for the 1936 presidential election, and Mencken's choice for the White House.

After covering the Republican convention in Cleveland, the Democrats in Philadelphia, the third-party Townsendites and the convention of "Radio Priest" Father Charles Coughlin's Union Party, Mencken hopped aboard Landon's campaign train for a swing through the East.

By October, Mencken, who had publicly endorsed Landon, wrote to author Ernest Boyd: "I have been politicking since June 1st. I have covered four big national conventions, have made two campaign tours, and have in addition gone out to Kansas to sit at the feet of the prophet Landon.

"He is much smarter than he looks, and I shall vote for him with great joy. But my guess is that he'll be beaten by at least two million votes. Such a mountebank as Roosevelt is simply irresistible in a great free Republic." Roosevelt actually beat Landon by 11 million votes.

After the election, in a letter to journalist Benjamin DeCasseres, Mencken observed: "Our ignominious defeat is unquestionably due to our neglect of God's word. If we had prayed instead of boozing, Alf might be in the White House today, and you and I might be training for ambassadorships. As it is, we'll be lucky if we escape Alcatraz."

Mencken, though, had promised Landon that win or lose, he'd treat him to a Maryland dinner on his next visit to Baltimore.

On Dec. 19, 1936, The Sun reported, "Arriving here tomorrow en route to attend the winter banquet of the Gridiron Club in Washington Monday, Governor Landon will be the guest of H.L. Mencken at a small dinner prepared in the Free State manner."

Of Landon's reverence for Maryland cooking, Mencken told the newspaper, "He said that he had been there [Baltimore] often and always encountered swell victuals, and that if he gets to the White House in January he will run over before February 1 to get down a bushel or two of oysters, and maybe a bowl of terrapin. On the steppes of his own State, oysters are rare and costly, and eating them is looked upon as a somewhat risque pastime, almost like drinking champagne."

After arriving at the Southern Hotel at Light and Redwood streets, Landon joined Mencken and his guests, who proceeded to slake their collective thirsts with cocktails of Maryland rye whiskey in a private room adjoining the hotel's dining room.

The guest list included such notables as Eugene Meyer, publisher of the Washington Post; Ogden L. Mills, secretary of the Treasury; his brother, August Mencken; John W. Owens; James C. Fenhagen; Henry M. Hyde; Frank R. Kent and William F. Schmick Sr. of The Sunpapers and Richard F. Cleveland, noted Baltimore attorney and son of President Grover C. Cleveland.

Mencken personally took charge of the Lucullian repast, which included "Choice Chesapeake Bay oysters, Olives, Stuffed Celery, Nuts, Terrapin a la Maryland, Maryland beaten biscuits, Sherry, Chicken a la Maryland, Cream Sauce, Grilled Bacon, Corn Fritters, Potato croquettes, Bordeaux, Maryland ham, Maryland hearts of lettuce, Maryland water ice and Champagne," reported The Sun.

"The only 'foreigners' allowed to reach the table were necessities not produced in Maryland -- olives, nuts, sherry, Bordeaux and Champagne."

While Landon emphatically praised his Maryland meal, he also had high praise for his host.

"Of one thing however," said The Sun, "the Governor was positive when the dinner was over, namely, that nowhere in the country could a more gracious and hospitable host be found than Mr. Mencken. Several times the Governor reiterated this opinion."

Pub Date: 10/24/98

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