It was a typical winter Saturday for author and newspaperman H.L. Mencken, who after eating lunch with brother, August, with whom he lived in the old family home at 1524 Hollins St., went to his second-floor office, lay down on the sofa and listened to a radio broadcast of Wagner's Die Meistersinger.
In decling health since a 1948 stroke left him unable to read or write -- a cruel irony for a man who it is said had written an estimated 5 million words and more than 100,000 letters during his career -- Mencken now passed the time sorting his papers with his secretary, dictating letters and entertaining old friends.
Louis Cheslock, a professor at the Peabody Conservatory and a member of the old Saturday Night Club -- an informal musical group organized by Mencken and his friends years before -- arrived for a visit and was informed by August that Mencken wasn't feeling well.
In her recently published biography, Mencken: The American Iconoclast, author Marion Elizabeth Rodgers writes that Mencken came downstairs, walked directly to Cheslock and shook his hand.
"He had never done this before. `Louis. this is the last time you'll see me,' he said. At these words, Cheslock later said, `a chill ran down my back,'" wrote Rodgers.
After drinking two mild Gibson cocktails and enjoying a crackling fire and the lively conversation, Mencken again complained of not feeling well, and before going upstairs to his third-floor back bedroom, again spoke to Cheslock.
"Louis, this is the last time you'll see me," he said to his old friend, Rodgers wrote.
At 9:15 p.m., Cheslock left the Hollins Street residence and drove home through a gathering sleet storm.
Mencken climbed into bed, turned on the radio, and fell asleep listening to a Mozart concert.
Early Sunday morning, when Rancho Brown, a Johns Hopkins Hospital orderly, arrived to help get Mencken bathed and dressed, he was unable to awaken him.
His physician reckoned that Mencken had died in the wee hours of Jan. 29, 1956.
Years earlier, Mencken had left written instructions in a small locked metal box in the newspaper's library explaining how he wanted his death reported.
He requested "only a very brief announcement, with no attempt at a biographical sketch, no portrait, and no editorial," wrote Rodgers.
As the news wires hummed with the news of the Sage of Baltimore's passing, Sun editors scurrying around the city room ignored Mencken's wishes and readied a front page article announcing his death along with a tribute from Hamilton Owens, editor in chief of the Sunpapers, plus an editorial.
On Monday, Jan. 30, The Evening Sun weighed in with two stories, "Private Funeral Planned for Mencken" and "Mencken's Death Brings Tributes From World," and an accompanying editorial.
To discourage the curious, August announced that the funeral, which would be nonreligious, would be held at an "unnamed mortician's place."
It was held at Witzke's Funeral Home, a few doors away, at 1532 Hollins St.
"We'll simply tell them that Harry left instructions there was to be no religious service but he did want a few old friends around to speed him on his way," August told The Evening Sun.
Addressing a small group of mourners, including publisher Alfred A. Knopf, novelist James M. Cain, Louis and Elise Cheslock, Owens said a few words and it was quickly over.
Mencken's remains were placed in a hearse, and in the company of his brothers August and Charles E. Mencken, they were taken to Loudon Park Cemetery. His ashes were interred next to his wife, Sara Haardt Mencken, who died in 1935.
Fifty years after his death, interest in Mencken shows no signs of slowing down.
"First of all, he is a wonderful writer, and no one has been able to write like Mencken. He is sui generis," said Russell Baker, who began his career on The Sun and later joined The New York Times, from which he retired in 1998.
"Even though he was terrible as a political prognosticator, he was a master of invective, and nobody could abuse a man with such eloquence as Mencken," Baker said. "I had an uncle who wasn't a great reader and lived in the 1500 block of Hollins Street. He used to say of Mencken, `He writes those things in the paper that make people mad,'" he said.
Baker, who joined The Sun in 1947, recalled an elevator ride with Mencken in the newspaper's old building at Charles and Baltimore streets.
"He was a godlike figure. He didn't speak to me, and I didn't dare open my mouth and speak to him," Baker recalled with a laugh.
He added: "Mencken was a journalist, a literary figure, and a great American humorist who falls somewhere between Mark Twain and James Thurber."
When Rodgers, who has edited Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters and The Impossible H.L. Mencken, was writing her present book, author William Manchester, who years ago had written his highly acclaimed Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H.L. Mencken, sent her his thoughts on Mencken.
"When Mencken died in January 1956, he was cremated. That was a mistake. He should have been `rolled in malleable gold and polished to blind the cosmos.' I still miss him. America misses him more," he wrote.
"Reading Mencken is so refreshing -- he always hits a nerve -- because the same things he was talking about 50 years ago are now back in the news," Rodgers said the other day.
"For instance, he was talking about executive power, the role of the press and intelligent design. And because he wrote in such an American way and with common sense and courage, I'm sure people will be quoting him for some time to come," she said.
Rodgers said she has noticed that more college students are discovering Mencken.
"Teachers are bringing Mencken into the classroom with more frequency and this has given him a second lease on life. He's also gaining more popularity in Europe. I think we're beginning to see another Mencken revival," Rodgers said.