Christopher Morley's youth in Baltimore provided rich material


December 14, 2008|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

Mention the name of Christopher Morley these days and maybe, just maybe, someone will remember that the Haverford, Pa.-born writer, essayist and Sherlock Holmes and Joseph Conrad scholar, whose eventual literary output reached 50 books during a prolific 35-year career, was the author of The Haunted Bookshop, Parnassus on Wheels and Kitty Foyle.

The latter was made into a 1940 Hollywood film starring Dennis Morgan, Gladys Cooper and Ginger Rogers, who won an Oscar for Best Actress that year.

What may have been forgotten about Morley is that the author spent his early youth in Baltimore.

When he was 10, he moved with his father, Frank, a professor of math at Haverford College; his mother, Lillian Morley; and two brothers, Felix and Frank, to 2026 Park Ave.

In 1900, the family moved to Reservoir Hill - the old house still stands - after his father's appointment as math department chair at Johns Hopkins University.

Morley, who was called "Kit," delighted in roaming the streets of his adopted city with his best friend Ben Tappan, riding streetcars to Fort McHenry, exploring Mount Vernon Place, or accompanying his mother on shopping trips to the Lexington Market.

He attended the Marston School and Friends School before enrolling at Haverford in 1906.

At Haverford, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and attended Oxford for three years, where he had been a Rhodes scholar.

After returning to the U.S., he subsequently worked for Doubleday, Page & Co., The Ladies Home Journal, T he Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, T he Saturday Evening Post and T he Saturday Review .

He had written years later of his Baltimore days that "in that hospitable and charming city - he learned to love oysters, practical jokes, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library."

Morley, who enjoyed prowling the old Pratt Library on Cathedral Street, often boasted of completing a Sherlock Holmes detective story while on the long walk back to his Reservoir Hill home.

Helen McK. Oakley, Morley's biographer, described the Pratt Library in her book, Three Hours For Lunch: The Life and Times of Christopher Morley. The library, she wrote, was a "great treasure house that was the second important influence, after Haverford's Allen Thomas, in shaping Christopher Morley's edifice of reading."

"There was also the B & O Railroad, with its vast and gloomy Mount Royal Station. There were the cobbled streets and the stone sidewalks onto which marble steps descended," wrote Oakley.

"The sidewalks were swept and the steps were scrubbed every day from that day to this. Vines grew over lattices in the backyard gardens, and water gurgled down drainpipes into open ditches, and there were vacant lots instead of distant vistas," she wrote.

During the Baltimore years, Morley was also able to indulge what became his lifelong passion for trains.

Not many years later, his train fancy would erupt into whimsical essays about the Pennsylvania Railroad's Paoli Local and Philadelphia's old Broad Street Station, the travails of the Long Island Rail Road commuter, or a scenic ride on the Reading from Jersey City to Philadelphia.

While the years in Baltimore may have been short, the memories and spell the city cast over Morley lasted a lifetime and were most evident in his semi-autobiographical novel, Thorofare, published in 1942.

The book follows the life of Geoffrey Barton, a young English boy, who comes to the United States and settles in a rowhouse on the fictional "Carroll Street" in Chesapeake (Baltimore) with his family.

From his Carroll Street home, not unlike Morley, young Barton could hear the whistles and clanking of Pennsylvania Railroad steam engines as they chugged to and fro with their trains in the Mount Vernon railroad yard, and those of the not-too-distant Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad - also known as the Ma & Pa - along Falls Road.

In Thorofare, Morley described the Ma & Pa as that "mimic railroad hiding in a gorge below North Avenue that sent two leisurely trains a day winding the valleys toward Harford County. It was a Book of Genesis railroad, Uncle Dan said, created on the Sixth Day with other creeping things."

He wrote that the Ma & Pa, with its trains of a flatcar, a boxcar "jingling with milk cans," a baggage car and one passenger coach, "traveled with domestic fidelity to and from rural Pennsylvania; they did not look as if they had any wider yearnings."

When young Geoffrey asks a Ma & Pa engineer how he can identity the "Ma" and "Pa" of the railroad's two locomotives, he patiently explains, "This is Ma. You can always tell, she's got two humps on the boiler."

Morley clearly relies upon his memories of trips to the Lexington Market when he recreates a visit by Geoffrey and Aunt Bee to the historic market.

"The place was truly in character for Chesapeake as the Peabody Institute or the Pimlico Track. Here an aristocracy of good digestion shopped for its victuals, choosing shad or birds or berries as a bibliophile would scrutinize first editions," he wrote.

"Distinguished gourmets, followed by men carrying loaded baskets, chaffed from stall to stall; groups gathered in the crowded passages for sociable chat as at a court levee. Conversations overheard might range from crab gumbo to the Kneisel Quartet."

Oakley wrote of the young Morley and his Baltimore years: "And a round-faced boy sees and loves and remembers all of it."

Morley, who lived in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., for many years and died there in 1957, had penned his own obituary two years earlier.

In answering the question under a listing for "recreations" in Twentieth Century Authors, he had written, "Whisky and plain water."

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