Mystery Writer Captured The Baltimore Of Old

December 05, 2009|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly , Jacques.Kelly@baltsun.com

A Maryland murder mystery writer came to mind the other afternoon as darkness was coming over Lafayette Avenue in Bolton Hill. It was an atmospheric old Baltimore scene on a dreary early December day: worn granite curbs, moss in the sidewalk cracks, wet brick on the 1870s rowhouses. I glanced inside some windows and spotted some Hepplewhite chairs. A few minutes later, I passed the clock tower at Mount Royal Station. It seemed to say, "It's getting on to 5: Go home and read a good book."

The author who caught the look and feel of this old Baltimore, as well as Port Tobacco in Southern Maryland, Georgetown, Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., was Leslie Ford, who is little known today, although she turned out more than 60 books between the 1920s and the 1960s. She wrote under the name David Frome early in her writing career while living in England. Her real name was Zenith Jones Brown.

Much of her fiction first saw print in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post. I can see my mother hurrying to the vestibule to pick up her copy of that magazine expressly to plow through the latest Leslie Ford installment. Ford was a fast writer. It was reported that she could produce 12,000 words a day, in longhand, using legal pads and a fountain pen. Her writing reads as if it were done quickly - not necessarily a bad thing. Her plots can get tangled, but the scenes and the atmosphere make her a winner.

One of her champions was Sun editorial writer Gerald Johnson.

In 1969, he wrote, "What gives these books a charm ... is their delicately sardonic, yet photographically accurate evocation of a style of life that, if not extinct, is far along the road to extinction. She is satirical, but delicately so, frankly an entertainer, never a philosopher."

The author lived for a while on St. Paul Street at Chase, in a building demolished for the 1101 apartment building. I haven't been able to crack where she lived on University Parkway. Most of her literary life was spent on King George Street in Annapolis, where her husband taught at St. John's College. Interviewers described her home as charming and filled with antiques. She seems to have favored good silver, paintings and gardening.

Leslie Ford was born in California but had a Maryland heritage. Her father was born in Chestertown and graduated from Washington College. Her mother was a member of the Calvert family. One novel that takes place on the Eastern Shore was titled "Murder Comes to Eden" (1955).

Her books are not easily found today, but the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library keeps everything. Leslie Ford spoke at the Pratt in 1948, and she plotted one of her novels, "The Girl From the Mimosa Club" (1957), around the corner on Mount Vernon Place. She really nails Baltimore in it. I can see her on tiny Hamilton Street just off Charles. After all, Leslie Ford belonged to the Hamilton Street Club.

She died in 1983 at the old Church Hospital on Broadway in East Baltimore. She shared a place of death with another local mystery writer - Edgar Allan Poe.

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