Our Man in Washington

Our Man in Washington

by Roy Hoopes


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Cain and Mencken are investigating the deaths and sex scandals in 1923 in the season before the big Teapot Dome scandal breaks. Playing Holmes and Watson, they take the train to DC to get the real scoop. They drink a lot, meet a mysterious redhead, a rogue, and get a lot more than they bargained for.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312868499
Publisher: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
Publication date: 09/28/2000
Edition description: REV
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.86(w) x 8.59(h) x 1.20(d)

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Our Man In Washington

Part 1


They threw me off the streetcar about noon.

Well they didn't actually throw me off, but it seemed like it. I had moved up to the open door in the front of the car as it began to slow for my stop. It was a cold, rainy morning in the spring of 1923 and as I prepared to get off I was trying to hold my folded-up Baltimore Sun under my left arm while I started opening an umbrella. But the trolley came to a sudden stop and I was sort of thrown onto the platform. I kept my balance, held onto the Sun and put the umbrella over me, although I did knock my favorite—in fact, only—hat to the wet concrete.

After retrieving the hat, which was not seriously damaged, it was just a short walk to Marconi's at 106 West Saratoga Street. The restaurant's gray brick facade and black-and-white striped awning only enhanced the gloom of that drizzly morning, but I was too excited about lunch with Baltimore's most eminent journalist to pay much attention to the weather. We were meeting to talk about me writing articles for a new magazine he was planning. A waiter, who I later learned was named Brookes, met me at Marconi's door and I quickly said: "James M. Cain to meet H. L. Mencken. I believe he has a twelve o'clock reservation."

Most people call me Jim, but on formal occasions, such as announcing my arrival somewhere, I like to use my full name. I inherited that from my father, who was president of Washington College over in Chestertown, Maryland, when I was growing up. He was a great one for proper names—and titles: "Doctor," "Professor," "Chairman." Heliked to be called "Mr. President" but he stopped insisting on it because whenever he did my mother just started laughing. His name was James, also.

Brookes led me directly to a table in the corner, which I presumed to be more or less permanently reserved for Mencken. And I had no trouble, as Mencken had assured me I would not, ordering a pilsner. Marconi's did not show the red crab that several Maryland restaurants displayed to signify the availability of spirits. But it would be hard to imagine it, or any other civilized eating place or bar in Baltimore, not finding a beer for a friend of Mencken's, considering that by now, he was the nation's leading and most vocal wet.

Actually, this was not my first meeting with Mencken. That had been last fall when I decided to take three months off from the Sun where I was still a reporter to go out to the coal mines of West Virginia to gather dope for a novel.

All right! I confess it was to be the Great American Novel, or "G.A.N." as Franklin P. Adams in his World "Conning Tower" column called the book that every reporter at press club bars across the country was talking about writing. To me, America was embodied in its small rural towns, and after spending some time in Charleston, West Virginia, covering the treason trial of William Blizzard for the Sun, I had decided that West Virginia would be the locale of my G.A.N.

Blizzard was president of the United Mine Workers, District 13, and leader of a group of coal miners who staged an armed march against some mine owners near the town of Matawan. The mines were defended by men the mine owners and the state called "deputy sheriffs" but who were actually a bunch of thugs the mine owners hired to keep the union out of the mines. Ten men had been killed at Matawan.

Blizzard and several other miners were indicted for treason against the state of West Virginia, but I simply could not believe that a glorified riot, that was to some extent provoked, could be blown up to an act of war. It seemed like a good idea for a novel. And it occurred to me that itmight be smart to talk about it with Mencken, who was one of the country's leading authorities on the American novel. I had heard that he liked my West Virginia reporting for the Sun and the articles about the conflict between the miners and the mine owners I had written for The Nation and The Atlantic Monthly. In fact, it was Mencken who recommended me to Atlantic editor Ellery Sedgwick. Frankly, I was in awe of Mencken then, like the little boy who had just gotten his ball autographed by Babe Ruth. But it was the Atlantic piece that encouraged me, as a writer, to be a pelagic fish, to swim in deep waters.

So I requested a meeting with him and suddenly one day he appeared at my desk on the rim where I was working as a copy editor. He pulled up a chair across from mine and we chatted for about ten minutes. But on that first meeting, even though I knew I was in the presence of genius, I must admit I was disappointed. I wanted some advice on how to approach a novel and I was surprised to learn that Mencken didn't know a damned thing about it. "Two years out of a man's life, that's a novel," was the gist of his counsel.

I went to West Virginia, spent several weeks digging coal, joined the union, talked to miners and mine owners and then came back to Baltimore and for two months tried to put it all together for the G.A.N. I decided I simply could not write a novel and I had to go slinking back to the Sun admitting to anyone who asked that the Great American Novel had still not been written.

The great man had not arrived yet, so I settled down to finish reading in the morning Baltimore Sun about the curious death of Charles Cramer, legal counsel to the Veterans' Bureau in Washington. Although the authorities decided it was a suicide, some people were suggesting that Cramer was murdered to silence him about corruption in the Veterans' Bureau. The director of the bureau, Charles Forbes, a slick political operator, had helped Warren Harding carry the state of Washington in the 1920 election. As a reward, Forbes, also a close friend of the president's, was given the Veterans' Bureau job and he quickly becameknown as "the court jester to the best minds in government," which is a real laugh. Forbes was also a card-playing member of Harding's poker cabinet. But he resigned shortly after Cramer's death amid widespread rumors that the Veterans' Bureau was seething with corruption and scandal. Cramer, as Forbes' legal counsel, would have known—or should have—about the hanky-panky at the bureau and if he was not involved, he would have felt guilty for not having exposed it. Suicide was plausible, but so was murder—although you don't often see it in the federal government.

One thing that caught my eye was the fact that the first person to report the death of Cramer was Mary Roberts Rinehart, the mystery writer. The Rineharts were neighbors and friends of the Cramers who lived on Woodley Road, across the street from the Wardman Park, where the Rineharts have an apartment. Cramer, in fact, had bought his house from President Harding, who lived in it when he was in the Senate. By now the rumors about graft in Washington were so great that it was being said that Cramer had paid Harding much more than market value for the house as a way to "buy" his government job in the Veterans' Bureau. It was a half-pilsner story and just as juicy as the beer was wet.

When I finished it, I looked at my watch: 12:05. Our lunch was for noon, so I knew I could expect to see Mencken come through the door at any moment. I had recently read a sketch of Mencken in The Smart Set by George Jean Nathan. Nathan said his co-editor is "never late for an appointment." He also said Mencken had missed but one train in his life—and he took a lot of trains because once or twice a month he went up to New York to get out the magazine.

Nathan also said, "The things he dislikes most are Methodists, college professors, newspaper editorials, Broadway restaurants, reformers, actors, children, magazine fiction, low collars, dining out, the New Freedom, Prohibition, sex hygiene, The Nation, soft drinks, women under thirty—especially literary women, socialism, the moral theory of theworld and the sort of patriotism that makes a noise. He takes no interest whatsoever in sports. He rejects the whole of Christianity and is a lifelong opponent of Puritanism in all its forms."

The moment after I looked at my watch, Mencken burst through the door and headed immediately for this table. He was about five-foot-nine, stoop-shouldered and somewhat stout. He had on a blue serge suit and high-top, black, well-polished shoes. He wore a dark red-and-blue striped tie, knotted against a high starched collar. His sand-colored, straight hair was slicked down and parted in the middle. His eyes sparkled, he had a firm chin and a surprisingly gentle mouth considering how many outrageous, sometimes vitriolic, thoughts came out of it. He had strong, white but irregular teeth, an impudent button nose and protruding ears. His face had a pinkish, well-scrubbed look and his large pale blue eyes seemed to suggest that the whole human race astonished him. He was smoking one of his Willies, which was mostly tilted upward in his mouth. He was in his early forties, but there would be moments when he looked fifteen.

"Well, Cain, I see you're early," Mencken said as I rose to shake his hand. And then looking at my tall paper cup in which Brookes had brought my pilsner, he added, "And Mr. Brookes has taken care of you. Christ! I'm thirstier than a Pizbyterian minister."

Mencken didn't like Presbyterians any better than Methodists. Then, indicating that we should both be seated, he said: "Mr. Brookes, I'm glad to see you're still not afraid of that corps of undisguised bastards, the revenue agents. I'll have a pilsner. In fact, bring me two, and Mr. Cain here may be ready for another."

I nodded agreement and Brookes departed. "I rarely drink before five and never when I have any writing to do," Mencken said, "but I'm through for the day. I finished my column this morning."

"What's it on?—if you don't mind my asking."

"Not at all. Prohibition. This horror of a government regulation is not civilized and we should not put up with it.We've had it more than two years now and what's it accomplished? All good liquors, beers and wines cost three or four times what they used to, which means the poor can no longer afford them but the rich are drinking more than ever. Dining out in private, except with the rich, is no longer very pleasant. If drinks are served, you hesitate to gulp them down freely; if they're not served, you wish your host were in hell. The manufacturing of home brew has reached colossal proportions and all but about ten percent of it—mine excepted, of course—is swill. And the bootleggers are getting obscenely rich."

I indicated agreement by holding up my cup to toast around the room, where some people near our table seemed to be listening to the bard.

Rising and acknowledging his audience, Mencken excused himself to go upstairs to the men's room—"Got to wash up, Cain, to keep all the goddamn germs from attacking my innards. Nathan says I wash my hands twenty-four times a day. This is number eight." As he headed for the stairs, holding his cigar in one hand, he waved to the other people seated in the restaurant, most of whom seemed to know him.

I had not really paid much attention to Mencken until after I returned from France, where I had served with the A.E.F. during the war. Then one day, I was reading a column by Mencken called "A Carnival of Buncombe" and by the time I reached the place where Mencken called General Leonard Wood "a pompous old dodo with delusions of persecution," I knew I had discovered something new and different.

I rushed out and bought a copy of The Smart Set and found the same thing. Then I read every book by Mencken I could find, including quite a bit of his monumental The American Language, published in 1919, written while Mencken was exiled from his Evening Sun column because of his sympathy for Germany. I also tracked down back issues of The Smart Set in barbershops, friends' houses and libraries. After I read as much as I could find, I knew my writing would never be the same.

Brookes arrived with three tall paper cups of pilsner just about the time Mencken returned from the men's room and plunked down in his chair. He quickly picked up one of the two cups in front of him and drank it straight down, almost with one swallow. Looking greatly relieved, he held up his cup for those in the restaurant who were watching us and said: "Another toast to Andrew J. Volstead."

Then he said to me: "You never told me how you did with that novel of yours, Cain. I liked the idea—God's angry man trying to break up a system that was strangling his people. How'd it turn out?"

"Too much reporting," I replied, not wanting to get into my failed attempt at a novel then. "I didn't seem to have the least idea where I was going. I finally said, 'The hell with it!' I guess I'm not a novelist."

"Don't give up," Mencken said, his eyes opening as big as saucers. "I really like your work," and he quickly reached in his coat pocket and pulled out a clipped magazine article which I recognized as my Nation piece. "'West Virginia is still young,'" he said, starting to read from the tag, "'it may have a touch of industrial indigestion, or its malady may be more grave. Give it a century or so. Then possibly it will shoot the piano player and call for a new score.'"

As Mencken went on, I started thinking that maybe he was confirming what I had already decided, that I was an article writer, not a novelist.

"Good stuff," he continued, "your Atlantic article was also a fine piece of work. Jeesus—and I hope He records that He heard it from me first—I'm going out on a goddamn limb and say you write as well as Red Lewis and someday you're going to make a breakthrough like he has ..."

I started to mumble a "thanks" for the compliment, but Mencken, as usual, was hard to interrupt.

"Have you read Babbitt? Whatta novel! I remember when Nathan and I first met Lewis. He was introduced by a Boni and Liveright editor. Red had already had a couple of pieces in the magazine, but we still didn't know muchabout him. He's a big, tall, red-headed fellow with a pocked face, almost as good looking as you, Cain, and he put his arms around Nathan and me and said in a mock German dialect: 'So you guys are the critics, are ya? Well, let me tell you something. I'm the best writer in this here gottdam country and if you, Georgie, and you, Hank, don't know it now, you'll know it gottdam soon!'

"Jeesus! Nathan and I couldn't wait to get out of that apartment, and when we were down on the street, I said: 'Of all the idiots I've ever laid eyes on, that fellow is the worst!' That was in 1920. Well, a few days later, somebody sent me the galleys of Main Street. I was in Baltimore, and when I read it, I sat right down at the typewriter and wrote Nathan: 'Grab hold of the bar rail, steady yourself and prepare for a terrible shock. I've just read the book of that lump we met and by God, he's done the job!'

"Now, he's done it again with Babbitt. I guess there's no doubt about it, he's one of the good ones—not as good as Dreiser, but damned good. But he sure fooled us. So don't give up, Cain."

I began shaking my head, but he denied my obvious dejection.

"Hell, Cain, all young writers need to collect enough rejection slips to paper a room. Scott Fitzgerald told me he had a hundred and fifty of them pasted up on a wall. I myself accumulated a wheelbarrow full of them before I hit my stride. Now you've come out with pieces in some first-rate magazines and you've got some attention. It's no time to stop."

I was baffled by Mencken's manner of speaking and could not quite place it. But I finally decided it was pure Baltimorese, but spoken by a Baltimorean who used perfect grammar and pronounced every word clearly with no slurring. He had a rich voice, overlaid with the city editor's bark, but a bit facetious and terse, and high-pitched, as though he was talking to someone upstairs. But it also had a slight tendency to fade away at the end of a sentence, as though he was waiting to give you a chance to cut in—which he rarely did.

"I don't know," I replied. "I have another idea for a story about an opera singer who commits a crime—or maybe his girlfriend does—and then he can never start singing again, because his famous voice will lead the police to them. I've been toying with it ever since I taught school in Chestertown five years ago, but I don't feel like trying it now. Maybe I'll stick to magazine writing for awhile—which is why I was so excited to get your phone call."

The Smart Set had been started by Colonel William Mann in 1900. But Mann was no editor and the magazine had been taken over by Nathan and Mencken in 1908 when Mann sold it to John Adams Thayer, who soon lost interest in it. Now Nathan and Mencken, supported by Mencken's publisher Alfred A. Knopf, were planning to start a new magazine, to be called The American Mercury. It was all very much hush-hush and Mencken made me swear "on a stack of gottdam Gutenbergs" to keep the project confidential, at least for awhile. They were involved in a complicated scheme to sell The Smart Set to Hearst and did not want the word about a new magazine to get out until the deal was completed. When Mencken called me to set up this lunch at Marconi's, he mentioned the new magazine and said he wanted to talk to me about writing for it. His call came at the right time for me.

After working for awhile at the Sun, when I returned from trying to write a novel, I suddenly decided I was not really happy or very good as a reporter. I could never quite believe that it mattered a damn whether the public learned the full name and address of the fireman injured at the blaze.

My father had been fired as president of Washington College and was now vice president of the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Company in Baltimore, where he met Enoch Gary, president of St. John's College in Annapolis. Through my father, I met Gary, who offered me a job teaching journalism at St. John's. I will start teaching this fall.

I was studying the menu, when suddenly Mencken burst out: "Cain, m'boy, what this country needs is not a goodfive-cent cigar, as ol' Tom Marshall said, but a good fifty-cent magazine, one written and edited for William Graham Summer's 'forgotten man.'"

"Who dat?"

"You, me, the normal educated, well-disposed, enlightened citizen of the middle minority. The idea is to drive a wedge between the liberals, who are always chasing butterflies, and the New York Times conservatives. There must be lots of young fellows who are turned off by liberalism, but can't go along with The North American Review. I want to bring them out, to stir up the animals! The mere thought of it makes me young again."

"So, okay, granted we need a voice for the Forgotten Man, what's wrong with The Smart Set? You and Nathan seem to be doing all right with that."

"Huh! I don't like its title—never have! It sounds like a fashion magazine for just the kind of people who give me a pain in the ass. With its audience I'm restricted to literature and books. But I'm more interested in politics now and what we might call public psychology. Nathan, of course, would just as soon go on with The Smart Set, maybe letting me branch out a little into politics. But Knopf, who wants to publish the kind of magazine I'm talking about, says he won't buy The Smart Set. It has to be a new magazine or nothing, and I agree."

"Well, you got a point ..." I said, but before I could continue, Brookes was back and we decided to order. Mencken had the German sausages.

"They may look like dog turds," he said, "but they taste wonderful." I ordered eggs Benedict. Then we settled down to the business of the day. I had typed up a list of article ideas—mostly profiles—and after looking at it for a few minutes, Mencken said they really added up to a continuing series of American types—labor leaders, Babbitts, ministers, feminists, professors, prohibitionists, editorial writers, do-gooders, etc. He liked the proposal, suggested we call the series "American Portraits" and that I write them in the same style and with the depth of my Atlantic piece.

I began to talk enthusiastically about the first one Iwanted to do—on the labor leader, obviously an outgrowth of my West Virginia experience. "Most newspapers," I said, "portray him as a radical and the liberal magazines paint him as a burning idealist with lofty brow and glistening eye, ready to deliver the oppressed, abolish the sweatshop and set up the brotherhood of man tomorrow. But what he really is is the toughest, craftiest, most opportunistic survivor who has slugged his way out of the rank and file of miners, steelworkers, assemblyliners or whatever."

"That's it, Cain m'boy. That's it, the labor leader. I've often argued against capital to the capitalists and they're usually polite and tolerant. But I've never encountered a union leader who would listen to an argument against unionism. They prefer to hear and read the same rubber-stamp balderdash they hear all day from their colleagues at the union hall and the reverent clergy who belabor them with pieties on Sunday. Try to get it done for the first issue, which we hope to bring out next January."

He paused to puff on his cigar, then removed it from his mouth, blew some smoke up in the air, and with his sparkling eyes staring at the smoke, he said: "What about some Washington types—congressmen, senators, cabinet members, all those phonies?"

I hesitated a minute: "I don't know," I finally said. "I never had a Washington assignment on the Sun. In fact, I haven't spent much time there since before the war when I worked in Kann's Department Store while I took voice lessons. I'm not sure I'd want to write about Washington without spending a little more time over there gathering some dope."

"Hell," Mencken interrupted, "why don't you go over and nose around? You can even wait awhile on the labor leader piece. Jeesus, investigating crooked politicians should be fun. I might even join you. I'm getting a little tired of the belles lettres world of The Smart Set. I know we reach some of the young intellectuals and brighter college students, but I think most of our readers are the fat ladies trying to keep awake on a Pullman car after a heavy meal. Nathan's happy with that, but I'm not. When I firststarted in this business, literature, books and ideas were my main interest—exposing the charlatans who were keeping this country in an intellectual cocoon. But things are changing. We have Dreiser and Lewis and Cabell and Hergesheimer and young Fitzgerald and there are others coming along. Our literature has finally been taken out of the flour barrel it was in for most of the nineteenth century. Also, I've made college professoring a disreputable profession. That's a real achievement!"

Having seen my share of professors at my father's college, I nodded in agreement.

"Politics, that's what's exciting me today." And suddenly Mencken became even more animated, his cigar tilted up a little higher and the Mephistophelean glint in his eyes virtually lit up the room. Removing his cigar and making an unsuccessful attempt to place its ashes in the ashtray, he prepared to launch one of his monologues, pausing long enough to take a bite out of his sausage, which had just arrived along with my eggs Benedict. "Ahhhhh, delicious," he said. Then after another bite, he launched: "Democracy, you know, is a sort of laughing gas: It won't cure anything, but it relieves the pain. Don't get me wrong. I'm not in favor of abolishing our government. We pay heavy taxes but we also enjoy a hygienic laugh in the cool of the evening. Our rulers are not demigods. They're just clowns and scoundrels to be laughed at even when they are most in earnest."

He stopped suddenly, momentarily deep in thought as he attacked his sausage. Then abruptly, his eyes sparkling, he continued: "Edmund Wilson says I have withdrawn from American life and watch the twentieth century from the seclusion of my house on Hollins Street. Maybe I ought to get out a little more. With you doing the legwork and me supplying the little gray cells which that British writer Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot brags about having, we can find out the truth behind Cramer's death and what's going on in Washington. You know, the main objective of the Washington police and the Justice Department is to cover it up, not flush it out. Besides, I'd kind of like to trymy hand at being a detective. I mean, if even those boobs down at Police Headquarters can figure out that most murders are perpetuated by angry, jealous, passionate or greedy spouses, then I ought to be pretty good at it."

"Well you probably would be a good detective—but not working for the local government, I see you as a private detective, like Sherlock Holmes, but playing the piano instead of the violin. And frankly, I'd rather be a Dr. Watson to your Sherlock Holmes than gathering dope for someone called Hercules Paro."

"Why's that?" asked Mencken, "and it's Hercuoole Pwahro, not Hercules Paro."

"Okay, Pwahro. I know you hate Conan Doyle, but ..."

"A fatuous ass," Mencken interrupted. "A real charlatan, a mystic who believes in ghosts. How can anyone take him seriously?"

"So who takes Beethoven or Chopin seriously as human beings? Their lives were hardly exemplary. But their creations achieved immortality—like Doyle's."

"You mean Sherlock Holmes?"

"Yes, I mean Sherlock Holmes," I said, "immortal, like the Ninth Symphony. You certainly can't believe that someone called Hercuoole Pwahro is going to achieve the same immortality."

"Posh, you can't compare Beethoven with A. Conan Doyle."

"I'm not. I'm comparing Sherlock Holmes with the Ninth Symphony."

"I guess more people are familiar with Beethoven's symphonies than they are with the man," Mencken admitted.

"And more people have heard of Sherlock Holmes than Beethoven's symphonies. That's immortality!"

"You may be right," Mencken said, blowing smoke from his cigar and staring at it as it rose to the ceiling. I thought I had made a point but I was not sure. In fact, saying "you might be right" often proved to be his way of politely bringing conversation on a subject to an end.

Before he could recover his verbal momentum, I decided I could use a respite. I had finished my meal so I excusedmyself to go to the men's room. Mencken waved me away, cigar in hand, and with his other beckoned Brookes to bring another round of pilsners. As I left the room I could see him pick up the Sun and begin to read about the death of Charles Cramer.

In the men's room, I could not help reflecting on my second meeting with Mencken. There was no doubt about his genius. The man was simply a gusher of words, ideas and observations. I had read enough Mencken to know that his thinking was a mixture of Darwin, Nietzche, Julian Huxley and Shaw. But I also remember his saying in our first meeting at the Sun that he had never read Alice in Wonderland!

I could not believe it. Alice is simply a story about a little girl who followed a white rabbit down a hole—as unpretentious an idea as could be imagined. Whenever I feel an impulse to be important, I remind myself of Alice, one of the greatest novels ever written. Yet Mencken has never read it. It is also a book that Mencken could never have written. In fact, it is unlikely that Mencken could ever write a novel—yet he is perhaps the country's leading arbiter of our fiction.

He was also the leader among our young intellectuals of what some have called the second American revolution, the post-war revolt against the contemporary American culture, especially on the campuses. And he has quite candidly stated his aim: "to combat with ridicule and invective American piety, stupidity and tin pot morality, progressives, professional moralists, Methodists, osteopaths, Christian Scientists, socialists, single taxers, in brief the whole doctrine of democracy."

The editors of The Liberator and Yale Review, who, until recently, totally ignored him, now quote him regularly. The New Republic, while insisting it does not always agree with him, eagerly seeks his byline. The Nation, which had criticized his book on George Bernard Shaw and run articles by the leading Puritan, Stuart Sherman, attacking Mencken, was now carrying him on the masthead as a contributing editor. A host of writers have come forward to quote, praiseor argue with him: Frank Harris, Aldous Huxley, Ernest Boyd, and Edmund Wilson. As one critic said: "It would be difficult to imagine anyone agreeing with everything Mencken said, but it is all but inconceivable that anyone could be indifferent to him." One who could not ignore him is Walter Lippmann, editorial page editor of the New York World. He describes him as "the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people." Lippmann refers to him as "the Holy Terror from Baltimore who calls you a swine and an imbecile and increases your will to live."

A fascinating character, no doubt about that.

When I returned to the table, Mencken was gone, and as I looked around to see if he might be table hopping among his friends in the room, Brookes passed by and said: "Mr. Mencken said to tell you that Hercule Paro ..."

"Pwahro," I corrected him.

"Pwahro has gone to the telephone and will be back in a moment."

"Thank you, Brookes, you did very well with an impossible name."

"So who is Hercule Pwahro?"

"Hercuuuuul Pwahro," I said. "He is a detective in a new book by a British writer named Agatha Christie."

"Oh, I never read detective stories," Brookes said somewhat haughtily as he headed for another table.

"Well, I don't either," I said to myself. And while waiting for Mencken's return, I started to read the editorial page of the morning Sun. To tell the truth, I hate editorials and editorial writers. They sit alone in an office, high above the maddening crowd, and as they sit, soft voices rise from below. When they hear them, they pass into a long dream and, as they dream, their hands, which hold pencils, begin to write. The voices below are so soft that few could hear them at all, but these men hear them. They are the "Voices of the People." Or so the editorial writers claim.

And what the people of Baltimore were commenting on this morning was the recent announcement by Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who was Harding's campaignmanager in 1920. Despite rumors to the contrary, the announcement said President Harding "will be a candidate for re-nomination next year." The Sun's Voice of the People decided that perhaps it was a little premature for Daugherty to be nominating the president, considering all the scandals that seem to be just below the surface in Washington. Wouldn't it be prudent, the Voice speculated, to wait awhile to see what develops? After all, just why did the Veterans' Bureau legal counsel commit suicide? Or was it murder?

I was speculating about this myself when Mencken returned from making his phone call. As usual he seemed to have the answer: "Cain, as you know, when you want to find out something, a good detective, as a good reporter, goes to the source. So I naturally called Mary Rinehart to find out what she knew about Cramer's death. I reviewed her first novel, The Circular Staircase, for The Smart Set back in ought-eight. It caused a sensation then because, although a conventional mystery, it made some sense."

Mencken paused long enough to take a deep swallow of his pilsner, then continued: "But I haven't talked to her since Woodrow's folly and I wasn't sure how she would react to me. She is very patriotic. She would know—as most everyone does—that I favored the Germans during the war to make the world safe for democracy—one of the late Woodrow's most atrocious conceits."

He was, of course, referring to the former president, Woodrow Wilson, who was not dead yet, but pretty much confined to his house on S Street over in Washington. Mencken often called Woodrow "the late" possibly meaning the "former" president, although maybe he considered him already dead.

"Damned good idea, calling her," I said. "What did she say?"

"Well, she was rushing out the door, late for a luncheon date with Mark Sullivan. You probably don't know him. He's the former editor of Collier's and now the Washington correspondent for the New York Evening Post."

"I don't know him."

"Anyway, Mark wants to talk to her about Cramer, Forbes and the Veterans' Bureau. And Mary herself is digging into it. Says she might throw in a few deaths and use some of the corruption stuff going on in Washington as background for a mystery."

"How about Cramer? Will he be one of the deaths?"

"Didn't say. Mary knew the Cramers because her husband, Dr. Stanley Rinehart, works at the Veterans' Bureau. She couldn't go into detail now, but said if we come over and have lunch with her tomorrow at the Willard she'll tell us everything she knows."

Mencken paused for a good swallow of pilsner.

"So goddammit, Cain," Mencken rushed on, "I think we ought to go after 'em. Let's have lunch with Mary and hear what she has to say."

"What I think," I replied, "is that you've heard the bell ring and like an old firehouse reporter, you're straining to go."

"That, too," Mencken conceded. "But this story is something special. I tell you, Cain, corruption is inseparable from democracy. De Tocqueville pointed that out years ago. I went to the Republican Convention in Chicago where they nominated Gamaliel and everyone knew he was a stooge put there by the big money when the convention couldn't agree on Leonard Wood or Frank Lowden. Wood could have had it, but he refused to let the oil men dictate to him."

Mencken paused to take another healthy swallow of beer and order two coffees from Brookes. "But, by God, that 1920 Republican Convention was miserable! We had to bring our own liquor in suitcases and were afraid our rooms would be raided every day.

"But, ohhhh, the Democratic Convention in San Francisco, that was something else. As soon as the delegates were in their rooms, there appeared handsome, well-dressed young ladies asking what they would like to drink. Some of the delegates were suspicious and kicked the ladies out, fearing entrapment by the revenuers. But not me. In fact, one morning after an evening of heavy imbibing I woke upwith a strange woman in my bed. At first I thought she was a harlot, but she turned out to be very respectable, although I had been either too tired or too drunk to use her carnally. I did meet a lovely young lady there, an asspiring—and she had a nice one—actress named Jane O'Roarke. One morning, I awoke on the beach at Half Moon Bay with this handsome Irish wench at my side. I fell head over heels for her. But the affair cooled—I don't know why, although she did become a little stout for my taste when she moved back to New York. Everyone who knew us thought we were fornicating, but oddly enough we weren't.

"Anyway, getting back to San Francisco, soon the word was out. No matter what you ordered to drink you got bourbon. Bourbon of the very first chop—and no bill attached. It was compliments of Mayor James Roph, who almost—but not quite—convinced me that God occasionally creates a good politician.

"Harding apparently serves good liquor too for the boys at his poker parties. Hell, Cain, I bet in a month we can find out everything that's going on in Gamaliel's tent show. What do you say, m'boy? Does the idea appeal to you?"

"Sure, why not? I've got time now, before I go to work this fall."

There was a period of silence as we contemplated what we had just agreed to do. Then I said: "How do you think we ought to start our little investigation?"

"One way would be trying to buy a liquor permit to take whiskey out of a government warehouse. That would show how the system works and, frankly, I need some more booze. Before Prohibition, I sold my Studebaker for three hundred and fifty dollars and stocked up on all kinds of liquor and beer for me and the Saturday Night Club—enough gin for two years and seven hundred bottles of beer. But between Red Lewis and the club, I've been just about drunk dry."

He paused long enough to note that two men sitting next to us were listening intently. Then, he continued his monologue: "I also had an early disaster with one of my batches of home brew. I bottled them too soon, then putthem out in the backyard in the exact spot where the summer sun would hit the bottles at the hottest time of day." The men next to us shook their heads and made faces, indicating their sympathy.

"One Saturday evening," Mencken went on, "as the early club members began to arrive, we heard loud popping in the backyard like mines going off in Flander Fields. My brother August, wearing boxing gloves and shielded behind a screen, went into the breach and came back to report that almost the entire batch was ruined."

"So how come, Henry, you have the reputation of being the best brewmaster in the East?" one of the men at the next table asked.

"Despite that disaster, from which I learned a lot, I am. And I think it's safe to say that I was the first man south of the Mason-Dixon Line to brew a drinkable home beer. I give seminars now—ten pupils at a time. But on one condition, that each pupil agrees to teach ten more. That's my war against the Noble Experiment."

"I'll sign up, although my home brew ain't bad."

"No doubt," said Mencken. "It's simple enough to do, easy as having a tooth pulled. A batch of wort can be cooked in an hour and it's important to examine the yeast under a microscope. The fermentation is over in four or five days and two weeks after bottling—if you don't do it too soon and keep it out of the sun—the brew is ready to drink. But you'd be surprised how many dull dogs who took the course never got beyond a nauseous Malzsuppe, fit only for policemen and Sunday School superintendents.

"I tell you what, Cain. We'll start with lunch at the Willard tomorrow with Mary. I've got to run now, but we can talk on the train to Washington in the morning."

Then he pulled a big watch out of his vest pocket, looked at it, took a last swig of coffee, indicating I should do the same. It was time to leave.

Before departing, Mencken handed me a few pages of typed copy and said: "Here Cain, read this. It's a draft Nathan and I have done of our first editorial for the new magazine.It gives you some idea of what we'll be trying to achieve."

And we went our separate ways; Mencken took a taxi to the Sun office and, the cold drizzle having stopped, I decided to walk to my apartment on Linden Avenue, wondering all the way what it would be like digging into the Harding administration with the most opinionated man in America.

When I arrived at my brick townhouse at 2418 Linden, I poured a glass of home brew malt beer—superior to Mencken's I am sure—and settled down in my chair by the radio to read the editorial. It began by stating that the aim of the new magazine "is precisely that of every other monthly review the world has ever seen: to ascertain and tell the truth."

Nothing new about that, they conceded, but, they said, "the editors cherish the hope that it may be possible after all to introduce some element of novelty into the execution of an enterprise so old." And, they argued, the new magazine comes into being with at least one advantage over all its predecessors in the field of public affairs: "It is entirely devoid of messianic passion. The editors have heard no voice from the burning bush. They will not cry up and offer for sale any sovereign balm, whether political, economic or aesthetic, for all the sorrows of the world."

They went on to discuss the fact that most of the problems of the world are insoluble and that the American Mercury would be edited for "the normal, educated, well-disposed, un-frenzied, enlightened citizen of the middle minority. This man, as everyone knows," they said, "is fast losing all the rights that he once had. If we can't alleviate this forgotten man from the morass in which he now wanders we can at least entertain him.

"There are more political theories on tap in the republic than anywhere on earth, and more doctrines in aesthetics, and more religions, and more other schemes for regimenting, harrowing and saving human beings. Our annual production of messiahs is greater than that of all Asia."

And they conclude: "To explore this great complex ofinspirations ... in brief, to attempt a realistic presentation of the whole gaudy, gorgeous, American scene—this will be the principal enterprise of The American Mercury."

I can't deny that reading this was one of the most exciting moments of my life. So what if I couldn't write a novel. Writing for Mencken sounded like more fun anyway.

Copyight © 2000 by Roy Hoopes

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