A Viral Bathtub Story & A Dry Martini: Mencken Day is Sept 7

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By Jackie Watts, Guest Blogger

Mencken Day
Saturday, September 7
Central Library
400 Cathedral Street

Just about everybody knows that Millard Fillmore was a clean politician. After all, he’s the president who installed the first bathtub in the White House. And how do we know that? It’s general knowledge. It’s been printed everywhere.

Well, it’s not true. The story of Millard and his presidential tub was made up by H.L. Mencken, the curmudgeonly critic and columnist of the Baltimore Sun, the very fellow that the Enoch Pratt Free Library, plus a chowder and marching society of some 200 Mencken devotees, will honor on Saturday, September 7, all day long. You’re invited too.

Mencken (1880-1956) wrote the story as a joke, but it was picked up by the wire services and printed by papers all over the country—it went as viral as something could go in those days of World War I, and soon got into professional journals, which were then quoted in the halls of Congress as proof of the progress of public hygiene. The story refuses to die—it was most recently quoted as fact on Yahoo! News in February, 2012, in an item called "10 Things Your Kids Probably Don’t Know About President’s Day."

Mencken’s love of parodies like the Bathtub Hoax is the subject of the latest Menckeniana, the quarterly magazine published by the Pratt Library to celebrate the life and bequest of H.L.M. He left all of his unpublished material, much of his correspondence, personal photographs, personal library and many belongings, including his trusty typewriter, to the Pratt Library in his will. An extraordinary Pratt librarian named Betty Adler sorted everything out and organized it into the Library’s H.L. Mencken Collection. The great man himself asked that the collection be opened to the public once a year, around his birthday (September 12).

Mencken at the Piano
Mencken at the Piano: Undated photo.
H.L. Mencken Collection, Enoch Pratt Free Library. All rights reserved. Use without permission is prohibited.

Stop by the Central Library on Mencken Day, Saturday, September 7, and you will be able to browse the Mencken Room, which is only open to the public on Mencken Day. The rest of the time, the room is open to scholars by appointment only.

On Mencken Day you can meet Vince Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., curator of the Mencken Room and one of the world’s foremost experts on H.L.M.’s life and writing. What was Mencken’s favorite cocktail? Ask Vince. He knows. Favorite restaurant? He had several. Vince knows them all. He will also cheerfully discuss the finer points of Mencken’s great essays in Treatise on the Gods or The American Language. Vince also has a theory about why H.L. chose Millard Fillmore as the president who installed the bathtub in the White House. "He loved puns," says Vince. "Fillmore. Get it? Fill more."

David Donovan, a librarian in the Central Library’s Fine Arts Department, will give the morning talk on the Saturday Night Club, the group of extraordinarily talented men who got together just about every Saturday night to play music and drink rivers of beer. H.L. was a pianist long on enthusiasm and somewhat shorter on accomplishment, and among his many musical buddies were faculty members of the Peabody Conservatory, the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, and the conductor of the Naval Academy Band.

Mencken Sat Night Band
SNC with caption: Taken in 1937. Caption is written by HLM.
H.L. Mencken Collection, Enoch Pratt Free Library. All rights reserved. Use without permission is prohibited.

Dr. Howard Markel of the University of Michigan will give the keynote lecture, "An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted and the Miracle Drug Cocaine (with a guest appearance by H.L. Mencken)."

Mencken was not a cokehead, but Halsted, the brilliant surgeon who pioneered sterile techniques and the use of anesthetics as one of the Big Four founders of The Johns Hopkins Hospital, was, and he and H.L. were fast friends. (By the way, cocaine manufacture and use was not seriously restricted till 1922—two years after alcohol was outlawed.) Mencken preferred alcohol, and his favorite mode of administration was the dry martini, though when he headed to the hills of Tennessee to cover the Scopes Trial he took along four bottles of Scotch, fearing that decent liquor would be scarce during Prohibition in the Bible Belt.

He was wrong about that. There was plenty of moonshine everywhere, and H.L. tried it and pronounced it very good.

Come to Mencken Day and find out more about the man who turned journalism on its ear in the 1920s and lit the fuse under writers like Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Langston Hughes.

Mencken Day
Saturday, September 7, 10am-5pm
Central Library
400 Cathedral Street

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