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March 15, 1987|Fred S. Holley

MENCKEN AND SARA: A LIFE IN LETTERS, edited by Elizabeth Rodgers (McGraw-Hill: $22.95; 576 pp.). Few of us are aware that H. L. Mencken, the curmudgeonly "sage of Baltimore" of the '20s, '30s and '40s, ever married. But at 42, in 1923, he met Sara Haardt, a young Alabama writer, and courted her for seven years before they married. She died five years later after a lifetime of off-and-on illness. Yet she was able to write to a friend, "I have the perfect husband." Their letters are a touching sidelight on his life. It is hard not to be moved by his loving and scolding care, his continuing, almost domineering and almost maternal, concern.

There are, admittedly, passages that make us squirm, such as his casual, almost unwitting use of racial epithets: "the coons" and "the wop in Cathedral street" and "the Jews in their lair." But that reflects the period rather than the man. There are amusing flashes, such as the constant concern for having liquor on hand in the midst of Prohibition: "a noble flask . . . under her coat." Their exchanges while one was on the East Coast and the other in Hollywood reflect an extreme xenophobia: "Los Angeles is even worse than I expected . . . fit only for Christians. The people all seem to be imbeciles."

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