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Friday, August 27, 2010

H. L. Mencken and Sara Haardt: “America’s foremost bachelor” tied the knot eighty years ago today

How ironic that H. L. Mencken should first meet Sara Haardt in 1923 at Baltimore’s Goucher College when he delivered a lecture on “How to Get a Husband.” Haardt was then a 24-year-old English professor at the women’s college, the youngest on the faculty, and Mencken eighteen years her senior. “Call me a liar if you will,” Mencken would write to a friend the day after the lecture, “but last night I lectured at Goucher College and discerned no less than 27 appetitizing [sic] cuties in the audience. It greatly astonished me; I always thought education ruined the complexion.” Mencken doesn’t mention that during a dinner party following the lecture he discovered that Haardt was an aspiring writer and asked her to send him some of her short stories. Haardt confessed that she had been submitting stories to The Smart Set, the magazine Mencken edited, since she had been “big enough to lift a stamp.”

So began the love affair of Mencken’s life. The world knew Mencken as a confirmed and outspoken bachelor. “Bachelors know more about women than married men,” he famously wrote. “If they didn’t, they’d be married too.” And on another occasion: “If I ever marry, it will be on sudden impulse, as a man shoots himself.” But Mencken’s quips didn’t anticipate the tenacity and charm of the young writer from Montgomery, Alabama. As Marion Elizabeth Rodgers recounts in Mencken: The American Iconoclast, shortly after their first meeting Haardt confided to a faculty friend, “I’m going to marry that man!” Rodgers provides a striking portrait of Haardt:
A contemporary wrote that from across a crowded room Sara looked “alarmingly beautiful: oval face full of magnolia blossom texture, fine features framed in dark curls, luminous almond-shaped eyes, full sensuous mouth”; a graceful figure with a soft cheesecake-y form that James Cain admired, and “well dressed in a quiet, tasteful way.” As for her voice, it was low like that of her childhood friend Tallulah Bankhead, gently Southern, as another put it, “without a trace of cawn pone.” Sometimes Sarah’s voice could verge on a growl when she said what she thought of people . . . “she had plenty of wit,” according to Cain, “of a smoldering, ironical kind,” accompanied by a throaty laugh.
Their courtship would last seven years, much of it conducted through letters. The seven hundred letters they exchanged during their twelve years together are collected in Mencken & Sara: A Life in Letters, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers. The first letter occurred shortly after their first meeting in May, 1923, the last a few days before Haardt’s early death of tuberculosis on May 31, 1935. While we might characterize their correspondence as “love letters,” what they reveal is their growing discovery of each other’s intelligence, wit and culture, or as Rodgers puts it, “In this almond-eyed, delicate woman, Mencken was to find a soulmate.”

The actual marriage ceremony was brief. Mencken considered weddings “barbaric rites.” They moved the wedding date up a week from September 3 to August 27 to avoid the press, and only ten guests and one photographer joined them at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church for the event. It wasn’t until their train reached Halifax and their honeymoon began that the couple relaxed. “It is a grand experience to be able to look a hotel detective in the eye,” wrote Mencken to his close friend George Jean Nathan.

In her brief life Sara Haardt would write forty short stories and two short novels. Her death would interrupt her work on her most ambitious project, The Plantation, a “novel she hoped would provide,” in Rodgers’s words, “a greater understanding of the traditional Southern order and its effect upon those confined within it.” Mencken had edited and published several of her stories and he wrote the introduction to a collection of seventeen of her stories, Southern Album, he published after her death.

Mencken’s diary reveals just how much his wife’s last days and death affected him. There is barely a mention of her in 1935—only one entry for the entire year after May 31—and just a handful in 1936. It is not until the fifth anniversary of her death, on May 31, 1940, that Mencken addresses in detail his wife’s illness and death, his feelings for her, and what their life together meant to him. What follows is but a short excerpt from that entry in The Diary of H. L. Mencken, edited by Charles A. Fecher:
Sarah is dead five years today—a longer time than the time of our marriage, which lasted four years and nine months. It is amazing what a deep mark she left upon my life—and yet, after all, it is not amazing at all, for a happy marriage throws out numerous and powerful tentacles. They may loosen with years and habit, but when a marriage ends at the height of its success they endure. It is a literal fact that I still think of Sarah every day of my life, and almost every hour of the day. . . . Marriage is largely talk, and I still recall clearly the long palavers we used to have. . . . We had plenty to talk of. I talked out my projects to her, and she talked out hers with me. I don’t think we ever bored each other. I know that, for my part, the last days of that gabbling were as stimulating as the first. . . . I have never known a more rational woman, nor another half so charming. . . Thinking of her, I can well understand the great human yearning that makes for a belief in immortality, but I do not believe in it, and neither did she. . . I’ll have her in mind until thought and memory adjourn, but that is all. Whether or not it is better so I do not know, but there is the fact as I see it. We were happy together, but all beautiful things must end.
Read the exclusive LOA interview with Marion Elizabeth Rodgers about H. L. Mencken.
Related LOA works: H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series


  1. Poor Mencken. As much as I admire his writings, I don't like him much as a person. Things like that diary entry, though (especially the last couple of lines) make me feel very sorry for him. Despite all his wit, he really was a terribly unhappy soul. (Not that he'd want to think he *had* a soul, but...)

  2. Agree with Undine. Always wonder why confirmed atheists feel the need to ponder about eternity at all. Isn't it just a complete waste of time for them? A glaring weakness? If only there were some Other, Greater Truth worthy of their commanding intellects. Alas.

  3. Because at least some atheists are open-minded enough to consider that they might be wrong, and re-examine the evidence available to them from time to time. That's the best way to be sure in one's knowledge; to re-check the basics every now and then and re-examine assumptions to see if they still make sense.

    I say some. I have known atheists who were as dogmatic as any Taliban.


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