The Place of Places 57 - Hollins Street, Baltimore, 1940
Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter by chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we travel to Hollins Street, Baltimore, 1940.
We are back in time to the good days, when Saroyan was making money and was knee-deep producing plays. Like in Boston, he was having theatre tryouts in Baltimore. This time it was for the play Love’s Old Sweet Song. He was struggling with its tone, not knowing whether to present it as a tragedy or a farce. Saroyan was always changing his plays up until they were staged, finding that the performances often gave different depth than the words on paper alone. He was much more attuned to finding flaws when it came to his plays than his fiction, which remained largely unedited by him.
Love's Old Sweet Song, like The Time of Your Life, was produced and directed by Eddie Dowling and Saroyan through the Theater Guild. It was first performed in Princeton, New Jersey, at the McCarter Theatre, Saturday evening, April 6, 1940. This was followed by two weeks at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia, beginning Monday, April 8. The play next went to Ford's Theatre in Baltimore for one week. It opened in New York at The Plymouth Theatre on West 45th Street, Thursday evening, May 2, and closed Saturday evening, June 8th, after a run of 44 New York performances.
In addition to tweaking the script, he was also struggling with his actors, as was common for him because he often pulled interesting people off the city streets and gave them roles, to the chagrin of the trained actors. In this case, he was dealing with eleven child actors and a difficult Greek who wouldn’t pick up his cues. Saroyan found the Greek in front of the Guild offices on 52nd street in New York and enjoyed his accent and theatrical manner. He tells us that once he had words with the Greek, cues improved, and the Greek gave perfect performances, impressing even Walter Huston. In Saroyan’s dedication section in the published script of Love’s Old Sweet Song, he writes, “John Economides, the famous Greek actor, as Pericles Americanos, not only translated my lines into Greek, but brought to his part the comic solemnity and gentle anger which the role called for.”
Economides was in fact the author of half a dozen Greek satires and he staged a play in Athens that ran for 6 months. He was also an actor in Athens and then in the Greek theater community of New York. So even if Saroyan tells us he had just found an interesting character lingering around the Theater Guild, like many a show biz story, it wasn’t quite as miraculous as it seemed. Economides was probably at the right place at the right time because he saw potential there. The dedication in the notes for Love’s Old Sweet Song was probably a bit tongue in cheek, with Saroyan calling him “the famous Greek actor” when he wasn’t exactly a star. This would have been a typically wry statement by Saroyan, but not one with ill intent. Economides was someone who stood out in Saroyan’s memory as he wrote this chapter.
With the play headed in the right direction after some changes in Philadelphia and Baltimore, Saroyan was feeling good. His pal and number one promoter George Jean Nathan suggested Saroyan meet up with Nathan’s old friend H.L. Mencken. Nathan was about 25 years older than Saroyan. This is where the chapter splits in two. Though Love’s Old Sweet Song got decent reviews at tryouts, Saroyan made huge changes just before it hit Broadway, and the changes were disastrous. The play was important to Saroyan because it was his first real flop, despite his positive feelings about it. “The play got bad reviews in New York, and had a very short run. But it is a good play and it will come back.”
The papers in Philadelphia were calling him “The Salvador Dali of the drama” (Philadelphia Inquirer, April 14, 1940) and found that his surrealism was pretty hit or miss. In the preface to the published script of Love’s Old Sweet Song, he writes, “The play is simultaneously naive and sophisticated.” This is Saroyan in a nutshell and was the cause of some confusion in critics frequently. And another line from the preface which again describes Saroyan’s whole life perhaps was: “The variations of love are great, but they are not really variations. Love is the one thing that is constant, even when the variation of it appears to be hate. In reality there is no such thing as hate. Hate is love kicked in the pants. It is love with a half-nelson on itself.”
But the chapter suddenly splits in two when he meets Mencken, his childhood idol. “He looked precisely as he does in his photographs. There was a wry humor in everything he said, very softly spoken, and in his presence itself. The world was a funny place, the human race was a funny race. It was a simple as that” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). H.L. Mencken was known as “The Sage of Baltimore.” He was born in the city and when he was three, his family moved to Hollins Street, where he would live for most of his life. The house would later become a museum, much like Saroyan’s Fresno house. He was a journalist, writing for The Morning Herald and The Baltimore Sun. In 1924, he founded and edited The American Mercury with George Jean Nathan. Mencken was a controversial figure with his politics rarely aligning with anything popular in his day. Like Saroyan, he was concerned with his legacy and tried to save everything. The American Mercury focused on social critique and published many of the popular authors of the time, eventually focusing on non-fiction satire.
For decades, Mencken would host or attend The Saturday Night Club, an informal group of doctors, lawyers, teachers, musicians, artists, writers, and businessmen interested in socializing, eating, and drinking. Many of these were employed by Johns Hopkins, which Saroyan references. At the time Saroyan visited him in 1940, the Club was likely meeting at Shellhase’s Restaurant, a German eatery. Mencken himself was German-American and throughout most of his life supported German causes, even during the wars. The Saturday Night Club disbanded in 1950.
In Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever, Saroyan writes,
"H. L. Mencken was a Baltimore man, writing for the Sun, who had moved out into the world of magazine publishing with the Smart Set, a magazine just enough before my time not to be a part of my reading experience. But when with George Jean Nathan he founded The American Mercury, I studied the first issue in 1924 from cover to cover at the Public Library. Writing on an Underwood upright typewriter at 3204 El Monte Way, I began to send him essays, which came back in terrible silence in the self-addressed stamped envelope, each manuscript with a clipped-on printed Rejection Slip. Not a word from H. L. Mencken himself, not a word from George Jean Nathan, not a word from even a clerk at The American Mercury.
And there I was sixteen full years of age getting nowhere. But how could I get anywhere? The stuff I sent out was bad. One of the essays had the title Your High School Ignoramus Speaks, which may suggest how sad the writing was, but perhaps also the unfortunate effect of Mr. Mencken’s style on one raw, inexperienced new writer in a small and barren place in America.
I kept trying to break into The American Mercury all through 1924 and 1925, and then I got mad and wrote an attack on Mencken, Nathan, Haldeman-Julius, and God— but neither The Bookman, Scribner's, The North American Review, Century, nor any of the other quality magazines wanted the thing. Need I add, the dirty rats? I just couldn't break into the writing game, as I had heard it put in various advertisements of correspondence schools.
I never took anybody's course, and I never stopped reading H. L. Mencken. He was just too funny, too good a writer, to lose simply because he had no time to notice that if my writing was bad, there was surely at least a hint of real genius between the lines. He certainly discovered a couple of interesting writers while they were still young, why not me? And then I decided, Ah the hell with it, I'll only enjoy reading The American Mercury every month, I won't even try to write for it. That was a very intelligent decision.
And then all of a sudden things began to happen. I was in, I was no longer out, and I had even had a couple of stories in The American Mercury itself, even though it was no longer edited by H. L. Mencken. But at least the format was the same, the green cover, and the paper, and the print.
We finally met at his home on Hollins Street in Baltimore. He looked precisely like a German butcher’s boy, although his father was actually a German cigar-maker. We had a nice lunch, served by his housekeeper and cook, and then he lighted up a cigar while I continued to smoke Chesterfields – pure nicotine and tar, but in those days also pure pleasure.”
The chapter about Mencken continues and it’s worth reading to understand what it was like for Saroyan to meet his idol.
Saroyan had also written to Mencken for advice in 1936 about getting into magazine editing and Mencken replies that instead he should shoot himself rather than become an editor. Mencken was something of an iconoclast.
In 1940, Mencken refuses Saroyan’s invitation to see his play, explaining that he never attended the theater, and so Saroyan meets him instead in the back room of a saloon where once a week Mencken and his buddies, most of whom were from Johns Hopkins, drank beer and chatted for a few hours. In Here Comes, There Goes You Know Who, he writes, “When I visited H.L. Mencken at his home in Baltimore and invited him to come and see a performance of Love’s Old Sweet Song, Mencken puffed at his cigar and said, ‘I never go to the theatre. Can’t stand the boobs.’ ‘The audience?’ ‘Oh, no,’ Mencken said, ‘they’re charming. I mean on the stage.”
The two kept in touch and Mencken even enlisted Saroyan’s help in understanding the Armenian-American language experience, as Mencken had written The American Language about English spoken in the United States. Saroyan’s reply is also fascinating and is worth reading in the presentation version of this article.
At this time in his life, in 1940, even when Saroyan was failing, he was succeeding. The play didn’t get rave reviews, but he got to meet Mencken. And this chapter is actually named for the address of Mencken’s house, not the Ford Theater where the play was showing. In many ways, Saroyan’s career had come full circle and meeting the person he admired as a child was the pinnacle. His career successes had become so common by 1940 that they barely rated anymore. The dopamine came from the perks of being famous and the access it grants. Here we have another chapter about the unexpected turns life takes and the importance of taking chances.