When Henry Louis Mencken died in January 1956, both NBC and CBS memorialized the Baltimore newspaperman who had become one of the nation’s most outspoken magazine editors. Their presentations demonstrate two very different radio approaches to storytelling.
CBS Radio Workshop’s dramatized biography, broadcast in June, was titled “Bring on the Angels.” The cast of at least 10 actors included Jackson Beck — well-known announcer for “The Adventures of Superman,” Luis Van Rooten, and Mason Adams, who was back in a newsroom as editor Charlie Hume on the Lou Grant TV series 20 years later. The program was described as an affectionate revival of Mencken’s earlier writing, and — based on his own notes and published work — captured his love of newspapering, from his first job as a young man in 1899, “with a typewriter, a spitoon of my own, and a beat.”
As city editor in 1904 at the age of 24, he supervised what he called his greatest story — intense coverage of the Great Baltimore Fire — ultimately publishing the paper in Philadelphia after the newspaper building itself was burned out. The radio production is complete with sounds of crashing masonry and crackling flames… and the crumpling papers as the actor playing Mencken rummages through the remains of the office. The fire had destroyed almost everything, he said, “even my collection of pieces of hangman’s ropes.”
The caustic Mencken of later years is not part of the CBS story, but became the focus of the NBC broadcast a month later.
NBC’s Biography in Sound broadcast its profile in a more journalistic or documentary style, as “The Bitter Byline.” It featured soundbites of Mencken himself, living up to the title of the episode, along with reminiscences and analysis from a variety of experts.
Among others, novelist James T. Farrell, journalist Alistair Cooke and Mencken biographer William Manchester discuss Mencken’s life and works, his respect for truth, his early championing of young writers, his use of language, his hand-washing habits, and his feelings about Germany and Hitler.
(For more resources, see The Mencken Society and the Internet Archive’s collection or writings by and about Mencken, including his books and volumes of The Smart Set magazine.)