Return Engagements: Book Three (Part Fourteen)

The purpose of my trip to the East Coast was to mail my first batch of letters. Washington DC, I had decided, would be the best place from which to send them; it would keep anyone searching for me far away from where I really was, and might convince them I was some kind of government insider, again misdirecting them.

And so I took a train to DC and a room at the Hay-Adams hotel. I was back in my role as a prosperous businessman, a role I was playing part-time anyway.

Mailing this first batch of letters was simple and risk-free; what followed would be serious. Tracking in 1947 was certainly more labor-intensive than it is today, but the US government had people who specialized in it, and I had to think that once my story hit they’d come after me. Knowing that the crash was real, and knowing that they were covering it up, it was clear that they wouldn’t want my news to spread. Why that was so, I couldn’t really know, but that it was so, was certain.

And so I walked the streets of Washington near the hotel and dumped my letters into a box somewhere on H Street. Now I had a week or so to see what kinds of responses I’d get, if any.

* * * * *

I had planned on going back to New York for a few days – more for entertainment than anything else – then taking the train back to Chicago. But as I got to the station in DC, I saw that there were hourly trains to Baltimore, where H.L. Mencken lived. I had planned on sending him a letter at the Baltimore Sun, but he appeared not to be writing for them at this time, and so finding him in person would fill that gap. I knew he was still in Baltimore, but I didn’t know where.

Once I arrived in Baltimore (still fairly early), I reviewed a local map and recognized the name Union Square. That, as I seemed to remember, was where Mencken lived. And so a taxi driver took me right to the house, but advised me that Mencken didn’t get out much and was “a hard customer.”

And so I picked up a handful of strawberries from a small grocery and sat in the park across from his house. After a while I saw him through a window and decided to go for it. More than that, I decided to treat him like a “hard customer.” I’ve dealt with plenty of hard men, and I’d deal the same way with him.

I knocked at the door and waited. I heard him grumbling as I simultaneously noticed him looking through the peephole. A moment later he opened that door and asked, brusquely, what I wanted.

Roosevelt was a son of a bitch,” I said, “and if you want to start tearing down the unAmerican structures he left behind, I can get that going for you.” I paused long enough for him to process whatever he was thinking and went on.

This is no malarkey and I’m not trying to sell you anything. If you really care about reversing the mess Roosevelt left behind, give me an address and I’ll send you information… verifiable information… as in physical evidence.” I paused again. “So, are you interested, or have I wasted my time?”

I was pleased with my “hard customer” talk. Mencken stepped away from the door momentarily, then reached back and handed me a business card. (The dimensions were a bit different than ours, so it may have been some version of the old “calling card.”)

I thanked him and turned slowly to leave. “You’ll receive something from me in a week or so, depending upon the mail service.”

He nodded and I was back to the train station and on a train bound for New York within an hour. I decided to go directly home and made the six o’clock 20th Century Limited back to Chicago with time to spare. It was another lovely ride.

* * * * *

Back in Chicago I went back to my new usual: My anti-homesick routine upon waking, a walk through Streeterville (that was the name of my neighborhood), then out to the garage on Sangamon, where I had outfitted an office. The probe remained in the back of the locked truck, and I removed the truck’s distributor cap so it couldn’t be stolen without a run to a parts store.

And then I waited for responses. Every day I’d do my morning stuff, then drive from Sangamon to the newsstand at around noon. I loved driving through Chicago without very much traffic, but wondering who would respond was a bit of a drag. If none of them did, I’d have to move along to a Plan B, which would be a lot less certain.

And so it went for quite a few days. I sent my letter to Mencken not long after getting back. I would have sent it sooner, but I had to write it carefully, and devise an anonymous way for him to contact me. His old paper didn’t seem viable, and so I verified that I could get the Baltimore paper at my newsstand, then told him to post a small, coded classified ad in it; that we’d move on from there.

I don’t think my letters got to Isabel Patterson or Rose Wilder Lane. I never heard back from Ben Hecht either, but I soon enough realized why: he was fully immersed in the plight of Jewish immigrants, including the case of the SS Exodus I mentioned earlier.

The first person I heard back from was Frederick Woltman, a name I picked up in 1947. He was a famous anti-communist at the time, an excellent researcher and reporter. As I had requested, the word excelsior appeared, twice, in an article of his at the New York World-Telegram. That meant that my Plan A would probably work, and it left me oddly relieved.

Plan A’s viability was confirmed a day later, when Dorothy Kilgallen used enriching, twice, in her Voice of Broadway column.

Two days after that, as I was putting together my second level of responses, I found Mencken’s reply in the Baltimore Sun classifieds.

Thrilled with my responses and concerned with my next steps, I took time out for Yom Kippur, and attended services at a neighborhood synagogue in Albany Park. (Then, as now, High Holiday tickets were hard to come by.) What I needed just then was a moment of separation from the whirl of this world’s action, mixed with as much of the sacred as possible. Or, put another way, I needed to balance and organize myself, and to do that, I needed to fixate for a while on ultimate concepts and goals.

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Paul Rosenberg