The Mercury

WHILE at The New York Times in the mid-20s, Eleanor Fox, my mother, heard about an opening at the American Mercury, which had become the hottest, most sophisticated magazine of the Roaring Twenties.

She got a job as secretary, and there was a lot of typing, but today she would be called “production manager.” She had a big desk at the Fifth Avenue office with a typewriter with four modern rotary desk phones. She handled all the traffic—manuscripts coming into the office and going out to the printer. It was typical in the 1920s for printers to set the type for magazines and books. The Mercury worked with the Haddon Press in Camden, New Jersey, which prided itself on its book work.

Eleanor retyped the edited copy, got the copy reader to check it, marked it up for the printer, put it in the mail, and kept a log of the copy flow. “If we made the 5:00 mail, the third of the day, my packages would get to Camden by 9:00 the next morning,” she said. Haddon would set the type, and send galley proofs by the end of the day:  Forty-hour turnaround.

Eleanor would count lines of type in each story and calculate the number of pages needed. The editors would decide the page count in the issue and then cut the text to fit. Haddon would do corrections,compose stories in pages, and pull proofs. The editors would make final cuts—and a minimum of corrections, in consideration of the deadline, and the cost.

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She talked about the magazine 30 years later, but I don’t remember ever seeing a copy. She said that the magazine was so trendy that college students would carry around a copy so they could be seen with the trademark green cover. Recently I bought a few copies on eBay. And it is magnificent. Well worth reading nearly 100 years later, and still completely entertaining.

It was a big magazine, with as many as 500 editorial pages, 7 x 10 inches, printed on uncoated book stock. There were at least 50 pages of ads. Except for the ads there was no art at all, not even little cuts used as fillers to fit the stories. There were no cartoons, unlike the rival New Yorker. Section headings were set off with elegant bands of Italianate type ornaments. The covers, nearly identical every month for the first decade, had black type and solid dark green backgrounds, with an Arts & Crafts style ornamental frame that was printed in black, blue or dark red which provided little contrast. The only art was an awkward hexagonal “AM” monogram, and the only text was the name of the magazine (which might have been drawn by W.A. Dwiggins), plus a subhead, the names of the editor and the publisher, and the price. Fifty cents (maybe $7.50 today). The cover did even have headlines of the stories inside, although newsstand copies sometimes sported a belly band with story titles and authors’ names.

Inside, all type, except for the ads, and almost solid type in two columns, with no subheads or chapter titles or pull quotes. The stories were fit into pages, usually filling every line. No widows. Few hyphens.

Because of this density, when you pick up a copy today, you look at the ads first, which run in front and back on coated paper. When you see all the book ads, dozens of full pages, you realize that movies were still silent, and radio was in its infancy. Books and magazines were the national media. And everyone was a reader. To emphasize this, there was a “Checklist of New Books, with capsule reviews which ran in the front on left pages opposite the first 20 or so full pages ads.

The Mercury was published by Alfred Knopf, rising house of the 1920s, which published writers like Willa Cather, Carl Van Vechten, D.H. Lawrence, and Thomas Mann. Many appeared in the new magazine, including Conrad Aiken, Sherwood Anderson, Clarence Darrow, W. E. B. Du Bois, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Sinclair Lewis, George Schuyler, Edgar Lee Masters, Eugene O’Neill, Carl Sandburg, and William Saroyan. The Mercury was a truly literary magazine in the style of Scribner’s before the World War. After the ads, the magazine started with an essay or short story, profiles, sketches, and then an editorial by Mencken.  His lead sentence from the January 1928 issue: “The sad thing about lawyers is not that so many of them are stupid, but that so many of them are intelligent.”

Mencken held forth in “The Library,” a section of book reviews, which either extolled or slammed their subjects. He never bothered to review any books of medium quality. George Jean Nathan, the mighty theater critic of the New York World, did theater reviews, but had his own section called “Clinical Notes.”

The most popular department was “Americana,” a snarky anthology of excerpts from publications, listed by state.


From Manhattan: Two jimmies, two sledgehammers and a blackjack were found by police in an automobile occupied by John J. Kerrigan. Arrested and charged with possessing burglar tools, he was released when he produced credentials as a Prohibition agent and explained that the equipment was used in raids hereabouts. [August 1927]

The design is so simple that I never wondered who was the designer, assuming it was done by the printer, as many publications were. Checking that assumption, I learned that the elegant typography was the work of Elmer Adler,1 who later published a legendary type quarterly, The Colophon, and who started the graphic design program at Princeton. Adler worked from a suite of splendid offices, The Pynson Press, in the same giant 43rd Street Annex of The New York Times,2 where Eleanor had worked before going to the Mercury. Adler had become good friends with Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who became publisher of the paper in 1935 after the death of his father-in-law, Adolph Ochs. Adler in turn advised the newspaper on its type.

To today’s eyes, the text looks big, with too little space between the lines. But the typesetting is very good, with even word spacing and a reasonable number of hyphens. The numerals all old style, and there is almost no use of Italic. It ought to be good. (Mencken, who was a newspaper veteran, generally followed AP style which included no Italics, since text was sent by wire.)

It was all set in Garamont, the Garamond revival designed by Frederic Goudy for Lanston Monotype Company of Philadelphia, released in 1922. Knopf was known for its typography, and often described the fonts in colophons. (Adler is given the credit for making the colophons a standard feature of Knopf books.3

The opening of the feature section of the Mercury, December 1927, with an astonishing piece by George Schuyler, a frequent contributor whose sharp wit earned him the nickname, "the Black Mencken."
A detail from the next story (the last right-hand page above) shows the Goudy's Garamont. There was good ink spread with the printing, and not a little wobble in the alignment of the characters, which may be an artifact of the stereotype plates.

The editing was done on the typed manuscripts, and it was always a struggle to hold down the number corrections and cuts were made on the galleys, which caused additional charges for “author’s alterations.” Mencken, who was the editor of the Baltimore Evening Sun when he was 19 years old, ran a tight ship. He was not, however, able to order around George Jean Nathan. Co-editors together at Smart Set, a stylish rival of the original Vanity Fair, the two started as co-editors, but Mencken quickly took over. Nathan, whose girlfriend in those days was Lillian Gish, had a mind of his own, and a famous temper. (The George Sanders character in All About Eve, who takes on the young Marilyn Monroe, is based on Nathan.4

One afternoon, after a long boozy lunch, Nathan returned to the office to find a big stack of advertising stereotypes on his desk. Eleanor, who had the next desk, had been getting ready to crate them up to send to Haddon, part of her job, and had run out of space. “Mr. Nathan did not always come back from lunch,” she explained. Nathan, enraged, swept the molds off the desk, on to the floor, banging them up enough to make them unusable.

Eleanor got a second desk.

Mencken had the only private office. More restrained and even more brilliant than Nathan, he came to New York three days a week from the house he grew up in, on Baltimore’s Union Square. He spent the days in his Mercury office meeting with writers, editing relentlessly, and rewriting everything. Mencken was the precursor of Hunter Thompson and Warren Hinckle style of journalism. The Mercury became the best selling magazine at the Columbia and Harvard bookstores.5 The magazine often read as though he wrote it all, witty, sardonic, written in a pungent American English, and he was the expert.6

He arrived from Baltimore always carrying a heavy valise, Eleanor noted. She assumed that it was filled with books and manuscripts. But one day he called her into the office, and she saw the briefcase, open, sitting on a chair. As she walked by, she glanced inside. It was filled with bottles of beer. Bootleg beer from Baltimore.

Perhaps the reason Eleanor did not talk much about Mencken is that he peaked in the 20s, a voice of the boom. Despite an eclectic (today we would say “diverse”) roster of writers, and a wide range of political theories in the magazine, he seemed unable to adapt to the drastic changes in society after the crash, and circulation dropped. In 1933 he left the magazine, succeeded by his assistant, Charles Angoff, Eleanor and Joe’s Friend, and Mencken’s assistant for several years.

Mencken’s influence declined. He hated Roosevelt. A part of the German-American culture of Baltimore, and a victim of anti-German sentiment during World War I (which he had vehemently opposed), he could not believe that the Germans were falling under the influence Hitler, and as Europe moved again toward war, he pushed against America’s entry. In the 30s and 40s he continued writing a column in the Baltimore Sun, and published a number of books, including collections of his delightful memoirs much of which had appeared in the New Yorker. He issued A New Dictionary of Quotations, and two supplements to The American Language.

But his role as a king pin of American culture was over. Like Hunter Thompson, his caustic cynicism and his contempt for idiocy in his fellows, came to surface, perhaps soaked in the beer in had once celebrated. In 1948 he had a stroke, and never wrote again.

Three decades after his death (in 1956) a diary was published, and since then his memory has been linked to a number of his sour comments that are racist or anti-Semetic. William Manchester, a biographer of Mencken who had worked for him at the Baltimore Sun, wrote a letter to the Times pointing out how many of the writers in the Mercury were Jews, and the fact that both Knopf and Nathan were Jewish. Like so much history, context is important.7 But Charlie Angoff, also Jewish, and the writer of another biography of his first boss, has stated, “He was a violent anti-Semite.”8

Mencken was a gentleman from a long line of Leipziger Geschäftsleute, and would never say anything intentionally to harm anyone. Like his father, August, a cigarmaker, he was a social conservative who would not do anything that counterproductive to his own success. Nearly a century later, actions speak louder than words. Mencken’s associate were Jews, and he published the work of great writers, whatever their religion, from Louis Untermeyer to Emma Goldman.

His view of African Americans may have been paternalistic, but looking through the dozen magazines I have, there was a story about race in every issue. Articles delved into the economy, health, and relations between black and whites.

George H. Schuyler, an important black writer, wrote a hilarious piece in the 48th issue, December 1927, titled “Our White Folks.”

The Aframerican, being more tolerant than the Caucasian, is ready to admit that all white people are not the same, and it is not unusual to read or hear a warning from a Negro orator or editor against condemning all crackers as prejudiced asses, although agreeing that such a description fits the majority of them. The Ethiop is given to pointing out individual pinks who are exceptionally honorable, tolerant and unprejudiced. In this respect, I venture to say, he rises several notches higher than the generality of ofays, to whom, even in this day and time, all coons look alike.

We hear today about systemic racism in American culture, and of course it was much worse 90 years ago. But if the media had continued to offer the kind of content that was a regular part of the American Mercury, there might be real understanding between white and black people today. Mencken, like almost all whites in the 1920s said (and wrote in his diary) things that are completely unacceptable today. But as an editor he assigned diverse points of view from writers of every religion and race, and presented them with great craft, humor, and power. For me, these editorial actions speak louder than the words in his private diary.

  1. IMDB: A movie character based on George Jean Nathan.
  2. William Manchester’s review of the Mencken diary in the Times.
  3. Mencken’s , The American Language, first published by Knopf in 1919 (with a W.A. Dwiggins cover). Now available in digital form from Project Gutenberg.
  4. The chapter about the Mercury is scanned in the Google Books version of this important history: Frank L. Mott, History of the American Magazine, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA: 1958
  5. A “Talk piece” about Elmer Adler in The New Yorker, September 19, 1959, “Talk of the Town” page 31. Available online by subscriptions.
  6. Photographs of Elmer Adler’s studio in the New York Times Annex building on West 43rd Street, in the Princeton archive.
  7. Typographer Paul Shaw discusses colophons in Alfred Knopf books.
  8. Charles Angoff on Mencken’s anti-Semitism