Which famous writer once said, “I yield to no man in my love for Baltimore”?
If you’re thinking Edgar Allan Poe, think again. Poe spent just a few years in Baltimore. And if you’re thinking F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrong— Fitzgerald certainly didn’t love Baltimore, a city in which both he and his wife came undone.
On the other hand, Ogden Nash— who was a household name in his day, known as “America’s Comic Poet Laureate”— lived almost his entire adult life here and expressed his love for the city often in print. Yes, it was he who said, “I yield to no man in my love for Baltimore.”
In September, there was a grand celebration to mark the 40th anniversary of Nash’s death. It took place not in Baltimore, but in Rye, N.Y., where Nash was born and raised. “It was a huge event… with readings, interviews, songs, performances— the whole nine yards,” says Nash’s granddaughter, Frances Nash Smith. “They’re even thinking about naming a nearby park the Ogden Nash Memorial Park.” Meanwhile, here in Baltimore no special event marked the 40th anniversary of Nash’s death. None of the three homes where he spent his 40 years in town bears a plaque. And there’s nary a street, statue or monument to Nash’s name. Come on, Baltimore. Where’s the love?
Perhaps the lack of affection is due to the fact that Nash wrote light, popular verse, a literary style that has fallen out of fashion since the 1950s and ’60s, when Nash was at the height of his popularity. His poem “Celery,” for example, reads in full: “Celery, raw / Develops the jaw / But celery, stewed / Is more quiet- ly chewed.” Poets today tend to tackle broader themes— race, war, human suffering— a far cry from Nash’s whimsies.
“Sure, his verse was light,” says Gregg Wilhelm, executive director of Baltimore’s CityLit Project. “But then again, other Baltimore writers pandered to popular taste. Poe wrote horror stories because it was what readers wanted and Fitzgerald went ‘Hollywood.’”
Or perhaps the lack of local popularity is tied to the fact that, unlike Poe and Fitzgerald, Nash’s work is rarely taught. That’s the opinion of Beth Alvarez, curator of literary manuscripts at the University of Maryland, College Park. “The work of Ogden Nash was never in any course I took in undergrad or graduate school,” says Alvarez. “Nor was his work in the high school American lit text. I doubt that he was ever considered to be a canonical writer.”
Jonathan Shorr, however, has a different opinion. Shorr, director of the Baltimore Literary Heritage Project, remembers that “the American poetry anthologies used in English classes contain a little Nash poem or two. But light verse is out of fashion now,” he says. “It was very tasty at the time, of course, but it’s not really long lasting, not part of today’s literary style.”
Beyond that, says Shorr, Baltimore does not seem to be especially interested in its literary history. “Dozens of wonderful writers lived here for most of their lives— Edith Hamilton, Upton Sinclair, Dashiell Hammett— and we don’t recognize them at all. The city’s always in the middle of some kind of crisis, and commemorating authors is very low on the agenda. Those who are memorialized, it’s usually because they’ve got a wealthy champion, or a nonprofit dedicated to preserving their memory.”
While Ian Brennan of the mayor’s office admits that the lack of memorial for Nash is surprising “given the plethora of statues and plaques to historic figures in Baltimore,” he says it’s not due to an “aversion” to his work. “These kinds of memorials usually come from family members or literary societies, not from the mayor,” says Brennan.
Nash’s granddaughter, Frances Nash Smith, says no one but family members have expressed interest in a memorial, so they haven’t pursued it. And, she admits to being slightly annoyed by Baltimore’s failure to acknowledge Nash as a native son. “It always irks me when they list writers from Baltimore, and you always hear the names Poe, Fitzgerald and [H.L.] Mencken, but never Ogden Nash,” says Smith, who lives in Baltimore. She thinks that may be due to a generational gap in Nash’s readership. “Americans over the age of 50 had Nash in their school textbooks and those under 35 are reading him, which I know from the number of permission requests that have been coming in. But there’s a generation that missed him, and most of them are now between ages 35 and 50.”
If not for a girl, Nash never would have come to Baltimore in the first place. After studying at Harvard University, he moved to New York City, where he worked as an advertising copywriter, laboring alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald to think up ads to be posted on streetcars. “I could have loved New York had I not loved Balti-more,” Nash once wrote. More to the point, he could have stayed in New York if he hadn’t encountered the charming and elusive Frances Rider Leonard at the Elkridge Hunt Ball in Maryland.
Leonard was a Baltimore blue blood who came by it honest. The granddaughter of Elihu Jackson, governor of Maryland from 1888 to 1892, she attended Calvert School and Roland Park Country School. Though Nash was immediately smitten with her, she managed to hold out on him until 1931, by which time he’d become a national celebrity. His poetry was appearing regularly in newspapers and magazines and his first collection, “Hard Lines,” was an instant hit, going through seven printings in the first year alone.
After marrying in June 1931 at the chapel of the Church of the Redeemer on North Charles Street, the Nashes split their time between Baltimore and New York, but by 1934, they’d decided to move permanently to Baltimore to be closer to Frances’ parents. But the move to Baltimore promised another benefit: it put Nash in close proximity to three racetracks. Gambling was a passion of his, and his visits to Pimlico inspired a poem celebrating the track’s most famous race (“The Derby is a race of aristocratic sleekness / for horses of birth to prove their worth to run in the Preakness.”) The poet made a habit of gambling on the race every year (“the Preakness is my weakness,” he admitted) before heading north with his family for the summer. And although, as Shorr explains, “he wasn’t particularly flamboyant, and he didn’t have a literary persona,” many locals nonetheless recognized Nash at the races. As a guest of Pimlico Race Course, he could be seen in a box seat (and, after the race, at lunch in the Old Clubhouse) in his rimless glasses and plaid sports coat. Whenever he spoke of his love for animals (which was often), he always added, “I especially like a nice horse at about twelve to one.”
The first address Nash moved to in Baltimore was 4205 Underwood Road, in leafy Roland Park. Here, the couple’s two daughters were born: Linell in 1932, and Isabel, in 1933. Ogden’s experiences as the father of two young daughters (“Being a father /Is quite a bother, / But I like it, rather”) provided a wealth of subject matter, evident in his 1936 collection “The Bad Parents’ Garden of Verse” and his 1938 children’s book “The Adventures of Isabel.” Within a decade, Nash was starting to be considered something of a national treasure. He appeared regularly on television and radio shows, and national newspapers followed his career and personal life. For a poet and wordsmith, he was a remarkably popular and well-loved figure.
Nash’s love for Baltimore— and Baltimore sports, in particular— was no secret. On Dec. 13, 1968, the front page of Life magazine was emblazoned with the words “My Colts: Verses and Reverses, by Ogden Nash.” Inside was a series of poems by Nash about the members of his favorite team, accompanied by full-page photographs of the players. “Colt Fever,” as one of the poems defines it, is “the disease fate holds in store / For the population of Baltimore / A disease more virulent than rabies / Felling men and women and even babies.” Life magazine described Nash as “the league-leading writer of light verse, who lives in Baltimore and loves the Colts.”
The versifier was an Orioles fan, too. When the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore for the ’54 season, he wrote a famous poem called “You Can’t Kill an Oriole.”
By all accounts, Nash led a happy and successful life. So, maybe part of the reason Baltimore neglects him is that, as a wealthy, satisfied, well-loved family man, Nash simply does not fit the romantic idea of a tragic, tormented artist. “He wasn’t the kind of man whose life sells biographies,” says Frances Nash Smith. “He was a normal, kind human being. There was nothing juicy in his life, no nasty stories.”
Or maybe it was because Nash was essentially a miniaturist, leaving behind no major canonized work— no “The Raven,” no “The Great Gatsby.” Still, says Shorr, “I love Ogden Nash. Whenever I’m depressed, I just open up his ‘Collected Works’— it always cheers me up.”
But perhaps Nash’s time is coming. His short, witty, ungrammatical verse is ideally suited to the digital age— and perfect for a 140-character post on Twitter. Maybe one day there will be a statue of him outside Pimlico Race Course or M&T Bank Stadium or Camden Yards, a concrete sign that Baltimore returns his love at long last.
– “Here’s a good rule of thumb / Too clever is dumb.”
– “A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of.”
– “Candy is dandy / But liquor is quicker”
– “How easy for those who do not bulge / To not overindulge!”
– “The cow is of the bovine ilk: One end is moo, the other, milk.”
– “I don’t mind Eels / Except as meals.”
– “Children aren’t happy with nothing to ignore / And that’s what parents were created for.”
– “People who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up.”
– “Professional men, they have no cares / Whatever happens, they get theirs.”
– “To keep your marriage brimming, / With love in the loving cup, / Whenever you’re wrong, admit it; / Whenever you’re right, shut up.”