There’s nothing quite like the viral nature of small town gossip, especially when it comes to sexual escapades. Such stories take on a virulent life of their own as they spread by word of mouth and house to house in a flash, much like real-life measles or COVID-19 infections. In July 1917, there was a scandalous story in New Windsor that sent many snoopers into hyperdrive.
Two attractive women and former residents of the city mingled with two nationally known and good-natured writers. One of them traveled from New York and probably linked up with his Baltimore friend at Union Station (later Penn Station). They then traveled to New Windsor via Reisterstown Road and Old New Windsor Road. They were none other than novelist Theodore Dreiser and Baltimore Sun newspaper columnist HL Mencken.
The women were Bertha Estelle Bloom Kubitz, known as Stella, and her younger sister, Marion L. Bloom. At the time, Stella, 31, and Marion, 26, were living together in New York. Stella was recovering from a failed marriage to a German immigrant she had met and married in Baltimore. He had given it up in 1913 but kept in touch with a succession of postcards of exotic places as he traveled the world.
The sisters had once lived with their parents and four siblings in a frame house along the tracks of Front Street, now lower Main Street. Their father, Adam Bloom, owned and operated a successful creamery, producing butter and ice cream in a factory wedged between his house and the train station. An unfortunate visit to a church revival meeting featuring a fiery, itinerant missionary caused Adam to doubt his salvation, fall into depression, and commit suicide in 1898.
Life soon became difficult for the Bloom family, and the rebellious young sisters left town as teenagers. Stella was the first. Her mother Mary locked her out of the house at 18 after Stella traveled to Baltimore against her mother’s wishes with a soldier twice her age. She returned later that night but was forced to stay with a neighbor. She then sought employment and adventure in Baltimore, where she eventually married. When Marion was 18 or 19, she too left home for a succession of jobs in Washington.
After Stella’s husband disappeared, Marion took her to the offices of the Baltimore Sun in February 1914, where they hoped to get help in locating him. There, they met Mencken, the iconic Baltimore Sun columnist. He fell in love with Marion and they started dating. In October, they were lovers. Their affair was on and off for the next 15 years with time for Marion’s World War I service as a nurse’s aide, an impulsive and disastrous marriage to someone else when Mencken did not propose. and two years in Paris awaiting a divorce.
Journalist, essayist and fierce social critic from 1906 to 1948, Mencken became the “Sage of Baltimore”. The former literary critic for The Smart Set magazine went on to co-found and edit the high-end periodical American Mercury.
In 1925, he notably reported on the so-called “monkey trial” of Scopes in Tennessee, in which the legality of the development of teaching in the schools was debated. He covered the event in a syndicated newspaper column, establishing his national reputation. Mencken is also the author of many influential books on philosophy, religion, culture, and the English language. All of this made him a household name in the 1920s and 1930s.
Mencken introduced Stella to his friend, Theodore Dreiser, in 1916. She became his secretary and editorial adviser, typing manuscripts in his New York office. Before long, they too were lovers, and their affair lasted three years.
Dreiser thundered onto the national literary scene with her bestselling 1910 novel, “Sister Carrie.” He capped it off with his biggest hit, “An American Tragedy,” in 1925. Broadway rushed to adapt this sad tale of ambition and seduction for a 1926 play, and Hollywood loved the story so much. poignantly that she produced three films based on the book. . The most famous was “A Place in the Sun”, a 1951 film starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters. He won six Oscars.
The exotic, bohemian Bloom sisters were known for their intelligence, witty repartee, and attractive appearance. Estelle was an avid reader and loved brooding Russian novelists. For this, her sister nicknamed her “Gloom”. Marion was an aspiring writer and contributed epigrams and “essayettes” to The Smart Set. Mencken saw the two as prime examples of “the new woman,” a genre he praised in his 1918 book, “In Defense of Women.”
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Dreiser saw the sisters as the embodiment of his characters in “Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt” – full of professional aspirations and eroticism. When the couples got together, it was the loose equivalent of a literary salon.
From 1916 to 1920 writers were often guests at the summer house of the New Windsor family residence, buying beer at the bar across the street which is still there. In July 1917, Mencken came to town to see Marion and team up with Dreiser. He and Estelle were already there, staying at a farmhouse on Springdale Road near Little Pipe Creek, just a few miles from the city limits. The house belonged to Goldie, Bloom’s older sister, and her husband, Harry Smith.
The couples also had missions in Washington, Baltimore, and New York. Unfortunately for the sisters, the foursome ended around 1917 with no proposals from either writer. Stella remarried in 1923 to Arthur Phelps Williams, a wealthy importer and purveyor of fine foods and wines. She learned to live extravagantly with expensive clothes and trips to Europe. Her marriage eventually fell apart under the weight of her husband’s infidelities, and she returned to her childhood home in New Windsor to live alone with her memories. Dreiser reportedly visited him there.
When the marriage to Mencken did not materialize, Marion became a nurse’s aide for the Army Health Corps in France. Upon his return, they resumed the relationship, but it ended in 1930 when he married writer and Goucher College professor Sara Haardt, whom he was concurrently dating. Estelle and Marion had a falling out because of Mencken who donned her for so many years and never spoke to each other again.
Marion had been traumatized by her World War I experiences caring for soldiers with physical and psychological damage and had sought employment as a physical therapist at Mt. Alto Hospital in Washington. She then worked for the American Red Cross and the State Department and died at age 83.
The old inhabitants of the city remembered Estelle, even if she kept her distance. She was often seen at the train station on her way to New York to visit friends. She wore long dresses with hats and gloves, ordered fancy candies, expensive preserves, wines and liquors from a New York store, and had the goods shipped to the railroad’s freight yard. Her younger brother, Preston, picked them up for her. After a battle with cancer, Estelle became a recluse, spotted occasionally on the flat roof above her porch. She died in 1954 at the age of 67 and is buried in the family plot of the city’s Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church cemetery.
Frank Batavick is a trustee of the Carroll County Historical Society and a member of New Windsor Heritage.