Monday, April 18, 2016

When Sinclair Lewis got a new hat

Sinclair Lewis in the 1920s.

This is an edited version of a post first published in April 2009.

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The junction of Linwood and Troost is long past its days of prestige. Boarded-up storefronts and vacant lots seem to dominate the neighborhood now, and the 1920s relevance of, say, the six-story Elsmere Hotel – Highest Point in the City ... Always a Cool Breeze – is not even a memory for most Kansas Citians. Gone. Likewise its next-door neighbor, a church at the corner of Forest.

The Linwood Boulevard Christian Church was a lively spot in its time. Movies were shown here. Boxers traded punches. Jazz combos played. Young people danced. Old men debated tough issues. Plump women cavorted in their underwear.

And before a packed house one Sunday evening, April 18, 1926, Sinclair Lewis dared God to strike him dead.

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In 1926 Sinclair Lewis was the author of three best-selling novels – Main Street, which satirized small-town America, Babbitt, which satirized businessmen, and Arrowsmith, which satirized the medical profession. He was ready next to take on organized religion, and having met a minister from Kansas City who offered to help him research his novel, Lewis traveled here that spring and set himself up in rooms at the Ambassador Hotel, 36th and Broadway.

For a time the actress Ethel Barrymore, performing downtown in a vaudeville show, was Lewis' neighbor at the Ambassador. She later remembered passing his open door:
It was always crowded with ministers of every denomination whom he was bullying, in the hope, I suppose, of extracting something for his book. He would stride around the room, pointing a finger at one of them after another and saying, "You know you don't believe in God."
One of those ministers was Burris A. Jenkins, pastor of the Linwood Boulevard Christian Church.
Jenkins was a native Kansas Citian, Harvard Divinity grad, former college president, novelist, former newspaper publisher, war correspondent, and syndicated columnist. One of his four standing-room-only Sunday sermons was broadcast to several states on WHB radio. He was a free-thinking clergyman who, when civic leaders were choosing a name for a war memorial opposite Union Station, suggested "liberty."

He believed that parts of the Old Testament were unfit to teach children. And that churches catered to the middle-aged and elderly at the expense of young people. That anyone who considered dancing sacrilegious was behind the times. That sex education was helpful, not harmful. And that a church should be open to everyone, regardless of denomination.

Depending on one's perspective, Rev. Jenkins was either modernist or blasphemous.

"My church is nothing if not an experiment station," he once said. "Everyone knows we are willing to try anything once, and maybe twice."

Linwood Boulevard Christian.

Linwood Christian offered "esthetic" dance classes for women (popular among those trying to lose weight), boxing classes for boys, free psychiatric counseling for all, and Sunday night events that included dinners, picture shows, music and dances, and an Open Forum for debates or lectures on any subject.

In April 1926 a hot topic around town was young people and the trouble they could get into during Prohibition. And so the Open Forum on that Sunday would discuss "Flaming Youth” The speaker would be Sinclair Lewis.

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The church auditorium, which could seat 1,500, overflowed that night and turned away several hundred more. Lewis – tall, thin, red-haired and freckled – stood before them and announced what to do about today's youth.

"Give them food, clothes, and tell them the truth," he said.

Eventually he got around to the subject of religious fundamentalism.

"Is there no joy, no greatness, in living?" he asked. "Is it fear of hell that makes us good? If this theory is part of your Christian religion, then damn your Christian religion."

Then he conducted his experiment, his test of God's fundamentalism. He took out his watch and set it on the rostrum, asking to be struck dead within the next 10 minutes.

"Here's a lovely chance for God to show what he can do," he said.

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Having survived the experiment and returned to his apartment at the Hotel Ambassador, Lewis was roundly criticized in newspapers and churches for his show at the Linwood Open Forum. Burris Jenkins was not among the critics.

"Those who were present," Jenkins wrote in his newspaper column, "heard Mr. Lewis express his belief in God and so great a reverence for Jesus that it hurt him to see religious people fighting over the gentle Master of Nazareth. There are two sides to every question and to every man."

But a year later, after Elmer Gantry was published, not even Rev. Jenkins could find much to say in favor of Lewis's novel about a hard-drinking, womanizing,  murderous preacher.

"Along with his intolerance of shams and hypocrisies – altogether becoming in a satirist – he shows himself intolerant toward any kind of religious thinking, to which mankind is incurably given," Jenkins wrote in a review.

During the few months he was in town, Sinclair Lewis managed to make plenty of news. First for belittling things Kansas City loved about itself (J.C. Nichols' Country Club District, the Liberty Memorial), then for saying he was thinking of making it his home ("Kansas City is the most typically American city I know.") Then for his evening at the Open Forum. And finally for refusing to accept the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith, declaring that such awards compel writers "to become safe, polite, obedient and sterile."

With that, at least one Kansas City man had had enough of Sinclair Lewis. Seeing a giant hat – size 207 5/8 – being used as a window prop in Rothschild's clothing store, he bought it for $27.50 and had it delivered to Lewis at the Ambassador. With a note suggesting it might be large enough for the author's swelled head.

Lewis refused to be photographed standing under the hat. Asked whether he had any comment, he paused.

"No. I guess not," he said.

Size 207 plus.

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Burris Jenkins' church burned down on Halloween 1939. The fire reportedly had started on the auditorium stage. Three years later, renamed Community Christian, the congregation moved into a new building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, at 46th and Main.

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