A SAMPLE OF THE coming literature of Prohibition, as predicted by the humor magazine Life in 1919: “She sipped her buttermilk slowly and calmly noticed the effect. After the second bottle, she was a woman emancipated. She reached across the table and untied her handsome admirer’s cravat.” The magazine predicted this was the style that would inevitably characterize American literature under Prohibition. “The Hero may still flick the ashes from his cigarette,” Life explained, “but when the time comes for him to take a drink, he must order a chocolate soda.”
In fact the hero of the 1920s did nothing of the sort, except perhaps in the work of Upton Sinclair, the one prominent American novelist who began the Prohibition era as a dry and ended it drier. (Sinclair even wrote a novel about “a conscientious Prohibition agent”—evidence, said Time, of the author’s enduring habit of picking “preposterous prigs” for his heroes.) It was F. Scott Fitzgerald, of course, who cued the downbeat for the literary bacchanal of the 1920s. Three years before The Great Gatsby, in The Beautiful and the Damned, Fitzgerald introduced Gloria Patch, who “drinks excessively, drives recklessly” and “declares brazenly, ‘I detest reformers, especially the sort who try to reform me.’” Gowan Stevens, in William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, discovers how “to drink like a gentleman” at the University of Virginia but develops a new skill when he returns home to Prohibition Mississippi: learning to add enough lemon, sugar, and water to a glass jar of moonshine to neutralize at least some of its explosive toxicity. Ernest Hemingway managed to have alcoholic drinks of one kind or another show up on more than half the pages of The Sun Also Rises.* And why not? Hemingway said in 1923 that “a man does not exist until he is drunk.”
That was the same year that H. L. Mencken experienced the rapid depletion of his well-stocked cellar, wrote William Manchester, during “a devastating visit” from Sinclair Lewis. For a drunk of such prodigious appetites, Lewis was nonetheless able to maintain a sharp focus on the drinking around him—in his description of the women of Main Street outside the Sauk Prairie saloons, “waiting for their husbands to become drunk and ready to start home”; in George Babbitt’s leering suggestion to his guests, “Well, folks, do you think you could stand breaking the law a little?”; and in the very first words of Lewis’s celebrated portrayal of a moralistic hypocrite: “Elmer Gantry was drunk.”
That drinking became a sine qua non of American fiction in the 1920s is inarguable; that it was a reflection of what was going on in much of American life was a safe bet as well. What remains dubious is the suggestion that it was the prohibition of liquor that led the young, the stylish, or the Babbitts to ingest it so avidly. No one who has read the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, soaked as they are in the fizzy frolics of England’s Bright Young Things, could possibly attribute short skirts, hot music, and hip flasks to Prohibition, nor could anyone who paid attention to the frantic pursuit of the new and the daring in Weimar Germany. By 1927 Edmund Wilson was able to enumerate ninety-seven different colloquial terms for drunkenness, ranging from “squiffy” and “zozzled” through “corned” and “scorching,” and finally culminating in “ossified,” “embalmed,” and “buried.” Some of the more extreme terms, Wilson noted, had become less common because “this kind of fierce protracted drinking has now become universal, an accepted feature of social life instead of a disreputable escapade.” It was World War I that ripped western civilization from the lingering embrace of the nineteenth century—that had, said the dry progressive Senator George Norris of Nebraska, brought about the “almost universal change which had overtaken civilization.” Prohibition was an accelerant, not a cause.
“We find many things to which the prohibition of them constitutes the only temptation,” wrote William Hazlitt in 1823. A century later, drinking was not one of them. No extrinsic impulse or appeal was needed to get people interested in liquor. In fact, that was the whole point.
OF THOSE FEW NOVELISTS of the 1920s who did not seem particularly interested in drinking, either as a subject or as a pastime, Willa Cather was among the most prominent. Liquor was not absent from her work, even in the books set in earlier decades; in A Lost Lady the presentation of “a glittering tray” of cocktails was “the signal for general conversation” in the prairie town of Sweet Water. Although she was not an abstainer, Cather tended to avoid the liquor-saturated world of the other writers who lived near her in Greenwich Village. (When novelist Dawn Powell gave parties at her apartment on East Ninth Street, she would fill her aquarium with gin.) Still, she could not help but notice the dizzying rearrangements of daily life spinning around her. “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” Cather wrote many years later in an essay looking back at the decade. Generations of historians have used the phrase as an epigraph for the era, suggesting as it does the disjunction between the proprieties of a more settled time and the lubricious behavior that characterized urban life in the twenties. But something Cather said in an interview in 1924 defined the era with more precision: “Nobody stays at home anymore.”
To critic Malcolm Cowley, this was evident in the invention of “the ‘party,’ conceived as a gathering of men and women to drink gin cocktails, flirt, dance to the phonograph or radio and gossip about their absent friends.” For the first time, men and women were drinking together outside the home, at events where dinner wasn’t served. Vanity Fair published an instructive article explaining “how to bait your social hook in these trying days of drought”—in other words, how to write an invitation that suggested that lawbreaking would be abided but did not say so outright. One suggestion: add a note telling your guests “Bring your corkscrew.”
Even more than at the house parties that became commonplace, Americans learned to drink in new ways at a new/old institution. The speakeasy was a substitute for the saloon that would prove to be much more than a saloon. Mencken traced the word’s origin to “speak softly shop,” a nineteenth-century Irish phrase used to define any illegal drinking place—where, presumably, voices were kept lowered to avoid attracting attention.* As a catchall term in Prohibition America, it came to denote any publicly accessible place where one could buy a drink. By 1930 the U.S. speakeasy was so ubiquitous, so indelibly part of American culture, that H. I. Phillips, a columnist for the New York Sun, was led to declare that “the history of the United States could be told in 11 words: Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, Volstead, two flights up and ask for Gus.”
It didn’t take much more than a bottle and two chairs to make a speakeasy, but once those requisites were in place the permutations were endless. In black neighborhoods like Harlem, many private apartments—called “hooch joints,” “buffet flats,” or “beer flats”—took on a semipublic aspect, open to virtually anyone who happened to be black; whites were suspect, as they might be from the Prohibition Bureau, which was a virtually all-white force. Italian rooming house proprietors on Federal Hill in Providence invited nonresidents into their parlors, where they could purchase platefuls of pasta accompanied by the bottles of homemade wine and grappa that adorned the red-checkered tablecloths; culinary historians attribute the American fondness for southern Italian cuisine to the exposure it received in similar places from Boston to San Francisco. In downtown Detroit, a block from City Hall, customers of the Bucket of Blood were offered decent food, ample drink, and, for the newspapermen who used the Bucket as an auxiliary press room, a series of telephone lines, including one connected directly to the phone of Mayor Frank Murphy’s secretary. In Boston, where Mayor James Michael Curley’s car horn played the opening notes of “How Dry I Am,” four speakeasies were located on the same block as police headquarters. Of the 113 establishments licensed to sell soft drinks in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the two that actually confined themselves to nonalcoholic beverages went out of business.
New York, which according to its police commissioner accommodated thirty-two thousand illegal drinking spots by the end of the 1920s, of course offered the greatest variety. The most famous of the New York speakeasies was the “21” Club, which opened its doors on West Fifty-second Street in Manhattan on New Year’s Day 1930. But “21” was really just the latest in a series of places operated by its founders, Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns, beginning in 1922. First the partners operated an illegal establishment in Greenwich Village called the Redhead, which was followed by an illicit operation called the Fronton, which was in turn succeeded by a lawbreaker at 42 West Forty-ninth Street, the Puncheon Club—also known as the Grotto, the Iron Gate, “42,” and Jack & Charlie’s. Short-term leases were generally the only kind available in the speakeasy business, as few landlords were willing to become dependent on their tenants’ ability to manage their bribe portfolios; so were name changes, to confuse tax authorities. It was at the Puncheon that Berns and Kriendler suffered their only arrests for what would be a decade of nightly Volstead violations. At “21,” at last settled in a building they owned with a name they would keep, they decided to stop paying bribes and invested instead in an elaborate system that made them effectively raidproof. On an alert from the doorkeeper, the bartender could press a button that sent the entire contents of the back bar tumbling down a shaft, past a series of bottle-breaking metal grates, and finally onto a pile of rocks in the basement. Any remaining liquid drained into a sump. All that was left behind were shards of glass and a lingering aroma, but an odor was not admissible evidence.
Apart from “21,” which was sui generis, Manhattan speakeasy style ran from O’Leary’s on the Bowery (“Not for the squeamish,” according to a contemporary description, “. . . for the sight and smell of a dozen sodden derelicts is none too pleasant”) to the Bath Club on East Fifty-third Street (its decor, wrote the same commentator, was “all marble and gold. Flunkies in droves. Hat boys who won’t touch a coat, and coat boys beneath whose station it is to handle a Borsalino”). At the Bath, an orchestra played chamber music in the dining room; at O’Leary’s, “A bum in the back room howls like a wolf in the night.” The Stork Club and the Country Club, the Hyena and the Ha! Ha!, the Beaux Arts and the Club Pansy and the Cave of Fallen Angels—the names alone suggested that New Yorkers had options for every taste.
The speakeasies witnessed drinking habits and practices notably different from the rituals of the old saloons. However caustic some of the liquor handed across the bar in pre-Volstead days had been, most of it was distilled by professionals, was unlikely to be poisonous, and usually bore a label that honestly reflected its origin. Speakeasy liquor could have been anything from single-malt Scotch smuggled by way of Nassau to diluted embalming fluid. Most of the good stuff entered a tightly circumscribed market dominated by well-connected bootleggers, like the polo-playing LaMontagne brothers of New York, purveyors to their own social circle. The LaMontagne business crumbled after the brothers were convicted of supplying champagne for a bachelor party at the Racquet & Tennis Club, but an even more precipitous collapse befell Sir Broderick Hartwell, “the rum-running Baronet,” who had promised British investors in his bootlegging operation a 20 percent return every sixty days but lost fifty-six thousand cases of liquor in a mutiny aboard one of his ships. Mutinies, hijackings, even shifts in the weather were likely to affect the prices reported in periodicals read by LaMontagne or Hartwell customers. From The New Yorker, January 16, 1926, under the standing head “The Liquor Market”: Gin is selling for $36 a case, and Scotch is “up slightly (after a post-holiday drop” at $59). From another notice several weeks later: “Chianti market practically cornered by restaurant trade, but small quantities, high grade, offered @ $4.50 per bottle.” Variety also published running reports on bootleggers’ price lists. The daily papers generally stayed away from this sort of service to readers, although the New York World occasionally hinted at market conditions, as in the December 24, 1923, headline over a story describing how delivery boats from Rum Row had made it ashore despite a thick fog the night before: “Rum Kings Assure Wet Christmas.”
But in most speakeasies, the shortage of quality goods intensified demand and multiplied deceit. In the saloon era, calling for liquor by brand name was almost unheard of; in the speakeasy era, it became a habit, first as a means of protecting oneself from alcohol of questionable origin, and secondarily as a way of expressing one’s level of taste. Berry Brothers, liquor purveyors to the British royal family, created Cutty Sark in 1923 specifically for the export market, which was largely the American market; Haig & Haig was repositioned as a brand aimed directly at the bootleg trade. Broderick Hartwell’s business, as long as it lasted, was devoted to the proprietary brands his wealthy customers insisted upon. When he was building his own brand, Tommy Dewar publicized the perilous alternative—the liquor of unknown provenance he once characterized as “squirrel whiskey,” so called because, he said, “it will make men talk nutty and climb trees. It will send the average Sunday School teacher walking ten miles through three feet of snow to shoot his own parson.” Naturally, there was an alternative: Drink Dewar’s! Decades later, many of the liquor industry’s best-known brand names owed their prominence to the ubiquity of Prohibition-era rotgut.
Of course, in so robust and so unregulated a market—no state liquor authorities, no tax stamps, no legitimate retail stores—cheating was as inevitable as a morning-after headache. “Overboard stuff” was the generic term used in the trade for blended industrial liquor in counterfeit bottles that were then “soaked in sea water to give [them] an overseas appearance,” according to one practitioner. Joseph P. Kennedy, who was responsible for the liquor served at his Harvard tenth reunion in 1922, told a friend who wanted to buy some that the blended whiskey he had provided—whipped up from 190-proof alcohol—“was perfectly satisfactory to all the fellows in the class who are, of course, used to the best—and the worst.” The federal enforcement director for the New York district reported that “dollar-a-drink clubs with polished brass bar rails and elite customers served precisely the same poison as the dime-a-shot dumps of the wharf sides.” There were exceptions, of course, but in too many places, if you ordered Brand X, you got Brand X; if you ordered Dewar’s or Gordon’s, you paid twice as much—and got Brand X.
AT THE PARTIES and in the speakeasies, in suburban country clubs and inner-city social clubs and the blind pigs, blind tigers, and blind you-name-its stretched across the continent,* Prohibition changed not only where Americans drank, but who drank as well.
Recalling the era, the songwriter Alec Wilder once said, “A pretty girl in a speakeasy was the most beautiful girl in the world.” A pretty girl—truth be told, virtually any kind of girl—in a drinking establishment was one of the astonishments of Prohibition, a shock both severe and enduring. Social life in America was changed forever. “Prohibition would do more than close the saloon,” wrote historian Catherine Gilbert Murdock. “It would also let domestic drinking out of the closet.” One didn’t have to agree with Wilder to believe it was more pleasing to see Mother having a drink in a speakeasy than to imagine her furtively sipping from her husband’s supply, or—much worse—to picture her alone in the upstairs bathroom, chugging from the bottle of Mrs. Pinkham’s.
But women didn’t have to be secret tipplers to be attracted to speakeasy culture. Many speaks were set up as restaurants specifically to attract women, just as many restaurants became speaks to avoid losing business to the newcomers. Table service made it unnecessary for women to perch on a barstool or poise a foot on a brass rail. New styles of entertainment—jazz bands, torch singers, dances like the Charleston and the shimmy—emerged to accompany coeducational drinking. As mild as they might have seemed individually, together these innovations “set up conditions peculiarly attractive to women,” a dry publicist acknowledged. The installation of “powder rooms” sealed the deal.
The sexual integration of the drinking culture began as a localized phenomenon in the big cities. In New York, for instance, arrests of women for public drunkenness spiked immediately after the Volstead Act went into effect and remained at elevated levels through much of the decade. Leon & Eddie’s, on speakeasy-jammed West Fifty-second Street, declared the new era with a sign over its entrance: “Through These Portals the Most Beautiful Girls in the World Pass OUT.” Wrote Heywood Broun, “Sex barriers have been burned away. In New York there are not a dozen places run for the patronage of men alone.” Like Alec Wilder, Broun found this generally delightful: “The light laughter of soprano voices rings now where once sodden male wretches stood and sang Mother Machree.” At times, though, the feminization of the drinking experience made Broun long for the pre-Prohibition days, when it was possible, he said, to get a drink without elbowing his way to the bar “through a crowd of schoolgirls.”
Another barrier fell with the arrival of the “black and tans,” integrated cabarets and nightclubs, usually in black neighborhoods and usually featuring leading African-American jazz musicians. Some night spots, like the Cotton Club in Harlem (partially owned by the bootlegger Owney Madden), practiced an especially bizarre form of segregation: all-black neighborhood, all-black entertainment, all-white clientele. But blacks and whites mingled comfortably at places like the Catagonia Club and the Club Ebony, and the predawn “breakfast dances” at Small’s Paradise (they started when other nightspots closed) were completely biracial. Detroit saw its first stirrings of racial integration in the Harlem Cave and the Cozy Corner, two nightspots in the all-black neighborhood known as Paradise Valley. In the African-American magazine The Messenger, coeditor Chandler Owen called the black-and-tan “America’s most democratic institution,” where “we see white and colored people mix freely. They dance together not only in the sense of both races being on the floor at the same time, but in the still more poignant and significant sense of white and colored people dancing as respective partners.” In New York’s black daily, the Amsterdam News, a columnist argued that “the night clubs have done more to improve race relations in ten years than the churches, white and black, have done in ten decades.”
This being the age of ballyhoo, the ways of Sodom-on-the-Hudson were broadcast through the rest of the country by radio, by the tabloid press, and most of all by the glowing beacon of Hollywood. Many in the entertainment business had welcomed Prohibition, believing people who once filled the saloons would gravitate to the movie houses. But glamour, illicit or not, was the motion picture industry’s most reliable product, and few settings were more glamorous than the uptown New York speakeasy. The advent of talking pictures put the sound—and the attitudes—of New York on display for the entire country. Ravenous demand for material for the talkies, wrote Raymond Moley, led to “the frenzied filming of Broadway plays,” which in turn “brought the clink of highball glasses, the squeal of bedsprings, the crackle of fast conversation to a thousand Main Streets.”
For a while Hollywood production codes dictated that actual drinking could not be shown on screen, so there was a lot of bottle pouring, glass holding, and back-to-the-camera chugging. Still, the ladies of the WCTU created a Motion Picture Department to agitate for “the production of clean films.” A self-described “Christian lobbyist” named Wilbur Fiske Crafts declared his intention to “rescue the motion pictures from the hands of the Devil and 500 un-Christian Jews” who were corrupting the nation. But the box office was voting for the speakeasy and its liberated women. A scholarly survey of 115 films released in 1929 established that drinking—virtually all of it illegal, of course—was depicted in 66 percent of them, more often than not favorably. In After Midnight, a shy and virginal Norma Shearer takes her very first drink and bursts into bloom. Joan Crawford became a star by hoofing on a speakeasy tabletop in Our Dancing Daughters. It was a self-sustaining cycle: Hollywood showed stylish characters drinking, moviegoers (a hundred million of them were attending pictures every week by 1930) mimicked the characters, and Hollywood thereby justified providing more of the same.
“We took the position that motion pictures should depict and reflect American life,” said director Clarence Brown. “And cocktail parties and speakeasies were definitely a part of that life.”
“TO THE HIGH SCHOOL INTELLECT,” the Detroit News editorialized in 1924, “it is chic and charming to have an intrigue with a bootlegger, to carry a flask on the hip, to produce it where its possession may enhance a reputation for derring-do, and to imbibe from it in the presence of lovely and impressionable femininity.” This pursuit of chic, the paper surmised, was what had motivated the young men at a high school dance at the Hotel Statler, a dance that made headlines when it was shut down because of excessive drinking.
Had one of those accused of misbehaving not been Howard C. Kresge, son of the retailing titan S. S. Kresge—believed to be the single largest financial backer of the Anti-Saloon League—it’s doubtful the event would have attracted press attention. Similar spotlights would illuminate the alcohol-related arrests of Carroll Hepburn, son of the ASL’s Virginia superintendent, and Thomas Heflin Jr., namesake, heir, and embarrassment to the ranting Alabama senator. (“It’s like this,” young Tom told New York reporters. “If one state wants booze, no other state should have the right to prevent it from getting it.”) But as much as they liked to leer at the transgressions of fallen drys, it was difficult for most newspapers to get excited about the drinking habits of Prohibition-era youth. In Sonny Kresge’s case, the News’s dudgeon climbed no higher than a tut-tutted warning: more refined people might be inclined to “keep him out of the best society.” He might be labeled a “bounder.”
American youth’s turn toward drink was inevitable. When F. Scott Fitzgerald said the 1920s were “a children’s party taken over by the elders” who had “discovered that young liquor will take the place of old blood,” he had it backward. “This is not a case of the revolt of the youth,” said W. H. P. Faunce, president of Brown University, “but a case in which youth is led by the revolt of middle age.” The day before the Detroit News called out Sonny Kresge for getting too frisky at the Hotel Statler, it reported on “a veritable Babylonian revel” of older citizens taking place not three miles away. From Moriarity’s on East Fifty-eighth Street in Manhattan (“almost a Yale-Harvard-Princeton club,” wrote one of the regulars, the Treasury secretary’s son, Paul Mellon) to the roadhouses of Meaderville, Montana (which served the “best gin fizzes in the world,” recalled Josephine Weiss Casey of Butte), drinking among American young people was exactly as ubiquitous as it was among their elders. That was part of the appeal; one of the things Josephine Casey liked about the roadhouses was that they weren’t just for “kids like us.” In the absence of laws governing age limits (or closing hours, or distance from schools, or any of the other stipulations that button down a regulated liquor trade), drinking was not simply a way to imitate adults but an entry pass into their world. Stanley Coulter, dean of Purdue University’s School of Science, attributed the excessive drinking on his campus to the example of “idiotic alumni.”
Although some of the enterprising young indulged in beer (at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, students brewed their own in the college’s science labs), like their parents they mostly drank gin. It was so easy to flavor industrial alcohol with oil of juniper and a dash of glycerin, dilute it with tap water, and slap a fake Gordon’s label onto the bottle that it became the favorite product of industrial-scale bootleggers and backroom hustlers alike. According to one expert on the homemade variety, “The gin is aged about the length of time it takes to get from the bathroom where it is made to the front porch where the cocktail is in progress.”
Ready availability being the most precious of Prohibition virtues, gin was lifted above the historical pedigree that led Willa Cather to call it “the consolation of sailors and inebriate scrub-women.” Fortune, which helpfully (and repellently) explained, “before prohibition, Gin went into Martinis and Negros [sic],” said that Prohibition made it an acceptable drink for the presumably better bred. Not that these new gin connoisseurs knew much about it: the Philadelphia banker Gardner Cassatt (nephew of painter Mary Cassatt) patronized Walnut Street bootlegger Joel D. Kerper for five years and swore by the quality of Kerper’s gin in testimony before a grand jury. In fact, Kerper was a major client of Philadelphia’s industrial-alcohol distillers and a beneficiary of their counterfeiting. When he shipped liquor to the Maine summer homes of Philadelphia’s elite in boxes labeled “varnish” or “floor paint,” he was being more honest than his customers knew.
“The beverage known in Prohibition times as gin,” as Herbert Asbury called the fake variety, begat another innovation in American drinking habits: the mixer. Whiskey cocktails of various types had existed for decades, and so had the martini, but the dubious quality of Prohibition liquor compelled further innovation, usually in a highball glass. Quinine water, or tonic, originally developed in India as an antimalaria nostrum, became a masking agent for gin of dubious origin. Ginger ale replaced soda water as the standard mixer for whiskey because its flavor could smother the laboratory odors of fake rye. William Grimes, in his history of the cocktail, Straight Up or On the Rocks, pointed out how the triumph of ginger ale was complete when Greta Garbo uttered her first on-screen lines, in Anna Christie: “Gimme a viskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby.”
Of course, the soft-drink industry enjoyed a further boon from the patronage of those who chose to obey the laws, an outcome predicted at the start of the decade by enemies of “the soft-drink trust.” This was a term wet propagandists had found convenient in their effort to stamp the mark of greed on Prohibition supporters like Asa Candler of Coca-Cola. It turned out to be a misnomer: companies trying to cash in on the rapidly expanding market included such unlikely coconspirators as the shell-shocked Anheuser-Busch, which introduced coffee-flavored Caffo and something called Buschtee. (Another soft drink, called Kicko, apparently never made it out of the Busch test labs.) But even though the brewers who moved into soft drinks or de-alcoholized “near beer” sold enough to keep their doors open, none benefited nearly as much as Coca-Cola, which saw its sales triple during Prohibition. Astute marketing enabled Coke to position itself, as one of its advertising slogans had it, as “The Drink That Cheers But Does Not Inebriate.”
The men who ran the soda-pop business couldn’t lose. Americans who violated the Prohibition laws required the bottlers’ product to make liquor palatable, and those who obeyed the laws needed it to quench their thirst. As a result, said Louis Steinberger, president of a New Jersey soft-drink trade association, his industry found business “so good under Prohibition that [we] are determined to offend neither the Wets nor the Drys, and let the fight go merrily on.”
IT’S SOMETHING OF a surprise that with all the illegal liquor sloshing around the United States, there apparently still wasn’t enough to satisfy demand. But sometimes illegal behavior can be no fun if it doesn’t have an element of excitement attached to it, and it did not take long for Americans in search of spirits to add some adventure to the hunt.
The Montreal Gazette suggested one of the possibilities. By 1925, the paper reported, the city’s tourism business had grown exponentially—numbering “hundreds of thousands of tourists a year . . . due in considerable part” to Prohibition. Seventy miles to the southeast in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, a collection of roadhouses and dives known as “line houses” sprouted along the U.S. border. The tiny town of Abercorn, population three hundred, soon had five hotels catering to Americans arriving after a seventy-five-cent taxi ride from the train station in Richford, Vermont. The line houses branched into bootlegging as well. At Labounty’s, a line house east of Abercorn in a hamlet called Highwater, young men from Vermont searching for legal booze also found lucrative work. Bootleggers hired the Vermonters to drive cars loaded with liquor seventy-five miles south to Barre. All were instructed to leave the cars in a designated garage, go for a walk, and return an hour later, when they’d find $125 waiting on the seat. The drivers never touched the goods or met anyone involved at the American end of the trip.
More than 3,100 miles across the continent in Victoria, British Columbia, a columnist described the American “refugees from Volstead” pouring into the city. These masses were neither tired, nor poor, nor huddled. “Their appearance does not at all suggest privation . . . ,” C. D. Smith wrote in the Daily Colonist. “They are mostly clothed in plus-fours and their one look is of assured triumph and anticipation.” After addressing a hostile American Bar Association convention in Seattle, Mabel Willebrandt acknowledged that it had been a difficult assignment talking to the lawyers “when a great many of them had spent that day over the Canadian line.” Even Windsor, Ontario, so close to the twenty-four-hour party that was Detroit, benefited from the cross-border larking. New hotels went up to accommodate the rush; so did a warehouse on the Windsor riverfront, built at government expense expressly for the storage of the hotels’ liquor stocks.
It took a little more effort for Volstead refugees to find fun in the sun, but the adventure only added to the sense of sport that characterized liquor tourism. Within three months of Prohibition’s onset, a travel agent in Coconut Grove, Florida, had established a private seaplane service direct from a Miami-based barge to the Bimini Rod and Gun Club. Reaching for the irony that characterized much reporting about Prohibition, Samuel Hopkins Adams, in Collier’s, noted that one Bimini-bound operation even managed to make the return flight with a full load of liquor aboard: “This was quite without prejudice to the law,” Adams wrote, “since there is no restriction upon the importation of alcohol when the human stomach is the container.” A steward on the Hamburg-American passenger liner Reliance said his U.S. patrons “learned about Daiquiri cocktails at Havana, rum swizzles at Trinidad, and punch at Kingston.”
The spectacularly named Inglis Moore Uppercu, a New York–based Cadillac dealer, made his mark in the world of liquor tourism when he founded Aeromarine Airways, the first regularly scheduled, U.S.-based international air service. Aeromarine shuttled Americans from Miami to some of the brighter spots in the Caribbean on three wooden-hulled flying boats named the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, each of them tricked out with wicker armchairs and mahogany veneers. “The Limousines That Fly to Bimini,” as Uppercu’s early ads called them, were also flying to Cuba by November 1920, where their passengers planted the seeds for the stylish, all-night Havana of the coming decades and where the bootleggers who followed them laid the foundation of the mobster-dominated gambling mecca that was soon to blossom. A Newark bartender named Donovan took apart his bar plank by plank and reconstructed it in the lobby of Havana’s Telégrafo Hotel, a home away from home for New Jerseyites who could afford the trip. An advertising campaign offered jointly by the Bacardi rum-making family and the fledgling Pan American Airways featured the slogan “Fly with us to Havana and you can bathe in Bacardi rum two hours from now.” To welcome those arriving by sea, Facundo Bacardi thoughtfully sent wireless greetings to U.S.-based ships as they chugged into Havana’s harbor, inviting passengers to visit his distillery. Bacardi told The New Yorker that business had never been so good.
For William Jennings Bryan, the spectacle of Prohibition-induced tourism was all too vivid. After his humiliation at the 1920 Democratic convention in San Francisco, he had started his withdrawal from political life, moving to Miami and settling in a Spanish-style waterfront mansion he called the Villa Serena. Bryan spent some of his time in Florida holding weekly Bible classes for audiences numbering in the thousands and some of it making a living. In The Perils of Prosperity, William E. Leuchtenberg describes how, during the great Florida land boom, a Coral Gables real estate operator hired Bryan “to sit on a raft under a beach umbrella and lecture on the beauties of the Florida climate.”
But Bryan was less rhapsodic about the view from the lawn of the Villa Serena, where he could watch ships from the Bahamas hook up with the rumrunners of Biscayne Bay. His 1921 call for an invasion of Bimini had gone unheard, so the following year he turned his attention to the perfidy of those American citizens chasing the bottle on foreign soil and in some cases trying to bring it back home. For thus “conspiring” against the Constitution, Bryan told Representative W. A. Oldfield of Arkansas, such malefactors should be stripped of their citizenship.
“AS YOU SAIL AWAY, far beyond the range of amendments and thou-shaltnots, those dear little iced things begin to appear, sparkling aloft on their crystal stems.” This effusion was not the sort of come-on a drinker was likely to encounter in advertisements for places like Sloppy Joe’s Bar on Zulueta Street in Havana (Joe’s slogan was more concise: “Where the Wet Begins”). Those “dear little iced things” were at the center of a sales pitch for the elegant oceangoing ships of the French Line, which competed with Cunard not just for supremacy in the transatlantic passenger trade but also, in effect, for designation as World’s Biggest, Fanciest, and Fastest Bar.
The British grabbed the lead early in the decade, perhaps on that day in February 1920, four weeks after Prohibition’s birth, when the Daily Express of London informed its readers that Cunard’s Mauretania “has docked at Southampton with empty bins. A record stock of wines and spirits has been utterly consumed by American passengers.” Many years later E. B. White would recall how the lure of Prohibition-free seafaring tantalized New Yorkers. From their docks on the Hudson, wrote White, “the transatlantic liners sounded their horns of departure, and the citizens listened uneasily to this midnight invitation to revelry, debauchery, and escape.” Aboard ship, smoking rooms doubled as drinking rooms and stewards doubled as bouncers. According to maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham, the ocean passage from the United States to the United Kingdom spawned “a new transatlantic stereotype, the drunk American.”
At first the stereotype careened around the decks and parlors of British and French ships, for American liners, operating under the American flag and American law, went dry when the rest of the country did. Unlike the rest of the country, though, U.S.-registered ships were dry in fact as well as in name. The drop-off in business was so precipitous they might as well have slammed into a field of icebergs. A correspondent for the New York Tribune, describing a voyage on the President Harding, wrote, “It hurt [the crew] to think Americans deserted them to go on foreign lines merely because they could not, as one officer remarked, ‘wait seven days for a drink.’”
It hurt the shipping industry even more, an insistent pain that led to a government agency’s willful defiance of the Eighteenth Amendment. For a brief period American ships relaxed the rules, at the direction of Albert Lasker, the Chicago advertising executive (and majority owner of the Chicago Cubs) who headed the U.S. Shipping Board. A federal agency established to subsidize the American shipping industry, which had not recovered from the world war, the board seemed to believe that ignoring the Volstead Act was a more promising course of action than seeking additional appropriations from a chronically parsimonious Congress. Ads in the Paris edition of the New York Herald for the liners George Washington and America soon proclaimed “Excellent Cuisine—Choice Wines and Liquor.” Menus distributed on board offered a choice of six different clarets, four champagnes, five liqueurs, and nine varieties of hard liquor, including an anonymous “American rye” priced 20 percent higher than Haig & Haig, Jameson, Johnnie Walker, or any of the other imported brands.
Lasker’s policy was soon torpedoed by August A. Busch, son of Adolphus. Any Busch without power—Prohibition had rendered the family politically irrelevant—was a very unhappy Busch indeed. This one channeled his peevishness into mischief making. After a trip on the George Washington, he said he had “never seen so great a consumption of liquor as during this particular voyage”—proving, he asserted, that the U.S. government was “incomparably the biggest bootlegger in the world.” Busch made this declaration in a letter sent to Warren G. Harding, then distributed it nearly as widely as he had once distributed beer.
Busch was no more concerned about booze on ships than he would have been had passengers been caught playing shuffleboard for nickels. His goals were more complex: he wanted to embarrass the Harding administration, discredit the Eighteenth Amendment, and, while he was at it, stick a knife into his old enemies, the distilling interests. But in the process he provoked the interest of Wayne B. Wheeler, who perceived an opportunity. Waving a series of ancient Supreme Court decisions involving maritime law in front of Congress and the White House, Wheeler showed that his political muscles had not atrophied. In October 1922 Harding declared American ships permanently dry and simultaneously announced that foreign ships coming into U.S. ports also had to be free of liquor.
At first the British were dismissive. “If the measure came into operation,” a shipping executive said two days after Harding’s announcement, “. . . our British ships would be governed by the United States—and such a state of affairs could not be tolerated.” Then the British turned angry, and Parliament considered legislation that would have made it mandatory for American ships to have liquor aboard if they wished to use British ports. But the final phase of the British response was acceptance, and for a time westbound Cunard and White Star liners, when they approached the three-mile limit off Long Island, would pause to dump into the sea any alcoholic beverages that hadn’t been downed by passengers and crew. When Lord Curzon finally agreed to stretch the three-mile limit, the American quid for the British quo granted British ships the right to bring liquor into American ports, so long as it was secured under seal. “Is it possible that any civilized country could continue to occupy the position now occupied by the United States?” asked Thomas Royden, chairman of the Cunard Line. He quickly found his own answer: transatlantic Volsteadism, he said, “renders [the United States] ridiculous in the eyes of the world.” Senator James W. Wadsworth, an aristocratic wet from upstate New York, was even harsher: “How the world must despise us for making such asses of ourselves.”
Things worked out fine for the British and other foreign ships. Although they had to put stoppers in their bottles and locks on their storerooms when they came within twelve miles of the United States, they otherwise remained free to host the floating revels for 99.6 percent of the journey across the ocean. The dehydrated American liners, for their part, were compelled to promote other virtues. Thus did Albert Lasker attempt to win the attention of transatlantic travelers by setting up driving ranges on the aft decks of American ships, by showing first-run movies, by bringing aboard name-brand orchestras, and by offering unlimited caviar to first-class passengers.
All these innovations survived the end of Prohibition. One other did not. The Coca-Cola company, seeing a possible opening, had designed a handsome new bottle, its neck wrapped in foil to resemble champagne. Coke’s foreign department hoped it would replace the genuine article at bon voyage parties and shipboard banquets. But American travelers, by then wise to the ways of secreting bottles in their luggage, were never again without access to the truly real Real Thing. They just took it aboard with them.
EIGHT DECADES OF MOVIES, television shows, retro fashion trends, piquant musical quotations, and thickly clouded memories have left us with a crowded vision of Prohibition drinking: a montage of raccoon coats, rolled-up stockings, bobbed hair, and cloche hats, the entire tableau surmounted by a totemic hip flask in shimmering silver. Two elements are missing from this picture: pain and desperation.
These were ushered in by a jolt of greed. Derelicts were poisoning themselves before Prohibition with alcohol of less than vintage quality—Sterno filtered through a sock, for instance, or diluted antifreeze solution (“addicts claimed that a little rust improved the flavor and gave their bodies needed iron,” wrote Herbert Asbury). But Prohibition stimulated the avarice of low-grade bootleggers, who extended their inventory of repurposed industrial alcohol with the addition of wood alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and other toxic compounds, turning reports of paralysis and death into a newspaper staple (from the New York World, January 1, 1927: FOUR NEW RUM DEATHS; 20 MORE TO BELLEVUE; 760 DIE HERE IN YEAR). An operation based in Buffalo distributed its goods twice weekly in one-gallon cans—the delivery truck “called like a milkman,” a customer said—and what might normally cause a headache if properly diluted would almost certainly produce blindness if not; tests found that the stuff in the cans was 38 percent wood alcohol.* A two-ounce bottle of “Jamaican Ginger,” aka “Jake,” could be had for as little as thirty-five cents. Up to 80 percent pure alcohol, it was enough to create a little buzz at first—but in one horrifying instance, a contaminated batch permanently crippled five hundred people in Wichita alone. The poison Jake, which came from a distilling operation that had carelessly added a potent neurotoxin called tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate, attacked the nerves in the hands and feet, giving victims an odd, shuffling gait that became known as “Jake Walk” or “Jake Leg.” One of the several blues songs spawned by the Jake Leg epidemic explained a further complication:
It’s the doggonest disease
Ever heard of since I been born
You get numb in front of your body,
You can’t carry any lovin’ on.
Just like the cinematic cocktail parties and speakeasies that Clarence Brown invoked to “reflect American life,” poisonous alcohol made it into the movies, too. In one of Brown’s films, 1925’s The Goose Woman, Louise Dresser plays a fallen opera star who satisfies her alcoholism with hair tonic. But the songs and films and other cultural expressions of the poison epidemic didn’t necessarily make people pay heed. It was as if the perils of poisonous liquor made the less toxic, more conventional stuff seem positively healthful. Once the first few years of Prohibition had passed and tipplers and tasters realized the earth had not stopped in its orbit, arrests for public intoxication and drunk driving soared. So did cirrhosis deaths and hospitalizations for alcoholic psychosis. After one factored in the unquestionably large numbers of nondrinkers—either sworn teetotalers or obliging law-abiders—it was clear that the rate of per capita consumption among those who did drink resembled a fever chart.
Strikingly, this seemed particularly true among the well off and the well educated. The student council of Marymount College, a Catholic women’s school in New York, declared that “over-indulgence is to be found among the wealthy rather than the poorer classes.” British visitors expressed shock at the amount of drinking they encountered among their hosts; one, newspaper publisher Sir Charles Igglesden, described seeing “men swallow four or five cocktails” before dinner, “drinking against time, as it were.” In a genial letter to her ex-husband, the former Mrs. Andrew Mellon wrote, “I find that people expect more [liquor] at a dinner party than before Prohibition.” (She also sought advice on how to move a case of bootleg Scotch from Newport to her winter home—if the secretary of the treasury didn’t know how to do that, who would?) A Vanity Fair story by Clare Boothe Brokaw secured the catchphrase “Have a little drinkie” in the argot of the rich. To Brokaw drinking was “the greatest anodyne for that most intense of all social and human agonies—boredom.”
Such stylish insouciance guaranteed that excess was the mode, especially (and unsurprisingly) among the young, who were following the example of their elders. “The girls simply won’t go out with the boys who haven’t got flasks to offer,” said the police chief of Topeka, Kansas. His counterpart in Boise, Idaho, commenting on the behavior of young people in his jurisdiction, said, “Drinking is done almost everywhere, by almost everybody.” Jean Hamilton, dean of women at the University of Michigan, filled her out-box with letters to parents whose daughters overindulged. “For a girl to place herself as completely at a man’s mercy as to be helplessly intoxicated is very serious,” Hamilton wrote to the parents of a sophomore named Pauline Izor. Izor had been so drunk “that she fell twice and was unable to get up by herself.”
The case of Pauline Izor was neither especially extreme nor especially rare. What gives it enduring relevance is the unexceptional remainder of her story. She married a physician, raised a family, and eventually returned to Ann Arbor four decades later as housemother at a Michigan sorority. Looking at her picture in an old yearbook, one sees a handsome woman of sixty or so in a light-colored dress with a scalloped neckline, pearl earrings decorously accenting her coiffed hair. She’s sitting in the center of four rows of smiling young women in identical white blouses; as housemother, she is effectively their full-time chaperone. It may be automatic to read the word “speakeasy” and picture in the mind’s eye a generic nineteen-year-old flapper, cloche on her head, flask in her hand, kicking up her happy heels in a buoyant Charleston. But to look at Pauline Izor at sixty—or at a photograph of one’s own mother or grandmother—and to try to imagine her as a falling-down drunk is unfathomable. From the distance of eight decades, the mind’s eye easily projects the image of gaiety we’ve been bequeathed by the tribunes of popular culture. But we can no sooner conjure the image of our grandmothers teetering on the edge of alcohol poisoning than we can imagine them robbing banks; it won’t compute.
Consequently, a three-dimensional sense of the excesses of Prohibition-era drinking, especially among the young, can be found only in darker corners. At Dartmouth College, a junior named Robert T. Meads was sentenced to twenty years’ hard labor in the state penitentiary for having shot and killed senior Henry E. Maroney in a dispute over payment for bootlegged liquor. Summer resorts in Pennsylvania saw the rise of “Fatty Arbuckle parties,” which aspired to emulate the notorious San Francisco bacchanal that had led to the death of showgirl Virginia Rappe.* And although criminal behavior or tragic consequences were not ubiquitous components of the alcoholic excess of the period, desperation definitely was. Nowhere was this more clearly memorialized than in a simple declarative sentence in John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, where he describes a typical evening among the young married couples at the Lantenengo Country Club of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania: “There were innumerable vomitings, more or less disastrous.”
HER HORROR AT EXCESSIVE among the young that would eventually shape the life of Pauline Morton Sabin. It was some life: Sabin was the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of the navy; heiress to the Morton Salt fortune; wife of a J. P. Morgan partner; first woman member of the Republican National Committee; and chatelaine of Bayberry Land, a twenty-eight-room home on 298 acres in Southampton, New York, and The Oaks, a 1,961-acre plantation in Goose Creek, South Carolina. She had supported Prohibition from the beginning, believing “a world without liquor would be a beautiful thing” and fondly imagining that her two boys would grow up in a dryer, safer, and generally better country. But Sabin saw the beautiful thing turn ugly.
“Girls of a generation ago would not have ventured into a saloon,” she would write. “Girls did not drink; it was not considered ‘nice.’ But today girls and boys drink, at parties and everywhere, then stop casually at a speakeasy on the way home.” This fretful comment appeared in a widely distributed pamphlet entitled “Why American Mothers Demand Repeal.” To Sabin and the other women who would eventually join her crusade to end Prohibition—an effort that would make her the Wayne Wheeler of Repeal—the revolution that had brought the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act into being had not put an end to excessive drinking but had fostered it.
The law said one thing; the young people Sabin knew ignored it. Prohibition, she believed, had become “an attempt to enthrone hypocrisy as the dominant force in this country.” Nothing, it appeared, could stanch the flood of alcohol that washed the country from coast to coast—or the political dishonesty, cultural dislocations, and contagion of crime that rode in its wake.
* Hemingway’s expatriate characters do not hide their distaste for Prohibition or for those responsible for it. When Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton take their extended, wine-soaked fishing trip, they fall into a sardonic colloquy, each claiming acquaintanceship with Wayne Wheeler. When Jake finally says, “The saloon must go,” Bill replies, “The saloon must go, and I will take it with me.”
* The idiom continued to evolve in Ireland, courtesy of James Joyce. From Ulysses, published in 1922: “’Tis, sure. What say? In the speakeasy. Tight. I shee you, shir.”
* Literary scholar Kathleen Drowne writes that the term “blind pig” and its regional variants were rooted in Maine, where a nineteenth-century tavern owner “sold his patrons tickets to view a blind pig he kept in the back room. Along with admission, every viewing customer was treated to a free glass of rum.”
* The phrase “blind drunk” derives from the capacity of wood alcohol to attack the optic nerve and destroy retinal cells.
* After three trials, motion picture comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was eventually acquitted of any responsibility in Rappe’s death, but his acting career was destroyed.