DESPITE POLITICAL DIFFERENCES that might have divided less compatible people, Pauline Sabin had no trouble supporting James Wadsworth Jr., the senior senator from New York, when he ran for reelection in 1926. Wadsworth was as wet as they came, and Sabin had not yet abandoned the dry cause. Wadsworth had made his political reputation attacking woman suffrage, and it was the suffrage movement that had propelled Sabin into politics. But a commonality of background prevailed over any divergence in philosophy. Like Sabin, her friend Jimmy was an aristocrat of vast wealth: Skull and Bones at Yale, devoted foxhunter, fourth-generation owner of a fifty-five-square-mile chunk of the fertile Genesee Valley in upstate New York. Also like Sabin, he was Republican down to his genes. His grandfather had been one of the party’s founders, and his father had served nine terms as a Republican member of Congress. Wadsworth himself had tightened the bond by marrying the daughter of John Hay, who began his own political career as Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary and concluded it as Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state.
In 1926, though, New York Republicans were an unhappy family. The Democratic nominee for the Senate seat, Judge Robert F. Wagner, was no less wet than Wadsworth. Left without a candidate it could support, the Anti-Saloon League chose to punish Wadsworth (and simultaneously issue a warning to other wet Republicans) by putting forward its own candidate, a former state senator named Franklin W. Cristman, on a third-party line. The party regulars lined up behind Wadsworth, the drys fled to Cristman (his key platform plank: the Volstead Act wasn’t strict enough), and Wagner squeezed through the gap between them. During the campaign Pauline Sabin had advised Wadsworth to move a scheduled rally from Madison Square Garden to Carnegie Hall. Her reasons reflected both her political instincts and her upbringing. Carnegie would be easier to fill, she told the senator. And, she added, more dignified.
Sabin had first become active in Republican politics in 1919, when she was thirty-two. The following year the Southampton Press reported that she had been host to a buffet lunch for four hundred New York Republicans, “one of the largest and most enjoyable events of the kind ever held in the county.” It was a rainy day, but the guests fit comfortably inside the reception hall of Bayberry Land, Sabin’s twenty-eight-room manor house in the Shinnecock Hills of Long Island’s South Fork. In kinder weather, her summer parties were usually held outdoors on the enormous terrace, where guests might enjoy the view of Peconic Bay, the four formal gardens,* the eight outbuildings, and the nine distinctive pot chimneys on the imported slate roof. Designed in the style of an English country manor, the house was barely a year old when she welcomed her fellow Republicans, but the society architects Cross & Cross had made the roof sag here and there, to lend a feeling of age.
As intelligent as she was beautiful, as energetic as she was elegant, Sabin engaged the Republican Party with the same vitality she brought to her luminous social life. She founded the Women’s National Republican Club in 1921, when she was thirty-four, and two years later became the first female member of the Republican National Committee. Her husband, Charles, a J. P. Morgan partner who sat on sixteen corporate boards, was a lifelong Democrat and a committed wet. The friends who gathered at Bayberry Land and at the Sabins’ Manhattan residence on Sutton Place were urbane, sophisticated people, and like many of them Pauline Sabin enjoyed a nightly martini before dinner (in this household dinner was always a black-tie event, even in the country, even when the family dined alone). Some of the bottles in the Sabin wine collection were stored in a room hidden behind a movable wall of fake books at Bayberry Land. In the world the couple occupied, among the wealthy and well connected, good liquor and fine wines were plentiful, summoned to hand by a nod to the butler or delivered on request by the chauffeur. At one point, in fact, the Sabins’ chauffeur, unknown to his employers, ran a bootlegging business of his own out of their Manhattan garage.
The fact that the rich could consider themselves immune to meaningful enforcement (by virtue of well-placed connections, good lawyers, and other convenient assets) enraged Prohibition supporters. “The fashionable rich demand their rum as an inalienable class privilege,” the loyally dry Ladies’ Home Journal said in 1923. After former Yale president Arthur Hadley openly called on Americans to nullify the dry laws by ignoring them—a strategy he attempted to dignify by comparing it to Northern resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act seventy-five years earlier—an angered Chief Justice Taft attacked Hadley’s position as characteristic of “the luxury-loving rich.” When General Motors founder William C. Durant (who was as dry as Henry Ford) offered prize money for “the best and most practical plan to make the 18th amendment effective,” the theme came up again and again. “Punishment is asked ‘for the rich and the white as well as the poor and the black,’ ” Durant wrote in his summary of the entries. “There is demand for action and publicity of action against ‘Mr. and Mrs. Prominent Citizen.’ ” In his own entry, Los Angeles police chief James E. Davis said the rich had “no conception of their own support of an outlaw ‘industry.’ Their money gives it power, their known sympathy and patronage gives it prestige in places where it should be shown no quarter.”
In some instances the attitudes of the well-off were shaped by their sheer sense of entitlement, which was intensified by their loyalty to ruthlessly clear class distinctions. Connecticut silk manufacturer Charles Cheney, who was chairman of the influential National Industrial Conference Board, supported Prohibition publicly, enjoyed liquor privately, and saw no contradiction; Prohibition was apparently designed for lesser beings. This view was not confined to the very rich, as Sinclair Lewis demonstrated so vividly in Babbitt. During the “canonical rite” (Lewis’s term) of cocktail hour at George Babbitt’s house, one of the solid burghers of Zenith insists that requiring drinkers to be licensed was a much better idea than Prohibition: “Then we could have taken care of the shiftless workman—kept him from drinking—and yet not’ve interfered with the rights . . . of fellows like ourselves.” Another says, “You don’t want to forget prohibition is a mighty good thing for the working-classes. Keeps ’em from wasting their money and lowering their productiveness.” Some drys saw it this way as well. Henry Ford’s ghostwriter said, “If only the people of larger incomes are drinking bootleg stuff, it is of course unfortunate in a way, but if someone must drink, it is best for the country that those who can afford it rather than those who cannot afford it should do the drinking.”
The difference between the very rich and the Babbitts of the world wasn’t just that the former had more money. They also had the freedom to be—take your pick—either more arrogant or less hypocritical. When airplane manufacturer William E. Boeing showed up in court to testify against Roy Olmstead, he had no problem admitting that he had been one of the Seattle bootlegger’s customers. But the greater, and more potent, distinction between the small-time businessmen of Zenith and the nation’s industrial and financial noblemen lay in the acuity of their political perceptions. Unlike George Babbitt’s friends, the men who gathered in December 1927 at James W. Wadsworth’s mansion in Washington, D.C., knew that the anger of the workingman could be exploited. What was odd, if you weren’t looking closely, was how these wealthy men, who had been sailing through Prohibition as if it had never really happened, would soon be willing to put so much time and treasure into bringing about its end.
THE WAYNE B. WHEELER who limped home to Washington after the Darrow debate in April 1927 was greatly diminished physically, but he did not let this dilute his unholy devotion to his holy cause. He had spent the months following the poison controversy pressuring the Civil Service Commission to require new agents to be “in sympathy with the law,” while maintaining his picket duty on Congress, the Treasury Department, and the White House. He had even persuaded Andrew Mellon not to order the removal of fatal denaturants from industrial alcohol until a substance more noxious but less toxic could be developed. Now he turned his attention to the following year’s election. Confident of its ability to bring presidential candidates of both parties to heel, the ASL had always concentrated its energies and its financial resources on congressional races. But Al Smith had emerged from the Democratic wreckage of 1924 as the party’s leading figure. Fearing that Smith would become the Democratic nominee for the first time and make Prohibition an overtly partisan issue in a presidential campaign, Wheeler obtained from the ASL a special appropriation of $600,000 to combat the efforts of “certain prospective candidates.”
But even so grave a threat as a wet at the head of one of the major party tickets did not distract Wheeler from his other efforts. “He literally worked all the time,” said ASL national superintendent Scott McBride, his closest colleague. “On a Pullman or parlor car, he would at once take papers from his portfolio and plunge into drafting of a brief for the Supreme Court, a message for a congregation, a reply to an attack on him by wets, an article for a magazine. In the hotel dining room he would meet with committees while he ate. His [own] room was a beehive, the telephone ringing constantly [and] dry leaders clustering around him.” Critics described his actions a little differently. According to the San Francisco Examiner, “the paid superlobbyist” busied himself “wheedling, threatening, cajoling, bulldozing, promising and browbeating.” What was certain was Wheeler’s mindfulness of something he had said a few years earlier: a minority that has lost something will register its protest, he warned his fellow drys, but “the majority who have won the fight turn to other tasks.” Wheeler truly believed that the dry cause was the majority cause. But he seemed also to believe that only his relentless efforts could make certain there would be no turning away. He told Lord Astor, one of Britain’s leading prohibitionists (and husband of American émigré Nancy Langhorne Astor), “We are having a rather strenuous fight here these days, but are holding the fort as usual.”
In the summer of 1927 Wheeler returned to Battle Creek. At one point he took a break from the Kellogg rest cure to tell reporters that a Smith candidacy could be fatal for the Democrats. “Leaders of the party who are looking ahead,” he explained, “do not want to tie up their political future to a corpse.” He praised Coolidge’s appointment of a new Prohibition boss, a Republican hack from New York named Seymour Lowman (“a well-recognized dry advocate,” Wheeler said), insisted that drinking on college campuses was not as prevalent as some people indicated, and criticized Nicholas Murray Butler, the wet president of Columbia University, for his “unwarranted attacks” on the Eighteenth Amendment.*
From Battle Creek, Wheeler traveled to the pious summer resort of Little Point Sable in western Michigan, where several dry leaders kept summer cottages (from its advertising: “Homes for Christian families. Happy Childhood, Clean Youth. Strong Young Manhood”). There, with his wife, Ella, and her parents, he took several weeks away from his dry labors to rusticate on the Lake Michigan shore. His well-off father-in-law, Robert Candy, had made it possible for Wheeler to work for a salary that never exceeded eight thousand dollars a year; according to one of the Wheeler grandchildren, Ella “kept the family organized so [Wayne] could go off and save the world with Prohibition.” At Little Point Sable, Wheeler stepped away from the pressing business of the Anti-Saloon League for the first time since he’d joined the temperance movement at Oberlin thirty-four years earlier. “He kept in touch with the trend of prohibition affairs throughout the nation,” wrote Justin Steuart, Wheeler’s research secretary, “but instead of the steady stream of letters and telegrams issuing from his cottage, there was now only a bare trickle.”
Wheeler was to some degree becalmed by his weakened constitution and possibly by a genuine wish to cast off the burdens of three decades. But on August 14 he was wrenched from his reverie by unspeakable horror. This is how the Associated Press described the catastrophe: “A large drum of gasoline near which Mrs. Wheeler was working exploded, igniting her clothing. Mrs. Wheeler ran screaming into the living room, where her father, who recently suffered a severe heart attack, was reclining on a couch. At the sight of his daughter, her clothing aflame, [her father] arose, clutched at his heart, and toppled over dead.”
The following morning Ella Wheeler died as well. Less than a week later her husband, who had extinguished the flames, departed for a meeting of the World Congress Against Alcoholism in Winona Lake, Indiana. “Wheeler’s calmness under the shock of this tragedy amazed even his most intimate friends, who knew the strength of his will and courage,” Justin Steuart wrote. “To all expressions of sympathy, [he] returned a simple assurance that this loss would merely mean an increased devotion on his part to the cause in which he was enlisted.”
His assurances could not be fulfilled. Two weeks later Wayne B. Wheeler, crippled by a chronically enlarged heart and a lately diminished spirit, was himself dead. He was fifty-seven.
TO THE ANTI-SALOON LEAGUE, no victory in the 1926 congressional elections had been as gratifying as the defeat of James Wadsworth in the New York Senate race (“the greatest loss the wets could suffer,” said the league’s newspaper). But to Wadsworth, nothing could have been more liberating. He might miss the campaign trail, particularly the amusement devised by the newspapermen who had traveled with him: at every stop, no matter how tiny the town or how brief the stay, the reporters raced to see if they could get a drink. (Not once did they fail, even though some stops were as short as half an hour.) But it wasn’t likely that Wadsworth would miss the Senate and its smothering cloud of duplicity. In his final speech he excoriated those senators who either drank or kept company with drinkers yet continued to support the Volstead Act. “Is hypocrisy to be established as the national trait?” he asked. He provided his own reply: only one thing could save the nation from its epidemic of cant and falseness—Repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.
No wet as prominent as Wadsworth had made so bold a declaration. But Wadsworth enjoyed the freedom of a condemned man. Having been denied reelection, he had nothing to lose. Emancipated by defeat, he spent 1927 traveling the country, from Boston all the way to Honolulu, making the case not for the legalization of wine and beer, or for a redefinition of “intoxicating,” but for outright Repeal. Yet Wadsworth’s impact on the status of the Eighteenth Amendment registered most firmly within the walls of his home in Washington. There, on December 12, 1927, in his mansion on the rim of Rock Creek Park, two dozen men gathered to address issues that were, said the letter of invitation, nothing less than “vital to the very existence of our government.”
The author of that trembling phrase was William H. Stayton, the admiralty lawyer who in 1918 had sent out invitations to six hundred men he knew by first name, asking them to join his new Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (probably a better name than another he had considered, the Association Against Fanatical Minorities). Failing to stop or even to slow the amendment’s march, Stayton stayed true to his cause even after ratification, largely financing the AAPA out of his own pocket. He began his days at 4 a.m. and worked ceaselessly, sending out letters, trying to raise additional money (he made a point of eschewing donations from people who had made their money in brewing or distilling), and recruiting prominent supporters. He did not allow himself to be distracted by irrelevancies: when he needed clothing, Stayton would buy half a dozen identical suits (all of them custom-made) and a dozen identical ties so he didn’t have to waste a single instant of his day deciding what to wear.
But energy did not translate into effectiveness. In the beginning, Stayton’s perception of upper-class manners, coupled with an innate timidity, led him to keep the names of his supporters private. This accomplished little besides suggesting that there was something disreputable about the whole endeavor. In 1922 Stayton did manage to fill Carnegie Hall with an anti-Prohibition rally that drew “some of the best known men and women in the city,” but in Manhattan a wet crowd was about as remarkable as a sidewalk. In 1924 his fumbling effort to help wet candidates crashed when the AAPA endorsed seven congressional candidates in Pennsylvania, including three incumbents—and all seven, regarding public support from the AAPA as if it were a social disease, repudiated the endorsements.
By late 1927, though, the list of men Stayton invited to the meeting at James Wadsworth’s house suggested that the status of the AAPA had changed. It included three sitting U.S. senators (Blaine of Wisconsin, Broussard of Louisiana, and Bruce of Maryland); one recently deposed one (Wadsworth); the Standard Oil heir Edward S. Harkness, whose philanthropy had inscribed the family name on buildings at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Brown; private banker Grayson Mallet-Prevost Murphy, who sat on the boards of Anaconda Copper, Bethlehem Steel, Goodyear Rubber, and five other equally blue-chip companies; and a number of others whose names appeared often in the nation’s news pages, regularly on the society pages, and almost daily on the business pages (including Pauline Sabin’s husband). “In 1917 the chief spokesman of the [wets] was the president of the United States Brewers’ Association,” wrote Charles Merz. “In 1927 the leadership of the opposition had passed to the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad or to the chairman of the board of the General Motors Corporation.”
General W. W. Atterbury, president of the Pennsy, was an active soldier in the AAPA. But it was the chairman of GM, Pierre S. du Pont, who had become the association’s indisputable commander in chief by the time the conferees emerged from two days of meetings at Wadsworth’s house. Du Pont was also chairman of the Du Pont Company, unchallenged head of his old and distinguished family, and lord of Longwood, a private paradise of gardens and greenhouses and fountains arrayed across a thousand acres surrounding his thirty-room mansion, twelve miles northwest of Wilmington. His reign over the AAPA was comparably dominant. In the year following the meeting at Wadsworth’s house he became the organization’s largest single contributor; ranking second, fourth, and sixth were his brothers Irénée and Lammot, and his closest professional colleague, John J. Raskob. Two years after du Pont took control of the AAPA, an associate said his interest in the organization and its mission was “greater than it is in anything else in the United States.”
Pierre du Pont was exceptionally wealthy, his net income in a single year at times topping $50 million. He was also exceptionally capable. At first with two cousins, then increasingly on his own, he had built the family’s gunpowder business into an industrial colossus. Assisted by the financially astute Raskob, he took effective control of General Motors (the du Pont family owned 36 percent of its stock) in 1920. Ideas developed by the two men concerning capital allocation, accounting methods, and the development of differentiated business units operating within a single corporate structure became the standard for American industry.
Du Pont’s aptitude for leadership had emerged at an early age, after his father was killed in an industrial accident. Although he was only fourteen, as the eldest son among ten children Pierre became not just the nominal head of the family but the actual one. His siblings—even his sister Louisa, older by two years—marked his role by calling him “Dad” and its variants, a familial habit that would survive the passing decades. It’s both jarring and somehow touching to encounter, in Pierre’s vast correspondence, a letter from his brother Irénée addressed “Dear Daddy.” At the time—1920—Pierre was fifty; Irénée, president of the world’s largest manufacturer of explosives and other chemicals, was forty-four.
Pierre had handed the job to his younger brother the year before, not long after the conclusion of the war that had transformed the family business. In 1913 Du Pont had produced 8.4 million tons of smokeless powder. By the time the United States entered World War I four years later, annual production capacity had surpassed 450 million tons. Profits were enormous. But along the way, as the Wilson administration prepared for war, it financed the buildup through the Revenue Act of 1916, which took three swings at the du Pont family’s wealth: doubling the income tax rates on those in the highest brackets, creating the nation’s first peacetime inheritance tax, and assessing a 12.5 percent levy on the profits of munitions manufacturers (no small amount, considering that du Pont stock dividends would increase sixteen-fold between 1914 and 1918).
Pierre du Pont was incensed. He increased his donations to the presidential campaign of Woodrow Wilson’s Republican opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, to a staggering $92,500, more than Hughes received from any other individual (2009 equivalent: more than $1.8 million). Du Pont believed that taxation stifled initiative and trespassed on personal freedom. He detested the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, public relief programs, and highway speed limits. When Delaware penal authorities developed a plan to put prisoners to work repairing autos, du Pont bristled: he considered it unfair competition for private repair shops. His faith in the wisdom of democratically elected governments approximated his faith in dancing pixies.
None of this should suggest, however, that Pierre du Pont was without public spirit—only that he believed that decisions about the public welfare belonged in private hands. When du Pont was president of Delaware’s board of education in the early 1920s (he later served as state tax commissioner as well), state law forbade taxing white citizens for the education of blacks. Appalled by the dreadful conditions in the state’s segregated schools for black children, du Pont didn’t call for a new tax, but instead reached into his own pocket for $4 million to build eighty-six new school buildings. He was happy to donate his own money for the public weal if it could be deployed as he saw fit. Yet when he believed that his money was being confiscated by the government and reallocated by the ill-qualified representatives of the ill informed, he seethed.
The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment was made to order for a man who dreamed of a world in which “there would be some chance for intellectually capable people to operate governmental affairs the same way they are permitted to operate corporate affairs.” Du Pont had felt somewhat warmly toward Prohibition at its inception, hopeful that it might make America’s workers more productive. But by the middle of the decade, troubled by increasingly invasive enforcement laws and reports from his factory managers of declining productivity, he had begun to moderate his position. He asked Stayton to send him some books on the subject (seeking balance, he apparently made the same request of Wayne Wheeler). His brothers had already lined up with the AAPA (Irénée, who told their cousin Coleman du Pont that Prohibition was “the opening wedge to tyranny,” believed that the populace had not risen in revolt “only because the average man is rather stupid and rapidly becomes used to his surroundings”). By December 1927, when he arrived in Washington for the meeting at James Wadsworth’s house, Pierre had committed himself to the radical idea his host had put forth in his Senate valedictory: Repeal.
Such was the strength of Pierre du Pont’s rapidly hardening conviction—not to mention the force of his personality and the availability of his millions—that within weeks of the meeting at 2800 Woodland Drive, he had not simply taken control of the AAPA; for all practical purposes, he owned it. He nudged Stayton into an honorary position and brought in an energetic New Yorker named Henry H. Curran, who declared himself dedicated to “cutting this Prohibition cancer out of the nation’s vitals.” Along with his brother Lammot, John Raskob, and two others, du Pont underwrote salaries for Stayton and Curran out of a special fund he controlled. He made it clear to staff and colleagues that he was not interested in the reform of existing Prohibition laws, but in “getting back to first principles”—getting back to a Constitution that did not abide, much less require, government intrusion into the lives of citizens.
By the summer of 1928, when he resigned as chairman of General Motors, du Pont had thrown himself into the wet movement nearly full time. Following the principles of private stewardship he had established when he underwrote the construction of black schools, du Pont even conducted his own version of an election, personally soliciting a pro- or anti-Prohibition ballot from every voter in Delaware; the final tally showed wet opinion drowning dry sentiment by a margin of eight to one. (Nearly half the state’svoters sent in ballots—presumably a self-selected group overwhelmingly composed of people sympathetic to du Pont’s well-known position.) Closer to home du Pont sought the opinions of the three hundred caretakers, gardeners, household servants, and other members of his personal staff, soliciting them with a printed inquiry addressed “To Those Living at Longwood and Interested in Its Welfare.” They didn’t like Prohibition, either.
During that same season of Pierre du Pont’s waxing commitment to the wet cause, he helped his man Curran assemble an entirely honorary “board of directors” for the AAPA—men of stature who were willing to take a public position against Prohibition. While Stayton had kept members’ names secret out of a misplaced sense of propriety, du Pont and Curran saw that names—names edged in gilt and redolent of authority—would lend respectability to the AAPA’s efforts and perhaps induce a little awe as well. The chemical du Ponts and the oil Harknesses were soon joined by financial Harrimans, automotive Fishers, rubber Goodriches. Within two years an AAPA official could assert that the association’s ever-lengthening roster, now numbering in the hundreds, was composed of men who “direct the management of $40,000,000,000 and the employment and occupation of 3,000,000 employees.”
In the promising spring of 1928, though, when the Repeal effort was just beginning, it was victory enough to attract sixty-nine of America’s most eminent business and financial leaders willing to pledge their names to Pierre du Pont’s suddenly vital organization. For decades after, it became a matter of dispute between wets, drys, and historians sympathetic to one side or the other whether the AAPA’s outstanding recruitment campaign could be attributed to the deployment of one simple argument. On March 19, 1928, in a letter to William P. Smith, one of the very few non-family members he addressed by first name, du Pont explained that “the object of the Association is not merely the return of the use of alcoholic beverages in the United States.” He elaborated: “Another important factor is the tremendous loss of revenue to our Government through the Prohibition laws”—the revenue once collected through robust taxes on liquor and beer. With Repeal, du Pont told his friend Bill, “The revenue of the Government would be increased sufficiently to warrant the abolition of the income tax and corporation tax.”
“On the whole,” he concluded, “there is much to strive for.”
THERE HAD BEEN three salient reactions to Wayne Wheeler’s death. His enemies attempted to mutilate his legacy: “He made great men his puppets and they danced to his inexorable commands,” observed the Cincinnati Enquirer. His supporters venerated him, rendering him variously as an immortal crusader (“Although he is gone, his method, like John Brown’s soul, will go marching on,” sang the Omaha World-Herald) or as a warrior hero (according to a cartoon in the Ohio State Journal, he was Leonidas, the king of Sparta who held off tens of thousands of Persians with an army of three hundred—an odd image for a man who’d always claimed to represent a majority). But his direct heirs, the leaders of the ASL, immediately went after one another like wildcats before the body of the alpha male was cold.
It was an escalation of an internal battle over the direction of the ASL that had been joined in 1924, when Illinois superintendent F. Scott McBride, Wheeler’s candidate, was installed as national superintendent to succeed Purley A. Baker. Like Wheeler, McBride believed that Prohibition’s success lay in punitive enforcement. Unlike Wheeler, who had the will and the wit to engage his enemies as effectively as he inspired his allies, McBride was a dour, ponderous sort who seemed to have no greater responsibility than allowing the legislative superintendent—Wheeler’s title was never any grander than that—to do whatever he wished. When he read the ailing Wheeler’s opening statement at the Darrow debate in Carnegie Hall, McBride was playing a role that suited him well: ventriloquist’s dummy.
The other faction inside the ASL, led by publications director Ernest H. Cherrington, believed that law alone could not solve the drinking problem and continued to argue that proselytizing through education, publicity, and other means of persuasion was essential to long-term success. The Wheeler-McBride triumph over the Cherrington forces in 1924 was not without consequences. In 1926 John D. Rockefeller Jr., whose family had supported the league since its very beginning, shut off the financial tap. Rockefeller was particularly offended by the ASL’s support for a measure that would have required mandatory prison sentences for Volstead violators. The only donor whose contributions to the ASL over the years exceeded the Rockefellers’, merchant S. S. Kresge, also supported the Cherrington strategy. Kresge alone underwrote the expenses of the league’s department of education, which was under Cherrington’s control. But the party of punishment within the ASL was unimpressed by his generosity, unbowed by Rockefeller’s flight, and determined to pursue its retributive policy. Bishop James Cannon, who lined up with McBride, called for legislation that would make drink itself illegal and force buyers to testify against sellers, a proposal even Wheeler had not been able to support. By the summer of 1927, as Wheeler’s health deteriorated, internal friction ignited into open flame. The ASL felt compelled to issue a statement. “As in the case of most movements,” it said, “the League has had its own inside family problems with which to deal.”
Although Wheeler had lined up against the Cherrington faction, his accomplishments were so manifest and his magnetic field was so powerful that he had been able to effect a simmering truce between the warring blocs. With his death, the Cherringtonians made a last effort to seize control of the organization. Their cause had not been helped when detectives employed by Kresge’s wife found him in an apartment he maintained under an assumed name on East Forty-eighth Street in Manhattan, in the company of one Gladys Ardelle Fish, identified in the newspapers as a “stenographer.” This revelation received even more press coverage than the reckless-driving charge that Kresge had been hit with a few months earlier. Wet congressmen delighted in discussing the generous contributions of “the Kresge of many matrimonial difficulties,” a man “who has been adjudged a home wrecker in the New York Supreme Court.”
None of this helped the stature of the education-and-enlightenment faction, which saw its chance to steer the ASL away from the hard line slipping away; in fact, with Rockefeller gone and Kresge publicly disgraced, the hard-liners had little reason to accommodate the Cherringtonian point of view. Although Cherrington was the most reasonable, the most lacking in vainglory, and the most temperate—in the generic sense of the word—of the ASL’s leaders, the ascension of Cannon and McBride led him into an elaborate (and futile) conspiracy to tarnish Wheeler and his followers. Justin Steuart, who had been Wheeler’s research secretary, published a biography of his former boss casting him, as Steuart privately promised Cherrington, “in an uncomplimentary light.” It managed to praise his effectiveness while attacking his methods, and concluded with the pointed assertion that there was no successor remotely as capable as Wheeler anywhere in the organization.
Taking part in the assault on Wheeler’s reputation could not have been a comfortable undertaking for the otherwise judicious Cherrington. But no one in the directorate running the Anti-Saloon League in late 1927 and early 1928 was especially prudent in his behavior or showed himself to be particularly capable of leadership. “The Anti-Saloon League has lately shown marked signs of weakness,” a prominent wet lawyer named Julian Codman told Pierre du Pont, largely because “the Prohibition forces have been disorganized by the death of Wayne B. Wheeler.” H. L. Mencken, looking back, would see a deeper problem. Mencken may have loathed everything the ASL believed in, but he knew talent. “In fifty years the United States has seen no more adept a political manipulator” than Wayne Wheeler, Mencken wrote. “His successors, compared to him, were as peewees to the Matterhorn.”
THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION of 1928 has long been considered an unfortunate, or at least awkward, episode in American history. Because of anti-Catholic prejudice, Al Smith, the Democratic candidate, lost states that had never gone Republican. Herbert Hoover, his opponent, was elected on a seemingly unstoppable wave of Republican prosperity just months before the economy came crashing down in a rubble of pipe dreams, false riches, and market manipulation. In its own moment, the 1928 election was seen as a huge victory for Prohibition, the openly wet Smith crushed in an antiliquor surge that turned Congress drier than it had ever been. Eventually, though, the 1928 election would have to be seen as catastrophic for the drys, proving that political complications sometimes generate a fog that reduces visibility to zero.
Consider, for instance, the two constituencies that had the greatest stake in the Eighteenth Amendment and were thus implicit allies. No one had a stronger moral interest in Prohibition than the Baptist and Methodist clergymen who were its tribunes, but no one had a greater financial stake than the criminals who daily sought to undermine it. It’s not easy to prove that the big-time mobsters, on-the-take cops, corrupt judges, speakeasy operators, and all the other economic beneficiaries of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act gave their financial support to dry politicians. Researchers are unlikely to discover a canceled check made out to a political campaign and signed “Alphonse Capone.”
But however the dollars found their way from a mobster’s hoard of cash to a pol’s campaign treasury, the connection was inevitable, the logic unimpeachable. Partisans as disparate as Senator James W. Wadsworth (wet), Izzy Einstein (dry), the New York World(very wet), and Senator George Norris (very dry) all insisted this was the case. Said Jane Addams, “Doubtless all bootleggers would oppose a change in the law,” and doubtless Addams was right. In a 1922 Massachusetts referendum, the only counties voting to retain a state enforcement law were Barnstable (Cape Cod), Dukes (Martha’s Vineyard), and Nantucket—one jurisdiction surrounded on three sides by water, the others on all four, and each of them direct beneficiaries of the economic activity generated by the mother ships of Rum Row.* One of Roy Olmstead’s lieutenants gave $6,000 to the 1926 reelection campaign of the U.S. Senate’s most effective dry, Wesley L. Jones, and made at least one financial contribution to the WCTU as well. The bootleggers’ agents in government also collaborated with the drys. Big Bill Thompson, the utterly saturated mayor of Chicago (“I’m wetter than the middle of the Atlantic Ocean,” he bragged), threw his organization behind dry Senate candidate Frank L. Smith in 1926, and Thompson’s collection of pet congressmen included M. Alfred Michaelson, an outspoken House dry.
This was the same Bill Thompson whose portrait hung on the wall behind Al Capone’s desk; who was said to have collected more than a quarter of a million dollars from the Capone organization for his 1927 mayoral campaign; and who, having concluded his mayoral tenure with an annual salary of $18,000, left behind nearly $2 million in cash and cash equivalents at his death. Mob support of a wet like Thompson, and Thompson’s support of congressional drys like Smith and Michaelson, should not suggest a logical disconnect. Bootleggers required dry laws to keep legitimate businessmen out of the booze industry, and they needed wet administrations to keep the cops and other enforcement officials off their backs. The perfect combination: a dry Congress and state legislatures to pass the laws, and wet mayors and governors to not enforce them—in other words, something very close to the lineup in America’s most populous cities and states as the election of 1928 approached.
IN 1926 Rabbi Morris Lazaron polled fellow members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis to gauge their attitudes regarding Prohibition and to learn something about sentiment in their communities. There was a wide range of personal opinion among the 122 who responded, wrote historian Marni Davis, but “nearly every rabbi, from every region, asserted that only two groups seemed to favor Prohibition: evangelical Christians and bootleggers.”
The bootleggers may have sent unmarked bundles of cash to candidates for local and legislative offices every election cycle, but presidential politics was of little concern to them. The evangelicals, on the other hand, were neither disinterested nor shy. In the 1928 presidential race they became directly involved in electoral politics as never before.
It was not the Republican candidate who excited their interest. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who had become rich as a mining engineer in Australia and China, and famous as U.S. food administrator during World War I, was suspiciously worldly, and his record on dry issues was spotty. He once said he did not think 2.75 percent beer was an intoxicant, and during World War I he had opposed interim Prohibition measures. Had the Baptists and other fundamentalists in the dry vanguard known about the excellent wine cellar Hoover had acquired from the estate of Senator Leland Stanford, they might not have been mollified even by the knowledge that Hoover’s wife had given it away in 1919. They certainly would not have been pleased to know that on his way home from the Commerce Department, Hoover would stop to have his evening cocktails at the Belgian embassy, a daily ritual he would describe after Prohibition’s end as “the pause between the errors and trials of the day and the hopes of the night.”
Al Smith’s sweeping first-ballot nomination by the Democrats in 1928—he received nearly twelve times as many votes as the top dry candidate, Cordell Hull of Tennessee—appeared to extinguish the flames that had nearly consumed the party during the 103 bloody ballots of 1924.* At its Houston convention the party came together around the wet New Yorker at the top of the ticket; Senator Joseph Robinson, an Arkansas dry, as vice presidential candidate; and a platform that put the Democrats unequivocally behind an equivocal statement in support of “an honest effort to enforce the eighteenth amendment.”
But neither the facsimile of party unity nor the platform’s illusion of fealty to the law could make dry fundamentalists support the Democrats. Though Hoover was a semisecret drinker, Smith enjoyed his liquor openly (even if not to the degree asserted by the pro-Smith editor of the Nation, who said the governor enjoyed four to eight cocktails or highballs daily). Though Hoover, as Walter Lippmann wrote, “regards both wets and drys as substantially insane,” Smith made it plain whose side he was on. Though Hoover had the eager public support of Republican wets who were despised by the ultradrys—among them Lammot du Pont, James Wadsworth, and Pauline Sabin—he sent up the right semaphores (for “enforcement,” against “nullification,” and so on) while Smith offered the wrong ones (demanding “local self-government,” attacking “official corruption”). And though Hoover was a Quaker, which gave him little theological common ground with the fundamentalists, at least there was a history of temperance sentiment in American Quakerism. Smith, on the other hand, was a Catholic, and to the fundamentalists of the 1920s no affiliation, religious or otherwise, could have been more poisonous.
Al Smith’s candidacy gave bigots and xenophobes a perfect demon. In 1928 the crude impulses that had earlier ignited the rapid growth of the Ku Klux Klan now exploded among those “pure Americans” who saw themselves losing their nation to the Irish and the Italians and all the other foreigners crowding the big cities. Rev. Bob Jones made frequent use of a startling call to arms that year: “I would rather see a saloon on every corner than a Catholic in the White House.” If this didn’t make his feelings sufficiently clear, Jones’s alternative option certainly did: he declared that he would prefer “a nigger president” to the Catholic Smith.
The boiling hatred directed against Smith was intensified by the identity of his most prominent supporter, John J. Raskob, whom Smith installed as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Some of the more rabid fundamentalists could almost believe it was the other way around—that it was Raskob, who had voted for Coolidge in 1924 and was still listed in Who’s Who as a Republican, who had picked Smith as a stalking horse for a diabolical papist plot. First they would take over the Democratic Party, and then put the U.S. government into the hands of the Knights of Columbus, in behalf of the pope of Rome. It was the sort of speculation that could make a Catholic-hater quiver with the joy that can be induced only by the thrill of loathing.
Raskob may have been the wealthiest Catholic in the nation. In the minds of dry fundamentalists, this made him the most dangerous. Born poor, the son of a cigar maker in Lockport, New York, his career and his wealth progressed rapidly after Pierre du Pont hired him as a bookkeeper-stenographer at twenty dollars a week when Raskob was twenty-one. Over the next two decades he made tens of millions executing the reorganization of General Motors in Pierre du Pont’s behalf; then, once installed as chairman of the GM board’s all-powerful finance committee, he devised the company’s lending arm, the phenomenally profitable General Motors Acceptance Corporation. Raskob donated a well-publicized million dollars to the Diocese of Washington in February 1928 and gave investment advice to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Loretto Foundation, the North American College of Cardinals, and a capable young monsignor from Boston named Francis Spellman. The magazine Commonweal, founded in 1924 to combat populist anti-Catholicism, was to a large degree bankrolled by Raskob. Pope Pius XI memorialized Raskob’s contributions to the church’s welfare by naming him an honorary chamberlain in the Papal Household.
Bob Jones may have been the most quotable of those spewing their bile toward Smith, Raskob, and Catholicism during that 1928 campaign, but the chorus was substantial. Cotton Tom Heflin, sinking to lows even he had not achieved before, ranted on the Senate floor about Catholic priests who killed their babies, Catholic control of the Alabama press, and Al Smith’s plans to annex Mexico, presumably to establish a permanent Catholic majority in the United States. Some anti-Catholics resuscitated the “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” slogan that had languished unused since the 1884 presidential election, when Republicans cited this unholy trinity to damn the increasing Irish influence in the Democratic Party. After Raskob arranged to have Smith campaign headquarters moved into the General Motors Building in New York, just an elevator ride from his own office, the haters had evidence of their fancied Catholic conspiracy. (It was probably good for their nervous systems that they didn’t know about the $100,000 worth of RCA stock Raskob had given Smith.) A Klan-connected hate sheet called Fellowship Forum, which gave the lie to its anodyne name in every issue, reached a perverse apogee early in October, when it asserted that a Smith-led America would be “a vassal state of the Vatican and stink-slide of booze and corruption.”
Bingo! This was the magic formula: the conflation of the perfidious disloyalty of the Catholics and the shameless iniquity of the wets. Agents of religious and ethnic prejudice more artful than Fellowship Forum didn’t have to spell out the connection. Even so resolute a Catholic-hater as Bishop Cannon—the man who had famously called the Catholic Church “the mother of ignorance, superstition, intolerance, and sin”—preferred to describe Smith with a stand-in vocabulary. “Wet,” “New York politician,” “Tammany”—these became code for the one word never uttered by Smith’s presumably respectable opponents: “Catholic.”
Following ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, not one of the six men who ran for president on a major party ticket—Warren G. Harding, James M. Cox, Calvin Coolidge, John W. Davis, Herbert Hoover, and Al Smith—had been an unconflicted advocate of Prohibition. Smith, however, was the first who dared to run an openly wet campaign. Funded by an apparently unprecedented personal contribution of $690,000 in campaign funds and loan guarantees from Raskob, he attracted wets, particularly in the Northeast, who had never before voted Democratic. But a candidacy based in part on revocation of the Volstead Act allowed his enemies to gild their ugly religious prejudice with the relatively civilized language of the Prohibition debate. Smith recognized the perils built into the connection when exploitation of anti-Catholic prejudice reached its apogee in the fall, after the Republican National Committee sent Mabel Willebrandt into the fray. Until that point Willebrandt, seven years into her tenure as the most visible face of Prohibition enforcement, had not been terribly active in Hoover’s behalf. Most of what she did for the Republican ticket was subtler than open campaigning: for instance, while the Democratic convention was meeting in Houston, she had personally orchestrated a spectacular series of nightclub raids in New York on June 28, the very day Smith won the nomination. If the Democrat was embarrassed by this coup de theatre staged in his hometown, he did not say so. More likely he didn’t care.
But when the RNC decided to use the high-profile Willebrandt as an offensive weapon, it scored a direct hit. Her charge: address the Ohio convention of the Methodist Church. Her argument: “Tammany . . . underworld connections . . . New York . . . center of lawlessness . . .” Her plea: “There are 2,000 pastors here. You have in your churches more than 600,000 members of the Methodist churches in Ohio alone. That is enough to swing the election. The 600,000 have friends in other states. Write to them.”
There’s no evidence that the ever-zealous Willebrandt was herself anti-Catholic, or that she was conscious that her peroration, which never mentioned Smith’s religion, would be perceived as anti-Catholic; in fact, she would point out that “the speech to the Methodists,” as it became known, had been cleared in advance by the RNC’s general counsel, James F. Burke, who was himself Catholic. But the nature of the audience, and the string of code words, and the attempt to mobilize the gathered Methodists and turn them into an active-duty army for Hoover provoked from Smith a response that placed the religious issue at center stage, no doubt satisfying the drys’ most cynical operatives. Smith made his stand in Oklahoma City, where an ominous greeting had been provided by burning crosses in the nearby countryside, and was then spelled out when the pastor of the First Baptist Church declared that a vote for Smith was a vote against Jesus Christ. In his speech Smith assailed the Ku Klux Klan, the Republican Party, a renegade Democratic senator, and Mabel Willebrandt for turning his faith into a political issue. Their conduct, said Smith, was “a treasonable attack upon the very foundations of American liberty.”
Reports on the speech appeared on front pages across the country. Republicans responded by blaming Smith for introducing religion into the campaign. Willebrandt, addressing another group of Methodists two days after his Oklahoma City speech, said the Democrat was “afraid to come out and face the record that he has made as a champion of the liquor traffic.” This election, she and other dry Republicans insisted, was a referendum on Prohibition.
Except it wasn’t. “Available evidence suggests that opposition to Smith’s Prohibition policy served as a cloak for opposition to his Catholicism,” wrote Allan J. Lichtman in Prejudice and the Old Politics, his exceptionally careful statistical reading of the Hoover-Smith race. But after the polls closed in 1928, the raw numbers made the exultant drys declare the election their greatest victory since the Eighteenth Amendment itself. Hoover, candidate of the drys—he had declared in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention that Prohibition was “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose”—amassed a landslide margin in the Electoral College of 444–87, the largest majority in more than sixty years. Bishop Cannon’s ad hoc Conference of Anti-Smith Democrats was strong enough in the South to peel five eternally Democratic states from their shared history and hand them to Hoover. An exultant Scott McBride of the ASL—which had, for the first time in its history, endorsed a presidential candidate—said that the rout of Al Smith guaranteed that the Democrats would never again nominate a wet. Even more gratifying to the ASL and its allies, Americans had elected the driest Congress ever, with top-heavy margins of 80–16 in the Senate and 329–106 in the House. Of the forty-eight governors, forty-three were drys.
Yet these numbers were impressive only insofar as they threw up a smokescreen; in Lichtman’s phrase, it was a “phony referendum.” Not only had anti-Catholic prejudice been a much more potent issue than Prohibition, but neither mattered as much as the eight years of Republican prosperity that would have ensured a Hoover victory over any Democrat. Buried beneath the landslide was a stack of data suggesting that the drys had counted the wrong ballots. In states where the issue could be separated from such complications as party, personality, or the pope—when it was simply a matter of voters choosing whether to live under the protection of the dry law or break free of the hobbles it imposed on their lives—the news for the drys was not good. While only 40 percent of Montanans voted for Smith, 54 percent voted against a statewide Prohibition enforcement law. In Massachusetts, where Smith won barely 50 percent of the vote, a state enforcement repeal measure passed by nearly two to one. Nor was this countertrend confined to the first Tuesday in November. Five months before the presidential election, statewide repeal had captured 48 percent of the vote in North Dakota—North Dakota!—where Prohibition had been embedded in the state constitution for four decades. Six months after Hoover beat Smith by nine points in Wisconsin, a 63 percent majority tossed out that state’s enforcement law. Americans may have voted against Al Smith in 1928, but that didn’t mean they were voting for Prohibition.
The most meaningful consequences of Smith’s campaign lay just beyond the vision of the drys who celebrated his defeat. Soon they would realize that, if anything, his devotion to the disembowelment of the Volstead Act had initiated what would become a major realignment of the parties. Catholics flocked to Smith, of course, but so had other wets who finally had a candidate willing to fly their banner. In an era when Republican machines controlled Chicago, Philadelphia, and other urban centers, the Democrats for the first time ever carried the nation’s ten largest cities. A candidate appealing to new citizens and other hyphenates drew nearly twice as many votes as had either James Cox in 1920 or John Davis in 1924—two Democrats who hadn’t dared embrace the wet cause.
Historian Daniel Boorstin once wrote, in another context, that there is a difference between a political machine and a political party. He could have been writing about the Democrats of 1928. A machine, wrote Boorstin, “exists for its own sake; its primary, and in a sense its only, purpose is survival.” A party, on the other hand, “is organized for a purpose larger than its own survival”—by way of example, for a cause. There were several reasons why the ideological coloration of the national Democrats began to change so rapidly starting in 1928, but a critical one was rooted in the campaign of Al Smith. By openly waving the wet flag, a man who had emerged from the nation’s most notorious machine had initiated the radical reinvention of his soon-to-be-dominant party.
* The creation of these gardens was emblematic of the spare-no-expense construction of the Sabin dream house. Convinced that Bayberry Land did not have sufficient topsoil for the elaborate plantings she envisioned, landscape designer Marian Coffin purchased an entire nearby farm, harvested its fertile soil, and hired a convoy of trucks to transport it to Bayberry Land.
* Wheeler was somewhat milder here than he had been a few months earlier, when he claimed that Butler supported a program “soaked in avarice, lust, and rum,” and that he belonged “with the boot-leggers, rum-runners, owners of speak-easy property, wet newspapers, underworld denizens, alcoholic slaves and personal liberty fanatics in his fight to bring back booze.” Informed of Wheeler’s comments, Butler replied, “It sounds as if something had happened to trouble him.”
* Some might argue that less self-interested reasons—religion, ethnicity, political attitudes—explained this phenomenon. But inland counties similarly composed of English and Scots-Irish Protestant stock, and also equally Republican in politics, voted against the enforcement law.
* Another potential wet candidate who stepped aside for Smith was Jim Reed of Missouri. Reed had probably not helped his chances when he accepted a $100,000 retainer, plus $1,000 a day, to defend the superdry Henry Ford in a libel suit.