THE FOUR-YEAR MARCH from the stock market crash to Repeal would turn out to be steady and irresistible, but that wasn’t what most wets expected. As late as January 1932 many wet leaders and sympathetic journalists were still unconvinced that it was possible to secure a Twenty-first Amendment to unravel the Eighteenth. For one thing, in more than 140 years of constitutional history, not a single amendment had ever been repealed. Beyond that, as Charles Merz of the New York Times’s editorial board wrote, the imposing math faced by advocates provided “a devastating argument against the possibility of repeal.” On top of the two-thirds vote needed in each house of Congress (which could be stopped by just thirty-three dry senators), the requisite concurrence of three-quarters of the states was beyond daunting. Ratification would require the positive action of both houses in each of thirty-six state legislatures. Thirteen of those seventy-two separate entities “could block repeal forever,” Merz wrote in March 1931. “These thirteen bodies, rightly apportioned, could exist in states containing approximately 5 per cent of the country’s population.”
That same winter, the eloquent James Montgomery Beck, who had come to refer to Prohibition as “this ghastly farce,” asserted that “the Eighteenth Amendment cannot be repealed within a decade and possibly not within a generation.” Clarence Darrow pointed out in November 1931 that thirty-four U.S. senators represented states that were “hopelessly dry,” and another twenty came from the “likely” dry, including such unpromising states as Alabama, Texas, Indiana, and Georgia.
Darrow and Beck both believed that the “ghastly farce” could be ended only through revocation of the Volstead Act. That would require simple majorities in Congress and a presidential signature, which were daunting prospects in themselves. The possibility of achieving the much higher thresholds required by a Repeal amendment was a delusion. This grim reality, said Darrow, “should convince the most stupid and optimistic Wet that if he can never buy a drink without repealing the 18th amendment, he had better start right in learning to make his own.” Someone who saw Repeal as the only solution is “not against Prohibition,” he concluded. “He’s in favor of liquor, but against getting it.”
Drys were no less convinced of the impossibility of Repeal. Gifford Pinchot, William G. McAdoo, and Jane Addams loaned their names to a new organization so certain of the continued popularity of Prohibition that members confidently called for a national referendum on the subject. (Just in case, a few drys tried, with some success, to persuade African-American voters that repealing the Eighteenth Amendment could open a path to revoking the Twelfth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth.) In September 1930 Morris Sheppard, author of the Eighteenth Amendment, said, “There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.” Few argued.
It was one of those moments when all the experts are wrong and wisdom arises from unlikely sources. Like, for example, from the members of the Union League Club in Manhattan, who were building a new clubhouse on Park Avenue and Thirty-seventh Street and had placed a bet on the future by including a “large, sumptuous bar” in their plans. “We hope and expect to see Prohibition end very soon,” a member of the club’s house committee said in February 1931. “Prohibition cannot die any too soon for us.”
THE SEERS CONTEMPLATING Prohibition’s future were not the only people making predictions as the dry era entered its late stage. In October 1929 Irving Fisher, the Yale economist who had remained Prohibition’s leading intellectual defender, offered a comment that would earn him a place in American memory far more enduring than would his groundbreaking work on interest rates or even his loopy statistical analyses of beer’s effect on the ability to memorize poetry. “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau,” said Fisher on October 15, nine days before the earth gave way on Black Monday. At least he truly believed it: his considerable fortune, invested in the market, followed the Dow Jones Industrial Average into a death spiral.
This was a grave setback for the credibility of the dry movement’s favorite scholar, but the effect of the Crash and the Depression on dry goals extended beyond personal humiliation. As businesses came apart, as banks folded, as massive unemployment and homelessness scoured the cities and much of the countryside, any remaining ability to enforce Prohibition evaporated. President Hoover, trying to balance the budget while a hurricane rattled the scales, slashed funding for the already overburdened federal court system. The Prohibition Bureau cut agents’ per diem from six dollars to five, and live training sessions were replaced with correspondence courses. The new Prohibition commissioner, a chemist named James M. Doran, had begun his tenure insisting he needed $300 million to enforce the law. But with no more than $12 million made available to him, Doran defaulted to the reflexive optimism pioneered by his predecessor, Roy Haynes. Here’s the good news, said Doran: in Prohibition’s first nine years, the government had spent some $141 million on all forms of enforcement while collecting more than $460 million in fines, penalties, and taxes—a profit, he boasted, of precisely $319,323,307.76.*
With an argument like that, it’s a wonder Doran didn’t get his $300 million. A government running on fumes could have made good use of a humming, for-profit business on the side. It had not taken long for the Depression to corrode the inflow of federal tax collections. Revenue based on 1930 incomes was down 15%; the following year saw a 37% drop, and the year after that another 26%—compounded, it was a vertiginous 60% plunge in just three years. Capital gains taxes that had brought $1.5 billion into the treasury between 1926 and 1929 dove into negative territory over the next five years as the allowance for capital losses piled up. At the same time demand for government spending—for relief, for reconstruction projects, for anything to restart the comatose economy—was soaring. Al Capone poked his finger in the eyes of both the drys and the feds when he opened a soup kitchen on South State Street, serving five thousand meals to hungry Chicagoans on Thanksgiving. He apparently had more resources, and more heart, than the people who ran the country.
BESIDES CAPONE AND his fellow mobsters, one other cadre of Americans saw a way to turn the economic catastrophe to their advantage. For decades historians of Prohibition have debated the motivations of Pierre du Pont, John Raskob, and their colleagues in the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. The argument that they backed Repeal to slash their own tax liabilities was first offered by embittered drys and was consequently dismissed as desperate partisanship. It is also undeniably true that du Pont, Raskob, et al., had other reasons to despise Prohibition, specifically its intrusion on individual liberties and its evisceration of states’ rights. These were, in fact, the same arguments many of them employed in their across-the-board opposition to woman suffrage, direct election of senators, the income tax amendment itself, and a pending amendment that would give Congress the power to prohibit child labor. As far as John Raskob was concerned, every one of those measures was “a mistake,” and collectively explained why “strong men” didn’t get involved in politics.
Still, the record clearly establishes that the strong men who ran the AAPA—“almost a Du Pont subsidiary,” said Senator Arthur Robinson of Indiana—clearly intended to maim, or possibly even murder, the income tax, and the Depression handed them a weapon as potent as World War I had been for the drys. Or, to invoke another historical analogy: the organized drys had supported the income tax back in 1913 in order to breathe life into Prohibition. Now, this group of powerful and well-funded wets sought to kill Prohibition so that the income tax might die as well.
The idea did not emerge from the AAPA itself. As early as 1923 Wall Street Journal publisher Clarence W. Barron, in one of the homespun “Wall Street Seminars” he periodically published in his newspaper, said giving up on Prohibition would enable the government to “collect $2,000,000,000 per annum from drink [and] abolish the income tax.” (Barron also insisted that throughout human history only “regulation and taxation” had been successful in the fight against intemperance.)
By 1925 the pre–du Pont AAPA had tentatively picked up a sliver of the idea for its recruitment letter. The pitch was direct: “You will save in reduced taxes, after the Volstead Law is modified, whatever sum you contribute now.” The next year Irénée du Pont told William Stayton that General Motors would save $10 million in taxes each year with the return of the alcohol levies. Stayton determined that if Americans consumed the same amount of alcohol they had in 1914, and if it were taxed at the same rate used in Great Britain, net revenue to the government would reach $1.32 billion.
The AAPA’s embrace of the tax issue was to some extent the inevitable outgrowth of the group’s composition, largely plutocrats, aristocrats, and the politicians who served their interests. (Drafts of AAPA form letters that turned up in a Senate investigation were addressed “Dear Mr. Multi-Millionaire.”) James Wadsworth, for one, argued against a broad membership campaign; that would increase “the danger,” he said, that “we might get some undesirables.” In the lexicon of the AAPA, “undesirables” was a rather loose term. William Stayton told colleagues, “I simply went sick” upon learning that the membership department “had recommended that we go after licensed automobile owners.” He wasn’t speaking about those who owned automobiles and hired others to drive them around. “You may have ridden some Saturday or Sunday from Annapolis to Baltimore,” Stayton explained, the italics apparent in his voice if not on the page, “and have seen a parade of the auto owner in his shirt sleeves.” An organization with this sort of worldview wasn’t likely to tailor its appeal to the broad electorate. Replacing a graduated income tax with an excise tax, as Irénée du Pont proposed—specifically, a three-cent tax on every glass of beer—would be of substantial value only to the wealthy. The working poor and the unemployed would finance tax relief for the rich.
The AAPA’s publicity campaign was centered on pamphlets with such titles as What Price Prohibition? (answer: with the return of legal alcohol, “the necessity of levying income taxes would be eliminated”), Does Prohibition Pay? and The Cost of Prohibition and Your Income Tax. The last, which was the organization’s most widely distributed piece of literature, was perfect for its year of publication, 1929. By 1932, as the Depression plunged toward its devastating nadir, it was superseded by an AAPA handout that spoke more urgently to the historical moment: The Need of a New Source of Government Revenue. The authors didn’t have to look far to identify one, as Pierre du Pont made clear in a radio address that summer: “The income tax would not be necessary in the future,” he said, “and half the revenue required for the budget . . . would be furnished by the tax on liquor alone.”
That was for public consumption; privately he was even more direct. “The Repeal of the XVIIIth Amendment would permit Federal taxation in the amount of two billion dollars,” Pierre du Pont wrote to his brother Lammot in April 1932. After four years of active engagement in the Repeal cause, he didn’t mention states’ rights, individual rights, or any similarly lofty notions. “Such taxation would almost eliminate the income taxes of corporations and individuals,” he concluded. “I feel sure that you will agree that this is of great importance.”
IN LATE 1928 E. B. White wrote an essay that touched on the amount New York City was spending “to enforce prohibition, which does not exist.” A few months later the New York Telegram posed the question “Where on Manhattan Island can you buy liquor?” The paper’s answer: “In open saloons, restaurants, night clubs, bars behind a peephole, dancing academies, drugstores, delicatessens, cigar stores, confectioneries . . .” It went on with thirty-one other suggestions, including paint stores, malt shops, and moving-van companies. “Times certainly are different,” a housewife in lower Manhattan told an interviewer. “In the old days you never would have thought of buying your wine at the fish store.”
New York was distinctive, but by 1930 it was not nearly as distinctive as it had been. The Wickersham Commission reported, “As things are at present, there is virtual local option” throughout the country. The editor of the Hutchinson News in Kansas, a longtime dry, acknowledged the tenth anniversary of Prohibition by admitting that “there is ten times as much drinking in Kansas today as there was ten years ago . . . and consumption is increasing rather than diminishing.” The following year, when the Saturday Evening Post declared that the bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1920s was dead, Malcolm Cowley knew why. “It was dying,” he wrote, “because women smoked cigarettes on the streets of the Bronx, drank gin cocktails in Omaha, and had perfectly swell parties in Seattle and Middletown.” The Greenwich Village way of life—the pleasurable mingling of both sexes, usually accompanied by music, always accompanied by alcohol—had been taken up, Cowley said, “by salesmen from Kokomo and the younger country-club set in Kansas City.” He almost sounded disappointed.
In places where anything but neutral grain alcohol was hard to come by, grocery stores offered a flavoring substance called Peeko, available for seventy-five cents in rye, gin, rum, cognac, crème de menthe, and several other varieties. Just add these “perfect, true flavors” to your grain alcohol, the advertisements said, and drink up. On a far greater scale, the moonshine industry made some legitimate businesses vastly successful. Production of corn sugar, as essential to moonshine as grapes were to wine, soared from 152 million pounds in 1921 to 960 million pounds eight years later. In one four-year period Standard Brands Inc. sold 64,000 packages of Fleischmann’s Yeast in Richmond, Virginia, population 189,000. But in Franklin County, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, where the population was only 24,000 (and, the Wickersham Commission reported, ninety-nine out of a hundred residents were involved in the moonshine business), Fleischmann’s moved 2.25 million packages in the same four years. It was not just a southern phenomenon. A single wholesale grocer in Rockford, Illinois, took delivery of two to three railroad carloads of corn sugar every week. Prohibition officials announced that they had seized 35,200 illegal stills and distilleries in 1929, plus 26 million gallons of mash, but judging from the amount of liquor washing over the country by that point, it was as if they had plucked a few blades of grass from a golf course.
Another source of liquid refreshment popped up around this time—the Vino Sano Grape Brick, a solid, dehydrated block of grape juice concentrate mixed with stems, skins, and pulp. The size of a pound of butter, it came in a printed wrapper instructing the purchaser to add water to make grape juice, but to be sure not to add yeast or sugar, or leave it in a dark place, or let it sit too long before drinking it because “it might ferment and become wine.” For those a little slow on the uptake, newspaper ads indicated the choice of flavors: port, sherry, Tokay, burgundy, and so on. The gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond told the New York Times, “It sounds like a good racket to me.”
The big-time California grape producers thought so, too. After the makers of Vino Sano survived a court challenge—what they sold contained no alcohol, and home manufacture for personal use remained legal—they were joined in the market by Vine-Glo. Produced and marketed by Fruit Industries Limited, a consortium of five of the largest pre-Prohibition wineries, Vine-Glo was a much more sophisticated product. A Fruit Industries agent would deliver a varietal grape juice (the accustomed Tokay, burgundy, “claret,” and so on) to the buyer’s home in five-, ten-, twenty-five- or fifty-gallon cans, add yeast and citric acid, and insert a tube to vent off gases. Every few weeks the agent would stop by to monitor progress; after sixty days he would arrive with bottles, foil capsules, corks, and labels, even tissue to wrap the bottles in.
As refined as Vine-Glo’s service was, its advertisements were no more subtle than Vino Sano’s: “Barreled in charred kegs . . . from the presses of the wineries in California . . . What will you have?” A trade ad said, “Vine-Glo has delivered a new message to the American public. A message it has been awaiting for ten years.” It even had its own celebrity endorser. Arthur Brisbane, the Hearst editor who had bought the Washington Times with brewery money during World War I, provided a blurb for a Fruit Industries handout: “The Grape Growers are not held responsible for the laws of nature, which seem to have no sympathy with Prohibition, and turn innocent Grape Juice into Wine.”
Outside the home, especially in the big cities, public drinking places became more civilized. “Speakeasies have run away with the cream of the dinner trade,” according to Harper’s. Restaurants that stayed dry were doomed not just because of public tastes, but also by labor economics: because tips in speakeasies were so much larger, so was the earning power of their waiters and chefs; this attracted the best in the business. Hotel traffic was up a bit, as a lawyer for the American Hotel Association told a Senate committee, because of customers who “sought refuge from this law behind the guest’s door.” But hoteliers found that “our furniture and rooms were being damaged and destroyed.” The solution to one form of furniture abuse was an invention born of Prohibition necessity: the “combination corkscrew–bottle opener, which may be fastened to a door jamb in the bathroom or otherwise.”
Another child of late Prohibition was the “cruise to nowhere,” aka the “booze cruise,” aka the “weekend whoopee cruise.” Whatever its name, it was the precursor of the luxury cruise business. These out-and-back trips, their destination a spot in the sea just beyond U.S. territorial waters, were among the first offerings of the United States Lines after American ships were privatized in 1929. The Leviathan, which ran cruises of four days’ duration when it wasn’t on a transatlantic crossing, had its own shipboard brewery. So did the George Washington, a fact that became slightly embarrassing after the U.S. delegation to the 1930 Arms Conference in London (secretary of state, secretary of the navy, three ambassadors, two senators) booked passage on it. Both the Grace Lines and the International Mercantile Marine Company built large liners accommodating as many as 750 revelers strictly for what was euphemistically called “the intercoastal trade.”
What once was hidden had burst into the open. The term of art for what was happening across the nation was “social nullification.” Coverage in the increasingly wet press flaunted evidence of the changing ethos. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example, waxed enthusiastic about the Mounds Country Club across the river in Illinois. The Mounds was described by its promoters as “a high-class night club to take care of a long-felt want.” The crowd was “strangely inclusive,” running from ex-cons and professional gunmen to “Social Register folk” and “the newly rich.” Winking broadly to its readers, the paper reported that “wealthy St. Louisans on occasion smuggle champagne into the bone-dry interior of the club, and, miraculously keeping it a secret from the waiters, pop corks against the ceiling, and toast the cock-eyed world.”
The new openness spread beyond the news and editorial columns. Ads for Vine-Glo and Vino Sano ran in tiny type in papers as small as the Havre, Montana, Daily News Promoter and with bold headlines on full pages in papers as substantial as the Washington Star (where Fruit Industries said it wanted to take “a product that has always been available on the farm and place it within the reach of the city dweller”). In 1930 Vanity Fair ran a cigarette ad featuring a stylish woman with marcelled hair accepting hors d’oeuvres from a waiter while holding a martini—you can see the olive—in her other hand. Books of cocktail recipes came from respectable publishers, including one who offered former senator Jim Reed’s own formula for “pumpkin gin.” (Cut a hole in pumpkin, remove seeds, pack with sugar, seal top back in place with paraffin. In thirty days, the sugar and the meat of the pumpkin would be “transformed into a high-powered gin.”) One of these books named its various concoctions for their impact—for instance, the Bridge Table (gin, brandy, apricot brandy, and lime juice), which was “so named because after a few of these your legs will fold up.”
BACK IN 1927, when Major Maurice Campbell was named federal Prohibition administrator for the New York district, he made it clear that he believed in the Eighteenth Amendment, that he was a teetotaler, and that he intended to conduct a “dignified and just” enforcement effort. He did not approach the open drinking culture of Manhattan timorously. In the ensuing three years Campbell led raids on nightclubs belonging to Texas Guinan and the torch singer Helen Morgan; on the Ritz-Carlton and Manger hotels; and on Mayor Jimmy Walker’s favorite playpen, the Central Park Casino, in each instance either arresting waiters and bartenders or shutting the place down. In April 1930 Campbell appeared to cap off his career when he and his men swept through the Hollywood, a stylish nightclub at Broadway and Forty-eighth Street, and arrested twenty-seven people—sixteen employees and eleven patrons, all of them in evening dress, who happened to have liquor in their possession. Campbell said the “Hip Flask Raid,” as it would become known, “is the first instance in which persons in possession of intoxicating liquor in public places have been arrested. But if the practice is not discontinued in New York,” he warned, “it will not be the last.”
The raid turned out not to be the biggest moment in Campbell’s public life after all. That came five months later, after he had either resigned because of lack of support from the Justice Department or had been fired for what was characterized as “nonfeasance” (the evidence supported the former interpretation). Campbell soon became the first high-ranking Prohibition official to make a public airing of the corruption, hypocrisy, and political sleaze permeating the federal enforcement program.
In a series of articles commissioned by the New York World and syndicated in several other papers, Campbell revealed that Assistant Treasury Secretary Seymour Lowman had asked him to resume the distribution of more than two million gallons of “sacramental” wine as part of a Republican effort “to obtain the Jewish vote in New York City.” Lowman had also told him, Campbell said, that New York had become “too dry” in 1928, that it was a presidential election year and “we mustn’t do anything to antagonize the voters.” Campbell even fingered Vice President Charles Curtis for trying to aid an industrial alcohol scheme cooked up by Curtis’s 1928 campaign manager; a month later the man—a former saloon owner, as it happened—was indicted for trying to import “sheep dip” from the Netherlands that turned out to be 95 percent alcohol. Lowman and Curtis made the customary denials and countercharges, but Campbell had copies of memos that confirmed many of his accusations. Summarizing his own situation, Campbell said, “I am out of it all, and it is like coming out of a cesspool and breathing fresh air.” He then became the editor of a magazine called Repeal.
The Campbell series, appearing just weeks before the 1930 congressional elections, didn’t help the dry cause. Neither did a second newspaper blockbuster by bootlegger George Cassiday (aka the Man in the Green Hat), who maintained that he had regularly sold liquor to “a majority of both Houses [of Congress]” and that his typical congressional customer “had a capacity of two or three quarts a week.” The risible reelection candidacies of the Leaky Luggage caucus—Representatives Morgan, Michaelson, and Denison—didn’t help either; all three were defeated. But much of the huge wet gain that November (in the House alone the wet roster jumped overnight from 76 to 146) could be attributed to the Depression. The Republicans were held responsible for the economic catastrophe; the Democrats were the beneficiaries of the public’s anger; and, outside the South, the Democratic Party (John J. Raskob, chairman) was now demonstrably wet. Traditionally Republican states like Ohio and Illinois sent wet Democrats to the Senate in 1930. Even Kansas—Kansas!—replaced a dry Republican with a wet Democrat.
At the same time, a wet rebellion had been bubbling on the Republican side. Most of the men of the AAPA were Republicans, and the party organizations in some of the eastern states where they had the greatest influence (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut) endorsed Repeal in 1930. So did the Republicans of Wisconsin. When the Washington state party declared itself wet, it was a repudiation of the state’s leading Republican, Senator Wesley Jones, sponsor of the notorious Jones Law. Republican drys were routed in Michigan, where the former head of the state ASL was denied a fifth term in the House by a wet primary challenger. And just six days before the general election, members of the Women’s National Republican Club, founded by Pauline Sabin in 1921, had voted 1,391–197 for Repeal. After the wet victories a week later, Sabin said, “I do think our little organization did something to perfect this wet landslide.”
Her “little organization,” however, was not the WNRC; it was the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, the child of Sabin’s meeting with eleven friends in the days after Herbert Hoover’s disappointing inaugural address. Her departure from the Republican Party had been big news. The New York Times ran it above the fold on the front page, and it appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Constitution, and the Washington Post. Even the Los Angeles Times, faithfully dry, gave Sabin’s defection page-one display. The people she soon pulled into the WONPR guaranteed that the group would not stay out of the papers very long—socially prominent women whose names defined them better than any adjectives could: Mrs. Archibald B. Roosevelt and Mrs. Courtlandt Nicoll, Mrs. E. Roland Harriman and Mrs. Cornelius M. Bliss, Mrs. Cummins Speakman and Mrs. Coffin Van Rensselaer.
At first it appeared that the women’s pedigrees would subject them to ridicule, and in some respects their customs and habits did work against them. At the initial national organizational meeting, in the Drake Hotel in Chicago, the minutes suggested something out of a Helen Hokinson cartoon in The New Yorker: “Mrs. Stuyvesant Pierrepont gave a most interesting and satisfactory report of her progress in the State of New Jersey.” Volunteers who signed up in the District of Columbia were described in the press as “the inner circle of exclusive Washington society.” Sabin was discussed in terms that likely had never before been used to describe the leader of an American political movement. A profile in McCall’s reported that she was “fond of sports suits, wears purple and blue well, and usually affects pearl lobe earrings.” It said her “color sense is unfaltering,” as evidenced by her office walls of “pale green, harmonizing with salmon pink curtains.” The Atlanta Constitution informed its readers that “she plays golf and dances, but swimming is her favorite recreation, indulging to her heart’s content in this latter exercise at The Oaks, her plantation near Charleston.” Vogue ran a piece headlined “Anti-Prohibitionette.”
Sabin knew that this was exactly the sort of thing that would help her movement succeed. In the early days every speech, every interview, every piece of congressional testimony was publicized in a way that gave her words extra weight simply because of the unlikely identity of the speaker. When the Chicago Tribune quoted one particular Sabin attack on Prohibition, it explained: “These vehement words were spoken, you must remember, not by the old fashioned type of platform termagant, but by a lady sitting in her beautifully appointed drawing room—rare books, good pictures and rich tapestries all around her. They were spoken by . . . a ‘society woman’ who . . . might with clear conscience be playing around at Miami Beach or on the Riviera, instead of directing 15 secretaries, planning nation-wide campaigns, answering bundles of letters and speaking twice a week at public meetings.”
In other words, Pauline Sabin was making it respectable to say things few women felt comfortable saying in public. When she assailed the “scandalous intrusion of the church into matters of legislation,” the fact that it was Pauline Sabin—elegant, refined, fabulously wealthy Pauline Sabin—doing the saying enabled other women to find their voices. A leader of the Missouri chapter of the WONPR described the phenomenon well. Not so long ago, said Mrs. Clifford W. Gaylord, being a dry “seemed to have such an overwhelming blanket of responsibility and being a Wet seemed to have quite the opposite. You know, there are a lot of women who may be morally courageous and socially without courage. In other words,” she concluded, with a knowing sense of the crowd she had joined, “if Mrs. Perdoodle who stood for certain social standards will take a definite stand out in the open, all the Mrs. Dusenwackers will follow.”
With every Sabin appearance or press interview, the aura surrounding the WONPR grew brighter. In one twelve-month span Sabin proselytized in thirty-one states—no picnic for a woman who, on an earlier cross-country trip, had called Kansas “very uninteresting,” declared the wealthy town of Aiken, South Carolina, a bore, and pronounced San Francisco’s social elite “provincial.” But while Vanity Fair celebrated “the Sabine women,” whom it considered “beautiful, cultured, and practical to their finger-tips,” the drys had other descriptions for them. D. Leigh Colvin of the Prohibition Party picked up Vanity Fair’s mythological theme and called them “Bacchantian maidens parching for wine” who “would take the pennies off the eyes of the dead for the sake of legalizing booze.” The American Independent, a dry publication in Kentucky, eschewed classical references. The women of WONPR were “no more than the scum of the earth, parading around in skirts, and possibly late at night flirting with other women’s husbands at drunken and fashionable resorts.”
Obviously, something was working; the drys wouldn’t waste ammunition like this on an unworthy target. An early demonstration of the group’s clout emerged in the District of Columbia in 1930. A severe enforcement bill was pending before the Senate committee that governed the district when the women of WONPR came calling. “No more unusual gathering was ever seen at a Capitol hearing,” the Washington Post reported in its lead story on page one. “Women whose names stand out prominently in the social register . . . outnumbered the men in the room four to one. These were grandmothers, matrons and debutantes, all pledged to a war on prohibition.” When their testimony concluded, the paper said, “there was every evidence that the bill was dead.”
And so it went around the country. Unlike their counterparts in the AAPA—many of them their husbands—the Sabine women did not restrict membership. By 1933 the WONPR claimed more than 1.3 million members. In Evanston, Illinois, where the WCTU was headquartered near Frances Willard’s hallowed Rest Cottage, a special WONPR campaign signed up 1,500 new members in a single week. The WCTU, which continued to maintain that the woman suffrage amendment guaranteed the permanence of Prohibition (“As long as the Nineteenth Amendment stands, the eighteenth will stand also!”), instead watched the political empowerment of women become Prohibition’s undoing. “The real strength of the Sabin organization,” said Time, “lies in the desire of the small-town matron to ally herself, no matter how remotely, with a congregation of bona fide, rotogravure society figures.”
When a member of the Lynbrook Women’s Republican Club on Long Island denounced Pauline Sabin as “a traitor to her country” and demanded withdrawal of a speaking invitation that had been extended to her, the club’s president would have none of it. “I would rather resign my office than withdraw the invitation,” wrote Mrs. John T. Gibbons, “for that would reflect on our breeding.” She directed this harrumph to Herbert Hoover himself. “I have always been in the ranks of the Drys,” she told the president, “but sentiment is changing.”
THE SAM BRONFMAN who rose to address the stockholders of Distillers Corporation-Seagrams Limited at their annual meeting in 1930 was not much different from the Sam Bronfman who had traveled by dogsled across western Ontario fourteen years earlier. At forty-one, his hairline had receded some more, and there’s no question that he had acquired a little more polish. But Bronfman had always spoken with more eloquence than most high school dropouts, just as he had always been more combative than most prizefighters and cockier than most roosters.
Those qualities had brought him to a place almost unimaginable for an ill-educated Russian-Jewish immigrant who’d been raised on the prairies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. His family controlled the largest distilling firm in North America, and Sam controlled his family. The two-year renovation of the brick mansion he had purchased on Belvedere Road in Montreal’s Westmount section had just been completed. The staff attending to Sam, Saidye, and their children included a butler (Saidye called him “the Prince of Belvedere Road”), a cook, three maids, a laundress, a gardener, a chauffeur, a nanny, and a “mademoiselle.” Furnishings, menus, and manners were modeled on the look of the houses and the social rituals of the women Saidye encountered on European trips. Imitation went several steps further in the company headquarters Sam built on Peel Street in downtown Montreal. An unlikely pile of limestone topped with crenellations and turrets, its thick walls punctuated by stained glass, carved figures, and stone coats-of-arms, it was Sam’s idea of a Scottish baronial castle. The entrance featured a spiked portcullis; the interior, a portrait of Robert Burns.
Nicholas Faith, in his history of the Bronfman family, called the Peel Street building “a ludicrous tribute to Mr. Sam’s beloved Scots.” This was a love so great that when Bronfman talked about “the old country,” he had Scotland in mind, not his native Russia. It was a trope he used often. At the 1930 annual meeting, he referred to the Scotch lords of the Distillers Company as “our old country friends.” That was before he got to the main item on his agenda—in Sam’s precise phrasing, “certain legislation enacted by the late government which adversely affected the whole distilling industry by closing one of its most profitable markets.”
What he was referring to was the Export Act of 1930. For nearly nine years the American government had been pressuring the Canadians to cut off the southward movement of liquor. During that period whiskey exports to the United States that were legal under Canadian law—that is, exports on which duties were paid on leaving the country—ballooned from 8,335 gallons a year to more than 1.1 million gallons. This was a very small portion of the illegal liquor available in the States, but to the Justice and Treasury departments it was embarrassing evidence of their ineffectuality. From the Canadian perspective, it was a very big deal: the liquor export taxes accounted for some 20 percent of all Canadian revenue collections, both federal and provincial, and were essentially being paid by American consumers. Pierre du Pont would likely have been pleased to learn that in 1929, Canada’s alcohol export tax brought in twice as much as its income tax. And this fine civic contribution was provided without any assistance at all from the bootleggers who were running the stuff across rivers and lakes and land borders without stopping at the customs office to pay the duty.
With their own government a prime beneficiary of the liquor industry, Canadians saw no reason to support the U.S. government’s enforcement of a law far stricter than Canada’s own Prohibition codes, almost all of which had in any case expired. A few years earlier, when a Coast Guard cutter in hot pursuit of a Lake Erie rumrunner ran aground near Port Colborne, Ontario, it was looted and ransacked by a crowd of locals, its wiring cut, its cylinders filled with sand. If anything, the Canadian public had since grown even less sympathetic to U.S. Prohibition. Were Canada to help the United States enforce its Prohibition laws, a Toronto newspaper suggested, it “would show itself to be the simpleton in the family of nations.” A headline in the Ottawa Journal declared “U.S. Enforcement, Like Charity, Should Begin at Home.” One of the few demurring opinions came from Sir Henry Thornton, president of the government-owned Canadian National Railways. Said Thornton, “I think our policy should be to assist the Government of the United States in every way to make that country bone dry.” But Thornton’s interest lay in fostering the booming liquor tourism business, which brought more than three hundred million American dollars to Canada in 1929, or nearly quadruple the 1920 figure. “The dryer [the U.S.] is,” Thornton concluded, “the better it will be for us.”
Eventually the Canadians surrendered and passed the Export Act, making it illegal for Canadians to ship alcoholic beverages to countries that banned their sale. Thornton was no doubt delighted—but so, it turned out, was Sam Bronfman, who told Seagram shareholders, “Your Company’s earnings are 50 percent greater than those of last year,” before passage of the Export Act. Even though profit margins were down, he added, “the actual volume of business has been considerably increased.” He did not say this, but the fulcrum of Seagram’s unexpected success had been relocated fifteen miles off the coast of Newfoundland, in the accommodating harbor of St. Pierre. Legal goods could no longer be cleared to depart Canada for the United States, but St. Pierre was part of France. As a result, wrote Canadian journalists James Dubro and Robin Rowland, “the island was used to launder Canadian liquor.”
For the Bronfmans and the other distillers who took advantage of the St. Pierre laundry facilities, the island eventually proved doubly advantageous. Goods could leave Canada, make a pit stop on the island, then head for a revitalized Rum Row. But the bootleggers could also smuggle their goods back into Canada from St. Pierre, avoiding the nine-dollar-a-gallon domestic excise tax.*
For American drinkers and American bootleggers, the Canadian Export Act turned out to be a tiny bump in the road. St. Pierre serviced the East Coast perfectly well. Liquor was also still coming over the land border in the eastern and western states by automobile (in Maine, an American official maintained, bootleggers were even pumping booze into their tires, “alcohol in this manner replacing air”). The booze fleets on Lakes Ontario and Erie expanded. Liquor prices did jump briefly in Detroit, and the U.S. government made one of its periodic announcements that the smuggling traffic had disappeared from the nearby river. But Detroit soon emitted one of its periodic giggles, and was once again drenched in booze as gigantic quantities arrived by train in Windsor and moved onward through the rail tunnel. In December 1930 the American consul general in Halifax informed the State Department that these trainloads were disguised as shipments of lumber, pulpwood, fish, even live lobsters. Customs agents presumably could stop them—but, the consul wrote, sighing the discontented sigh that for more than a decade had been emitted by nearly every government official who had tried to enforce this impossible law, “many of these agents are not as scrupulous as they might be in regard to liquor smuggling.”
THE HOLES IN the dike grew larger, and more numerous as well. Each time the president, the Prohibition Bureau, or any other agency announced a new effort, brought in new resources, or negotiated a new understanding with other governments, the flood of illegal alcohol found a new (and often more efficient) conduit.
Even the biggest, most publicized victories were essentially useless—for instance, Herbert Hoover’s successful effort to put Al Capone in jail. Hoover had received a delegation of Chicago civic leaders two weeks after taking office and was shocked by their description of life in their city. He determined, he later wrote, “that Chicago was in the hands of gangsters, that the police and magistrates were completely under their control, that the governor of the state was futile, that the federal government was the only force by which the city’s ability to govern itself could be restored. At once I directed that all the Federal agencies concentrate on Mr. Capone and his allies.” Hoover authorized the Treasury and the Justice departments to spend whatever was necessary to put Capone in jail. Another Hoover—the young J. Edgar—was urged to join the Capone posse by his friend and sponsor Mabel Willebrandt “as a personal matter of great importance to me.”
Eliot Ness and his Untouchables did manage to disrupt the Capone organization’s beer trade for a while, chiefly by using a ten-ton truck equipped with a steel ram to smash through the walls of illicit breweries, Ness directing the operation from the passenger seat, wrote one biographer, with a football helmet on his head. Capone was finally imprisoned in 1931, after the IRS won his conviction for income tax evasion (no thanks to Ness, whose involvement in the case was limited to putting Scarface/Snorky on the train to the Atlanta Penitentiary, or to J. Edgar Hoover). But the only palpable result was a rush of delinquent returns suddenly filed by nervous mobsters, hustlers, and other Chicago bad guys—according to the IRS, “more than double the amount collected from that source in the preceding year.” To the extent that the Capone operation was at all weakened, rival mobs soon satisfied Chicago’s thirst. Certainly no diminution of scale occurred: among the establishments serviced by gangster Roger Touhy’s fleet of trucks were two enormous roadhouses that each served more than six hundred barrels of beer every week.
Worse, the strain imposed by increased federal police activity led to the next development in the organization of organized crime. Two years after John Torrio’s 1929 peace conference in Atlantic City, at virtually the same time that the warden in Atlanta was preparing for the arrival of his famous new inmate, mob bosses from twenty criminal families gathered in Chicago to formalize a national conglomerate under the authority of a permanent ruling body called the Commission. “Prohibition had been the catalyst for transforming the neighborhood gangs of the 1920s into smoothly run regional and national criminal corporations,” wrote Selwyn Raab in The Five Families. Men who had started out “as smalltime hoodlums . . . graduated as underworld Leviathans. Bootlegging gave them on-the-job executive training.” It had also given them a structure that would dominate criminal activity in the United States for nearly half a century.
WHILE THE AAPA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars pressing its antitax case (and, it should be acknowledged, its arguments in behalf of states’ rights, individual rights, the sanctity of the Constitution, and respect for the law); while Pauline Sabin and the WONPR made the Repeal cause respectable, even fashionable; while the government’s enforcement efforts remained pointless and its diplomatic efforts turned futile; while there was more drinking, and talking about drinking, writing about drinking, winking about drinking, more everything about drinking (except, perhaps, for more discretion about drinking)—as all this moved the possibility of Repeal from the realm of the unimaginable toward the province of the conceivable, one last roadblock began to crumble. The ASL and the other components of the dry coalition, already strapped for leadership since Wheeler’s death and Cannon’s disgrace, began to run out of influence, money, and will.
Even Mabel Willebrandt could not be counted on any longer. After leaving the Hoover administration, she picked up a few substantial clients (including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the precursor of American Airlines) and wrote a lengthy series of articles, later turned into a book, reflecting on her years in office. She didn’t waver in her support for Prohibition but did offer despairing words about New York that she might have applied to much of the country: “It cannot truthfully be said that prohibition enforcement has failed in New York. It has not yet been attempted.”
Then she lost control of her own story. The news that Willebrandt had met with the king of the rumrunners, Bill McCoy, while still in office, was marginally embarrassing. (The embarrassment was in fact less Willebrandt’s than McCoy’s. To combat rumors suggesting he had informed on others during their meeting, she agreed to send him a letter asserting that he had not done so, and authorizing him “to use this statement as you see fit.”) It was a more substantive revelation that brought Willebrandt low: the news that one of her clients was Fruit Industries Limited, the California grape conglomerate that made and marketed Vine-Glo.
Mabel Willebrandt was “straight as a string,” said an Alabama official who had gotten to know her during the Mobile prosecutions. But in the fashion of so many former Washington officials, she had turned her intimacy with the levers of government into a lucrative law practice. When she signed on with Fruit Industries, they were marketing grape jellies, grape juice, grape candy, grape syrup, anything that could be made from the mountainous crops that accumulated each fall as a result of the overplanting of mid-decade. Her greatest coup was helping Fruit Industries secure a twenty-million-dollar loan from the Federal Farm Board—a loan, it turned out, that would help them launch their home winemaking business.
Oh, did this thrill the wets! Al Smith congratulated Fruit Industries for “hiring so competent a person as Mabel,” and saluted her for “collect[ing] a beautiful fee for making the Volstead Act look like 30 cents.” Father Charles Coughlin, the demagogic radio priest, referred to Willebrandt as Fruit Industries’ “legal guardian.” A cocktail recipe book called Noble Experiments described “The Mabel Fruit Punch,” a concoction made from rum, applejack, and “California pure concentrated Grape juice.”
At first drys came to her defense. Ruth Strawbridge of Philadelphia, a wealthy dry crusader whom Willebrandt once said had “made dry parties stylish,” sent a comforting letter. Learning about the Vine-Glo connection, wrote Strawbridge, “led me to say to myself: ‘Well, no matter what it is, it is right, because she did it.’ ” In meetings with Ella Boole of the WCTU, Scott McBride of the ASL, and other dry leaders, Willebrandt insisted that she remained committed to the cause. But in November 1930 a top Fruit Industries official sent out a press release announcing Vine-Glo’s introduction into the Chicago market: “Upon my arrival in Chicago this noon,” wrote Donald Conn, “I was informed that bootleggers and racketeers had served notice upon us that the marketing of Vine-Glo would be resisted.”
Conn could not have found a more newsworthy way to indicate that his product was aimed at those looking for an intoxicating kick from their grape juice. He underscored the point by apparently telling some newspapermen he had hired bodyguards to protect him from Capone gunmen. “Here was an announcement from the California housetops for all the country to hear,” wrote Carlisle Bargeron for the front page of the Washington Post. “There must be something in that California grape juice if it could compete with Al Capone’s beer and alky.” An apoplectic Willebrandt shot off a telegram to Conn: EFFECT OF THIS DISTORTION IS TO CREATE IMPRESSION THAT FRUIT INDUSTRIES . . . IS STOOPING TO COMPETE WITH BOOTLEGGERS SUCH INFERENCES BY WET PRESS UNFAIR AND DAMAGING.
Unfair, perhaps; damaging, definitely. A California pharmacist began advertising his stock of Vino Sano as “Mabel’s Grape Bricks.” Three weeks later angry members of the National Temperance Council, a coalition of the leaders of the major dry organizations, attempted to bar Willebrandt from even addressing them. At a time when the dry forces could have used someone with Willebrandt’s grasp of the issues and her command of the podium, she effectively disappeared from the public debate. Drys instead found themselves lining up behind hysterics and haters. At that same meeting of the Temperance Council, the group’s president, longtime ASL stump speaker Rev. Ira Landrith, exceeded even Bishop Cannon’s frothing rhetoric. The wet movement, he thundered, was “a greater danger than open rebellion.” Metropolitan newspapers, overwhelmingly wet, were promoting “heresy.” Members of the AAPA were “traitors.”
The more extreme the ASL’s stance, the greater the flight of its supporters. Even Richmond Hobson, whose perorations against the “Great Destroyer” had started the Eighteenth Amendment on its way back in 1914, quit the dry movement altogether. “When people are ripe for reform, the laws will take care of themselves,” he told a reporter. “Until then, they are useless.” Other allies were hounded out of the dry camp: although Senator George Norris of Nebraska had been loyally pro-Prohibition for more than a decade, drys opposed his reelection in 1930 because Norris, believing other issues more crucial to his state, had backed Al Smith two years earlier. Worried that association with the league was hurting his business in major cities, S. S. Kresge finally withdrew his support.
With the large checks disappearing, the ASL became more dependent on small ones. But these had disappeared into the same canyon that had devoured the economy. While the deepening Depression had made the Repeal argument stronger—it would bring not just more tax revenue but, in reborn breweries and distilleries, more jobs as well—it brought the ASL to the edge of collapse. In the summer of 1931 the Washington office had to cancel its newspaper subscriptions because it was unable to pay the bill. Management and staff took salary cuts or forwent payment altogether. National superintendent Scott McBride, “greatly embarrassed in my account at the bank,” pleaded with the accounting office for a half-month advance on his salary. Ernest Cherrington told McBride in August that payment obligations were “almost staggering.” By November, rent on the Washington office was four months overdue and the landlord was threatening eviction. By January, at its headquarters in Ohio, the ASL’s last lifeline was severed when the Bank of Westerville, long the league’s source of short-term credit, became insolvent and locked its doors.
Back in 1920, with Prohibition firmly situated in the Constitution and the Volstead Act already embedded in the law, the Anti-Saloon League spent $2.5 million in support of its cause. In 1933, as both that cause and the ASL faced a desperate emergency, it brought in a total of $122,000 to fund its activities, a brutal 95 percent decline. The most powerful pressure group the nation had ever known had been reduced to looking for nickels under the couch cushions.
THERE WAS NO specific signal to indicate that the accumulated frustrations, enmities, and fears that had gathered around the Prohibition debate were finally about to send Morris Sheppard’s hummingbird zooming off to Mars with the Washington Monument as its payload. One could have pointed to the plunge in Coca-Cola’s stock price and the company’s ham-handed effort to convince the capital markets that the return of beer and liquor would not affect its business. Perhaps the rolling chant of “We want beer!” that interrupted Herbert Hoover’s address on the economic crisis at the American Legion convention in 1931 was the turning point, or maybe it was Michigan’s quiet effort to try to solve its fiscal predicament by placing a tax on malt syrup and other home brewing supplies (well they might: tax receipts soon indicated that Detroiters were producing twenty-eight million gallons of homebrew annually). In Washington the Supreme Court that had expanded federal power in the 1920s began to veer the other way, even declaring the warrantless search of a garage constitutionally unacceptable. In the South it could have been the widely publicized discovery by a Kentucky member of the WONPR that Jefferson Davis had written a letter in 1887 declaring his steadfast opposition to the idea of Prohibition. Davis had called it “a wooden horse” harboring “a disguised enemy to state sovereignty.”
But at a time when the nation was mired in the deepening ruts of the Depression, those paying attention to the economy would have recognized the impending shift when the National Distillers Corporation declared its “whiskey dividend” in September 1932. The company, which controlled the rights to more than twenty-five well-known brands, promised shareholders a case of pre-Prohibition whiskey for every five shares owned—deliverable, it said, in the fall of 1934, or earlier if legally possible. The company’s confidence that it could expand beyond the medicinal market arose from the widely shared conviction that Franklin D. Roosevelt, carrying the twin flags of Repeal and relief, was well on his way to election.* A reductionist version of the Democrats’ argument was offered by Representative John C. Linthicum of Maryland, a leading House wet: with Repeal, said Linthicum, the Depression “will fade away like the mists before the noonday sun.” And at the same time, he promised, “The immorality of the country, racketeering, and bootlegging will be a thing of the past.” Even southern Democrats moved toward the wet column, including such previously hard-line drys as Alben Barkley of Kentucky and Hugo Black of Alabama.
More astonishingly, many of the Republican aristocrats who had initiated the Repeal movement came out in support of the Democratic candidate. Roosevelt’s open declaration that the legalization of beer would “increase the Federal revenue by several hundred million dollars a year” certainly pleased Pierre du Pont. Sabin required no persuading. “It has been said that the Democratic candidate is a very recent convert to the cause of Repeal because of political expediency,” Sabin declared. “It cannot be said that up to this date, the Republican candidate is a convert to Repeal for any reason.”
For Sabin 1932 had first been marked by a triumphal tour of the South, where she and some of the other social notables of the WONPR (including Pierre du Pont’s wife, Alice) had dazzled the clubwomen of Charleston and Atlanta. “Mrs. Simons V. H. Waring Gives Tea For Dry Reform Delegates,” read the headline on the society page of the Charleston News and Courier. In Atlanta the Constitution ran stories anticipating Sabin’s visit and then reporting on it. “A woman of fine intelligence and breeding is Mrs. Charles H. Sabin,” the paper said in the first story; unsurprisingly, said the second, le tout Atlanta “packed the ballroom of the Biltmore” for the event.
By summer Sabin and her organization (including new recruit Emily Post) had made the permanent leap from the society pages to the front lines of the presidential campaign. In June, sabin was honored at the Democratic convention when it passed the Repeal platform; in July she persuaded the WONPR to endorse Roosevelt. Time put her on the cover, elegant pearls around her delicate neck. When a splinter group of steadfast WONPR Republicans issued a statement protesting the Roosevelt endorsement, Sabin said, “I can find no comfort in this petition. But perhaps the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals, and Bishop Cannon will.”
Soon dry Republicans fed up with the futility of enforcement, Hoover’s temporizing, and a nearly unintelligible platform plank that Walter Lippmann called “a smoke screen of dry slogans” also began to list toward the wet side. The party’s new recruits to the cause of Repeal ranged from the teetotaling John D. Rockefeller Jr., whose June 6, 1932, abandonment of the drys was one of the year’s biggest news stories, to former representative M. Alfred Michaelson, who had apparently reformed his politics to match his tastes in the years since officials in Florida had apprehended his soggy luggage. Word of Rockefeller’s conversion—motivated, he said, by the “colossal scale” of criminal activity—elicited dry reactions ranging from thrashing anger to excruciating bathos (former representative W. D. “Earnest Willie” Upshaw begged him not to help “DuPont and Raskob destroy the eighteenth amendment that was wrapped in your good mother’s prayers ”). But Rockefeller was followed into the Repeal camp by Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors and tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone. By the end of the campaign, Republicans desperate for anything that might secure their election in the face of the coming Democratic tide clambered to the side of Repeal, among them the senator whose name was attached to the most vengeful of Prohibition laws, Wesley Jones of Washington.
Except that very few mainstream Republicans, and quite a few Democrats as well, actually said they were supporting Repeal. Continuing the chronic chorus of euphemism that had so long afflicted the debate, they said they supported “submission ” of a Repeal amendment to the states. It was the same dodge, employing exactly the same weasel word, that drys had used when the Eighteenth Amendment was pending: they weren’t imposing their will, just giving the people, through their state legislatures, the chance to decide. Back then it was the way a politician could be dry without being dry; now it was the way some of the same politicians, and many others, could be wet without being wet.
Eight days before Roosevelt’s inevitable landslide victory and the expected repopulation of Congress with clear wet majorities, the board of management of the Century Association (including George W. Wickersham of the noncommittal Wickersham Commission) met in their Stanford White–designed clubhouse on West Forty-third Street in Manhattan and voted to appropriate five thousand dollars to the house committee for the purchase of wine. On Election Day an exultant Louis M. Martini tied down the cord to the steam whistle at his Napa Valley winery for fifteen loud and joyous minutes. And on December 28, 1932, the board of directors of Anheuser-Busch authorized fifteen thousand dollars for the purchase of a team of Clydesdales “for advertising purposes.”
THE TWENTY-FIRST AMENDMENT to the Constitution of the United States, which came up for debate in Congress in February 1933, was even more concise than the Eighteenth. The key words were the fifteen that opened it: “The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.” The remaining two clauses outlawed the transportation of intoxicating liquors into states that chose to forbid it and stipulated a ratification process requiring approval not by state legislatures but by state conventions called for this specific purpose. The latter idea was the contribution of a group of wets, led by New York attorney Joseph H. Choate Jr., who were mindful of the complications of legislative schedules and the continued domination of state legislatures by rural minorities.
On February 14 Morris Sheppard rose on the floor of the Senate and began a one-man filibuster. After eight and a half hours he gave up; senators waiting to vote had resolved to outlast him. The final tally was 63–23 in favor of the Repeal resolution. Of the twenty-two members who had voted for the Eighteenth Amendment sixteen years earlier and were still senators, seventeen voted to undo their earlier work. Two days later the House dispatched the measure after just forty minutes of debate, by a vote of 289–121.
On March 4, the day the new president took the oath of office and declared that the only thing America had to fear was fear itself, the Anti-Saloon League rented out one of the rooms in its hotel suite to out-of-towners who had come to Washington to celebrate the inauguration. The ASL thereby enriched its diminished treasury by two dollars.
On March 16, at Franklin Roosevelt’s request, the new Congress revisited the linguistic debates of 1919 and came up with a reformulated definition of “intoxicating.” The legislation was formally captioned “a bill to provide revenue by the taxation of certain nonintoxicating liquors,” but you couldn’t have the revenue without the redefinition. Effective April 7, except in those states that expressly forbade it, beer that was no more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight would be legal. Breweries and bottlemakers, coopers and hop farmers, trucking firms and ice plants and dozens of other businesses immediately began to recruit thousands from the ranks of the unemployed. Coca-Cola, fearing competition, actually considered producing “Coca-Cola Beer,” in both light and dark varieties. When April 7 arrived, the Budweiser Clydesdales made their debut, delivering a case to Al Smith in New York. Another Budweiser team pulled up to the White House only to discover that other breweries had gotten there first. The CBS radio network broadcast beer celebrations across the country. In Milwaukee a blanket license was issued to 4,207 taverns precisely at midnight. In Baltimore, H. L. Mencken lifted a stein to his lips, drained its legal contents, and pronounced it “pretty good—not bad at all.”
Despite all the beer and liquor that had been floating Manhattan for several years, only in the spring of 1933 did “Satan’s seat,” as Bishop Cannon called it, truly return to its pre-Prohibition ways. This happened, said newspaperman Stanley Walker, when “the proprietors of nightclubs and speakeasies began to suggest to the agents who had been their guests over the years that it was about time they began paying for what they ate and drank.”
THE FIRST STATE convention to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment acted on April 10, in Michigan; one of the delegates was Martin S. McDonough of Iron River, the former prosecutor who had stood up to Alfred V. Dalrymple and his armed agents during the “Rum Rebellion” of 1920 . For his part, Dalrymple had just been named the last head of the Prohibition Bureau, a position Roosevelt would abolish four months later. In his final days on the job, Dalrymple would tell reporters that had the ASL been willing to accept legalization of light wines and beer, “the eighteenth amendment would have remained in the Constitution for 100 years.” J. Edgar Hoover refused to bring soon-to-be-unemployed Prohibition agents onto his own force; they just weren’t up to FBI standards.
By midsummer, fourteen more states had ratified. At the New York convention, broadcast live by NBC and CBS, Governor Herbert Lehman saluted Pauline Sabin “and her devoted army of women who have so valiantly fought towards our common goal.” Al Smith presided over the convention, his nomination seconded by the state Republican chairman, who lauded the “distinguished Democrat and statesman.” Elihu Root, now eighty-eight, “enjoyed the Repeal Convention very much,” he told a friend. “Nobody seemed to remember that it was his duty to hate anybody else, and that made the occasion both novel and refreshing.”
There were a few hitches. Mississippi balked, some of its anti-Repealists summoning familiar tropes from the turn of the century. Because of Prohibition, said Judge William M. Cox at a Jackson rally, “many a white woman has been saved from the polluting touch of lustful vengeance, and many a Negro man has been saved from the gallows or the flames.” But the South was not solid, and when Arkansas, Alabama, and Tennessee all ratified during the first two weeks of August, any lingering uncertainty ceased to linger.
Businesses both licit and not took note. National Distillers, whose stock had traded as low as $17 a share in 1932, saw its price leap to $115 in July 1933. Grain prices on the Chicago Board of Trade soared. On St. Pierre the Bronfmans had already told their local négociant they would no longer lease warehouses for any period greater than ninety days; in July the island was drained of 973,000 cases of liquor by the last of the rumrunners, racing toward their final payday. In October a Napa County newspaper reported that not a single railcar had departed the valley for the East. The entire harvest was being turned into wine.
On December 5, at 3:31 p.m. local time, Utah became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Repeal amendment. At the age of thirteen years, ten months, and nineteen days, national Prohibition was dead. (The Mormon Church wasn’t happy, but it was accepting; when the president of the church addressed the convention, said the Salt Lake Tribune, he resembled “Marc Antony at the burial of Caesar.”) The official bootlegger in the Maryland State House was formally dismissed the same day. Pierre du Pont and the men of the AAPA celebrated in the Jade Room of the Waldorf in New York, where du Pont presented his fellow Repealists with commemorative highball glasses filled with “cocktail material,” as his instructions had specified, ladled from a sterling silver bowl.
Pauline Sabin and the women of the WONPR marked the occasion with a dinner at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. No alcohol was served, but that didn’t mean that attitudes toward alcohol were retreating toward the furtive tippling of the pre-Prohibition decades. There could have been no clearer demonstration of the domestication of drink than the appearance of brewery advertisements in the Delineator, a popular women’s magazine mostly known for bringing the famous Butterick sewing patterns into hundreds of thousands of American homes. One ad showed a curly-headed little girl serving a foaming Pabst to a man who is evidently her grandfather. Fifteen years earlier a similar pair might have been portrayed in a rather different scene: the grandfather at the bar of a saloon, slumped over in a stupor; the little girl in tears, begging him to come home.
* The unnaturally cheerful Doran was adept at finding positive signs in the crumbling edifice of Prohibition. In 1928 he had told a convention of the National Beauty and Barber Supply Dealers Association that the Eighteenth Amendment had done wonders for male grooming: “Under Prohibition the average man has more money to spend,” Doran said, “and since he cannot spend it legally for liquor he spends it for shaves, facials, haircuts and manicures.”
* In one of the surpassing (and at times tragic) ironies of Prohibition, the tax-dodging Canadian distillers had some competition: American liquor shipped north to Canada, similarly out of reach of the Dominion tax collectors. It was vastly inferior to the Canadian goods, in fact almost corrosively raw, but the cutting plants that created it (there were an estimated 150 in the cutting racket in Detroit alone) made few claims in its behalf beyond its sheer potency. This was not a new business; back in 1926 a batch of northbound wood alcohol originating in Buffalo left forty-one people dead on the other side of the Niagara River.
* Roosevelt had waffled on the issue for years, but once he embraced the wet cause he was unstinting in his support for it. On the other hand, his wife was a committed dry who had been outspoken in her advocacy of the Eighteenth Amendment for years. The daughter of an alcoholic, Eleanor Roosevelt did not allow wine to be served at her dinner parties, disapproved of her husband’s indulgence in cocktails, and in 1927 wanted the state police to raid the Hudson Valley farm of an uncle who was overly free with his liquor.