Monday, August 23, 2010

“The quantity is naturally indefinite,” Or, Prohibition and its discontents

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Earlier this summer I read, all in a rush, Daniel Okrent’s wonderful history of Prohibition, Last Call, and ever since, I’ve been taking note of mentions of the ban in the books I read.

First, there’s John O’Hara, in The Girl on the Baggage Truck (1960), looking back on that period:
All this was thirty years ago, as remote-seeming to many people today as the Gay Nineties had seemed to me. New York now is as different from New York then as New York then was from London. The one pervasive factor in all our lives was Prohibition, which made lawbreakers of us all and gave a subtly conspiratorial, arcane touch to the simple act of dining out. Even that was phony, for there were only a few speakeasies which you could not talk your way into, where you had to be known.
Apparently it wasn’t so easy in upstate New York--at least if this scene from Edmund Wilson’s gin-soaked novel of bohemian life in 1920s New York, I Thought of Daisy (1929), is accurate:
“I’m sorry that I can’t offer you a drink--but the only things we can get around here are apple and alcohol, and both of them are vile. We’ve finally come to the conclusion that it’s really more considerate to the guests not to offer them anything at all!”--“We hoped you might bring something with you,” said Daisy, looking up with her sweet candid smile. She was dealing out white plates around a table in the middle of the room. I apologized for not having thought of it. “We never think of it ourselves--if you can believe me,” Pete insisted. “It’s almost impossible to get any kind of decent liquor--in New York or anywhere else--and the kind of drinks that you can get just don’t interest me!” I agreed with him heartily and added that the trouble with New York was that everybody there drank far too much bad liquor. “That’s why we came to the country,” said Daisy. “We decided that it was that or the drunkard’s home!”
The British never quite understood the very American experiment that was Prohibition, and who better to flaut the law than Winston Churchill? William Manchester, in his biography of Churchill, The Last Lion (1983), quotes a diary entry from Winston’s son, Randolph, from a trip to America with his father in 1929:
We are now in the ship bound to Seattle, American soil and Prohibition. But we are well-equipped. My big flask is full of whisky and the little one contains brandy. I have reserves of both in medicine bottles. It is almost certain that we shall have no trouble. Still if we do, Papa pays the fine and I get the publicity.” Papa would have been hit by both; he had a case of brandy in stone hot-water bottles.
On a later trip, in 1932, an auto accident--Churchill was hit by a car as he crossed 79th Street at the edge of Central Park--provided the perfect pretext for his doctor to, as Manchester puts it, rescue him
from the hardship of Prohibition with a note on his stationery: “This is to certify that the post-accident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits, especially at meal times. The quantity is naturally indefinite but the minimum requirements would be 250 cubic centimeters [slightly over eight ounces].”
That white lie, and its malign effects, was the sort that John O’Hara had in mind when he launched into a fire sermon on the period in his novella Imagine Kissing Pete (1960):
We had come to our maturity and our knowledgeability during the long decade of cynicism that was usually dismissed as “a cynical disregard of the law of the land,” but that was something else, something deeper. The law had been passed with a “noble” but nevertheless cynical disregard of men’s right to drink. It was a law that had been imposed on some who took pleasure in drinking by some who did not. And when the law was an instant failure, it was not admitted to be a failure by those who had imposed it. They fought to retain the law in spite of its immediate failure and its proliferating corruption, and they fought as hard as they would have for a law that had been an immediate success. They gained no recruits to their own way; they had only deserters, who were not brave deserters but furtive ones; there was no honest mutiny but only grumbling and small disobediences. And we grew up listening to the grumbling, watching the small disobediences; laughing along when the grumbling was intentionally funny, imitating the small disobediences in other ways beside the customs of drinking. It was not only a cynical disregard for a law of the land; the law was eventually changed. Prohibition, the zealots’ attempt to force total abstinence on a temperate nation, made liars of a hundred million men and cheats of their children; the West Point cadets who cheated in examinations, the basketball players who connived with gamblers, the thousands of uncaught cheats in the high schools and colleges. We had grown up and away from our earlier esteem of God and country and valor, and had matured at a moment when riches were vanishing for reasons that we could not understand. We were the losing, not the lost, generation. . . . We knew everything, but we were incapable of recognizing the meaning of our complacency.
Given such an anomie--to say nothing of the booze that underlies it--it’s no surprise that O’Hara can be relied on in the matter of hangovers. In Appointment in Samarra (1935), he presents a memorable account:
He had felt physically worse many times, but this was a pretty good hangover. It is a pretty good hangover when you look at yourself in the mirror and can see nothing above the bridge of your nose. You do not see your eyes, nor the condition of your hair. You see your beard, almost hair by hair; and the hair on your chest and the bones that stick up at the base of your neck. You see your pajamas and the lines in your neck, and the stuff on your lower lip that looks as though it might be blood but never is. You first brush your teeth, which is an improvement but leaves something to be desired. Then you try Lavoris and then an Eno’s. By the time you get out of the bathroom you are ready for another cigarette and in urgent need of coffee or a drink, and you wish to God you could afford a valet to tie your shoes. You have a hard time getting your feet in your trousers, but you finally make it, having taken just any pair of trousers, the first your hands touched in the closet. But you consider a long, long time before selecting a tie. You stare at the ties; stare and stare at them, and you look down at your thighs to see what color suit you are going to be wearing. Dark gray. Practically any tie will go with a dark gray suit.
And with that, it’s time to toss back a chaser of water, with a toast to Aristotle, who I believe liked to say, as cocktail hour approached in ancient Athens, “All things in moderation, my friends--including all things in moderation.”


  1. I've always admired this Prohibition commentary from John Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer:

    "Of course what you kids dont realize," said Hildebrand, "is that the difficulty under prohibition is keeping sober."

  2. And I have always admired a man who knows how to wear a fez--and not let the fez wear him.