New Yorkers have always had a love affair with liquor. Not that this makes them any different from the rest of the nation. Consider, for instance, all the names Americans have given to the stuff: booze, the ardent, the stimulating, juice, giggle juice, tangle-legs, fire water, hooch, diddle, tiger’s milk, rotgut, coffin varnish, crazy water, and the oil of joy. And there are plenty more.
And the terms we have used for “drunk”: drenched, pickled, plastered, soused, snookered, crocked, squiffy, oiled, lubricated, loaded, primed, sloshed, stinko, blotto, flushed, cockeyed, and (a good nautical phrase) three sheets in the wind. And that’s just a beginning. To which I’ll add my late friend Vernon’s charming way of indicating a lush: “a bit too fond of the grape.”
All of which suggests a widespread social phenomenon, with attendant joys and woes. Earlier texts have already touched on the matter: Alcoholics I have known (vignette #12); Texas Guinan and her speakeasies (post #83); and Mayor Fernando Wood (“Fernandy”) and an earlier attempt at Prohibition (post #85). So now we’ll take the bull by the horns, or maybe the mug by the handle.
There were always saloons in the city, but they weren’t called that at first. A “saloon” in the mid-nineteenth century was a large public room or hall. Thus the ladies’ saloon on a steamboat was for respectable ladies and their male escorts; it was a refuge from noise and intemperance, and very, very dry. So what were the terms for what we today call a saloon? Grog shop, groggery, pothouse, gin mill, gin shop, dram shop, rum shop. But whatever it was called, it did a good business.
On every corner in the slums was a liquor grocery. Inside a typical one you could find piles of cabbage, potatoes, squash, eggplant, turnips, beans, and chestnuts; boxes containing anthracite, charcoal, nails, and plug tobacco, to be sold in any quantity from a penny’s worth to a dollar; upright casks of lamp oil, molasses, rum, whisky, brandy, as well as various cordials manufactured in the back room; hanging from the crossbeams overhead, hams, tongues, sausages, and strings of onions; and here and there on the floor, a butter cask or a meal bin. At one end of the room there was usually a plank stretched across some barrels, and on it some species of grog doled out at three cents a glass, and behind it on the wall, shelves with a jumble of candles, crackers, sugar, tea, pickles, mustard, and ginger. Finally, in one corner there might be another short counter with three-cent pies kept smoking hot, where patrons could get coffee also at three cents a cup and, for a penny, a hatful of cigars. Offering all that a tenement household might need, these places were well patronized by the locals, both men and women, and their mix of products show how drinking and grocery shopping and socializing were all jumbled together in a rich and complex tangle. Not fertile grounds for prohibitionists, one might think.
But prohibitionists there were, if not in Babylon on the Hudson, as some ministers were wont to call the Empire City, but in upstate rural counties and elsewhere, as for instance Maine, where the legislature in 1851 passed what would become known as the Maine Law, prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages except for medicinal and industrial purposes. Many states followed suit, and seemingly for good reason, since alcoholism was rampant. When two American males met, their greetings were often followed by, “Let’s liquor.” Mindful of this, many a patriarch enjoined his son departing for college, “Beware the flowing bowl!” Which was about as effective, I suspect, as similar admonishments today.
Regarding youthful follies of the time, I can only cite the charming memoir of the cartman I.S. Lyon, who tells of being hired to take two medical students and their baggage to a Philadelphia-bound boat. Entering their attic room in a four-story boarding house on Broadway, he found some twenty medical students gathered for a parting “blow-out.” The air was cloudy with tobacco smoke, and on a red-hot stove was a huge tin pot of badly concocted whiskey punch whose escaping vapors filled the room with noxious odors. The furniture was begrimed, the ragged carpet soiled with spilled liquor and tobacco juice, and the whole place littered with empty whiskey bottles, greasy French novels, defaced song books, and torn and detached sheets of music. Also strewn about were revolvers, daggers, sword canes, broken umbrellas, and pipes both long and short. As the two departing students prepared to leave, the whole group rose, glass in hand, and sang “We won’t go home until morning” as if the day of doom had arrived.
So would prohibition come to that den of inebriation, New York? Yes indeed, or so it seemed, for if the city was notoriously “wet,” the upstate rural counties were adamantly “dry.” (For the perennial conflict between upstate and downstate New York, see post #18.) In 1854 the legislature passed an Act for the Prevention of Pauperism, Crime, and Intemperance whereby, as of July Fourth next (a date the city hailed with whiskey- and rum-soaked revels), liquor would be banned throughout the state and public drunkenness forbidden. The law was vetoed by the governor, but his successor was a “dry,” and in 1855 the law was passed again by the legislature.
Prohibition in booze-ridden Gotham? Was it even conceivable? The city was now full of newly arrived immigrants who were just as opposed to the law as many citizens. At the thought of prohibition the Irish in their grog shops, downing tumblers of cheap whiskey, muttered dark oaths. At the mere hint of it the Germans in their beer gardens, clinking steins, scowled under frothy noses, while behind the elegant façades of brownstones (certain brownstones) genteel profanity glanced off the rims of stemware over delicate wines. All eyes turned to the city’s newly elected mayor, Fernando Wood, himself once the proprietor of a groggery, and a known “wet” who over the years had frequented the city’s finest barrooms, his elegant form reflected in the huge gilt mirrors backing bars adorned with nippled Venuses and cupid-crowned clocks. So what was he to do?
Tall and dapper, “Fernandy” (as he was known to cronies) was as slick a character as had ever ruled the city (if anyone could rule it). Having consulted legal experts, he announced that he would of course enforce the law, however needless and impolitic, while giving full attention to exceptions, technicalities, and the rights of citizens, violating which, officers would be held to strict account. The law, in fact, had many flaws, and he had every intention of exploiting them to the full.
Needless to say, the city understood the mayor only too well, and its tippling did not notably decrease. Mercifully, within a year the law was voided in the courts, and the Sabbath quiet continued to be tainted by the din of unlicensed grog shops spilling out reeling drunks on the street.
|Scripture in one hand, a hatchet in the other.|
Many a bar was tomahawked.
So ended the city’s first brush with legislated temperance. But the campaign for prohibition had only begun, aided and abetted – indeed, championed and promoted – by a host of female reformers determined to see the matter through. The movement was sidelined by the Civil War, but afterward it regained strength, especially following the founding of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1873. Successes followed: in 1881 Kansas became the first state to outlaw alcohol in its constitution, and subsequently Carrie Nation achieved notoriety there for entering saloons to smash liquor bottles by the dozen with a fiercely wielded hatchet. Described as sporting “the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache,” Carrie was a formidable activist, but hardly typical of the crusading women, who preferred hymns, prayers, and arguments to hatchets. What explains their dedication? For most of them, painful personal experience with a drunkard father, brother, spouse, or son at whose hands they had suffered humiliation and abuse.
Prominent among the drys were Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, and other Protestant groups, as opposed to Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and German Lutherans. Not that everyone involved was motivated by lofty ideals: tea merchants and soda manufacturers sided with the drys in hopes of increased sales following a ban on alcoholic drinks. The conflict between rural upstate citizens and downstate urban residents in New York State was replicated throughout the country, with rural populations viewing the cities as not only rum-soaked but also crime-ridden and corrupt. And when the WCTU expanded its campaign to include women’s suffrage, the leading group focused solely on Prohibition became the male-dominated Anti-Saloon League, founded in 1893 in Ohio but soon active throughout the nation and especially influential in the South and the rural North.
New York City was not without some ardent prohibitionists, but the city generally remained passionately and determinedly wet. Women reformers were especially resented by working-class males, who saw the reformers’ activities as an assault on a whole way of life centered in what was now called the saloon. The saloon was their refuge and social center, a place to get free – for a while – of family obligations, a place to down a few with their pals after work, before trudging homeward with diminished funds to face the scolding tongues of their wives. (“Women,” went a saying, “you can’t live with ’em and you can’t live without ’em.”) And in Tammany-dominated New York the saloon was also the political base of the proprietor, often an alderman, who dispensed liquor and salty eats freely toward election time and so corralled the necessary votes for his own or his cronies’ reelection. All this was threatened by these misguided and depraved reformers, these well-scrubbed preachers and goody-goodies, who had no understanding of the city’s raw needs. To put it bluntly:
meddling females + preachers + hicks = Prohibition
no Prohibition = freedom = sanity = bliss
|Singing hymns outside a saloon.|
And there is little doubt that the reformers had their sights on New York City. Out-of-town ministers had long made a habit of visiting it on a whirlwind tour to see first-hand its sins, so they could go home and inform their congregations about this sink of depravity and cesspool of greed. It was Babylon on the Hudson, it was Sodom and Gomorrah, it was Satan’s Seat. So Prohibition was deemed especially appropriate for Gotham, where it was most needed; it would breed virtue and sobriety.
|One year later, Prohibition went into effect.|
|Dumping beer into the New York City sewers.|
The lower classes were at once deprived, but their betters had already stockpiled vast quantities of their preferred labels. Significantly, President Woodrow Wilson had promptly moved his personal supply to his Washington residence when his term of office ended, while immediately after inauguration Warren G. Harding, his successor, moved his own stash into the White House.
Such maneuvers were fine for the moneyed elite, but New York City had an answer of its own: the speakeasy, of which within a year or two there were between 20,000 and 100,000 in the city, and all of them thriving, since to tell New Yorkers they can’t do something at once kindles in them a passionate desire to do it. At first the speakeasies operated clandestinely and required patrons, viewed suspiciously through a peephole, to give a password to enter, but soon enough there was little need for pretense, since the police were amply rewarded for looking the other way.
The speakeasies ranged from the lowest dives offering cheap rotgut of dubious provenance requiring gastric fortitude, to well-appointed establishments catering to the wealthy and elite. And if the now-banished saloons had enjoyed a strictly male clientele, these new night spots went defiantly coed. Patrons included Charleston-dancing flappers and their callow escorts, cavorting businessmen from Cleveland and their intrepid spouses, assorted judges and aldermen, visiting dignitaries, silent film stars, and from 1926 on, His Honor the Mayor.
And where did all this liquor come from? Some was homemade, with all the perils that entailed: foul-tasting brews, explosions, after effects ranging from atrocious hangovers to departures for the beyond. But much of the booze came from elsewhere. In a fit of neighborliness the distilleries of Canada labored diligently to supply the needs of a deprived population to the south, across a long and porous border. And visible off the Rockaways was Rum Row, a fleet of ships at permanent anchor just outside the three-mile limit, where U.S. jurisdiction ended: floating warehouses for smugglers who, dodging the Coast Guard under cover of darkness, brought the precious stuff to land in speedboats.
|A rum runner seized by the Coast Guard, with confiscated liquor stacked on the deck.|
The queen of speakeasies was Texas Guinan, who quipped her way through multiple arrests, always surviving a raid to open another night spot that brought patrons flocking to receive her signature greeting, “Hiya, suckers!” (For more of Texas, see post #83.) But if her series of clubs were the most popular, there were plenty of others in all the boroughs. The most celebrated and frequented were clustered in midtown Manhattan, with 38 on 52nd Street alone. Prominent among them was the 21 Club, whose final address was 21 West 52nd Street, made famous by its ingenious engineering: in the event of a raid, a system of levers tipped the shelves of the bar, sending liquor bottles through a chute into the city’s sewers. There was also a secret wine cellar accessed through a hidden door in a brick wall, opening into the basement of the building next door. In the 1950s workers expanding the 53rd Street branch of the New York Public Library are said to have encountered the soil there still reeking of alcohol.
But New Yorkers had other ways as well of coping with Prohibition. Nathan Musher’s Menorah Wine Company imported 750,000 gallons of fortified Malaga wine that, certified as kosher, he sold to “rabbis” with sacramental wine permits, some of whom sported such names as Houlihan and Maguire. In a more sinister mode, Meyer Lansky’s car and truck rental business in a garage underneath the Williamsburg Bridge became a warehouse for stolen goods and rented out vehicles to bootleggers. Lansky went on to become a major gangland figure, associating with such stellar operators as Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano; as a Jewish gangster, he figures in my eyes as a supreme example of successful assimilation.
As time passed, enthusiasm for Prohibition waned. Far from reducing crime, as had been hoped, it promoted it by creating a bootlegging industry dominated by ruthless warring gangs. Far from eliminating alcoholic consumption, it made it fashionable and prompted the fair sex to join their lusty males in imbibing. Flouting the law was “in,” it was fun. Nor was Prohibition an inducement to better health, since drinking bad booze from a bottle with a counterfeit label could on occasion be lethal.
The coup de grâce for Prohibition came in October 1930, just two weeks before congressional midterm elections, when the bootlegger George Cassiday contributed five articles to the Washington Post telling how for the last ten years he had supplied booze to the honorable members of Congress, of whom he estimated that 80 percent drank. As a result, in the following election Congress shifted from a dry Republican majority to a wet Democratic majority eager for the Eighteenth Amendment’s repeal. To bring that about, states began ratifying the Twenty-first Amendment. In New York City anticipation mounted, and bystanders were astonished or amused to see phalanxes of sturdy matrons, who incidentally now had the vote, marching together under bold-lettered signs: WE WANT BEER! Yes, the times had changed. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified, thus repealing at last the now despised Eighteenth; New Yorkers cheered … and drank.
There are many morals to this story, chief among them the folly of imposing morality from above by law, when vast numbers of those below have only scorn for the law enacted. For better and for worse, New Yorkers have always guzzled, and surely always will.
A note on WBAI: The listener-supported, commercial-free radio station that I love and hate (see post #16) continues to stagger on, celebrating its successful fund drives while pleading desperately for more contributions. There is even talk of some kind of leasing arrangement that, to my mind, would change the station completely. Likewise indicative of its dire straits is the proliferation of imported talent, presumably at little or no cost, replacing familiar programs in hopes of reaching a wider audience. One such is the Thom Hartmann program, its host an ego-driven, self-promoting talk-show host whose heart, if not his head, is in the right place. Nothing so grates on me as the periodic announcement in a resonant voice, “This is the Thom Hartmann program!” And his grandiose statements, always in a worthy cause, that seem just a bit inflated and flimsy.
An example of the latter: recently he proclaimed that the 1929 Crash and the Depression that followed “destroyed the middle class.” Really? I was there; he wasn’t. In the 1930s, as a kid growing up in a middle-class suburb of Chicago, I was aware of modest living but no destruction. My father was a lawyer with a big corporation in Chicago; we watched our pennies but certainly survived the Depression. Our neighbors on the block included the successful owner of a small company that made paper boxes, a dentist, a night editor with the Chicago Tribune, an insurance man, and other businessmen, all of whom, except the dentist, commuted to jobs in Chicago. To the south lay the city of Chicago, with its share of Depression misery, and to the north a series of lakefront suburbs with higher incomes and more imposing residences. In between, we were very middle middle class and by no means ruined.
Mr. Hartmann’s dramatic assertion to the contrary is typical of WBAI, where grandiose negative statements and predictions of dire imminent catastrophes abound. Frequent among the latter: a coming financial collapse far exceeding the recent one, and the dollar’s ceasing to be the dominant world currency. All of which may be true – I certainly anticipate a serious correction in the market, if not a full-fledged bear market -- but then, there’s the story of the boy who cried “Wolf!” But my measured skepticism includes no trace of gloating. The commitment of WBAI’s dwindling staff is remarkable, and the station continues to broadcast many news stories neglected by mainstream media, as for instance poverty in America and the threat of the Transpacific Partnership, now being secretly negotiated, which would seriously undercut our national sovereignty. I criticize the station, but I need it; it is unique.
Coming soon (though in no particular oreder): The mayors of New York (a colorful bunch); Andy Warhol (genius or fraud?); lighting the city (from candles to neon signs); transportation in the city (the kinds of carriages and what they signified, the first gas buggies, the subway); foreign influences on nineteenth-century New York (the mansard roof, hoopskirts, the ascot tie, the derby, lager beer, the polonaise, even a Chinese junk).
© 2013 Clifford Browder