Speakeasy Plutarch

Sam Schulman | Posted on 06/01/10

The genius of the Repeal movement was the socialite Pauline Sabin of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR), who made being Wet seem not only realistic, not merely fashionable, but actually respectable. Moving her allegiance from the WCTU to the WONRP allowed "the small town matron to ally herself, no matter how remotely, with a congregation of bona fide, rotogravure society figures," as Time magazine put it in 1932. One displayed one's social breeding by becoming tolerant.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Dan Okrent, Scribner, $30, 468 pages

In his publishing and journalism career, Daniel Okrent has been fearless, notoriously taking a Parthian shot at prominent New York Times columnist Paul Krugman as he completed his stint as that newspaper's first Public Editor. In the books he has written in the interstices of this career, Okrent has been as diffident as he was pugnacious in his day jobs, writing a couple of masterpieces of synecdoche. Nine Innings, now 25 years old, investigated the soul of major league baseball through the cellular anatomy of a single commonplace early-season game. Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center (2003)dealt with no small subject: the biggest real estate development in New York City during the Depression. But it too was bigger than its subject, and concealed a major study of American real estate development as a business, big oil, big law, the 20th century American mega-university, the Depression, the New Deal, the growth of New York City, the era's transformation of architecture, and the history of American theatre.  Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, might suggest that - befitting his advancing years - Okrent has at last decided to face an important subject head on.  But despite the epic scale of the book, it still manages to be bigger than it seems.

Okrent (a friend to whom I have offered valuable advice for decades) refuses to claim more for his subject than it deserves, starting with the book's title. He and his publisher spare us a commercial subtitle like How Eliot Ness, Al Capone and Dorothy Provine Caused the Cold War but Gave the World Sarah Palin, "Project: Runway," Richard Dawkins and Twitter. But Okrent's understated narrative persuades-though it does not argue-that Prohibition should be regarded as one of the 20th century's great idealistic and ghastly political experiments next to communism, fascism, and pacifism. It is surely the only item on the list that is wholly American in feeling and expression-and the only such experiment to have been abandoned voluntarily without significant intervention from any of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (not that the onset of the Depression didn't make life easier for the Repeal movement, but Okrent shows that Prohibition was doomed almost a year before October 1929).

What makes Last Call so memorable is that its interpretation flows from its portraiture. Okrent brings to life the effect of this unprecedented social experiment in human character upon real human characters by the dozen, all of them forged in Prohibition's crucible, most of them quickly forgotten after Repeal. But through these portraits Okrent makes the implicit point that Prohibition was, for all its failings, wrong-headedness and corruption, a scandal of a deeply human kind.  What Prohibition became-instead of what it might have become-was an expression of the particular individuals who brought it to its unlikely life, and then, with equal improbability, put it to death. 

Some of the personalities Okrent introduces are haunting. There are some familiar names, including Capone and the Bronfmans, others-like Eliot Ness-are sternly discarded, but most of them were new to me. There was the rumpled genius of the Anti-Saloon League, Wayne B. Wheeler; and the romantic-even adorable-figure of Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the federal official in charge of all Prohibition enforcement as Assistant Attorney General under Harding, Coolidge and Hoover (a delightful luncheon companion, the women's magazines reported, who discarded her husband in 1916 because she did not favor a marriage built upon "a dead level of bodily contact"). There was something about Prohibition-like its Old-World analogues Fascism and Communism-that called forth the worst, the best, and the most unexpected in human nature. This tendency is partly natural-every catastrophe produces its heroes, villains and a keen sense of the value of life to those who survive it.  But great movements like Prohibition and Fascism build character not only by accident but through design.

Stalin challenged his writers to become "engineers of souls," doing to the human spirit what the NKVD was doing to human bodies. Hitler and Mussolini spoke of the New Fascist Man. The "drys" who built the great organizations that propelled the Temperance movement into the Constitution-the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League-also wanted to reinvent human nature, and had every expectation that they would do so-as Billy Sunday preached on the first day of Prohibition, Hell would be permanently "for rent." It is no wonder that the original stalwarts of the temperance movement-largely female, Midwestern and Southern, Baptists and Methodists, militantly provincial-found eager allies among very different social visionaries, without whom Prohibition could never have come about: campaigners for women's rights and suffrage, progressive reformers from the two Coasts like Gilbert Pinchot of Pennsylvania and Hiram Johnson of California, and the revivified 20th century Ku Klux Klan. The turning point came in 1917, when the favorite causes of the Religious Left joined forces with the Religious Right. "The income tax made a Prohibition amendment fiscally feasible. The social revolution wrought by the suffragists had made it politically plausible. Now the drys had found the final tool they needed to wedge the amendment into the Constitution: a war." 

Each member of the Dry alliance had its own particular enemy, each of whom would be discomfited by Prohibition. For provincial traditionalists, the enemies were African Americans, upon whom strong liquor produced the invariable desire to rape; Jews, money-grubbing suppliers of the drink that turned harmless primitives into sex fiends (and indeed, the distilling industry was dominated by the Israel Lobby avant le letter-and German Roman Catholics, who dominated the brewing industry. For big-city Progressives on the East Coast, the enemy was the Irish and Italians whose votes and political skill threatened the political ascendency of Brahmin Boston and Dutch-Episcopalian New York. Industry imagined that Prohibition would produce a more efficient workforce (Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller were enthusiastic Drys). Progressives in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition were Drys-reformers and muckrakers including Jane Addams, Jack London, Jacob Riis, and Upton Sinclair. The Ku Klux Klan, now expanding north of the Ohio River also targeted immigrants who expressed their Un-American nature through their Roman Catholicism or Judaism. And in both parties and all social stripes, newly enfranchised women expected that Prohibition would destroy the saloon culture that threatened their families.  . 

But while Prohibition had plenty of Robespierres, Trotskys, and Albert Speers-COO types who were willing to do the dirty work-it lacked great theorists like Marx and Houston Stewart Chamberlain; it had no highbrow bards and impresarios like D'Annunzio, Heidegger, Brecht, and Gollancz. William Jennings Bryan made a terrible Hitler.  Its greatest champions-just like its greatest enemies-tended not to expect very much from it. In 1919, Albert Von Tilzer (nee Gumbinsky), the composer of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," published a new song, "I Never Knew I Had a Wonderful Wife Until the Town Went Dry"  ("I'd send her to the country and I'd always yell hooray,
But I saw her picture in a bathing suit the other day"); Captain Harry S. Truman of the A.E.F. wrote to his fiancée on the eve of Prohibition: "It looks to me like the moonshine business is going to be pretty good in the land of the Liberty Loans and Green Trading Stamps."  Men lined up for the 1,500 ill-paid slots as federal enforcement agents-not because they were idealists, or competent, but because they saw a golden business opportunity before them.

Even the Anti-Saloon League knew that it had to punch loopholes into the Volstead act for its clients. Farmers who voted the Anti-Saloon League line had to make hard cider from their apple crop for pin money and their own use-and so the household exception for self brewing was born.  Priests and Rabbis needed wine for sacramental purposes-and so vast enterprises emerged to serve them.  Before Prohibition, the American Medical Association proclaimed that alcohol had no therapeutic use. "It took only two years of Prohibition for the AMA to revisit the question" when a member survey revealed that "alcoholic beverages were in fact useful in treating twenty-seven conditions" from cancer to lactation problems. Doctors could prescribe-by  brand name-whisky, gin and rum for what ailed their patients at $3 a scrip.  Prohibition retained a quality that was domesticated, individualist, human-scale, bourgeois, which prevented it from rising to the horrors of its 20th century colleagues in the soul-nudging business.

To tell this subtle tale, Okrent descends to the human scale of his subject, and provides an eye-level view of how Prohibition felt as an experience. Okrent's gallery of human types making the best of a bad show demonstrates that,except for a few naïfs, most Americans entered into the process with good-natured  misgivings and the assumption that it might all be ballyhoo (not for nothing was P. T. Barnum an early prohibitionist). Comparatively few on either side believed that Prohibition could accomplish more chiliastic than make drinking enormously inconvenient if not impossible. In this belief all parties were completely wrong.

Making alcohol hard to get was the one thing that Prohibition didn't do, and Okrent devotes much of his narrative to telling the story of how little money and thought went into enforcement; while much ingenuity, innovation and human energy went into evasion, bootlegging, rum-running, moneymaking and fun.  As New York Mayor Jimmy Walker joked in the fading days of Prohibition, "Prohibition might be a good thing-but I don't know who is going to arrange it."  Last Call contains within it dozens of small histories of those who tried to do just that, and failed. 

The attempt to separate the masses from their opiates did have some far-reaching effects-most of them unintended. Prohibition did seem permanently to reduce alcohol consumption in the U.S. by about 30 percent (in comparison, cigarette smoking among adults has declined 51 percent since the release of the Surgeon General's Report in 1965-a duration equal to three Prohibitions.) But Prohibition's other legacies are both more far-reaching and more random.  It completely altered the sexual politics of drinking.  Every moviegoer knows that no respectable women could ever enter a saloon. Drinking separated the sexes. Men stewed themselves in one another's company; women discreetly dosed themselves with Lydia Pinkham's Tonic in their boudoirs. The eighteenth amendment changed human nature.  By 1924, Willa Cather observed, "Nobody stays at home anymore."  Women and men enjoyed speakeasies in one another's company; Prohibition drove the invention of something called a "party": a social event when the two sexes drank in one another's company without being served a meal.  One of the first post-Repeal beer ads ran in a women's magazine, and it depicted "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."

Far from creating cozy paradises for two, as "Von Tilzer" and the WCTU hoped it would do, Prohibition made the private public, breaking down barriers between male and female socializing between the races (as whites flocked to uptown speakeasies), and even between Protestant and Catholic, as thirsty WASPs flocked to Italian restaurants for the homemade wine but stayed for the spaghetti and meatballs.  Harlem's Amsterdam News opined that night clubs like the Cotton Club "have done more to improve race relations in ten years than the churches, white and black, have done in ten decades".  On the other hand, the fonder hopes of the KKK were generally defeated.  A Mississippi judge had to be studiously vague about his statistics when he spoke in defense of Prohibition in 1929:  "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 Malcolm Cowley complained that what was best about Prohibition-stylish Bohemians of all sexes sharing cocktails-was now being imitated "by salesmen from Kokomo and the younger country-club set in Kansas City." Flyover country joined hands in social sophistication with the smart set. Repeal also reflected the new diversity that Prohibition brought, and Okrent thinks its success was not driven by engineers of souls but by aspirational marketing.

The genius of the Repeal movement was the socialite Pauline Sabin of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR), who made being Wet seem not only realistic, not merely fashionable, but actually respectable. Moving her allegiance from the WCTU to the WONRP allowed "the small town matron to ally herself, no matter how remotely, with a congregation of bona fide, rotogravure society figures," as Time magazine put it in 1932.  One displayed one's social breeding by becoming tolerant.  The WONPR's Missouri chapter president put it this way:  "If Mrs. Perdoodle who stood for certain social standards will take a definite stand out in the open, all the Mrs. Dusenwackers will follow."  Alcohol, released by Prohibition from the rigid customs surrounding its consumption, acted like the social solvent which, in moderation, it is reputed to be.  And those who toyed with this social improvement scheme found themselves up against a deep human need-and or the most part, stepped back from the brink.  Yes, Prohibition created a spike in the crime rates, it destroyed hundreds of families and scores of thousands of jobs, but the fallible humanity of the Drys and the Wets alike, the hypocrisy and disorganization of the whole enterprise, helped to spare Americans the horrors of the Gulag and the concentration camps. Rather as he did as an employee of the New York Times, Okrent enjoys the amateurish performances of the entire cast, and makes a great entertainment out of its imperfections.
























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