From its start, America has been awash in drink. The sailing vessel that brought John Winthrop to the shores of the New World in 1630 carried more beer than water. By the 1820s, liquor flowed so plentifully it was cheaper than tea. That Americans would ever agree to relinquish their booze was as improbable as it was astonishing.
Yet we did, and Last Call is Daniel Okrent’s dazzling explanation of why we did it, what life under Prohibition was like, and how such an unprecedented degree of government interference in the private lives of Americans changed the country forever.
Writing with both wit and historical acuity, Okrent reveals how Prohibition marked a confluence of diverse forces: the growing political power of the women’s suffrage movement, which allied itself with the antiliquor campaign; the fear of small-town, native-stock Protestants that they were losing control of their country to the immigrants of the large cities; the anti-German sentiment stoked by World War I; and a variety of other unlikely factors, ranging from the rise of the automobile to the advent of the income tax.
Through it all, Americans kept drinking, going to remarkably creative lengths to smuggle, sell, conceal, and convivially (and sometimes fatally) imbibe their favorite intoxicants. Last Call is peopled with vivid characters of an astonishing variety: Susan B. Anthony and Billy Sunday, William Jennings Bryan and bootlegger Sam Bronfman, Pierre S. du Pont and H. L. Mencken, Meyer Lansky and the incredible—if long-forgotten—federal official Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who throughout the twenties was the most powerful woman in the country. (Perhaps most surprising of all is Okrent’s account of Joseph P. Kennedy’s legendary, and long-misunderstood, role in the liquor business.)
It’s a book rich with stories from nearly all parts of the country. Okrent’s narrative runs through smoky Manhattan speakeasies, where relations between the sexes were changed forever; California vineyards busily producing “sacramental” wine; New England fishing communities that gave up fishing for the more lucrative rum-running business; and in Washington, the halls of Congress itself, where politicians who had voted for Prohibition drank openly and without apology.
Last Call is capacious, meticulous, and thrillingly told. It stands as the most complete history of Prohibition ever written and confirms Daniel Okrent’s rank as a major American writer.
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January 16, 1920
THE STREETS OF San Francisco were jammed. A frenzy of cars, trucks, wagons, and every other imaginable form of conveyance crisscrossed the town and battled its steepest hills. Porches, staircase landings, and sidewalks were piled high with boxes and crates delivered on the last possible day before transporting their contents would become illegal. The next morning, the Chronicle reported that people whose beer, liquor, and wine had not arrived by midnight were left to stand in their doorways “with haggard faces and glittering eyes.” Just two weeks earlier, on the last New Year’s Eve before Prohibition, frantic celebrations had convulsed the city’s hotels and private clubs, its neighborhood taverns and wharfside saloons. It was a spasm of desperate joy fueled, said the Chronicle, by great quantities of “bottled sunshine” liberated from “cellars, club lockers, bank vaults, safety deposit boxes and other hiding places.” Now, on January 16, the sunshine was surrendering to darkness.
San Franciscans could hardly have been surprised. Like the rest of the nation, they’d had a year’s warning that the moment the calendar flipped to January 17, Americans would only be able to own whatever alcoholic beverages had been in their homes the day before. In fact, Americans had had several decades’ warning, decades during which a popular movement like none the nation had ever seen—a mighty alliance of moralists and progressives, suffragists and xenophobes—had legally seized the Constitution, bending it to a new purpose.
Up in the Napa Valley to the north of San Francisco, where grape growers had been ripping out their vines and planting fruit trees, an editor wrote, “What was a few years ago deemed the impossible has happened.” To the south, Ken Lilly—president of the Stanford University student body, star of its baseball team, candidate for the U.S. Olympic track team—was driving with two classmates through the late-night streets of San Jose when his car crashed into a telephone pole. Lilly and one of his buddies were badly hurt, but they would recover. The forty-gallon barrel of wine they’d been transporting would not. Its disgorged contents turned the street red.
Across the country on that last day before the taps ran dry, Gold’s Liquor Store placed wicker baskets filled with its remaining inventory on a New York City sidewalk; a sign read “Every bottle, $1.” Down the street, Bat Masterson, a sixty-six-year-old relic of the Wild West now playing out the string as a sportswriter in New York, observed the first night of constitutional Prohibition sitting alone in his favorite bar, glumly contemplating a cup of tea. Under the headline GOODBYE, OLD PAL!, the American Chicle Company ran newspaper ads featuring an illustration of a martini glass and suggesting the consolation of a Chiclet, with its “exhilarating flavor that tingles the taste.”
In Detroit that same night, federal officers shut down two illegal stills (an act that would become common in the years ahead) and reported that their operators had offered bribes (which would become even more common). In northern Maine, a paper in New Brunswick reported, “Canadian liquor in quantities from one gallon to a truckload is being hidden in the northern woods and distributed by automobile, sled and iceboat, on snowshoes and on skis.” At the Metropolitan Club in Washington, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt spent the evening drinking champagne with other members of the Harvard class of 1904.
There were of course those who welcomed the day. The crusaders who had struggled for decades to place Prohibition in the Constitution celebrated with rallies and prayer sessions and ritual interments of effigies representing John Barleycorn, the symbolic proxy for alcohol’s evils. No one marked the day as fervently as evangelist Billy Sunday, who conducted a revival meeting in Norfolk, Virginia. Ten thousand grateful people jammed Sunday’s enormous tabernacle to hear him announce the death of liquor and reveal the advent of an earthly paradise. “The reign of tears is over,” Sunday proclaimed. “The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.”
A similarly grandiose note was sounded by the Anti-Saloon League, the mightiest pressure group in the nation’s history. No other organization had ever changed the Constitution through a sustained political campaign; now, on the day of its final triumph, the ASL declared that “at one minute past midnight . . . a new nation will be born.” In a way, editorialists at the militantly anti-Prohibition New York World perceived the advent of a new nation, too. “After 12 o’clock tonight,” the World said, “the Government of the United States as established by the Constitution and maintained for nearly 131 years will cease to exist.” Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane may have provided the most accurate view of the United States of America on the edge of this new epoch. “The whole world is skew-jee, awry, distorted and altogether perverse,” Lane wrote in his diary on January 19. “. . . Einstein has declared the law of gravitation outgrown and decadent. Drink, consoling friend of a Perturbed World, is shut off; and all goes merry as a dance in hell!”
? ? ?
How did it happen? How did a freedom-loving people decide to give up a private right that had been freely exercised by millions upon millions since the first European colonists arrived in the New World? How did they condemn to extinction what was, at the very moment of its death, the fifth-largest industry in the nation? How did they append to their most sacred document 112 words that knew only one precedent in American history? With that single previous exception, the original Constitution and its first seventeen amendments limited the activities of government, not of citizens. Now there were two exceptions: you couldn’t own slaves, and you couldn’t buy alcohol.
Few realized that Prohibition’s birth and development were much more complicated than that. In truth, January 16, 1920, signified a series of innovations and alterations revolutionary in their impact. The alcoholic miasma enveloping much of the nation in the nineteenth century had inspired a movement of men and women who created a template for political activism that was still being followed a century later. To accomplish their ends they had also abetted the creation of a radical new system of federal taxation, lashed their domestic goals to the conduct of a foreign war, and carried universal suffrage to the brink of passage. In the years ahead, their accomplishments would take the nation through a sequence of curves and switchbacks that would force the rewriting of the fundamental contract between citizen and government, accelerate a recalibration of the social relationship between men and women, and initiate a historic realignment of political parties.
In 1920 could anyone have believed that the Eighteenth Amendment, ostensibly addressing the single subject of intoxicating beverages, would set off an avalanche of change in areas as diverse as international trade, speedboat design, tourism practices, soft-drink marketing, and the English language itself? Or that it would provoke the establishment of the first nationwide criminal syndicate, the idea of home dinner parties, the deep engagement of women in political issues other than suffrage, and the creation of Las Vegas? As interpreted by the Supreme Court and as understood by Congress, Prohibition would also lead indirectly to the eventual guarantee of the American woman’s right to abortion and simultaneously dash that same woman’s hope for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
Prohibition changed the way we live, and it fundamentally redefined the role of the federal government. How the hell did it happen?
Table of Contents
Prologue January 16, 1920 1
Part I The Struggle 5
1 Thunderous Drams and Protestant Nuns 7
2 The Rising of Liquid Bread 24
3 The Most Remarkable Movement 35
4 "Open Fire on the Enemy" 53
5 Triumphant Failure 67
6 Dry-Drys, Wet-Drys, and Hyphens 83
7 From Magna Carta to Volstead 96
Part II The Flood 115
8 Starting Line 117
9 A Fabulous Sweepstakes 128
10 Leaks in the Dotted Line 146
11 The Great Whiskey Way 159
12 Blessed Be the Fruit of the Vine 174
13 The Alcohol That Got Away 193
14 The Way We Drank 205
Part III The War of The Wet and the Dry 225
15 Open Wounds 227
16 "Escaped on Payment of Money" 247
17 Crime Pays 261
18 The Phony Referendum 289
Part IV The Beginning of the End, the End, and After 311
19 Outrageous Excess 313
20 The Hummingbird That Went to Mars 329
21 Afterlives, and the Missing Man 355
Appendix: The Constitution of the United States of America 381
You may think you know all you need to know about Prohibition, but Daniel Okrent's riveting, meticulously researched new book on its history will prove you wrong. Last Call is filled with stories within stories that are engaging in themselves, but which also plot vectors of enormous and -- for this reader at least -- eye-opening social change. In unexpected ways, as Okrent shows, the gestation of the temperance movement and the passage of the 18th Amendment were the results of a work of applied political imagination that was unprecedented in our history, and which echoes through the corridors of our political culture even today. Okrent tells the tale with extraordinary intelligence and grace, presenting his findings in a narrative that is as fun to read as any I've encountered this year.
In early April, I met Daniel Okrent in the offices of his publisher. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. --James Mustich
James Mustich: What drew you to Prohibition as a subject?
Daniel Okrent: My last book -- not counting a collection, but my last beginning-to-end book -- was a history of Rockefeller Center. I wrote a chapter about how the Rockefeller agents assembled the property, the three square blocks to build it on. And it turned out that those were the three blocks that were the center of the speakeasy belt in Manhattan, and to acquire the ground leases to 228 separate brownstones, the Rockefeller agents had to go place by place by place. I went to the city records to find out how they did it, and I kept on running into speakeasy owners who had more political clout than the Rockefeller family, who were able to stop them at various stages. I said, "Holy cow. How did that happen?" That's always the best way to start a book: how did that happen? Then it became a question of getting interested in Prohibition, and then wondering how did Prohibition happen. That's how Last Call was born.
JM: What was interesting to me in reading the book is the way you place Prohibition in a continuum; you go far back into the century before the Prohibition movement gathered steam, take us up to its passage through Congress, then go beyond its repeal to measure its lasting influence. This wider context transformed for me what we might call the received idea of Prohibition -- the idea that the whole country was hijacked by fanatic teetotalers for thirteen years, till it finally came to its senses.
DO: Actually, most people, when I ask them, say, "Was it three or four years?"
JM: [LAUGHS] I'm sure I would have said that, too, before I read your book. But as you show, Prohibition was not a momentary aberration; it was building for a long time as a political movement, and had far-reaching consequences that most of us would not attribute to Prohibition. As you researched this, were you surprised at the extent of the story?
DO: Oh, yes, absolutely. I think that when you begin research on a project like this, you pull out a thread that you know something about, or think that you know something about. So let me start with the fact that I knew that there was the Women's Christian Temperance Union, a 19th-century movement of women who wanted to get their men to drink less. I pulled on that thread until I saw how the suffrage movement was connected with the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and I realized I was dealing with a much bigger social issue. When I pulled further on the thread, the Populists came into it, because they wanted an income tax; what does that have to do with Prohibition, I wondered. You keep on pulling, and suddenly you're surrounded by this unspooled ball of yarn. One thing leads to another, and another.
One of the difficulties with a book like this is deciding where to stop -- there's always something more. I decided that I would begin the book -- after a few paragraphs laying out how much Americans actually drank -- with the first real active temperance movement, the Washingtonians in the middle of the 19th century, and then show how it built. The book by design breaks pretty easily into three parts. How did it happen? What was it? What were the consequences of it?
JM: Let's go back to how much America drank. From the figures you present, it's quite astonishing to realize how drunk the country was, for a very long time.
DO: [LAUGHS] Right.
JM: Again, it makes you look at Prohibition in a different light. There was a serious issue here. It wasn't just a bunch of zealots …
DO: Absolutely. This was a surprise to me, too. I thought Prohibition was simply a movement of pinched, narrow people who, as Mencken put it, were worried that somewhere, somebody else was having fun. What I found is that there were very, very good reasons for the movement. The amount of drunkenness -- particularly at the edge of the frontier, in the Midwest, in the rural areas -- was terrifying. Women had no legal rights at the time, and husbands were off getting drunk, drinking away the family money, not doing their work, coming home, hitting their wives, treating the kids badly, sometimes bringing home venereal disease from the prostitutes connected to the taverns. It was a real, real problem. So beginning to build a movement around the idea of home protection, as the Women's Christian Temperance Union called it, that was really, really important. I think Prohibition was a really bad idea -- but I think there were really good reasons for the nation to want to cut down on the amount of drinking that people did in the 19th century.
JM: Would you talk a bit about the way the prohibitors, shall we say, had a vested interest in getting women the vote to build their political base, and so played an essential role in advancing women's suffrage?
DO: It begins with Susan B. Anthony. It couldn't be more perfect. Susan B. Anthony is involved in temperance -- that's her movement in the late 1840s, as it was Elizabeth Cady Stanton's, and various others'. Anthony got up at a meeting of the New York chapter of the Sons of Temperance to give a speech, and she was told she couldn't give a speech; only the sons of temperance could, and she was a daughter, not welcome. That enabled her to realize how politically powerless women were. So when she and Stanton and others initiate a movement to get women the vote, one of the reasons they want it is because they hate the presence of liquor in American life. The two movements really merge by the 1870s-1880s. The Prohibitionists are supporting the idea of suffrage, and vice versa. We might think of the Prohibitionists as being narrow and conservative, but in fact, they were very progressive on many social issues: the betterment of women's condition in the home, child welfare, any number of other things.
In the popular mind, they've been characterized as a bunch of blue-nosed scolds. That wasn't it at all. These people had a real reason for doing it, and the suffrage movement benefitted from their resolve. The two amendments go into the Constitution within one year of another; they are really siblings, the right for women to vote and the limitation of people's ability to get alcohol.
JM: We also have Prohibition to thank for the income tax. That's another fact that was totally new to me.
DO: Totally new to me, too. In fact, the income tax comes into play at both ends of Prohibition. Up until 1912-1913, as much as 40% of the federal government's domestic revenue came from excise tax on liquor. The excise tax on liquor goes back to the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s; then it was used again to finance the Civil War, and stayed in place. You couldn't have a government without this revenue, because there was no income tax -- the income tax had been declared unconstitutional in the 1890s by the Supreme Court. So the Populists, who were the primary movers behind the income tax movement, say, "Look, if we can get income tax, that will enable the Prohibitionists to get their Prohibition in, because the government won't need that excise money any longer." The Prohibitionists realize the same thing, and the two groups make an alliance, just as the Prohibitionists and the suffragists did.
A third factor (I'm getting ahead of your questions now) is World War One. The anti-German feeling during World War One was incredibly strong; the Prohibitionists brilliantly took advantage of this by pointing out that all the brewers had names like Schlitz and Anheuser-Busch and Pabst. They demonized them as agents of the Kaiser trying to destroy America's will with their poison, alcohol. Given the intensity of anti-German feeling in the U.S., that's what finally put it over. So you have these three things that seem unrelated -- suffrage, the income tax, and World War One. Their combination is what gives us Prohibition.
JM: You discuss how the political logistics employed by the Prohibitionists -- the very idea of political power their tactics pursued -- had far-reaching effects. As you write, it changed the contract between citizen and government in a way that hadn't been done before.
DO: There are two things that happened, I think. First, I'd connect Prohibition to the entire World War One effort -- the growth of the federal government during World War One, the need for revenue, the huge growth of the income tax, and the government authority to seize railroads, for instance, to limit the use of grain. These for the first time establish, certainly in 20th-century America, the notion of government's possible reach. Second, Prohibition establishes the ability of interest groups, or of activists, to get what they want from coordinated political action.
To put this in the proper historical perspective, you have to remember that this was a constitutional amendment, and the Constitution in general limits government, it says what the government cannot do. There have only been two things in the Constitution that limited the rights of individuals: the 13th Amendment said you can't own slaves, and the 18th Amendment said you cannot get your hands on liquor legally -- it was really extraordinary that this would be elevated to a comparable level. Happily, the 21st Amendment came along and got rid of it. But it really does show the incredible power of that political movement.
JM: The book is filled with fascinating characters, on every side. One expects the speakeasy owners and the gangsters, who come later in the book, to be good company -- in terms of reading, at least -- because of the mythology that's grown up around them …
DO: Yes. And "mythology" is the right word.
JM: But the most intriguing figure to me sat in the opposite camp: Wayne Bidwell Wheeler. As you say in the book, when he died, the New York Herald Tribune said, "Without Wayne B. Wheeler's generalship it is more than likely we should never have had the 18th Amendment." More tellingly, the Milwaukee Journal wrote: "Wayne Wheeler's conquest is the most notable thing in our times." And on the Baltimore Sun editorial page, he was eulogized in this manner: "… nothing is more certain than that when the next history of this age is examined by dispassionate men, Wheeler will be considered one of its most extraordinary figures."
DO: This is my favorite quote in the book. You found the right place. I would guess -- it's hard to prove this, but I would guess that in the 1920s the name of Wayne B. Wheeler was on the front page of more newspapers than any other non-governmental official in America. Babe Ruth may have had more mentions on the sports page, but on the front page it was Wayne Wheeler, who engineered the 18th Amendment's passage and led the movement well into Prohibition's lifetime. He was this hugely important figure who, with the arrival of repeal, was entirely forgotten. And nobody today knows who he is. Which says something about the evanescence of this volcano of political activity. It burned out, it died, and it's gone -- and there's no remnant of Prohibition really. That's clear in his reputation.
He deserves better. Whatever one may think of his goals, I don't think his mastery of the means of politics has ever been matched. Nobody else has been able to put in an amendment to the Constitution that way. Everybody across the political spectrum today, from James Carville to Karl Rove, they are all playing from a playbook that was invented by Wayne Wheeler. He even invented the term "pressure group." He defined his organization, the Anti-Saloon League, as a political pressure group. He said that in a speech at Columbia in 1922.
JM: Can you describe the arc of his power for us?
DO: He was a farm boy from Ohio who went to Oberlin College, which was, in the 19th century, very much dedicated to all sorts of social causes, beginning with abolition. While at Oberlin, he is entranced by a clergyman giving a speech about the need to get alcohol out of the life of America. He signs himself up in 1894, I think it is, to do that, and then spends the rest of his life, thirty-three years, devoted to the cause. Because of his energy and his political imagination, he rises to become the leader of the Anti-Saloon League, first in Ohio, and then becomes its so-called Legislative Director, running its Washington office. As the Legislative Director, he devises the strategy and he supervises the tactics that enable the Prohibitionist forces to get their amendment into the Constitution. Then, once it is in the Constitution, Wheeler is also the legislative genius who can make the U.S. Senate sit up and beg, as the New York World put it. He controlled Congress -- Congress did what Wayne Wheeler wanted because he was so politically powerful. He had an army of a couple of million supporters who would do whatever he said. So the politicians had to deal with him, and he also became the master of patronage; he handed out the jobs. When he wanted to see the President, the President saw him -- there was no waiting for it. He was an incredibly powerful figure, and admirable in his capabilities -- even admirable in his honesty. He was never deceitful in the way he went about things. He was very clear about what he wanted, and he got it.
JM: We'll circle back, but this seems like the right time to ask: how did this come to an end? There was clearly this enormous forward motion that Wheeler rode to power, but Prohibition would soon enough be repealed.
DO: Yes. And that was even more remarkable, because it's the only time that a part of the Constitution was repealed. There were a number of factors that played into the reversal. There was a growing concern about the loss of respect for law in the U.S. -- a lot of concern. If you are seeing a tenet of the Constitution and a series of laws that come out of it being broken on a daily basis -- an hourly, minute-by-minute basis across the country -- as was the case by the late twenties, then how can anybody have respect for law? There was a very strong conservative movement that wanted to get rid of Prohibition for this reason.
But I think that the primary cause was the Depression. In 1929, the stock market crashed, and federal revenue began to plummet. The income tax, which is the primary source of revenue at this point -- well, there aren't any incomes, or the incomes have been reduced severely. For the government to function, it needed another source of revenue, and there is a recognition across the political spectrum that there is a source of revenue that could be brought back: that is to say, the source of revenue that was in the bottle of beer or whiskey.
Secondarily, it was a jobs program. The brewing and distilling industry had been the fifth largest industry in America before Prohibition in terms of employment. When I say "brewing and distilling," I include the truck drivers and the ice-haulers and the many other subsidiary occupations. So there was a really strong impulse to bring that industry back in order to provide jobs. Interestingly, not pulling the strings of the repeal movement, but financing it, was the DuPont family of Delaware, for some very good reasons and for some more selfish reasons. In the book I quote from some incredible letters that I found from one DuPont brother to another saying, "If only we can bring back liquor, we can get rid of this damnable income tax that we pay."
So Prohibition, in its creation and also in its end, becomes a sort of centerpiece around which other pieces of politics are always circling, even though they have nothing to do with Prohibition per se.
JM: Tell us about Pauline Sabin.
DO: She is my favorite person in the book. Pauline Morton Sabin was an aristocrat, heiress to the Morton Salt fortune. Her father was in the cabinet. She was married three times in her life, to three very wealthy men. She had danced with Edward VII when he was the Prince of Wales. And she was the first woman member of the Republican National Committee. She was the founder of the Women's National Republican Club. She was a leading socialite as well as a political figure. She turns against Prohibition in 1929, and decides that she is going to devote her energies to bringing about its end. And because she has this stature, she is given a credibility that others could never have; because she comes from this very distinguished background, and because she had not been an activist against Prohibition before that, she has a real credibility, and she knows how to use her position.
She and her fellow ladies go on a tour of the South. They go to Charleston, they go to Atlanta, other cities, and they're the stars of the society pages, and the women pour in to listen to them talk. Sabin and her colleagues made the anti-Prohibition movement respectable. If Mrs. Sabin -- Pauline Morton Sabin of the Women's National Republican Club, and of the largest house in Southampton, Long Island, and of the estate in South Carolina and the house on Sutton Place -- if she can be for repeal, we can be for repeal, too. She made it respectable.
JM: An intriguing theme of your research is the incredible amount of ingenuity and enterprise the ban on alcohol unleashed.
DO: Yes, a lot of ingenuity. So many different things. You can begin almost doing it geographically, starting in the South. Take the Bahamas. Before Prohibition, the Bahamas were a backwater where they sold turtles and sponges, but then it became the warehouse for liquor coming in from the U.K., which was moved up along the U.S. coast by illegal rum-runners. Suddenly Nassau goes from being this tiny little town to being a booming tourist site.
Or take the home dinner party: easier to break the law at home than to break it out in public. Or women drinking with men, which until Prohibition didn't happen outside of the home, except among the rich, who would drink in hotel restaurants; during Prohibition the saloon, which had been a male-only preserve, becomes a place where women drink as well. When you move outside of the existing order of law, all sorts of things happen, including women and men drinking together.
Women and men drink together in a bar? Well, then, you have to have bathrooms for the women. That's the invention of the powder room. That's a phrase that actually comes from Prohibition. They could tuck a tiny little room with a toilet and a sink underneath a stairwell or in a corner. Table service in bars can also be traced to Prohibition, because men and women together, they're not bellying up the bar, but sitting at a table. And the dance band: if you have only men in a bar, you're never going to have a five-piece jazz band there; but you are going to if you have men and women who might dance together.
Speedboat design is one of the great examples of Prohibition's inspirational effect. The Coast Guard was very small when the law was first passed, and in its effort to catch the rum-runners, it would commission better and faster boats from shipyards. But as a federal project, they had to publish the specifications; the rum-runners would get their hands on the specs, and after the Coast Guard had its fast boat built, the rum-runners would go back to the same builder and say, "Build one faster for us." As a result, motorboat technology rockets forward in the 1920s, as it has not at any other time before or since.
JM: Prohibition also spawned the first national crime syndicate.
JM: We all feel we know about this aspect of Prohibition, through The Untouchables, say, and a raft of movies. But how violent was it? You have a great passage about Clarence Darrow, who gave, as you say, the best explanation of the bootleggers' dilemma:
"'The business pays very well,' Darrow said, 'but it is outside the law, and they can't go to court, like shoe dealers or real estate men or grocers when they think an injustice has been done them, or unfair competition has arisen in their territory.'
'So,' Darrow concluded, 'they naturally shoot.'"
How does what you've discovered in researching the book compare to what has come down to us in the popular imagination?
DO: Let me start on a sidetrack. To me, the biggest surprise was Al Capone. When I ask people, "How old was Al Capone when he took over Chicago, and how long did he rule the city?" People have this image of Al Capone, as I did, and they say 45. But he was only 24. He was a kid. He was a baby. And he only ran Chicago for 3 or 4 years.
JM: You have that marvelous quote from him, "Public service is my motto."
DO: [LAUGHS] Absolutely. And he served his customers. He killed a few people, too -- or had them killed. But the important thing about the role of crime was the creation of the national syndicate. Until Prohibition, crime was a local business. If you controlled Chicago, you had your whorehouses and your gambling dens and maybe your drug racket and your extortion racket in Chicago. But once there were large quantities of goods that needed to be moved from one place to another, then you had to have allies in another place, and you had to have territorial division. So they got together in Atlantic City and they divided up the country: "This is my territory, this is your territory, we'll cooperate."
In the Midwest, most of the liquor came through Detroit. Detroit was the funnel because so much liquor came from across the river in Canada, and that liquor had to get to Chicago, which was the biggest market. So the Purple Gang in Detroit makes a business arrangement with Capone's gang in Chicago, and various other Chicago gangs, to move the liquor. By the end of Prohibition, we have a truly national syndicate rather than a bunch of small-time operators in each city. That's an especially ugly consequence of Prohibition.
JM: Was the violence rampant throughout the country, or was it localized in the urban areas?
DO: It was fairly localized. The most intense was in Chicago, probably. Most of the violent criminal action was mobster-against-mobster. There were Prohibition agents who were killed, and there were Prohibition agents who killed innocent bystanders, but it really was the Mob eating itself up. But they never had any lack of new recruits. Not only was it easy money -- easy if you were willing to put your life at risk -- but there was so much money to be made at it. Best of all, as with all criminal enterprises, it was tax-free. There was no way for the federal government to get its hands on it because it was illegal: there were no records, there were no tax stamps that had to be obtained. So it was not just a gold mine; it was a double gold mine.
JM: Which led, in some ways, to another legacy of Prohibition: Las Vegas.
DO: Yes, absolutely. The criminal syndicates had to do something with their money, particularly when Prohibition came to an end. You have to create a new industry if your old industry is no longer good. Las Vegas came particularly from the Cleveland mob -- Moe Dalitz was its leader, and he was one of the two figures, along with Bugsy Siegel, who invented this gambling paradise in the middle of the desert. Other mobsters moved into legal distribution of liquor, like Longy Zwillman of Newark, and Joe Reinfeld. But if you became addicted to bringing in huge sums of money -- doubling your money in a week, as Owney Madden said -- if you became addicted to that, and not paying taxes on it, during Prohibition, you had to find another business.
JM: There were a few legal exceptions to the ban. Drugstores, for instance, had a protected status.
DO: Well, there were three exceptions, three ways in which alcoholic beverages could be had legally. One of them was so-called "medicinal liquor." You would go to your physician and get a prescription. You could usually buy one for three bucks. Then you would trot your prescription over to your pharmacy -- sometimes the physician worked for the pharmacy -- and you would hand that in, and you could get a pint of liquor every ten days. It would say on the bottle "Jim Beam for medicinal purposes only." You could buy it in any number of varieties. All the brand names were available. I have photographs in the book of some of these. It enabled the people in the so-called drugstore business to really expand their enterprises. Walgreen's is the excellent example in Chicago; it went from a small handful of stores before 1920 to becoming a gigantic chain -- partly, if not largely, on their business selling liquor legally.
JM: Another exception was the religious use of wines.
DO: The Napa Valley in California turned to producing a really lousy grape called Alicante, and shipping it east so people could make wine at home. Which was legal. After a court decision, you could make up to 200 gallons for your family's use in the course of a year. It was a lot of work.
The one man in the Napa Valley who really prospered during Prohibition making wine was Georges de Latour of Beaulieu Vineyards, because he had what was called an "ecclesiastical approbation." He had the approval of the Archbishop of Northern California to make wine for sacramental purposes -- another exception in the Volstead Act. But de Latour didn't just provide communion wine. He had fourteen different varietals. You could get Cabernet, you could get Tokay, you could get Riesling, you could get Port. It would go to a particular diocese, and then it would be distributed among many, many different congregations, and not just for the communion act itself. To promote it, he published sales brochures, and at his home in Rutherford, California, he had an altar on a back porch, underneath the sycamore trees, where visiting priests -- and they came from all over the country -- could come and sample his wares, taste his wines. It was brilliant. As a result, when Prohibition comes to its end, he's the only guy in the Napa Valley who knows how to make wine any more. So his business, Beaulieu Vineyards (he made fine, fine wines), becomes the dominant vineyard in the high end of the wine business, wins all the prizes in 1934. Everybody else had forgotten how to do it.
JM: There are so many great stories in Last Call. One of my favorites is about the early warning system at the 21 Club.
DO: Yes. They had an early warning system, in case of a raid. There weren't very many raids, because all you needed to do was bribe a few cops and you were pretty much safe from the threat. But Kriendler and Berns, who owned the 21 Club, decided that it was not worth paying bribes any more and devised a system to protect their people. It worked like this: on an alert from somebody at the door, the bartender could pull a crank -- like a slot machine lever -- and everything on the back bar would go crashing down several flights into a basement. There were metal grates sticking out from the walls of this chute, so the bottles would break. By the time everything got down to the bottom, the bottles were broken, and the liquor would just drain into a sump. It would soak into the ground, and there would be a strong odor, but an odor is not admissible evidence in any court that I know. So when they were raided (and they were only raided a couple of times), they were able to protect themselves completely.
There's another story from twenty years later, but I don't know whether this is true; I wasn't able to establish it. But it was a rumor. When the Donnell Library on 53rd Street was being built in the 1950s, it was right in back of 21, and the excavation crew was allegedly overwhelmed by the fumes of liquor that had soaked into the ground and stayed there for decades. [LAUGHS]
JM: You worked on this book for quite a while.
DO: Almost five years altogether.
JM: What did you learn in the course of writing it -- what surprised you the most? Is there any idea in your sense of America and its history that you wouldn't have had without having written this book?.
DO: More than anything else, the power of motivated individuals to accomplish what they want. Although I knew, obviously, that there had been Prohibition and it had been put in the Constitution, the realization of the steps that needed to be taken to do that, to get it through two-thirds of each house of Congress, three-quarters of the state legislatures -- it made me recognize how truly extraordinary a feat it was. And then to learn how much it was despised, so much so that all that could be undone -- which was even harder. It has been pointed out that only 102 state senators and legislators around the country could have stopped the Repeal, they could have created majorities in the thirteen states needed to stop it. My God, for a country to turn so utterly from putting this thing into the Constitution, and then desperately wishing to have it taken out -- it's extraordinary. So the power of political passion, when you really care about something and can figure out how to move the nation, that's probably lesson number one for me.
Lesson two, I think, is unintended consequences. The one that is most striking to me is how it became harder to get a drink after repeal than it was during Prohibition. During Prohibition, you had no code other than it's against the law. So this enormous illegal world of manufacture, shipping, wholesale, retail, and consumption is created -- but there's no regulating it. After repeal, all the states put in liquor laws, which said you can't have a bar within 300 feet of a church, or a liquor store within 500 feet of a school; you have to have closing hours; you can't be open on Sundays; you can't open early in the morning; you have to be 21 to drink. Suddenly, there is this superstructure of law that has to be obeyed, and it became much harder, because of the legalizing and regulating, to get a drink. I think there's a lesson there about our current drug laws: bringing government into the drug control business would not only produce an enormous amount of revenue at a time that the country can use revenue, but it might also cut down on drug use.
Those are the two biggest surprises, I'd say. With lots of little ones. I love learning how the people who have studied this determined how much people drank during Prohibition. Before and after Prohibition, you know how much people drank by the tax stamps. Every bottle of liquor, every beer -- there was an excise tax connected to them that was charged as the goods left the brewery or the distillery. So how do these people know how much people were drinking during Prohibition, when there were no tax stamps? There were a few demographic techniques, but my favorite is tracking cirrhosis as a trailing indicator. Cirrhosis follows drinking by 5 to 7 years. So you can see on the chart that cirrhosis begins to decline in the mid 1920s because drinking is down, and it doesn't come back again until the late 1930s, as drinking is climbing back up toward the same numbers. It's astonishing what scholars can do if they put their minds to finding out things that you think are unknowable.
JM: Does the saga of Prohibition cast any light or shadow on your observation of our contemporary political landscape?
DO: Yes, absolutely. Prohibition was a stand-in issue. Yes, there were people who cared desperately about Prohibition, but it was also a way to rally around a set of issues that had to do with who was going to control the country. We haven't talked about the strongly xenophobic aspect of Prohibition. There was the White, Protestant, middle of the country movement against the growing Catholic and Jewish populations of the large cities of the East and the upper Midwest. Whose country was this? Prohibition became the issue around which the anti-city, anti-immigrant world could gather. I think we have the same thing today, where one issue (you could say it's same-sex marriage) is a stand-in issue for a wide, wide range of issues. The difference is that Prohibition was an effort to stop something that existed, which is easier to do than to start something, in a way.
Clever political figures, as Wayne Wheeler was, can find that issue to which people respond, a single issue they can coalesce around -- as I suppose we're seeing now with the reaction to health care reform. Is that about health reform, or is it about many, many, many other things? Is it about who is going to control the country?
I guess I'd say that the good news is that this, too, shall pass. If you look at America in the 1920s, and this particular piece of legislation and constitutional revision, you say, "Oh my God, what happened to personal liberty in this country?" But the moment passes. I think that's an American characteristic -- these fevers build and then the fevers break.
--April 7, 2010