• Marc Johnson

Last Call


Most students of 20th Century American history know that the 18th Amendment to the Constitution – Prohibition – helped spawn the rise of organized crime. Al Capone, Mayer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, not to mention a host of lesser crooks and thugs, owed their spectacular rise to the misguided reformers of the 1920’s who thought they could put the Constitution between a thirsty citizen and a bottle of rye.

But until I popped open Daniel Okrent’s fascinating new book – Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition – did I realize that so much else has resulted from the great experiment to do away with booze in America.

Take, for example, the rise of the now ubiquitous Walgreen’s Drugstore. You can find a Walgreen’s on every other corner in many U.S. cities today and we can thank Prohibition for that. Okrent notes that Chicago-based Charles Walgreen had built his “chain from nine locations in 1916 to twenty just four years later.” Family history says it was the introduction of the Walgreen’s milkshake that drove the chain’s remarkable growth spurt in the 1920’s, but it wasn’t milkshakes alone that allowed Walgreen to operate 525 stores by the end of the decade.

Physicians prescribing “medicinal” alcohol had a lot to do with the rise of the drugstore chain. Doctors typically charged two bucks for a script for a pint of whiskey and the local pharmacist filled the order. That must have been almost as good as a modern day Viagra concession.

Prohibition also sped the evolution of the speedboat, something like the kind George H.W. Bush ran aground yesterday on the Maine Coast. Rum runners needed the extra horsepower to outrun the Coast Guard along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Many of the big names in today’s California wine industry – Mondavi, Beaulieu, Wente – thrived during the 1920’s thanks to the dramatic increase in the consumption of “sacramental” wine. Jewish “wine congregations” suddenly appeared around the country.

Okrent also makes an effective case that modern coalition politics can trace its dry roots to Prohibition. A motley and unlikely crew of anti-booze zealots, women’s suffrage advocates, progressive reformers in favor of an income tax and even the Ku Klux Klan, came together to convince the Congress, and then most state legislatures, to end the liquor trade.

We know how this story ends. It didn’t work. Yet both political parties and politicians as diverse as William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding went along with a national wave that, while politically expedient was also really stupid.

Okrent – he is the former Public Editor of the New York Times – writes with genuine insight based on exhaustive research. He quotes the Mayor of Boise and bar owners in Butte; the Governor of Utah and the sheriff of King County, Washington and paints wonderful portraits of the cast of characters that drove the politics and the policy.

George Will recently called Okrent’s book “darkly hilarious” and it is downright laugh out loud funny at times. One big-time bootlegger in New York was so impressed with the closing arguments of the prosecutor who was trying to put him in jail that he told the lawyer, “I almost think I should be convicted.”

Will also said, and its true, that Prohibition was doomed from the start.

“After 13 years, Prohibition, by then reduced to an alliance between evangelical Christians and criminals, was washed away by “social nullification” – a tide of alcohol – and by the exertions of wealthy people like Pierre du Pont who hoped that the return of liquor taxes would be accompanied by lower income taxes. (They were.) Ex-bootleggers found new business opportunities in the southern Nevada desert. And in the Second World War, draft boards exempted brewery workers as essential to the war effort.”

By 1932, the fizz had gone completely out of Prohibition and Franklin Roosevelt, in the political parlance of the time a “dry-wet” – he supported Prohibition, but also enjoyed a martini (with entirely too much vermouth, according to contemporaries) – could openly call for repeal. The photo at the top of this post is of the caustic columnist H.L. Mencken drinking to the end of Prohibition in his hometown of Baltimore, a place that never, even remotely, took to the notion of no booze. Mencken pronounced his first drink – make that legal drink – “pretty good – not bad at all.”

Prohibition, like so much of our history, is a cautionary tale. Excess in almost everything is a bad idea. It is hard – impossible maybe – to redirect basic human instinct; harder yet to ban a substance that many enjoy responsibily and fundamentally think should be no one’s business save their own. Prohibition proves that there are limits to what governments can do.

Last Call, a good summer read, full of insight into American politics and culture, is – pardon the pun – spirited. It might even go a bit better with a drink of something. You choose.

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©2021 by Marc C Johnson