June/July/Aug 2007

Tanked

How New York dealt with the “noble experiment”

David Greenberg


“You never knew what you were drinking or who you’d wake up with. . . . We wore wishbone diaphragms that weren’t always reliable. There was a woman doctor who handled abortions for our crowd. She would take a vacation at Christmastime to rest up for the rush after New Year’s Eve.”

So wrote Lois Long, a twentysomething correspondent for the New Yorker, the smart-set weekly that debuted in Prohibition-era Manhattan and thrived thanks to nervy, candid tales of the city’s demimonde like hers. The madcap indulgence in New York’s speakeasies and nightclubs in the ’20s that Long chronicled— not just abundant alcohol intake but carnal promiscuity, interracial socializing, and impromptu fisticuffs—confirmed the worst nightmares of the nation’s temperance crusaders while also reassuring Prohibition’s foes that the nation’s radical foray into policing personal behavior was doomed to fail.

The redefinition of sexual mores in the ’20s was just one of the many cultural, social, and political changes unwittingly launched by war-weary Americans when in 1919 they passed the Eighteenth Amendment and its enforcing legislation, the Volstead Act. In an intelligent, authoritative, and sometimes hilarious account— centered, appropriately, on that greatest of drinking metropolises, New York City— Michael A. Lerner has dug deep into a range of sources, from court records and interestgroup papers to New Yorker dispatches and dispatchers’ reports, to tell the story of the “Noble Experiment” with surprising freshness. The result of his prodigious research, reflective analysis, and vivid storytelling is like a highball at the Cloud Club: tart and tasty going down, leaving you lapping intoxicatedly at the ice cubes.

Prohibition claims few defenders today, and for good reason. As Lerner shows, its passage in the first place reflected “neither a triumph of the democratic process” nor a “consensus . . . on the liquor question” but rather “the well-funded, well-organized, and tireless efforts of moral reformers and lobbyists.” Many of the intended objects of this “moral reform”—notably recent immigrants and working-class urbanites— resisted the oncoming legislation. They feared (rightly) that it would shutter neighborhood saloons, impinge on their sacramental rites, and cramp their freedom to undertake a practice as old as human history. But if plenty of Americans fought Prohibition from the get-go, few foresaw the serpentine stream of harmful effects that would flow from its passage—a classic case of the law of unintended consequences.

Dry Manhattan shows, better than any other book, the toll, comic and tragic, taken by these unimagined results. They were time bombs of inanity, he suggests, planted by the poorly conceived legislation. As he notes, the Volstead Act, “riddled with inconsistencies” and “glaring loopholes,” banned the manufacture, sale, and purchase but not the possession of alcohol and thus let Americans “stockpile as much liquor as they could afford.” Nor did it really hinder the booze trade. Adapting to the law, bars metamorphosed into private “clubs” that levied cover charges while serving “free” drinks, thus technically evading the provisions against selling alcohol.

Ambiguities in the law, moreover, conspired with what Lerner wryly calls “the creative determination of New Yorkers” to make Manhattan a “wet” haven. Hotel lobbies offered suspiciously strong “tea” and “coffee.” Waiters whisked flasks under tablecloths to savvy restaurant-goers. A Brooklyn candy shop hawked whiskey hidden inside chocolate bunnies, while a downtown grocer retailed rye in olive-oil tins. As early as 1920, Gotham’s dailies were running stories like one the New York Times headlined “Making a Joke of Prohibition in New York City.”

More unplanned chaos ensued from the insistence of the Anti-Saloon League, the chief dry lobby, that Prohibition officers be political appointees, not civil servants. The teetotalers expected that devout temperance men would crack down more sternly on scofflaws than would bureaucrats. But in oases like New York, wets often got the government jobs—leading not just to lax enforcement but also, in some cases, to runaway corruption. Seeking to fix the enforcement problems, New York governor Nathan Miller in 1921 implemented the draconian Mullan-Gage law, which initially rooted out many violators—who weren’t hard to find—but soon proved ineffective.

In fact, Mullan-Gage itself showed the ricochet effect of the law of unintended consequences. The measure diverted New York’s Finest from more urgent policing tasks even as it fueled public resentment toward cops. Violence worsened. Some patrolmen plied a brisk trade in payoffs— mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano sent upward of ten thousand dollars a week to police headquarters—as others desperately tried strong-arm tactics. On one evening, a renegade detective, furious at having patrons mock his raid on a Ninth Avenue saloon, went berserk, allegedly throttling a seven-year-old girl, shoving a man off his crutches, and belting five women. Meanwhile, the nabbed offenders often seemed less than menacing. Nora Kelly, a frail, down-on-her-luck seventy-seven-year-old, got five days in the pen for buying liquor, despite her pleas that she indulged in a daily nip merely “to brace up my strength.” Faced with these results, New Yorkers repealed Mullan-Gage within two years, though it would take another decade to undo Prohibition itself.

Today, we can laugh at Prohibition’s folly. But at the time of its passage, the rights and wrongs weren’t so apparent. One failing of traditional accounts of the policy has been that in lieu of the temperance movement’s abrasive moralism, they’ve simply substituted their own haughty scorn for the dry camp—regarding them, much as H. L. Mencken defined the Puritans, as people troubled by the thought that someone, somewhere, might be happy. One of Lerner’s many major achievements is to evoke the complexity of the moral politics of Prohibition as experienced at the time. Bad guys come across as unexpectedly sympathetic, good guys can seem terribly self-indulgent, and most of the dramatis personae fall into a gray zone, neither heroes nor villains. Should we admire more the Prohibition officers who implemented the law ruthlessly or those who winked and drank? Do we respect or deplore reformers who sought to better the lives of working-class women beaten by their drunken husbands? How to rate New York’s dapper “nightclub mayor” Jimmy Walker, beloved of both Irish slum dwellers and well-to-do jazz-club patrons, who faced down the dry lobby but channeled tax dollars to cronies and profited handsomely from various sordid schemes?

Lerner is too sophisticated a historian to proffer easy judgments. He seeks to explain. He interprets Prohibition as the central skirmish in the culture wars of the ’20s—a series of fights over values every bit as intense as those that have fractured America since the ’60s. “The battle between the dry movement and wet New Yorkers was a debate about competing visions of American society,” he writes, “over individual rights, personal liberty, and the limits of reform.” Over the course of the ’20s, he shows, the moral upper hand shifted from the paternalistic drys, with their program of uplifting Americans, to the civil-libertarian wets, who prized a wide berth of freedom in the realm of personal behavior. If, as the historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote, the difference between the Progressives of the 1910s and their intellectual heirs among New Dealers of the ’30s was that between moralism and pragmatism, then the fight against Prohibition was the crucible in which the new, more modern liberal spirit was forged.

This is the burden of Dry Manhattan’s argument. More than a spasm of hedonistic rebellion, the book suggests, the fight against Prohibition represented a key stage in the development of liberalism, helping to wean Progressives from the high-mindedness of the gentlemen reformers’ worldview. This argument becomes clear in Lerner’s later chapters, on Prohibition’s repeal. Lerner embeds his analysis in a larger, compelling story—skillfully structuring his book so that just when the reader starts to wonder how long aggrieved ethnics, harried Harlemites, and other booze-loving New Yorkers will tolerate Prohibition’s idiocies, he segues smoothly into its demise.

As late as 1928, it turns out, wets lacked any organization to speak of. Pundits decreed the Eighteenth Amendment to be carved as deeply in constitutional stone as the Bill of Rights. But plucky New Yorkers led the effort to erase it. Oddly, it wasn’t the Democrats who stirred first but two Republicans: the patrician Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, who lent his respectability to the repeal cause, and Fiorello LaGuardia, the feisty congressman, who endowed it with passion.

Soon, however, the party of the people reclaimed leadership of the repeal movement. Fronting the charge was the old slayer of the Mullan-Gage Act from 1923, New York governor Al Smith, who ran for president in 1928 as a proud wet. Though the “Happy Warrior” was routed that year by the austerely dry Herbert Hoover (mainly because of the thrumming economy), Smith’s identification with the repeal cause politicized wets. And when Hoover as president defied his own commission’s advice to revise the Volstead Act, he only helped the drinkers’ cause: By rigidly refusing to suffer careworn Americans a glass of wine or beer, he buttressed the image of indifference that stemmed from his tepid response to the deepening economic crisis.

By 1932, the hapless Hoover was ripe for toppling by another wet New York governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Nine days into his twelve-year presidency, FDR inked a bill legalizing beer and wine, and Gothamites—along with thirsty Americans everywhere—hoisted frothy steins in celebration. The Twenty-first Amendment soon followed. “As their rebellion moved from simple everyday acts like making their own wine or drinking and dancing in speakeasies to more focused wet activism in the realm of politics,” Lerner summarizes, “New Yorkers helped steer the nation . . . toward both a more tolerant view of American society and a more practical understanding of the relationship between the government and its citizens.” Pity the American who can’t drink to that.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, is the author most recently of Calvin Coolidge (Times Books, 2006).

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