Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
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A brilliant, authoritative, and fascinating history of America’s most puzzling era, the years 1920 to 1933, when the US Constitution was amended to restrict one of America’s favorite pastimes: drinking alcoholic beverages.
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.
competitors, Early Times. Early Times had inventory; Brown-Forman had a sales apparatus. David Schulte of New York had neither. Schulte had begun his working life picking strawberries on eastern Long Island, soon became a clerk in a Manhattan tobacco store, and with remarkable speed established a chain of cigar stores and a booming wholesale grocery business. Once Prohibition began he demonstrated that one needn’t be a distiller or a druggist to make a killing in medicinal liquor. In 1925
compared to him, were as peewees to the Matterhorn.” THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION of 1928 has long been considered an unfortunate, or at least awkward, episode in American history. Because of anti-Catholic prejudice, Al Smith, the Democratic candidate, lost states that had never gone Republican. Herbert Hoover, his opponent, was elected on a seemingly unstoppable wave of Republican prosperity just months before the economy came crashing down in a rubble of pipe dreams, false riches, and market
Ettinger, and Lily Rothman provided additional assistance. Lydia Okrent deserves a category of her own and a form of gratitude (and pride) that only a father can offer. A project such as this one requires travel to distant archives. My research took me to Cambridge, Washington, Wilmington, Toronto, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Chicago, and San Francisco, and also required me to endure two weeks of extreme hardship in the Napa Valley. Some very capable surrogates plumbed collections I was unable to visit,
staff of field agents included four black men “competent to handle the colored voters,” in the words of one indiscreet manager. Their competence was amplified by a kit each one carried, consisting of the powers of attorney and the cash necessary to pay an individual’s poll tax, a few pieces of wet propaganda, and a poster of Abraham Lincoln. The distillers, supported by the wholesalers who distributed their products, didn’t need to meddle in the feudal southern political system to incite the
#1560. Show itself: Kottman, 112. Charity: Marrus, 133. Assist the government: Thornton to Minister of Railways and Canals, 1/7/29, quoted in Stephen T. Moore. Quadruple: Dispatch, 11/9/32, State Department Archives, 811.114 Canada 4642. 343 Actual volume: Transcript of annual meeting speech, 11/30/31, in SMC. Launder: Dubro and Rowland, 208. 343 Smuggle back: Dispatch, 1/9/31, State Department Archives, 811.114 Canada 4400. Cutting racket (fn): DN, cited in Asbury, 269. Buffalo batch (fn):