Alcohol! It has long been the bane of temperance groups; for many, though, a bottle of wine or a cocktail is the prequel to the evening meal or celebration. At one point in human evolution, earlier forms of beer were actually safer to drink than water. Alcohol distillation is here to stay. Amen.
When author Delia Cabe shared her research, now a book titled Storied Bars of New York: Where the Literary Luminaries Go to Drink, on August 21, the Mattapoisett Library’s meeting room was filled with people sipping ‘mocktails’. It was all part of her fun and well-informing presentation filled with anecdotal stories. Those stories tell of prohibition’s impact on rates of alcoholism and the underground hidey-holes frequented by writers – cultural greats of the past.
Cabe started by going way back to the days when Walt Whitman found his way to the watering holes of Manhattan’s lower east side, and spanned all the way through to where the old speakeasies are today. The author’s historical perspectives were a treat.
Cabe explained that with the advent of prohibition in 1920, bars and salons across the country found ways to distribute alcohol, outsmarting the cops at every turn. First, there was the movement of booze from places like Canada in the north and Cuba to the south, a network of boats big and small that managed to bring the good stuff to the U.S. shores. Then there were the motor vehicles. “They even used hearses,” Cabe said, to get the bottles to the hidden bars.
Speakeasies didn’t trade in ‘bathtub gin’, though, Cabe pointed out. They only sold quality product. But, how to find them? Well, people had to know someone who knew someone who could not only find the hidden door, but any associated passwords to gain access.
“They had to move often and change the bar’s name,” Cabe said of the speakeasy. If a raid happened, the patrons often knew which door to scram out of before the police could nab them. Then, after things settled down again, the bar would reopen at another location. “They paid off police and city officials,” she said with a chuckle.
Prohibition was responsible for doubling the number of bars in New York City, Cabe said. At one point there were an estimated 100,000 bars in NYC alone.
By the end of World War I, the country was ready for fun. There was a mood of gaiety and celebration, and none were more influential in promoting jocularity and the cultural profile of the nation than its literary greats. The famous Algonquin Hotel Round Table hosted a select group of those well-known merrymakers and literary snobs.
Known as the “taste masters” of their day, a group comprised of Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, and more, made the Round Table at the Algonquin their second home. Each day they lunched and drank together, shared their latest writings, were tough critics of other people’s works – a true force to be reckoned with. They called themselves “The Vicious Circle,” not to put too fine a point on it. Many of these famous folks had favorite drinks that have since become legendary, such as Parker’s gin cocktail, Hemingway’s dry martinis, and Capote’s screwdrivers.
Cabe is completely at home with her material. She was able to not only take her audience on a tour of Manhattan through twentieth-century saloons and bars, but also provided insights into what those times did to influence the cultural norms of the day. She is, after all, first and foremost, herself. She has written for a number of popular magazines and newspapers. Cabe is also an educator. She teaches magazine and column writing at Emerson College.
There is a love affair in Cabe’s book – her love of the subject matter and the place. She walks through the lives of literary greats from the past century, weaving them throughout the pages along with photographs of gorgeous bars illuminated in the best possible light. It is, after all, her childhood playground, the backstory of her own life having been raised on Manhattan’s lower eastside. You can take the woman out of NYC, but you can’t take the NYC out of the woman.
Cabe’s take on famous watering holes is lush, informative, and just plain fun. A hard act to follow, just like the writers, actors, and other notables who populate Cabe’s highly regarded book.
To learn about Delia Cabe you may visit www.deliacabe.com.
By Marilou Newell