Daniel Okrent's Last Call Examines Prohibition and How it Shaped America's Tempestuous Love Affair with Liquor
Written by: D.B. Mitchell | Photography by: Stephen Vaughan
Daniel Okrent has lived an interesting life, to say the least. Widely credited with inventing fantasy baseball, he is also known as the first public editor of the New York Times after stops at institutions such as Life, Esquire and Time. Okrent has since turned his efforts toward novels, where he’s already been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize thanks to his book, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. For his latest endeavor, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Okrent traces the myriad factors that led to one of the most influential yet mostly forgotten periods of the 20th century — Prohibition. In a phone interview from his office in NY, Okrent spoke with 944 about booze, constitutional amendments, racism and how to make a martini.
944: Why did you write a book about Prohibition?
DANIEL OKRENT: There’s no better motivation for writing a book than to wonder how the hell did something like that happen. This is a freedom-loving country and people have been drinking legally since the first settlers came here . The notion that something could be added to the Constitution is kind of shocking, if you really pause to think about it ... the very fact that there was not just a law but a constitutional amendment. The Constitution generally limits the power of government. Only in two ways has it ever limited the rights of individuals: The 14 years, of course, against liquor and the 14th Amendment says you can’t own slaves. The notion that these two things were equal under the law is really kind of shocking.
944: One of the amazing things in the book was all of the racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric that was used in favor of prohibition.
DO: The language doesn’t surprise me because racism was not anything that was at all closeted back in those years. What surprised me was how Prohibition was used as a weapon against immigrants. The native-born Methodists, Baptists and Protestants in the middle of the country saw they were losing their country to the big cities, which were filling up with immigrants who spoke a different language and lived a different lifestyle. Prohibition was a weapon against the Italians and the Irish of the big cities who were electing people to Congress and changing the nature of who controlled the country. It was also a weapon of the south against black people. There was such terrible fear the white southern hater had of the image of a black man with a ballot in one hand and a bottle in the other.
944: Why does pop culture look back so fondly at the illegal activities of Prohibition?
DO: I think it has a lot to do with how it’s portrayed in the movies; there’s a real Prohibition chic right now that started in New York. You don’t have a sign [or] a phone number. You walk down the back stairs — it’s all kind of replicating this imagined version of speakeasy culture. There’s a romance to doing something that’s on one hand illegal, but not dangerous. I think it’s kind of natural for people to be drawn to that; there’s an excitement to it.
944: How much of society has been shaped by Prohibition?
DO: An enormous amount. [One thing] shaped from Prohibition: men and women drinking together. First of all, the saloon was a male-only institution. The speakeasy — because laws were being broken, also broke down conventions, and women started to go to speakeasies. Once you had women in speakeasies — men and women together — you had to have music. There had never been music in saloons. But if you had men and women dancing, you got the nightclub. Call brands for liquor: In old western movies, a guy didn’t go up to the bar and ask for a Jack Daniel’s. No, he says, “Give me a whiskey.” But once you’re worried about the quality of the whiskey, suddenly you’re saying give me a Jack or a Wild Turkey. The liquor industry owes its branding power to that. [Also] tonic had been an anti-malarial used by the British in India before it was used to make drinks palatable. The mixed drink is a direct consequence of Prohibition. There are a number of ways that our lives were profoundly altered. Particularly men and women drinking together, that’s probably the biggest one.