The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

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JUL-AUG 2010 Issue

Just a Spoonful of Sugar

Daniel Okrent
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
(Scribner, 2010)

Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition has enough factual saturation to qualify as legitimate scholarly history, yet too much to bore the casual reader. On the contrary, though the book is dense with information, and more of its narrative is derived from the machinations of politics than the machine gun fire of rum-running gangsters, Okrent writes with a sense of humor that often winks at the story’s contemporary parallels without being obvious. The history of Prohibition is complex; the motivations of those who pushed for it and those who rallied against it are convoluted, and Okrent respects this tension, making Last Call a frequently funny and judiciously unromantic account of a fascinatingly anomalous period of American history.

Central to the story of Prohibition is the actual legislation itself, a point Okrent drives home by preceding the prologue with the text of the 18th Amendment. The book’s cast of characters includes “drys,” those pushing for laws banning alcohol, and “wets,” who ineffectively seek to block the passage of both the prohibitory amendment and the Volstead Act, the 67-sectioned piece of legislation detailing everything from the definition of the word “intoxicating,” to whether a foreign ship carrying rum could legally pass through the Panama Canal. But as Okrent elaborates on the various actors involved, it becomes evident that the implementation of Prohibition was less a reflection of the prevailing moral attitudes of the time and more a consequence of political expediency in reaction to an organized, vocal minority.

Though Okrent does not frame his book through the persona of one or two main characters, as is the temptation in narrative history, a few key figures emerge because of their close involvement with the era’s events. A notable figure on the side of prohibition was Wayne Wheeler, the public face of the stridently dry Anti-Saloon League (ASL), who “even at the peak of his power in the 1920s,” Okrent writes, “looked more like a clerk in an insurance office than a man who, in the description of the militantly wet Cincinnati Enquirer, ‘made great men his puppets.’” Wheeler’s influence over the passage of the 18th Amendment and the political power he wielded over legislators in his day was inestimable, yet as a historical figure he has faded into obscurity.

With the kind of cunning and zeal predicting future political strategists like Karl Rove, Wheeler mobilized a variety of interest groups, from women’s suffragists and progressives to religious teetotalers and Southern racists, spinning his anti-alcohol message to the specific concerns of each. Regardless of their individual differences, Wheeler could convince these parties to agree on dry common ground, and he amassed an intimidating political force. With a remarkable ability to stay on message—the ASL never publicly supported any policy but alcohol prohibition—Wheeler pressured lawmakers into adopting the ASL’s dry agenda. Despite the well-known wet lifestyles of many of these public officials, the 18th Amendment was ratified and the era of Prohibition began. Okrent asks, “In 1920 could anyone have believed that the 18th Amendment, ostensibly addressing the single subject of intoxicating beverages, would set off an avalanche of change in areas as diverse as international trade, speedboat design, tourism practices, soft-drink marketing, and the English language itself?”

Moreover, Prohibition introduced North America to its first coast-to-coast crime syndicates and temporarily shifted capital control away from the established elites into the hands of enterprising alcohol entrepreneurs. On the wrong but more profitable side of the law, Okrent depicts the Bronfmans, a family of Jewish-Canadians led by brother Sam, who made their fortune shipping massive quantities of booze across the border. At the time the Bronfmans went into the adult beverage trade, the business world in Canada, like much of the United States, was discriminatory towards Jews, and Prohibition offered one of the few avenues to success for those not within the established elite. For many of the disenfranchised classes, especially immigrants, Prohibition provided the market to acquire the wealth and influence for future legitimacy.

In big cities like New York, Chicago, and especially Detroit, Prohibition was unenforceable not only because of people's thirst, but because of its contribution to local economies. Politicians and police were the beneficiaries of bribes (despite low salaries, careers in Prohibition enforcement were very lucrative) and entire industries developed out of the desire for illicit hooch. The liquor business transformed the economy of the Bahamas, which became a bootlegging port and destination for liquor tourism, and the needs of nautical bootleggers inspired the speedboat. The closing of the legal saloons prompted thousands of speakeasies and “drug stores” to open, including 32,000 in New York alone. A loophole allowing for the home production of “fruit juice” was a boon to California's grape industry, which marketed wine making supplies to amateur vintners. Beer companies sold “near beer” and malt syrup to home brewers, while the soda business benefited from the need to mask the horrible taste of bootleg gin with sugary mixers.

In the end, the mania of the ASL and the rest of the dry contingent lost out to a number of wet proponents. Not only was enforcing Prohibition a near impossibility, but some of its biggest supporters were the now-wealthy bootleggers. But those with the most influence over repeal were the country’s richest business magnates protesting the income tax law passed to counter the massive revenues lost from legal, taxable liquor. In a book which begs for analysis and comparison with the world of today, perhaps this point is the most salient, especially in a city like New York: the power to change law, more often than not, is squarely in the control of society's most affluent members.


Adam P. Frederick


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

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