14 January 2009
I acquired this book soon after it came out in hardback in 1976 and have recently re-visited it following a revived interest in Depression-era history and a continuing interest in and an inclination towards 'the noble experiment' - the prohibition of the alcohol trade. (Well, there are strong laws today in both the U.K. and the U.S. against the sale and use of both 'soft' and 'hard' drugs and logic would suggest that there might still be benefit from banning the sale and use of one of the most addictive and dangerous of all drugs - alcohol).
Anyway, the book is just as enthralling for a re-read as for an original read and I strongly recommend it, as a commentary on the values of the 1920s and the 1930s in America, as an exciting and almost too-tall-to-be-true tale, and as an insight into the filthiness of some of the policing and politics of the big city - New York and Chicago come out of it particularly badly, but has anything changed?
Some of the real-life characters that make the book so exciting and readable might have come straight from Damon Runyan. There were, in mainly alphabetical order and not exclusively, William Jennings Bryan, a 'dry' Democrat who might have made a pretty decent President, Methodist Bishop James Cannon, Jr., Al Capone, who hadn't filed an income tax return for years despite making millions out of illicit booze and crime, John 'Bathhouse' Coughlin, Isidore 'Izzy' Einstein and his partner 'Moe' Smith, Larry Fay, 'Texas' Guinan, the supposedly 'dry' Republican President Warren Gamaliel Harding, who couldn't or wouldn't give up his own drinking, Michael 'Hinky Dink' Kenna, Captain William (the real) McCoy, Jack 'Machine Gun' McGurn, George 'Bugs' Moran, the murderous and murdered Dion O'Banion, George and Imogene Remus of Cincinnati, Mrs Pauline Morton Sabin, 'Dutch' Schultz, Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, the 'wet' who nearly made it to the Presidency, William Hale 'Big Bill' Thompson, Mayor of Chicago and another Presidential hopeful, Johnny Torrio, Wayne Bidwell Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League, and the wonderfully-named Mrs Mabel Walker Willebrandt, not forgetting, of course, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who made it to the White House in 1933 and oversaw the end of Prohibition. F.D.R. committed the ultimate hypocrisy of a hypocritical age when he declared that Americans should henceforth eschew the word 'saloon,' substituting for it the word 'tavern' (page 316). (Is this the reason for there being a 'Moe's Tavern' in 'The Simpsons'?).
I love the rural areas of the American South and this book deepens my affection for such areas as opposed to such as the cities of New York and Chicago, though I know for a fact that even in traditionally 'dry' rural districts there are still illicit moonshine stills. I was offered some 'peach brandy' by a dear friend (now sadly deceased) in North Carolina, but I declined because a mere whiff of it was nearly enough, I thought, to blow my socks off. I did accept some of it, sealed in a Mason jar, to give to a 'wet' friend back in England. Foolishly, I failed to decant it into a plastic container and left the stuff in the Mason jar, putting it into my hand luggage for 'safety.' (This was in the 1990s, well before the latest rules regarding liquids on airliners). I placed my hand luggage in the scanner and all was well until I put it back on the hard floor at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. I heard a faint sound of broken glass and then inhaled an extremely strong waft of alcohol. Suffice to say, my 'wet' friend didn't receive his hooch - was this a left-over echo of the age of Prohibition and a 'message' to me and my friend?!