Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Scribner, 480 pages
Reviewed by Mark Le Fanu
Buy Last Call on Amazon
TO MOST PEOPLE on this side of the Atlantic, the self-denying ordinance known as Prohibition is a mystery. How did it come about that for fourteen years immediately after the First World War, the most powerful nation on the earth (and, practically speaking, the inventor of the cocktail) put itself in the position of refusing its citizens the right to purchase and to consume alcoholic beverages?
Evidently there is a story to be told here, and Daniel Okrent, formerly an editor at Life magazine and the first public editor of The New York Times, tells it with vigour, detail and wit. The first thing to bear in mind is that America, since its Puritan origins, had been soaked in booze. The ship that brought John Winthrop to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 had more than 10,000 gallons of wine in its hold, and three times as much beer as water. And so it went on. As Okrent tells us: ‘By 1830 American adults were guzzling, per capita, a staggering seven gallons of pure alcohol per year: the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of standard 82 proof liquor per person, per week — nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation.’
It was against this background of heroic ingestion that a series of temperance waves (powered by evangelical Christianity) swept America three times in a century: first in the 1840s, then in the 1880s, and finally and decisively in the years leading into the First World War.
There was temperance in the UK, too, at the time. But it didn’t, in our case, lead to legislation. Why not? Okrent suggests three factors that were crucial, in different degrees, to the path that America trod.
First, there was a Southern, racial (indeed racist) component to the issue. Over the course of the century, the nation’s preferred tipple had moved over from whiskey and gin to beer. But the liquor interest continued to be powerful, and it was run in the main by Jews. In the early years of the century there seems to have been an outbreak of moral panic that the liquor in question was being channelled towards the newly enfranchised black demographic — posing dire danger to the virtue of white womanhood, etc. Make what we will of this, it was important: the Ku Klux Klan was one of the leading pressure groups for Prohibition.
Racial sentiment, too, was crucial in the case of the brewing industry, which happened, of course, to be German. Thus a shot of straight anti-immigrant xenophobia was vital in the mix.
But the most important factor was probably human and contingent: at that time the Anti-Saloon League was born, based in rural Ohio and blessed with extraordinarily dynamic leadership, including at the top a powerful if now forgotten evangelical lobbyist named Wayne B Wheeler, who for a brief crucial period held Congress in the palm of his hand.
So it came to pass that, on 16 January 1919, the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States became law, to take effect a year from that date. But it is Okrent’s argument (elaborated in sparkling, witty detail) that Prohibition was a failure from the start. First in Warren Harding’s and then in Calvin Coolidge’s stingy Republican administrations, there was never enough cash to police the new laws; the $2.1 million allocated for the task amounted to ‘slightly less than the sum paid a few months later on a single day for muskrat pelts at the St Louis fur auction’, according to Okrent.
In addition, there were the notoriously porous borders. Whether rum-running from a base in the Bahamas or shipping in whiskey from Canada, neighbouring entrepreneurs delighted in new export opportunities. The state had also been liberal with exceptions: doctors across the land made minor fortunes by legally prescribing hooch to patients for ‘medicinal purposes’, while Californian grape growers were kept in business by a huge surge in the demand for — wait for it — altar wine.
Probably most important of all, however, among the causes of Prohibition’s doom was that large sections of the ruling class never really believed in the cause. Astonishingly, this even included the President: Harding arranged to have $1,800-worth of liquor that he’d purchased before the deadline transferred to the presidential living quarters from his home (his butler, Taylor, was known to mix a mean cocktail).
Henry Ford, notoriously, was a teetotaller and supporter of the amendment, but many — perhaps the majority — of his fellow industrialists were not. Indeed, it was the idea that the money lost from the excise on liquor might have been used to minimise the country’s hated new income tax which at the end of the Twenties pointed many hitherto prohibition-supporting Republicans towards the virtue of repeal.
Could it be done, however? No amendment, once adopted, had ever been lifted. But lobbyist Wheeler sickened and died in 1927, while two of his main deputies (both clergymen) became involved in high-profile sex scandals. The Anti-Saloon League lost steam. That Prohibition led to rampant gangsterism in the cities was plain for all to see (the gangsters, of course, were against change).
As the nation limped into recession, the re-opening of the breweries offered the prospect of lightening the load of unemployment, as well as providing much-needed tax revenue. Public opinion slowly moved behind repeal, and at last, coinciding with the onset of a new Democratic administration under Roosevelt, the unthinkable happened: on 7 February 1933 America finally awoke from its nightmare.
Okrent’s book is nothing less than a social history of the decade. What we have here is the Jazz Age itself — the crime and the glamour of the epoch, along with its reflection in popular culture, literature and the movies. It’s a tremendous feat of historical synthesis, and richly deserves the prizes that have been showered on it.