'Last Call,' a history of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent

By Gary Krist
Sunday, June 13, 2010; B07


The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

By Daniel Okrent

Scribner. 468 pp. $30

On Jan. 16, 1920 -- the day before Prohibition became the law of the land -- America's triumphant "drys" were supremely optimistic about the future: "The reign of tears is over," evangelist Billy Sunday told a revival meeting in Norfolk, Va. "Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent."

But the great landlord Satan needn't have worried. As Daniel Okrent demonstrates in "Last Call," his witty and exhaustive new history of Prohibition, the so-called Noble Experiment created nothing like a virtuous teetotaler's paradise. The 18th Amendment, in fact, didn't so much end the country's drinking culture as merely change its ethos, replacing the male-dominated saloon with the sexually integrated speakeasy and turning a public pastime into a surreptitious exercise in cynicism and hypocrisy. "The drys had their law," as Okrent observes, "and the wets would have their liquor." And the bootleggers would have their obscene and blood-soaked profits, blissfully free of state and federal taxes.

The Prohibition era, of course, is not exactly unexamined territory. Writers good and bad have been mining this lode for decades, endlessly rehearsing its familiar tales of tipsy flappers, poisonous bathtub gin and tommy-gun battles on the streets of Chicago and New York. Okrent, a writer best known as the first public editor of the New York Times, certainly doesn't ignore such crowd-pleasing anecdotes. (Really, what self-respecting ironist could resist telling the one about the "sacramental wine" racket run by an alleged rabbi named Patrick Houlihan?) But he brings to his account a breadth of scholarship that allows us to put the shenanigans in proper perspective. And while the book at times barrages the reader with more detail than is truly necessary, Okrent is never tedious for long. He also takes pains to debunk some of the apocrypha that, thanks to the carelessness of less diligent historians, has become part of the accepted lore of the age. A case in point: Everyone "knows" that Joseph Kennedy, father of our 35th president, was a notorious bootlegger, right? Okrent points out that there is absolutely no credible evidence that this is true.

"Last Call" is especially enlightening on the politics of Prohibition. Even as late as 1918, a lot of wets regarded the 18th Amendment as "a dead letter" with virtually no chance of ratification. Enforced temperance, after all, was a highly unpopular concept in many quarters, particularly among city dwellers, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, blacks and an awful lot of native-born white Protestant males. Okrent shows how the dry forces -- led by powerful interest groups like the Anti-Saloon League -- overcame this stiff opposition, cobbling together an unlikely coalition of rural populists, urban progressives, women and nativists (even the KKK), all of whom had their own peculiar reasons for wanting to see the demise of legal alcohol. In the end, aided by a ratification process that gave disproportionate weight to voters in rural states, the drys managed to push their amendment through -- to the incredulity of wets nationwide.

But making a behavior illegal is one thing; making it unpopular is another. Early signs of Prohibition's effectiveness, like the initial declines in alcohol consumption and criminal behavior, proved to be short-lived. And thanks to the ingenuity of America's criminal class, it wasn't long before John Barleycorn was once again on the upswing. By 1926, annual sales of illegal liquor had reached an estimated $3.6 billion -- roughly the size of the entire federal budget. In the cities, meanwhile, few people were even pretending to obey the law. "It cannot be truthfully said that prohibition enforcement has failed in New York," one former Justice department official remarked. "It has not yet been attempted." By the early 1930s, it was the wets who were making the over-optimistic predictions -- about an idyllic future after repeal. The Depression "will fade away like the mists before the noonday sun," one wet congressman opined. "The immorality of the country . . . will be a thing of the past."

So just how ill-advised was the Noble Experiment? Some revisionist scholars have lately tried to rehabilitate its reputation, claiming that our sense of the era's rampant crime is a Hollywood distortion and that the reduction in alcohol consumption, while it did erode over time, was in fact significant. Okrent concedes at least the latter point, but he doesn't buy much further into the revisionist line. "In almost every respect imaginable," he concludes, "Prohibition was a failure."

But Okrent does note one final paradox that might warm the hearts of disconsolate drys. After the 21st Amendment reversed the 18th (on Dec. 5, 1933), the anything-goes style of bibulous scofflaws was quickly stymied by a flood of state and local alcohol regulations. These new measures set licensing requirements for sellers and imposed far more enforceable restrictions (like tavern closing hours, age limits and Sunday blue laws) on consumers. The repeal of Prohibition, in other words, "made it harder, not easier, to get a drink."

Gary Krist is the author of "The White Cascade." His book about Chicago in 1919 will be publishednext year.

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