Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
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A brilliant, authoritative, and fascinating history of America’s most puzzling era, the years 1920 to 1933, when the US Constitution was amended to restrict one of America’s favorite pastimes: drinking alcoholic beverages.
From its start, America has been awash in drink. The sailing vessel that brought John Winthrop to the shores of the New World in 1630 carried more beer than water. By the 1820s, liquor flowed so plentifully it was cheaper than tea. That Americans would ever agree to relinquish their booze was as improbable as it was astonishing.
Yet we did, and Last Call is Daniel Okrent’s dazzling explanation of why we did it, what life under Prohibition was like, and how such an unprecedented degree of government interference in the private lives of Americans changed the country forever.
Writing with both wit and historical acuity, Okrent reveals how Prohibition marked a confluence of diverse forces: the growing political power of the women’s suffrage movement, which allied itself with the antiliquor campaign; the fear of small-town, native-stock Protestants that they were losing control of their country to the immigrants of the large cities; the anti-German sentiment stoked by World War I; and a variety of other unlikely factors, ranging from the rise of the automobile to the advent of the income tax.
Through it all, Americans kept drinking, going to remarkably creative lengths to smuggle, sell, conceal, and convivially (and sometimes fatally) imbibe their favorite intoxicants. Last Call is peopled with vivid characters of an astonishing variety: Susan B. Anthony and Billy Sunday, William Jennings Bryan and bootlegger Sam Bronfman, Pierre S. du Pont and H. L. Mencken, Meyer Lansky and the incredible—if long-forgotten—federal official Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who throughout the twenties was the most powerful woman in the country. (Perhaps most surprising of all is Okrent’s account of Joseph P. Kennedy’s legendary, and long-misunderstood, role in the liquor business.)
It’s a book rich with stories from nearly all parts of the country. Okrent’s narrative runs through smoky Manhattan speakeasies, where relations between the sexes were changed forever; California vineyards busily producing “sacramental” wine; New England fishing communities that gave up fishing for the more lucrative rum-running business; and in Washington, the halls of Congress itself, where politicians who had voted for Prohibition drank openly and without apology.
Last Call is capacious, meticulous, and thrillingly told. It stands as the most complete history of Prohibition ever written and confirms Daniel Okrent’s rank as a major American writer.
size of the Brown-Forman shipment headed for Boston, noted the Louisville Herald-Post with the hand-wringing concern of a local booster, was evidence that “because of the heavy demand for medicinal whiskey the . . . warehouses in Kentucky were fast being emptied,” and it was therefore “necessary to renew the manufacture of the Kentucky product to supply the legitimate demand.” Not really; by this point Brown-Forman had addressed its shrinking supply by purchasing the entire stock of one of its
to do something about Prohibition enforcement—he was, it was said, “the only Treasury Secretary under whom three presidents served”—but he evidently valued his influence too highly to imperil it. When his son Paul brought some Yale friends home to Pittsburgh one winter, Mellon didn’t stop them from having a blowout drinking party; he just asked them not to throw their empties out the window. After the snow melted, he explained, the neighbors might notice. PAULINE SABIN HAD been among those wet
losing his reelection bid in 1922, the author of the era’s signature law went to work as a staff attorney in the Prohibition Bureau’s Northwest Region office in Minneapolis. After returning to his private practice in a small second-floor office in Granite Falls, Volstead spoke to a journalist just four weeks before Repeal. “Mr. Volstead said he wishes people would learn that Prohibition and all its developments are all in the past for Andrew Volstead, private citizen,” the reporter wrote.
the Rossville Union Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, in 1933. Unlike the Greenbrier Distillery they had acquired in 1922, this one was not dismantled and moved to Montreal. On December 5, as dockworkers and cartage men on distant St. Pierre marked the last day of Prohibition with a funeral cortege led by French and American flags at half mast, Sam Bronfman was already sitting on the four hundred thousand gallons of whiskey in the Rossville warehouse that had been part of the deal. Working
grapes shipped in from California and known in upper Michigan as “Dago Red.” But the events in Iron River would demonstrate that insofar as alcoholic beverages were concerned, the interests of the working poor and the well-to-do coincided—in this instance, because the former wanted their wine, and because the latter very much wanted them to have it. The story broke on February 23, when a federal agent named Leo J. Grove seized three barrels of homemade wine from the basement of a grocery store