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.
LEAGUE, no victory in the 1926 congressional elections had been as gratifying as the defeat of James Wadsworth in the New York Senate race (“the greatest loss the wets could suffer,” said the league’s newspaper). But to Wadsworth, nothing could have been more liberating. He might miss the campaign trail, particularly the amusement devised by the newspapermen who had traveled with him: at every stop, no matter how tiny the town or how brief the stay, the reporters raced to see if they could get a
his record on dry issues was spotty. He once said he did not think 2.75 percent beer was an intoxicant, and during World War I he had opposed interim Prohibition measures. Had the Baptists and other fundamentalists in the dry vanguard known about the excellent wine cellar Hoover had acquired from the estate of Senator Leland Stanford, they might not have been mollified even by the knowledge that Hoover’s wife had given it away in 1919. They certainly would not have been pleased to know that on
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.
have modeled for coinage”—Pinchot did not pause before beginning his “honest-to-God” effort to dry up Pennsylvania. In his first month in office he turned the state police into a commando army. A single week saw raids on illegal liquor operations in eighteen counties. Reminding Republican legislators that he was now head of the party, that he had led them to victory at the top of the ticket in November, and that they had pledged their support to his legislative program, Pinchot got all the laws
whiskey might be stripped from the pantries of their liners brought the British to the negotiating table, and Lord Curzon eventually acceded to an extension of the three-mile limit. The new treaty established that a nation’s coastal waters began at “an hour’s steaming distance” from the shore—as later interpreted by American authorities, twelve nautical miles. Curzon wasn’t happy about the compromise but considered this change in long-established international law a necessary acknowledgment of