Alcohol and the American Dream


The Cocktail: the Influence of Spirits on the American Psyche

by Joseph Lanza (1995)

Book Review

The term “cocktail,” which first appeared during the Revolutionary War, refers to the adulteration of whiskey, rum, gin, vodka or other hard liquor with wine or non-alcoholic beverages to disguise the bitter taste. The cocktail is as fundamental to the American dream as the white picket fence. Joseph Lanza’s short book traces the history of this distinctly American style of inebriation, emphasizing the importance of Prohibition and Hollywood in establishing the cocktail as the ultimate status symbol of the American middle class.

Owing to my family background, this book had special personal importance. Both my parents, caught up in a drinking culture that considered it pathological not to have daily cocktails, were full-fledged alcoholics by the time I was twelve.

Prohibition: a “Progressive” Cause

The rise of the cocktail culture was directly linked to urbanization, while the early prohibition movement, viewed as a progressive cause, was closely linked to the women’s suffrage. Most of the suffragettes who campaign for women’s voting rights simultaneously campaigned for the government to ban alcohol.* Anti-alcohol sentiment was strongly bolstered by the protestant work ethic that characterized early American society, and anti-immigrant sentiments against Italian and Irish newcomers who were slow to adapt to it. By the end of the nineteenth century, numerous individual states had already enacted prohibition legislation.

The Volstead Act and 18th Amendment (which undercut a Constitutional challenge), officially took effect on January 17, 1920. The Act provided that “no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, or furnish any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act.” Because it was only loosely enforced, supplying bootleg liquor was instrumental in the rise of organized criminal gangs and the career of the Kennedy family patriarch Joseph Kennedy. By the evening of January 18th, the first speakeasy had opened in New York. Prior to 1920, women had been barred from public drinking establishments. With Prohibition, this changed and they became an established fixture in speakeasy jazz clubs.

The Celebrity Drinking Culture

Prohibition also gave rise to the celebrity drinking culture, typified by the early twentieth century writers and composers who openly frequented speakeasies. The most prominent celebrities included George Gershwin, Moss Hart, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Walter Winchel and the Algonquin Roundtable writers (Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Alexander Woolcott, Robert Sherwood, Robert Benchley).

Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, speakeasies became cocktail cafes. With the advent of talking movies, Hollywood stars replaced writers and composers as role models in the cocktail cafes (later known as cocktail lounges) where wealthy socialites mingled with Hollywood celebrities.

In the late thirties and early forties, cocktails singers emerged to entertain them. The first cocktail entertainers were male crooners,* like Rudy Valle, Dean Martin, Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Crickett’s voice in Pinochio), Vic Damon, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. They typically drank heavily while performing. Female cocktail singers, such as Peggy Lee, Abbe Lane and Julie London, wouldn’t become popular until after World War II.

The cocktail culture took off big time in the 1940s as movies, especially detective films, glamorized heavy drinking.

Advertising and Media Manipulation

The fifties and sixties saw the coming to age of the advertising industry and media manipulation in redefining the human personality. This period ushered in urban leisure drinking, when alcohol consumption became so prevalent among the American middle class that it was considered pathological not to have a cocktail. A common angle used in alcohol advertising was that drinking was an important coping mechanism in dealing with urbanization and the pressures of the sterile corporate work environment.

In the literary world, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Eugene O’Neill were all held up as visionaries who relied on liquor to liberate ideas the sobriety suppressed. During the Kennedy administration, this drinking culture would permanently bind American politics to the entertainment industry, Frank Sinatra’s “rat pack.”

Baby Boomers Reject Alcohol

The sixties and seventies would see a significant decline in the cocktail culture. Baby boomers disliked the taste of alcohol and preferred the pain-free high of cannabis.

*Thaddeus Russell explores this link at length in A Renegade History of the United States.
* *Crooning is a method of using the voice to slide up and down the scale. It was facilitated by the advent of microphone technology that allowed performers to sing in a near whisper and still be heard.
**Rat pack member Peter Lawford married JFK’s sister Pat and Sinatra campaigned heavily for Kennedy in 1960. Follow his election, rat pack members (Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Sid Loft, Judy Garland, Joey Bishop, Shirley MacLaine and Dean Martin) were frequent White House guests.