April 07, 2020

Alcohol: A writer’s muse, or at least good friend

How many reasons do you need to buy a book?

Edward (grandson) Hemingway and Mark Bailey give you three reasons for starters. They give you excerpts from the greatest (and thirstiest) American authors, a recipe for their favorite tipple and an anecdote about their hearty drinking in my now favorite thin book, “Hemingway and Bailey’s Bartending Guide,” (Algonquin Books, $15.95). The lesson on evils of drink are also included.

Make that four reasons.

Hemingway and Bailey were sitting at an open bar in New York City around Christmas with barstools full of writers, lamenting the fact that no one drinks anymore. Well, not like they used to. That was the impetus for the book.

As Truman Capote explains in the foreword, “We are drinkers with writing problems.” Capote didn’t have to do anything after “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” but his other claim to fame (now) is that he used to arm-wrestle tough guy Humphrey Bogart … and beat him. He once broke Bogie’s elbow in a Hotel Palumbo encounter in Ravello and postponed the shooting for “Beat the Devil.”

“Tru” loved his screwdrivers, it is reported.

I never heard of a French 75, but it was named after the French 75 mm cannon from World War I and deeply favored by Djuna Barnes. I never heard of her either, but she was almost famous for writing “Nightwood” in the Roaring Twenties. Walter Winchell reported that Barnes drank a bottle of whiskey a day. Others reported she could hit a spittoon from (duck!) 30 feet away. For your drinking pleasure, a 75 consists of gin and champagne. If that isn’t enough, add some lemon juice, simple syrup and lemon twist.

Robert Benchley chose orange blossoms as his poison. More gin, this time with fresh orange juice, simple syrup and a chunk of fresh orange. One day when Benchley was sort of on the wagon, he started drinking the blossoms. F. Scott Fitzgerald, no shrinking violet himself, warned his host that “Drinking is a slow death.” Benchley, the king of wits, replied, “So, who’s in a hurry?”

Another gin (gimlet) man, Raymond Chandler, could only write when he drank. When he ran dry (at the typewriter), director John Houseman arranged for a bartender and six secretaries at Chandler’s abode. Chandler started drinking and writing as the secretaries polished the prose and handed it off to a waiting limousine. He finished “The Blue Dahlia” on schedule, whether he remembered it or not.

William Faulkner gives a perfect illustration of the dangers of drink. A mint julep man, Faulkner gashed his finger while opening a bourbon bottle. While fainter hearts thought of calling for a nurse, Faulkner kept bleeding into his typewriter and a wastebasket while he finished the script for “Road to Glory.”

“A man does not exist until he is drunk,” claimed the author’s grandfather, Ernest Hemingway, a mojito (rum and crushed mint leaves) man. John O’Hara and Papa got in an argument at Costello’s bar one night. The subject is lost in an alcohol haze. But Hemingway bet that he could break O’Hara’s shillelagh with his bare hands. Then he took the walking stick and broke it over his own head. The fractured stick was a bar memento for decades.

Jack Kerouac, who doomed a generation to forced, endless, aimless drives across the country, advised, “Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.”

Ignoring his own advice, our boy Jack once enlisted in the Coast Guard, Navy, then the Marines, all on the same bender. Then he left them high and dry on a cruise with the Merchant Marine.

Jack reportedly was a margarita man.

The authors advise us that “a couple of cocktails doesn’t make you a drunk. And no amount of liquor can make you a writer.”

Make that five reasons to buy a book.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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