Writers and Their Drinks
For some of the 20th century’s most celebrated writers, booze was as important as ink. Or even more important: “Civilization begins with distillation,” said William Faulkner. So ingrained is liquor in these writers’ mythos that each is identified with a particular drink. Alcohol, some may say, helped fuel their greatness, but alcoholism also figured in each one’s decline and fall.
A private dick should be gimlet-eyed. Raymond Chandler’s gumshoe hero Philip Marlowe surely is. But in the opening chapters of Chandler’s 1953 masterpiece The Long Goodbye, Marlowe is gimlet-gulleted, too, knocking back these cocktails at the L.A. bar Victor’s with playboy drunkard Terry Lennox. Victor’s gimlets, however, aren’t to the British-trained Lennox’s liking. “What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters,” he bitches. “A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s lime juice and nothing else.” That recipe seems wrongly oversweet; most drinkers would probably favor a four-to-one gin-to-Rose’s ratio.
Chandler had first drunk gimlets a year before Goodbye was published, when he traveled aboard the British liner RMS Mauretania. So who knows? Maybe his character’s unorthodox recipe was the one used in the Mauretania’s lounges. It wouldn’t have been the only time a boozehound writer found mixological inspiration while sitting in a bar. Ian Fleming reportedly picked up his hero James Bond’s martini preference (“shaken, not stirred”) when patronizing the bar at London’s Duke’s Hotel. Some drinkers would also object to that method, since shaking a martini clouds up and waters down the drink.
Raymond Chandler learned to drink gimlets in 1952, but that’s certainly not when he learned to drink. The Big Sleep author was long an alcoholic, and his drinking worsened following the death of his beloved wife, Cissy, in 1954, interfering with his writing and contributing to his death five years later. But in a way, booze actually helped make him a professional writer: Chandler began penning hard-boiled detective stories only after being fired from a job as an oil company exec for a few indiscretions, including drunkenness.
Another 20th-century macho-prose maestro, Ernest Hemingway likewise tied on quite a few before he ever heard of the mojito—the muddled lime, mint, sugar and rum concoction he discovered in the 1930s in Cuba, where he eventually became a resident. Like Chandler’s, Hemingway’s drinking worsened later in his life, especially after he was badly injured in two airplane crashes while on an African safari in 1954. And Hemingway’s alcohol dependence, also like Chandler’s, impaired his ability to write, doubtless intensifying his mental illness and hastening his death. Following two stints at the Mayo Clinic, where he was treated for depression with electroshock therapy, Hemingway committed suicide in July 1961.
Tosspot writers have their favorite drinks and their favorite drinking establishments. Havana bar La Bodeguita del Medio displays a framed inscription that reads, “My mojito in La Bodeguita / My daiquiri in El Floridita.” It’s signed “Ernest Hemingway”—attesting to Hem’s yo-yoing patronage of two famous Havana watering holes and to his devotion to Cuba’s two outstanding mixological achievements. The mojito might have been invented at La Bodeguita, though that claim is disputed; El Floridita probably did serve the first frozen daiquiris, in the 1930s, though the classic shaken version dates back at least to the late 1800s. Both places make much of their Hemingway associations—at El Floridita, a life-size bronze statue of him perches at the bar. Many saloons do the same sort of thing, of course: At New York City’s White Horse Tavern, a painting of Dylan Thomas stares at patrons, reminding them that the Welsh poet tragically downed his last drinks there. And the bar at London’s Duke’s Hotel, where Ian Fleming was a regular martini imbiber, serves a version of the vesper martini (which includes both gin and vodka) that Fleming introduced in his first Bond novel, 1953’s Casino Royale.
William Faulkner’s and Ernest Hemingway’s preferred libations were minty; their relationship was flinty. Not that they ever met. Their interchanges occurred in correspondence and via sometimes nasty comments about each other made to third parties. Faulkner once accused Hemingway, a self-styled he-man, of lacking courage as a writer, a comment sure to get his goat. For his part, Hemingway was capable of slamming both Faulkner’s alcoholic propensity and his linguistic sophistication in one mean-spirited epithet, calling him Old Corndrinking Mellifluous. Both men won the Nobel Prize (Faulkner in 1950, Hemingway in 1954), but each thought he was the better writer—Hemingway because he, unlike Faulkner, never wrote under the influence (so he claimed). “I have too much respect for the English language…to operate on it while drunk,” Hemingway said. Faulkner did admit to keeping his whiskey “within reach” whenever he wrote, and he pooh-poohed liquor’s ill effects. “Isn’t anythin’ Ah got whiskey won’t cure,” a concerned friend reported Faulkner having drawled. So deep was Faulkner’s passion for booze and literature that he equated them: “Pouring out liquor is like burning books.” His silver mint-julep cup now sits in a vitrine at his Oxford, Mississippi, house—a relic of his devotion.
Dorothy Parker was surely cocktail culture’s wittiest commentator. Consider this bit of doggerel, attributed to her: “I wish I could drink like a lady. / I can take one or two at the most. / Three, and I’m under the table. / Four, and I’m under the host.” Or her spoonerism “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” Parker drank wide and deep—though she tended to prefer scotch to gin—but she’s associated with the whiskey sour because of an extemporaneous response she purportedly once made when asked what she’d like for breakfast: “Just something light and easy to fix. How about a dear little whiskey sour?”
Parker stropped her wit at lunches in the 1920s with New York City’s glittering Algonquin [Hotel] Round Table, whose members engaged daily in verbal one-upmanship. William Faulkner, who preferred his (bourbon) whiskey delivered via a classic Southern mint julep, had a less appealing Algonquin experience. While staying there in 1937, he got so drunk that he passed out with his back pressed against a steam heating pipe in his room—resulting in third-degree burns that required several skin grafts and never fully healed.
F. Scott Fitzgerald deployed the gin rickey highball in The Great Gatsby as a cooling refreshment on a tense summer day, and he personally favored gin because (he thought) it didn’t make his breath stink. In the 1920s Fitzgerald glibly introduced himself as “one of the most notorious drinkers of the younger generation”; by the ’30s, he was washed up and, in his own telling, cracked up. With his wife, Zelda (an equally notorious lush), in an insane asylum, Fitzgerald landed in Hollywood, where he pursued a mostly unsuccessful screenwriting career, had an affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham and suddenly died of a heart attack at age 44.
Fitzgerald crashed earlier than his friend Ernest Hemingway, whose mojito was unknown in Paris when the two met there in 1925—an oversight that didn’t stop them from regularly bending elbows together. Nor did Hemingway’s own fondness for the sauce stop him from criticizing the uncontrolled inebriation of his Lost Generation friend, which he blamed on Zelda. Hemingway later wrote, “Zelda constantly [made Scott] drink because she was jealous of his working well.… He had a very steep trajectory and was almost like a guided missile with no one guiding him.”