Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
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.
Montanans voted for Smith, 54 percent voted against a statewide Prohibition enforcement law. In Massachusetts, where Smith won barely 50 percent of the vote, a state enforcement repeal measure passed by nearly two to one. Nor was this countertrend confined to the first Tuesday in November. Five months before the presidential election, statewide repeal had captured 48 percent of the vote in North Dakota—North Dakota!—where Prohibition had been embedded in the state constitution for four decades.
The Case of Prohibition in the Taft Court Era.” Draft chapter provided by author, Yale University Law School. Potter, Ryan A. “Enforcing National Prohibition Along the Detroit River, 1920–1933.” MA thesis, Eastern Michigan University, 2000. Powe, Lucas A., Jr. The Warren Court and American Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. Powers, Madelon. Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman’s Saloon, 1870–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
black soldiers, forever barred from military or civil service. “I saw black men carry our flag on Santiago Hill,” he declared. “I have seen them at Manila. A black man took my father, wounded, from the field of Chancellorsville.” Invoking a paternalism that is discomfiting to modern sensibilities, he spoke of the former slaves who had stayed at Magnolia Grove to care for his mother and grandmother. He also said that because “the white man is supreme in this country,” it was the white man’s
legislature—any legislature, really—to give militant drys the laws they wanted, but quite another to provide the funds necessary for their enforcement. As a result, the legislators decided that the total appropriation for Pinchot’s ambitious program should amount to precisely . . . zero. FOR THE DRYS, it never got that bad on the federal level. But Wayne Wheeler, familiar as he was with every hillock and valley on the political landscape, had early on recognized the prevailing resistance to
his guide) became the foundation myth of one of North America’s great fortunes. Under the peculiar division of federal and provincial powers in the Canadian constitution, a broken-backed form of Prohibition had settled over the Dominion four years before the bone-dry version reached the United States. Individual provinces could not stop the manufacture or the interprovincial shipment of alcoholic beverages—those were federal matters—but they could ban sales within their boundaries. By 1919 every