Skip to main content

'Lord Peter' Returns, And It's No Mystery Why

Dorothy Sayers' genteelly dapper detective, portrayed by Ian Carmichael in the '70s BBC miniseries, returns in a newly released DVD set. Critic John Powers reviews the first two episodes of a murder-mystery collection whose success on American TV paved the way for a PBS's popular Mystery franchise.

06:08

Other segments from the episode on May 10, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 10, 2010: Interview with Daniel Okrent; Review of the DVD release of the television show "The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, Set 1."

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20100510
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Prohibition Life: Politics, Loopholes And Bathtub Gin

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

How did Americans, a freedom-loving people, decide to give up a private right
that had been freely exercised by millions upon millions since the first
European colonists arrived in the New World: the right to drink alcoholic
beverages?

Daniel Okrent asks and answers that question in his new book, "Last Call: The
Rise and Fall of Prohibition." Americans couldn't legally drink from 1920 to
1933, after the 18th Amendment was added to the Constitution. Okrent's book
also reveals how Prohibition affected American politics, the suffrage movement,
organized crime, taxes and the social relationship between men and women.

Daniel Okrent was the first public editor of the New York Times and is former
editor-at-large at Time. Daniel Okrent, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm always
interested in connections between the past and the present. So, before we
really get into the history of Prohibition, can you see a style of activism or
a moralistic streak in American politics today that you think is descended from
the leaders of temperance?

Mr. DANIEL OKRENT (Author, "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition"):
Well, I certainly think that styles of activism and political agitation come
directly from what happened in the years leading up to Prohibition.

The issue wasn't entirely Prohibition. That was a stand-in issue for a whole
set of issues, just the same way today I think we could say that same-sex
marriage is a stand-in issue. If you tell me what you think about same-sex
marriage, I can probably tell you what you think about 10 other things. And
Prohibition became the same sort of political football that people on either
side would use trying to struggle to get it toward their goal, which was
control of the country.

GROSS: So if you believed in Prohibition, what are some of the other things you
were likely to believe in?

Mr. OKRENT: Well, there was a mix. I shouldn't oversimplify, but it largely had
to do with a xenophobic, anti-immigrant feeling that arose in the American
Middle West among white, native-born Protestants. It also had a strong racist
element to it. Prohibition was a tool that the white South could use to keep
down the black population. In fact, they used Prohibition really to keep liquor
away from black people but not from white people.

So you could find a number of ways that people could come in to whatever issue
they wished to use and use Prohibition as their tool. The clearest one,
probably, was women's suffrage. Oddly, the suffrage movement and the
Prohibition movement were almost one and the same, and you found organizations
like the Ku Klux Klan supporting women's suffrage because they believed women
would vote on behalf of Prohibition.

GROSS: Now, let's look at how a fear of immigrants in the early 20th century
fed the Prohibition movement. I mean, we're talking about the period coming out
of World War I.

Mr. OKRENT: Well, also coming into World War I. The cities are filling up with
people from Ireland and from southern and eastern Europe and central Europe,
from really for the whole second half of the 19th century. They're gaining
enormous political clout, particularly in the big cities, where the saloon
owners were the political bosses.

As the immigrant populations elected their own representatives to Congress and
to the Senate, the middle of the country, the white Protestant, native-born
part of the country, was seeing themselves losing political power.

GROSS: Yeah, I want to quote something that you quote in the book by a
politician named John Strange(ph), who supported Prohibition. This was in 1918,
as the 18th Amendment, the Prohibition amendment, was going through the state
legislators. He told the Milwaukee Journal that he was worried about Germans in
this country, and he said: The worst of all our German enemies, the most
treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller. And of
course, those are all the names of beers at the time. Some of those beers no
longer exist.

So there was this link between, like, not only Germans in America who drank
beer but companies that had German names that made beer.

Mr. OKRENT: Well, this was the final thing that put Prohibition across. It
enabled the ratification of the Prohibition amendment. You needed 36 states to
approve it, and this was happening just as the U.S. was entering World War I.
And the great enemy was Germany, and the brewers were seen by the
prohibitionists as tools of the kaiser.

If they weren't actually seen as them, they were used for that purpose to make
their political point. So as you have a rising tide of strong, anti-German
feeling sweeping across the country, the brewers got swept away with it.

GROSS: Now you mentioned earlier that Prohibition was also tied to fear of
African-Americans. And you say, like, the worst nightmare for some people was
the idea of a drunk black man with a ballot in his hands.

Mr. OKRENT: A ballot in one hand and a bottle in the other, and that was very
clearly used throughout the South, and it comes up very openly in debate.

This is a time that the Jim Crow laws are first being carved into the statute
books in many Southern states. And the effort to keep the black man away from
the poll was very much tied to the effort to keep the black man away from the
bottle because of the fear of, you know, the other, which swept across the
South throughout that period.

GROSS: And the Ku Klux Klan became pretty active during the movement leading up
to Prohibition.

Mr. OKRENT: That's an interesting thing. The Klan, that version of the Klan
which rises in the late 1910s, is really more of an anti-immigrant, anti-
Catholic, anti-Jewish movement. One of the realities is that in addition to the
brewers who were largely German, the distillers were very heavily Jewish, and
they were seen as the enemy.

The Catholics in the cities, the Irish and the Italians, they were the ones who
were doing the drinking, as the Ku Klux Klan saw it. And they were the ones who
were electing their members to Congress and really creating a terrible fear in
the minds of those who wanted to keep the country white, Protestant and Anglo-
Saxon.

GROSS: You write in your book that for some populists, Prohibition was a good
way to justify the institution of an income tax. What was the connection
between Prohibition and an income tax?

Mr. OKRENT: Well, going back as far as the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s and
then the beer tax that was brought in during the Civil War to finance the Civil
War, the federal government had been dependent upon the excise tax on alcohol
to operate.

In some years, domestic revenue, as much as 50 percent of it came from excise
taxes. So the Prohibitionists realized that they couldn't get rid of liquor so
long as the federal government was dependent upon liquor to get its revenue and
to operate. So they supported the income tax movement, and in exchange, many of
the populists who were behind the income tax movement supported Prohibition.

In 1913, the 16th Amendment is passed. The income tax comes in. The federal
government has another means of supporting itself. And at that point, the
Prohibitionists who had been operating state by state by state decided we can
now have an amendment to the federal Constitution because the government is no
longer dependent. There's another source of revenue.

GROSS: So the income tax made it possible for Prohibition.

Mr. OKRENT: Yeah, you couldn’t have Prohibition without the women's suffrage
movement, you couldn't have it without the income tax, and you couldn't have it
without World War I. In other words, three things that really had nothing to do
with liquor but everything to do with political power.

GROSS: Now, you said that the temperance movement, Prohibition wouldn't have
been possible without the women's suffrage movement. I've always been
interested and kind of confused about that connection. So can you describe why
that connection existed?

Mr. OKRENT: It largely had to do with the fact that women in the 19th century
had almost no political rights or property rights. So as the saloon culture
began to grow up, and we would see men going off to the saloon, getting drunk
and drinking away their money and coming home and beating their wives and
mistreating their children, bringing home from the bordellos that were attached
to the saloons something called syphilis of the innocent. They would pick up a
venereal disease and bring it home, and the wife would be infected.

So there were all sorts of reasons why women hated alcohol and hated the
tavern. Susan B. Anthony, in the late 1840s, makes her first effort to give a
speech in public life at a temperance convention. This was before she connected
to the suffrage movement.

She rose to speak at a meeting of the Sons of Temperance in New York, and they
said: You can't speak. You don't have the rights. Women aren't allowed to speak
here. And that's what pushed her into the suffrage movement. So in fact, you
could say that the birth of the suffrage movement comes with the wish to get
rid of alcohol.

GROSS: It's interesting that Susan B. Anthony was kicked out of a temperance
movement because men felt that they should be the leaders of it and that she
shouldn't be speaking.

Mr. OKRENT: Well, I guess it says something about where women stood in the
political culture of the times. They didn't have any rights. And Anthony, of
course, turns her – the primary effort for the rest of her very long life
towards suffrage. But as late as the late 1890s, she is appealing to the
leaders of the Prohibition movement to make it clear that they should be
supporting the suffrage movement because women will vote for Prohibition. And
in fact, the only other political movement that the Anti-Saloon League, which
was the primary organizing group behind the Prohibition amendment, the only
other political movement they supported was the women's suffrage movement.

GROSS: Because they knew that a lot of women would vote for Prohibition.

Mr. OKRENT: They knew that women would vote for Prohibition, and in fact they
did. The biggest opponents of the women's suffrage movement in the first two
decades of the century were the brewers. The brewers financed anti-suffrage
campaigns in many, many states because they, too, feared that vote.

I think my favorite story relating to this has to do with Jack London, famous
writer and famous drinker, who had never supported women's suffrage, and then
in a vote in 1911 for state suffrage in California, he rides his horse into
town and he casts his vote, and he has a few drinks, and he rides back up to
his ranch. And he says to his wife that he voted for women's suffrage, and she
said, I'm surprised you did that. You've never supported it. Why? And he said:
Because if we give women the vote, they will vote to outlaw the saloon, and if
they outlaw the saloon, I'll be able to stop drinking.

GROSS: So, you know, in spite of the fact that a lot of women were, like Susan
B. Anthony, were kind of kicked out of the Temperance Movement because the men
wanted to lead it. The symbol of the Temperance Movement kind of became Carrie
Nation, and who, you know, I always thought she was, like, a bad image for
women because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: She's like this mean, joyless woman with an ax so that she could go to
the saloons and, like, chop down the bars, and it's such a joyless image.

Mr. OKRENT: She absolutely was. I mean, Carrie Nation was really a sideshow.
She was somewhat freakish, and she had her two or three years of prominence but
really had no influence over the country's turn in that direction. She makes
for good mythology...

GROSS: Is that true? Why did she become such a big symbol, then?

Mr. OKRENT: Well, I think that you stated the reason. I mean, here's this six-
foot-tall woman with broad shoulders and big biceps and carrying an axe and
smashing hatchets. It's what we would say right now is a good photo op. I mean,
she just was really good press. She then went on tour, really on the vaudeville
circuit, and became the sideshow that I think she was from the very
beginning...

GROSS: Seriously, she went on tour with her axe and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OKRENT: She went on tour with her hatchet, and she handed out hatchet pins
wherever she went, and she made a living doing that. There was also another
version of the hatchet that used to hang over the bar in almost every saloon in
the country in those pre-Prohibition years, and it said on it: All nations
welcome except Carrie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Okrent, and he's written
the new book "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition." Let's take a short
break, and then we'll talk some more about Prohibition. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is journalist Daniel Okrent. He was, for about 18 months, the
public editor of the New York Times. He's now written a new book called "Last
Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition."

I think a lot of the leaders of Prohibition came from churches. The Anti-Saloon
League was a Christian group. The Women's Christian Temperance Union was a
Christian group. How much of the Temperance Movement was connected to the
church?

Mr. OKRENT: Well, it was a great organizing tool that could be used. The Anti-
Saloon League, which referred to itself as the church in action, was Methodist
and Baptist entirely. Its entire board of directors was made of Methodist and
Baptist ministers. And they used the network of churches that they had to raise
money and to organize people and to bring people into the political arena. One
stops to think about it.

This is the only constitutional amendment that was put into the Constitution
because of political agitation, very organized political agitation, organized
by an incredible figure named Wayne B. Wheeler, now entirely forgotten, who was
among the most powerful people in America for a period of about 15 years. He
was the combined Karl Rove, James Carville, Lee Atwater, roll them all up into
one, of the Prohibition movement. And he used the churches very clearly and
very openly as his organizing tool.

GROSS: Was he a religious man? Was he connected to the church?

Mr. OKRENT: Yeah, he was a classic sort of a liberal Methodist, I guess you
would call it. He was involved in abolition. He went to Oberlin College, which
was involved in many what we would call liberal causes today. And he believed
that liquor was truly something that was terrible for the American people.

Interestingly – I found it interesting that the people who supported
Prohibition really did come across the political spectrum in many ways. They
ran across the political spectrum in many ways. Elements of the Socialist Party
supported it. The Ku Klux Klan, as we said before, supported it. The Industrial
Workers of the World supported it. There were many people on the left, on the
economic left, who believed that liquor was the tool that the capitalists used
to keep the worker down. So you had this bizarre coalition put together, but at
its center were the Methodist and Baptist churches.

GROSS: Now, there was an expression called the wet dries, and this referred to
people who advocated Prohibition but drank anyways.

Mr. OKRENT: Well, it was really extraordinary. I mean, the wet dries were
people who had no problem perceiving themselves as moral in a public arena and
maybe less so in a private arena. Or maybe they didn't see it as a moral issue
at all. So you had many, many scores of congressmen and senators who very
openly appreciated their alcohol, continued to drink their alcohol, but voted
against it.

Wheeler, of the Anti-Saloon League, said: I don't care how a man drinks, I care
how he votes and how he prays. That was the way that he kind of put the shine
on people who might have been rather not so appealing.

Warren Harding was a great example of it. Warren Harding loved his scotch and
soda. He owned stock in a brewery. He also valued his political survival, and
he made a deal with the Anti-Saloon League that he would vote to support their
cause if they would support him when he ran for office. That's how he got
elected to the Senate.

GROSS: So did he drink during Prohibition?

Mr. OKRENT: He drank during Prohibition and until really the last month of his
life. He announced he had stopping drinking when he was on the Western trip
where he finally died. But Alice Roosevelt Longworth said that the atmosphere
in the Harding White House was one, that of the vest unbuttoned and the foot up
on the bar.

Florence Harding, his wife, used to serve drinks at the poker games that
Harding and his friends had. Some of the people at the poker games included the
attorney general, the secretary of the treasury, everybody who was involved in
enforcing Prohibition, happily drinking away on their own.

GROSS: So there were two things that created Prohibition. There was the 18th
Amendment, and then there was the Volstead Act, the legislation in Congress.
Why did you need – this may sound terribly politically stupid, but I'll ask it
anyway. Why did you need legislation and a constitutional amendment?

Mr. OKRENT: Well, the constitutional amendment simple says that it is against
the law to transport, manufacture or sell alcoholic beverages - actually
intoxicating liquors was the phrase – but said nothing about enforcement and
said nothing how the government was going to go about doing it.

So once you had that in place, then you needed a body of law to establish
various rules and principles and penalties. You had to allocate sums to enforce
it, create agencies to enforce it. So there was this great regulatory structure
that had to be put into place, regulatory and enforcement structure.

And that was the Volstead Act, which was put together by Congressman Andrew
Volstead, who was a classic progressive liberal Republican of the era. But he
also believed in this cause, and he was the chairman of the Judiciary
Committee. So it was his responsibility to write the act.

Interestingly, there were three things in the Volstead Act that made it
possible for people to continue to drink legally in certain circumstances.

GROSS: A little loophole?

Mr. OKRENT: Yeah, they were very, very large loopholes.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OKRENT: You could drive beer trucks through them. The first was that it
enabled the farmer to preserve his fruit, in Wayne Wheeler's phrase, which is
to say, to take the crop, the fruit crop, and be able to save it over the
winter, which literally meant to take the apple, turn it into hard cider and
the hard cider into applejack. So that was legal in the farm districts across
the country.

Interestingly, the farm districts were the ones that most supported
Prohibition, but they continued to have their hard cider and applejack.

The two more bizarre and interesting ones, to me, the second one was medicinal
liquor. I have a bottle on my shelf at home, an empty bottle, that says: Jim
Beam, for medicinal purposes only.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OKRENT: In 1917, the American Medical Association, supporting Prohibition,
said that there was no reason at all to use alcohol as a therapeutic remedy of
any kind. Then they realized with this loophole there was an opportunity to
make some money, and capitalism abhors a vacuum. And within two or three years
of the enactment of the Volstead Act, you could go into virtually any city in
the country and buy a prescription for $3 from your local physician and then
take it your local pharmacy and have it filled and go home with a pint of
liquor every 10 days.

And this is really how many of the large distilleries in Kentucky and elsewhere
in the middle of the country stayed in business throughout the Prohibition
years.

GROSS: And the doctors didn't have to check with their HMO before...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OKRENT: They didn't have – not at all, but they did have to file with the
government a list of people they were giving the liquor to, the prescriptions
to. I have in my collection of weird Prohibition effluvia and ephemera a ledger
book kept by a physician in Providence, Rhode Island, in which on the left-hand
column is the person's name, then the address, then the prescription, and it's
always for a pint of rye. And then in the law column is what is the ailment
that's being treated, and it goes page after page after page. It says:
debility, debility, debility, debility. Occasionally, somebody has la grippe,
but it's really debility, whatever that means.

GROSS: Oh, I was going to ask you what it means. I guess you don't know,
either.

Mr. OKRENT: I think it means: This person wants some liquor, and I'm going to
let him have some.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OKRENT: I don't think there's anything besides that. The drugstore business
became a very different business as a result of this. You know, in "The Great
Gatsby," when Daisy is telling Tom about this handsome and dashing man who's
moved in next door that she's just met, she says, and he's very rich. He owns
drug stores. And Tom knew – now, I didn't know when I read this in high school
– Tom knew that owns drug stores was a euphemism for he sold liquor through his
drug stores.

The Walgreen chain in Chicago went from 20 stores in 1920 to 525 stores by the
end of the decade. And one of the primary means of growth was the amount of
liquor that they were selling.

There was a guy in a – a Chicago lawyer named George Remus(ph) who moved to
Cincinnati. He saw an opportunity to make a lot of money. He went to Cincinnati
because most American liquor was distilled within a couple hundred miles of
there. He bought up a number of distilleries, got the rights to produce what
was so-called medicinal alcohol, formed a company called The Kentucky Drug
Company so he could distribute it. And then, clever fellow that he was, he
would have his own men hijack his own trucks to take what was legal liquor and
get it into the illegal market.

GROSS: My guest, Daniel Okrent, will be back in the second half of the show.
His new book is called "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Daniel Okrent. We're
talking about his new book "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," which
makes some fascinating connections between Prohibition, women's suffrage, the
income tax, organized crime, a realignment of the political parties and the
social relationship between men and women. Okrent was the first public editor
of The New York Times.

We've been talking about loopholes in the law that created Prohibition, and I
think the third loophole you were going to mention was sacramental wine.

Mr. OKRENT: Yeah. This is the - I'm building up to the best one of all...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OKRENT: ...and it wasn't the sacramental wine. As I think I said earlier,
the people who opposed Prohibition - among the groups that opposed Prohibition
were the Catholics and the Jews, very avidly, and not necessarily for religious
reasons, but I think more for cultural reasons. Yet the loophole in the law
that allowed people to, with a license, and going through procedures...

GROSS: Wait, wait. They opposed Prohibition? Catholics and Jews opposed
Prohibition?

Mr. OKRENT: Oh, yes. Catholics and Jews hated Prohibition. They were, you know,
the Catholics were 100 percent against Prohibition. They did not want it to
come in and, in fact, the two states that never ratified the Constitutional
Amendment - the 18th Amendment, were Rhode Island and Connecticut, which were
the most Catholic states in the country. Maryland, another very heavily
Catholic state, never had an enforcement law and had an official state
bootlegger who actually operated out of the state Capitol building. So the -
wherever the Catholic population was, that's where Prohibition was most
opposed.

Now, secondarily to that, or I guess tangentially to that, there was the
reality that wine is used in the Catholic sacrament for communion. A very smart
and appealing man name Jorge de la Torre, born French, operating in the Napa
Valley, an excellent winemaker, received what is called an ecclesiastical
approbation from the archbishop of Northern California to sell alter wines to
be able to send around the country to Catholic dioceses, the wine that would be
used for the communion. Within two years, he was making wine in 14 different
varieties. You could get Tokay. You could get Riesling. You could get Cabernet.

This was a very different take on communion than anybody had seen before. He
built an enormous company. He was producing a million gallons a year. It was
going out to the archbishop, and the archbishop would distribute it for the
cardinal in whatever city to the monsieur's to the priest, and then the priest
really to the laity, as well, very clearly and very widely.

It was different for the Jews. The Jews needed their sacramental wine for the
Sabbath service and various other services. They were entitled to, under the
rules put forth in the Volstead Act, at first at 10 gallons per adult, per
year. But the Jewish religion did not have the hierarchal framework that the
Catholicism had. Who was to say who was a rabbi? There was no official body to
determine if you were a rabbi or not. So people claiming to be rabbis would get
a license to distribute liquor to congregations that didn't even exist.

On the other side, those that did exist in Los Angeles, the Congregation Talmud
Torah, went from 180 families to 1,000 families within the very first 12 months
of Prohibition. You joined a congregation, you got your wine from your rabbi.
This created terrible conflict between the reform rabbis who felt it wasn't
necessary to have fermented grape juice to use at the Sabbath services and the
Orthodox rabbis who did.

But there was another issue going on, which is that the Orthodox rabbis who
were largely poor immigrants living in the worst ghetto neighborhoods of the
cities needed the income, as well. So you had a great doctrinal fight between
these two groups. It finally came to end when even the Orthodox rabbis realized
how bad - in the age-old phrase, this was bad for the Jews, because you kept on
getting stories reported in the newspapers about, you know, a rabbi arrested
for distributing wine to people who don't deserve wine. A rabbi arrested for
moving wine from one place to another that has nothing to do with the
synagogue. And then when they started to arrest rabbis with names like O'Hara
and McLaughlin...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OKRENT: ...then said, oh, we've got a real problem here, and it was finally
tightened up. But you could go into any immigration Jewish neighborhood in any
major city in America and you would be able to find the wine store that had a
sign - that had a photograph in the book, you know, kosher wine for sacramental
purposes only, and people taking it away of the jug.

GROSS: Okay. So we're talking about loopholes in Prohibition. And people who
didn't fit into the loopholes, they had access to alcohol in other ways. One of
those ways was products like paint varnish that people would manage to drink,
to get...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OKRENT: Well, the people who actually drank the paint varnish regretted it
really greatly in the morning and for long after...

GROSS: If they survived, I suppose.

Mr. OKRENT: If they - exactly. The - first, there was the business of
industrial alcohol. The Volstead Act allowed various uses - commercial uses for
alcohol, because you needed to make paint to make, to make varnish, to make
aftershave, to make led pencils, to make the felt for hats. There were
explosives. There were thousands of - thousands, probably, of commercial uses
for alcohol. So you had to have a permit to get what was so-called industrial
alcohol.

The government would de-nature the alcohol. They would add poisons to it of
various kinds, or emetics, so that nobody would want to drink it. And then it
would go directly into the black market, where it would be re-natured, and you
would have all these distasteful things taken out of it. And then it would be
put into bottles, sometimes colored with creosote, among other things, because
that gave it a smoky flavor, or sometimes with prune juice to make it look like
it was real whiskey.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. OKRENT: And then it would be sold, and it was really rotten, you know. And
then there was big business in counterfeit labels so that it would seem that it
was the real stuff. In fact, you know, it was the spread of this really lousy
liquor throughout the '20s that lead to the idea of call brands that we have
today.

You know, if you walked into a bar before Prohibition, you would ask for a
scotch or you would ask for a rye. The idea of a brand name really hadn't
settled in at that point. Once Prohibition came in, you were fearful that you
might be getting shoe polish or something that had once been shoe polish. You
would ask for Dewar's or you would ask for an Old Overholt, and that really
established those brand names.

Among the scotches, Hagan Haag and Cutty Sark were two brands created by the
Scotch industry strictly, particularly for the American Prohibition market.

GROSS: Well, another fascinating thing about Prohibition is the speakeasy and
how the speakeasy kind of democratized drinking in the sense that speakeasies
were places for men and women, whereas, like, the old tavern, the old saloon
was strictly for men.

Mr. OKRENT: The saloon was a male-only place. That was always the case.
Wealthier women would drink with their men perhaps in hotel restaurants.
Middle-class women maybe at home - although one of the primary means for middle
class women who wanted to drink, one of the primary means for them to get their
alcohol was with something called Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Tunic, which was
ostensibly a patent medicine for female complaints, but was, in fact, 21
percent alcohol and did the job very effectively. Poor women would hang outside
of the saloons in the pre-Prohibition era and, with a pail called a growler,
get it filled with beer and then take it home.

Prohibition changes everything. The saloons become speakeasies, and because it
is an outlaw operation, it begins to behave in outlaw ways. Women start to come
because it's an exciting thing to do. They're accommodated. That means they
have to put in tables, because you can't just have the women standing at the
bar, so table service begins. Music shows up for the first time. If you have
men and women drinking together, you have to have music. Jazz, the outlaw
music, is rising at that very same time. There were no bars in the pre-
Prohibition era that had live music. It just didn't happen.

One of the other things that was a result of women drinking with men for the
first time in public in a large scale was you needed bathrooms for them. In the
pre-Prohibition era, there was a bathroom for men. Nobody thought that you
needed separate facilities for women, but they were required now in the 1920s,
if you're going to have a female clientele. So tiny bathrooms were put into,
you know, lost corners of the saloon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OKRENT: They'd put underneath the stairwell or they'd be put by the
backdoor, a very small toilet and a sink. And these were called powder rooms.
That's the origin of the term, and that's the origin of the phenomenon. They
didn't exist before that.

GROSS: Powder rooms as in the place women would powder their nose.

Mr. OKRENT: Yeah, presumably. That's a nice euphemism for what they're doing in
there, I suppose.

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Okrent, and we're talking
about his new book, "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition." And he's a
journalist who, for 18 months, was the public editor of The New York Times.

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about Prohibition. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Daniel Okrent. We're talking about his new book. "Last Call:
The Rise and Fall of Prohibition."

One of the things Prohibition created was organized crime. Can you talk a
little bit about how Prohibition led to organized crime?

Mr. OKRENT: Yeah. And God knows, crime was organized in its own fashion before
Prohibition, but it was localized. So in a particular city - take Chicago and
the First Ward, which was red light district - you would have a local mob that
controlled prostitution, that controlled gambling, that controlled the drug
trade that existed at the time, but had no reason to go beyond its own borders.
When you start to have the need to move huge quantities of liquids - often in
bottles and cases and barrels - from one place to another, then you need to
have somebody at the other end to help you either send it out or to receive it.
So you had to have allies in other cities.

The best illustration of that was Detroit. So much liquor came pouring across
the Canadian border at Detroit - you know, one mile away was Windsor, Canada -
and it was then distributed from Detroit. So, in Chicago, Al Capone and his
organization made a treaty with the Purple Gang, which was the mob in Detroit,
that they would be the almost the freight forwarding agents for the liquor that
was coming in from Detroit to bring it Chicago.

And this network across the country - Philadelphia was a center of the
industrial liquor business. The mob that operated there was shipping - first,
they had to make a deal with the railroads - which was interesting enough on
its own - and various local banks, and then they were shipping the goods to St.
Louis, St. Paul, Chicago and other places, so they had to come together. And in
Atlantic City, in 1929, was the first formal organization of mobsters from
seven different cities who came together, divided up the country, set prices
and created the thing that we now know to be organized crime on a national
scale.

GROSS: Now the 18th Amendment, the amendment that established Prohibition, is
the only amendment that has ever been repealed.

Mr. OKRENT: Yeah. And before we even get to repeal it, Terry, if I may, it's
also a distinctive amendment in one other characteristic: It's one of only two
amendments ever put into the Constitution that limited the behavior of
individuals rather than the behavior of government. If we look at all the other
limitations that are particularly in the Bill of Rights, the government can't
do this, the government can't do that. The individual retains these certain
rights. There were only two amendments that said - that puts limits on the
behavior of individuals. The 18th said you couldn't have liquor. The 13th said
you couldn't own slaves. So the notion that these two things were put on the
same legal and moral plane is really incredibly bizarre.

In any case, now I'll answer your question. The 21st amendment comes around
finally, and ratified in 1933 to repeal the Prohibition amendment. And as you
say...

GROSS: After 13 years of Prohibition.

Mr. OKRENT: Yeah. And this is only the - the only time it's happened in
American history, which I think gives you an indication of how unpopular
Prohibition had become. But in addition to its unpopularity, for its
limitations on people's lives, for its encouragement of crime, for the collapse
of respect for law and order, which many people were worried about, there were
other factors that brought Prohibition's eventual death, and they were
motivated by the Depression.

In 1929, the stock market crashes, incomes crash and the federal income
crashes. And just as the federal governments need for tax dollars had played a
role in the creation of Prohibition, because of the income tax coming in, now
the income tax and other taxes, they weren't producing enough revenue for the
government because of the Depression. And there were people who very clearly
got very involved in the movement because they felt they needed to bring back
the liquor taxes - some because they because they felt government needed its
money, and others because they didn't want to pay so much in the income tax any
longer.

And it was Pierre Du Pont of the Delaware Du Pont family who really financed
the repeal movement. And I have found letters, they're quoted in the book, from
Du Pont to his brothers and to friends saying of only we can bring back the
excise tax on liquor and beer, then maybe we can get rid of this damnable
income tax that we hate so much.

The second factor was the need for jobs. Brewing and distilling combined with
the fifth-largest industry in America before Prohibition, and bringing them
back suddenly put tens of thousands of people back to work at a time when
unemployment in the U.S. was running as high as 25 percent.

So just as there were these economic factors that created Prohibition, economic
reality ended Prohibition. And I think we might be seeing something like that
going on today, as there continues to be this widespread resistance to any
increase in taxes and as there continues to be a huge federal deficit. Someone
soon is going to light upon the idea, ah-ha: I know where we can find some more
revenue, some tax revenue, and we can find it in a marijuana plant.

GROSS: Oh, so you think marijuana will become legalized and taxed in the
generation to come.

Mr. OKRENT: Yes. I'm not the world's greatest political prognosticator. I said
in 2004, after Barack Obama's speech, I said oh just wait until 2012, I know
the Democratic ticket. It's going to be Spitzer-Obama. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OKRENT: So don't count on me for prognostication. But I do think - I am an
economic determinist. I think that governments and populations do things for
economic reasons more than anything else, and the need for tax revenue I think
eventually will lead to legalization of marijuana.

The other thing that it might do is create regulation of marijuana, or would
have to do that. I think one of the most interesting phenomenon about the whole
Prohibition, to choose your word, experiment or nightmare or joke, one of the
most interesting things is that it became harder to get a drink after
Prohibition than it had been during Prohibition. I know that sounds odd. But
during Prohibition there was no set of regulations. There were no licenses to
be given to people who were spreading the liquor.

Either you were able to bribe the cop on the beat or your local federal agent
or you weren't. But if you wanted to – if you were selling liquor you were
selling it to anybody who wanted it all day, all night, all week. After repeal
in 1933, then each state passes its own regulations and you have laws that you
can't, you know, you have to close at 2:00 AM, you can't be open on Sundays,
there's 21-year-old drinking age.

GROSS: In your book you say that in almost every respect imaginable Prohibition
was a failure. And you write: it encouraged criminality and institutionalized
hypocrisy, deprived the government of revenue and posed profound limitations on
individual rights, fostered a culture of bribery blackmail and official
corruption. So the one successful thing about Prohibition that you point out is
that it actually led to people drinking less.

Mr. OKRENT: Yeah.

GROSS: And that we still have the impact of that.

Mr. OKRENT: Yeah. It’s a fascinating thing. At the end of Prohibition well, the
first few years after repeal, the alcohol consumption in the U.S. is measured
by tax stamps, which is the best way you can do this, was about 70 percent – 60
to 70 percent of what it had been in the last really open era, which is like
1913 – 1914, before a lot of states had Prohibition laws and it stayed down.

It did not get back to pre-Prohibition levels until the 1970s when it peaked
and then it went down again. And today, we're somewhere between the post-
Prohibition valley and the 1970s peak. So something worked. Something happened
that made people be careful about their drinking or, as I said before,
regulation worked. That putting in all these regulations about it and things
like drunk-driving laws and various other criminal prescriptions combined
collectively to get people to cut down on their drinking and I don’t think
that’s a bad thing.

GROSS: So when you follow American politics today, what echoes do you see from
Prohibition?

Mr. OKRENT: What I mostly see is that it is easier to have a positive campaign
to do something than a defensive campaign to prevent people from doing
something, to prevent other political actors from doing something. And somebody
said at the time of Prohibition that the difference between the pro-Prohibition
and the anti-Prohibition groups in the years leading up to the passage, the
enactment of the 21st Amendment is that the pro-Prohibition people were out
there marching and organizing and voting and the anti-Prohibition people were
too busy drinking to do any of those things. I think that that’s a joke of
sorts but not entirely, which is to say we don’t fight to keep the things the
way they are. We fight to change things and I think we're seeing that again
today, that they're political movements that want to change the way we live our
lives America and very few who are visibly and effectively defending existing
means of government.

The other thing is that I feel that what was brilliant about Prohibition, it
was never a majority movement and I think that there’s no argument that can be
made to indicate it was a majority. The Anti-Saloon, the Wayne Wheeler
controlled the politics in the margins. He had 10 percent of the vote in most
places and if that 10 percent could make the difference between a winner and a
loser he didn’t care what your positions were on any other subjects so long as
you were with him on Prohibition, and I think that today we're seeing the same
thing about how people are effectively able to use minorities to bring about
legislative majorities.

And then the final thing that I take from Prohibition, and I take this with
hope in my heart, is the notion that this too shall pass. We go through these
periods in American history, these great explosions and convulsions of one
cause or another like Prohibition in an effort to see who’s controlling the
country and then it dissipates in time; it goes away. And, so I'm hopeful
whenever I see something happening in the political landscape that is really
scary I say yeah, you know, we once outlawed liquor and if that went away this
can go away too.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us. And should we be looking for you
in the Ken Burns documentary on Prohibition that will air, I think, in 2011?

Mr. OKRENT: Yeah, it’s coming in 2011 and I yak in it endlessly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: All right. I’ll look forward to it.

Thank you so much.

Mr. OKRENT: Thank you.

GROSS: Daniel Okrent is the author of the new book “Last Call: The Rise and
Fall of Prohibition.” You can read the first chapter on our website,
freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, John Powers reviews the new DVD release of a popular BBC series from
the 1970s, the “Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries.”

This is FRESH AIR.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
126613316
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20100510
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
'Lord Peter' Returns, And It's No Mystery Why

TERRY GROSS, host:

The years between the two world wars are often called the Golden Age of
Mysteries. One of the most endearingly popular writers of that era was Dorothy
L. Sayers, best known for her “Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries.” They were adapted
for television in the 1970s by the BBC and shown on PBS. The first two of the
mysteries have just been released on a new DVD, the “Lord Peter Wimsey Set
One.”

Our critic at large John Powers has seen them and they got him thinking about
what makes these old fashioned English mystery stories so eternally appealing.

JOHN POWERS: I've always loved reading mystery novels. When I was growing up,
I'd spend the summer plowing through English ones with exotic weapons, murders
in locked rooms, eccentric detectives and neatly calibrated twists; you know,
the ones that blow your mind when it turns out that the postman did it.

One of my favorite authors was Dorothy L. Sayers. Although her plots weren't
the cleverest, her hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, was — an amateur sleuth whose
genius lay hidden beneath his whimsical upper-crust patois.

Back in the early 1970s, the BBC turned her crime novels into a series of TV
shows starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter. When they were shown here on
“Masterpiece Theatre,” they became such a huge hit that they led PBS to create
the series “Mystery,” which has run for the past 30 years. The first two
episodes of the Lord Peter series — “Clouds of Witness” and “The Unpleasantness
at the Bellona Club,” are just out on DVD, and watching them now is like
entering a nostalgic time warp.

The first installment, “Clouds of Witness,” is typical. It begins at the Wimsey
family's shooting lodge in Yorkshire. The fiancé of Lord Peter's sister, Mary,
has been found shot dead in the night, and the police accuse Lord Peter's
grumpy brother, Gerald, who refuses to say what he was up to at the time of the
crime. Things look bad until Lord Peter comes back from the Continent along
with his trusty manservant, Bunter, slyly played by Glyn Houston. He begins
examining the case and questioning potential suspects, all of whom seem to have
secrets galore.

Here, Lord Peter has just found what seems to be a key clue — a jeweled brooch
shaped like a cat. He ruminates on his discovery with his friend and foil,
Detective Inspector Parker.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of series “Clouds of Witness”)

Mr. IAN CARMICHAEL (Actor): (as Lord Peter) You know, I've always thought those
obliging criminals who strewed their tracks with articles of personal adornment
were an invention of detective fiction for the benefit of the author.

Mr. MARK EDEN (Actor): (as Detective Inspector Parker) Well, live and learn my
dear fellow. After all, you haven't been doing this job very long, have you?

Mr. CARMICHAEL: (as Lord Peter) The merest amateur I confess. Whereas you as a
professional.

Mr. EDEN: (as Detective Inspector Parker) Take a fatherly interest in your
ambition. So come on, you found it. What are you deductions?

Mr. CARMICHAEL: (as Lord Peter) Well, it’s a charm, sort of a thing a woman
wears as a brooch; gold setting, all diamonds with two emerald eyes.

(Soundbite of whistle)

Mr. CARMICHAEL: (as Lord Peter) Parka stems too. Your turn, Old Parker Bird.

POWERS: When I first popped “Clouds of Witness” into my DVD player, I wondered
if it was still enjoyable. After all, the Beeb's production values weren't the
greatest back then. But the series sucks you into its 1920s setting with a
brand of leisurely storytelling you no longer see on TV, and it's carried by
Carmichael's Lord Peter. Although a bit too old and fleshy for the part, this
canny old actor knows exactly how to play Wimsey, a man who can seem as silly
as Bertie Wooster but is actually as shrewd as Jeeves.

Of course such a character is the purest confection, which is why such cozy
English detective stories are mocked by literary critics and by fans of the
hard-boiled crime novel. In fact, back in the 1940s, Raymond Chandler cracked
that detective writers needed to take murder away from the upper classes; the
weekend house party and the vicar's rose garden and give it back to the people
who are really good at it.

Maybe so; there is something flagrantly artificial about the fictional world
created by Sayers or Agatha Christie or Michael Innes — a world of country
houses, loyal retainers and murder schemes so baroque that no one would
actually try to pull them off. That said, such old-school British mysteries are
hardly alone in stylizing reality. There's something pretty darn artificial
about Chandler's own crime novels, whose hero Philip Marlow is a
sentimentalized knight errant; or in a grayer vein, about the police
procedurals of Henning Mankell, in which every single crime is ripe with social
meaning. And really, what could be more artificial than Elmore Leonard's
dialogue, where every line just sings?

The fact is, lack of realism isn't the failing of old-fashioned crime stories;
it's their point. The true pleasure of the Wimsey mysteries isn't simply that
they let us sink into a romanticized '20s England. It's that they take us
outside the chaotic swirl of modern society, where murder is a symptom of
intractable disorder. They carry us to a fantasyland so intrinsically sedate
and orderly, so conservative, that murder is an aberration. All Wimsey needs to
do is follow the clues and find the culprit, and once he's done this, social
order is restored.

You can call this naked wish fulfillment, if you like, yet that doesn't
diminish its power. You see, like nearly all the mysteries in this tradition,
the Lord Peter stories satisfy something in the human psyche that neither
bullying nor education can erase. They offer us a fantasy of perfect closure, a
world where even bloody murder is little more than a brainteaser that can, and
will, be solved.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue magazine. You can find his reviews
and columns on vogue.com. And you can download podcast of our show on our
website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

We’ll close with a song by Lena Horne who died last night at the age of 92.
This recording was commissioned by Louis B. Mayer as a private recording for
him in 1950.

(Soundbite of song, “I’ll Get By”)

Ms. LENA HORNE (Singer, actress): (Singing) I'll get by as long as I have you.
Though there be rain and darkness too, I'll not complain. I'll see it through.
Poverty may come to me, that’s true. But what can I say? I’ll get by as long as
I have you.

(Soundbite of music)
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
126512974

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

33:36

Neither the pandemic nor age can keep choreographer Twyla Tharp from her work

Twyla Moves, a documentary by PBS American Masters, tells the story of the legendary choreographer, who got her start performing on subway platforms in the 1960s. Originally broadcast April 8, 2021.

08:33

Photographer and director Gordon Parks captured the Black experience

Parks, who died in 2006, worked for Life magazine and later became the first Black director of a Hollywood film. He's the subject of the documentary, A Choice of Weapons. Originally broadcast in 1990.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue