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Prohibition: Speakeasies, Loopholes And Politics

Drinking didn't stop in the United States from 1920 to 1933 — it just went underground. Author Daniel Okrent discusses the lasting cultural and political impact of Prohibition in his book, Last Call.

43:16

Other segments from the episode on June 10, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 10, 2011: Interview with Daniel Okrent; Review of the film "Super 8."

Transcript

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Prohibition: Speakeasies, Loopholes And Politics

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting
in for Terry Gross.

How did Americans decide in 1920 to give up the right to drink alcoholic
beverages, a right that had been freely exercised by millions upon
millions since the country had been founded.

Daniel Okrent answers that question in his book "Last Call: The Rise and
Fall of Prohibition." It's now out in paperback. Americans couldn't
legally drink from 1920 to 1933, after the 18th Amendment was added to
the Constitution. Okrent's book 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 magazine. Terry Gross spoke with him last
year.

TERRY GROSS, host:

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, 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, 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 just made 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 ax 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 ax 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.

BIANCULLI: Daniel Okrent, speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with Daniel Okrent.
"Last Call," his book on the history of Prohibition, is now out in
paperback.

GROSS: 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-drys, and this
referred to people who advocated Prohibition but drank anyways.

Mr. OKRENT: Well, it was really extraordinary. I mean, the wet-drys 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: Little loopholes?

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 to check - 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 last 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 it means 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 drugstores. And Tom knew - now, I didn't know
when I read this in high school - Tom knew that owns drugstores was a
euphemism for he sold liquor through his drugstores.

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.

BIANCULLI: Daniel Okrent, speaking to Terry Gross last year. His book,
"Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," is now out in paperback.
We'll have more of their conversation in the second half of the show.
I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with author Daniel Okrent. His
book, "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," is now out in
paperback.

"Last Call" reveals how the era of Prohibition, during which the 18th
Amendment made it illegal to sell or consume alcohol from 1920 to 1933,
affected many aspects of America's political and cultural history.

GROSS: 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 just 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 altar 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 varietals. 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, or the cardinal in whatever city, to the monsignors, to
the priests, 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 Catholicism had. Who was to say who was a
rabbi? There was no official body that determined 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 an
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 immigrant 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 by the jug.

GROSS: Okay. So we're talking about loopholes in Prohibition. And people
who didn't fit into those 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 it to make paint to make, to make
varnish, to make aftershave, to make lead 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 led 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 a Dewar's or you would ask for an
Old Overholt, and that really established those brand names.

Among the scotches, Haig & Haig 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 Tonic, 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 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 be put underneath the stairwell or they'd be put by
the back door, 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)

BIANCULLI: Author Daniel Okrent speaking to Terry Gross last year.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with Daniel Okrent.
"Last Call," his book on the history of Prohibition, is now out in
paperback.

GROSS: 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 the red light district - you would
have a local mob that controlled prostitution, that controlled gambling,
it 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, 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 about Prohibition's
eventual death, and they were motivated by the Depression.

In 1929, the stock market crashes, incomes crash and federal income
crashes. And just as the federal government's 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
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 if 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
were 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,
aha: 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 and
generate income.

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. And 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 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, imposed
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 drinking 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 things the way
they are; we fight to change things. And I think we're seeing that again
today, that there are political movements that want to change the way we
live our lives in America and very few who are visibly and effectively
defending existing means of government.

The other thing is I think 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.

BIANCULLI: Daniel Okrent speaking to Terry Gross last year. His book,
"Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," is now out in paperback.

You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. This fall,
Okrent will offer his expertise on camera as part of the new PBS Ken
Burns documentary, which is titled "Prohibition."

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new Steven Spielberg,
J.J. Abrams collaboration, "Super 8."

This is FRESH AIR.
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'Super 8': Close Encounters Of The 'E.T.' Kind

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

J.J. Abrams is best known for creating or co-creating the TV series
"Felicity," "Alias," and "Lost," and for directing the 2009 movie remake
of "Star Trek." His new big-screen, sci-fi thriller, "Super 8," is co-
produced by Steven Spielberg, who directed some of the films that most
inspired Abrams.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: It would be easy to malign J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" as a
shameless rip-off of Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third
Kind," "E.T." and "Jurassic Park" - that is, if Abrams didn't rekindle
at least some of the excitement of seeing those films way back when.

We didn't just consume "Close Encounters" and "E.T." like so much
disposable pop culture. We were dazzled by a new mode of storytelling,
accessible to all, and yet personal and pure, the product of one
visionary dreamer.

But then came the Spielberg imitations, some produced by Spielberg's
company, and his name became a dirty word. Oh, no, not more lame
Spielberg kiddie mush. Even Spielberg finally got the message, and began
to direct prestige movies.

Now he has co-produced "Super 8," and because 25 years have elapsed, we
can savor it without having nightmarish flashbacks to "The Goonies." And
though "Super 8" isn't in the same league as its models, it still hits
home the way all the impersonal franchise pictures out there don't.

It's called "Super 8" because it's set in the '70s, pre-home video. And
its adolescent characters are shooting a ragtag zombie flick at an
isolated Ohio railroad station when the kid director spots a train
heading their way, and realizes he can exploit it by rushing the shot, a
goodbye scene between a detective and his wife. Then young Joe Lamb,
played by Joel Courtney, sees a pickup truck veering onto the tracks,
heading straight for the onrushing train.

(Soundbite of movie, "Super 8")

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Mr. JOEL COURTNEY (Actor): (as Joe Lamb) I want collision. Collision.
Ready. Start filming the action live when the train passes by. Here we
go. And action.

Unidentified Woman: (as character) John, I don't like it, this case,
these murders.

Unidentified Man: (as character) What do you want me to do? Go to
Michigan with you?

Unidentified Woman: (as character) Mackinac Island is beautiful this
time of year.

(Soundbite of train engine)

Unidentified Woman: (as character) I think you're in danger.

Unidentified Man: (as character) I don't have a choice.

Unidentified Woman: (as character) You do have a choice. John, I've
never asked you to stop. I need to know this isn't the last time I'm
going to see you. I love you so much.

Unidentified Man: (as character) I love you, too.

Mr. COURTNEY: (as Joe Lamb) Guys, watch out.

Unidentified Man: (as character) Joe, what the hell are you...

(Soundbite of crashing)

(Soundbite of yelling)

Mr. COURTNEY: (as Joe Lamb) Oh, my God. Run.

Unidentified Man: (as character) Oh, my God.

(Soundbite of crashing)

EDELSTEIN: That crash is amazing - the explosions go on and on, and
mammoth pieces of metal crash down at decibel levels no '80s movie could
reach. The pickup-truck driver, miraculously alive, tells the kids to
run or be killed. The Air Force shows up, hunting what looks to be big
and lethal, and might or might not involve nukes. People and pets
disappear.

And here, I'll stop. Abrams has the storytelling savvy to keep you
guessing from scene to scene, so it's criminal even to reveal the nature
of the mystery.

I can tell you the theme. Joe lost his mom in an industrial accident.
His deputy father's a non-presence, and the girl he has a crush on,
Alice, played by Elle Fanning, has a drunken single dad who had
something to do with Joe's mother's death. So you have absent mothers
and impotent or cruel fathers, and the Air Force officers turn out to be
the cruelest patriarchal authorities of all. Joe and Alice and their
pals race around doing what their parents won't or can't - solving the
mystery and finally making contact with an entity that has its own
authority issues.

The kids' repartee isn't particularly witty, but Courtney is likably
unaffected, and Fanning, younger sister of Dakota, has that familiar
freaky, grown-up pale face and blue eyes. But Abrams misses a huge
opportunity with the chubby director of the zombie movie. For easy
laughs, the kid is inept, in the Ed Wood mode, whereas if he had the
talent of, say, a young Spielberg, we could have seen a connection
between the emotional upheaval of childhood and a child's burgeoning
filmmaking skills.

At least J.J. Abrams makes you feel his enthusiasm. He was of the age to
have been influenced by "Jaws" and "Close Encounters," and my guess is
he's been fighting not to reproduce Spielberg's signature moves since he
picked up a camera. Now, with the blessing of the master, he can
plagiarize with alacrity. He can use sudden silence to make us laugh out
loud at the prospect of being jolted out of our seats. He can film the
starry heavens to make us instantly aware of all the mysteries of the
universe we force ourselves to forget just to get on with our days.

In "Super 8," the magic of those older movies filters through like light
from a distant star.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter
@nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at
freshair.npr.org.
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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.

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