The Speakeasies I Remember: In a Last Conversation before His Death at 99 This January, the Artist Recalled the Places He Visited, Drew, and Wrote about during Prohibition in New York City. You Can Still Lift a Glass at a Couple of Them. (Al Hirschfeld)
Grauer, Neil A., American Heritage
IN 1933 THE SALE OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES BECAME LEGAL AGAIN IN THE United States--and the speakeasy died. Thus ended the 13-year social-engineering experiment that President Herbert Hoover had called "noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose." Prohibition had certainly had far-reaching effects, and not only in ways Hoover had anticipated; it also spawned the speakeasies that, in the words of the newspaperman Stanley Walker, "contributed more than anything else to the madhouse that was New York."
Al Hirschfeld, the famous theatrical caricaturist, knew that madhouse intimately. He even wrote and illustrated a book about speakeasies, Manhattan Oases, published in 1932, while Prohibition was still in force. To mark Hirschfeld's hundredth birthday, this remarkable book--which describes the era's cafes, clubs, and dives with a pungent mixture of fondness and scorn--has just been reissued under a new title, The Speakeasies of 1932, with an introduction by Pete Hamill (Glenn Young Books/Applause, $26.95).
"Prohibition brought in the gangster era and made the whole country corrupt," Hirschfeld told me shortly before his death this past winter. "That was the culture of the city. If you wanted to hear good swing, or anything, you had to go to a speakeasy. Anybody you can mention, from Louis Armstrong to Bix Beiderbecke, performed in speakeasies. They were all illegal, so everybody was corrupted. They all became lawbreakers."
Hirschfeld remained active until the day he died, rising around 10:00 A.M. in the Manhattan townhouse he'd owned for more than half a century, and by 11:00 arriving in his studio on the top floor, where he settled into a vintage barber chair to work at his drawing board. Afterward he'd have a bourbon or two and a steak for dinner. He never exercised, and attributed his longevity to his genes; his mother had lived to 91, his father to 93.
He told me he had written Manhattan Oases because "it just occurred to me that nothing had been done on it, this phenomenon that changed the whole of America." He spent a year visiting as many New York speakeasies as he could. He had a lot of territory to cover. In 1929 Police Commissioner Grover Whalen told The New York Times, "Nowadays all you need is two bottles and a room and you have a speakeasy. We have 32,000 speakeasies in this city." That was more than double the number of legal saloons the city had supported prior to Prohibition--and about as many restaurants it has today.
In his researches Hirschfeld "went from the lowest, from the Bowery, to Jack and Charlie's"--now the 21 Club--"which I thought was the fanciest. I interviewed all the bartenders, and the bartender would give me his favorite cocktail. The one on the Bowery had a recipe for a drink called smoke, made with Sterno. I don't know how anybody survived it."
He went from the Bath Club to the Epicure Club to the Cotton Club, from the Tony's to the Press Grill, from the Mansion to the Place, and he gathered recipes for everything from an absinthe frappe to the brandy crusta, the horse's neck, and the sidecar. Ultimately he wrote up 36 speakeasies, their bartenders and their particular drinks. He himself stuck to beer most of the time. "It was safer. I never trusted the liquor. They always had bad liquor. Jack and Charlie's was about the only place where you could trust your life to it."
Jack and Charlie's, named for its founders, Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns, was and remains at 21 West 52nd Street. There Hirschfeld saw Mayor James J. Walker; Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and Heywood Broun; a judge or two; and Police Commissioner Whalen. "Jack and Charlie were wonderful hosts and served the best liquor in town, which they husbanded down below, hidden, so whenever it was raided, they just locked up everything. …