The Magical Elixir

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Whether you’re a casual drinker, avid boozer or practice personal abstinence from alcoholic beverages, you cannot help but enjoy this rollicking illustrated history of alcohol and its literary imbibers, from Jane Austen’s beer brewing to James Joyce’s passion for Guinness to E.B. White’s cure for writers’ block—a dry martini. Illustrator Greg Clarke and editor/art director Monte Beauchamp have mixed a cocktail of quotes and aphorisms from the likes of William Faulker (“The tools that I need for my trade are simply pen, paper, food, tobacco, and a little whiskey.”) to Stephen King (“A writer who drinks carefully is probably a better writer.”) and a bunch of famous imbibers in between. I sat down with my usual two fingers of cranberry and seltzer for a sober conversation with Beauchcamp about the literati’s elixirs of choice.

A sidecar named desire

Your book with Greg Clarke “A SIDECAR NAMED DESIRE: Great Writers and the Booze That Stirred Them” is a bit different for you. That is, you’ve celebrated various things, like comics, but never alcohol. What prompted this deep dive?

A cocktail, believe it or not.

It’s Friday; Becky is out of town visiting her mom; so that evening I brought a Salinger biography to a nearby bar and ordered a drink. It wasn’t long before the endorphins begin kicking in and I thought, “what a magical elixir alcohol is.”

Booze has always gotten some sort of bad rap, so in defense of alcohol I began jotting down the good things about it. The phrase “booze as muse” really stood out, which led me to thinking about the Nine Muses of Greek Mythology. The notion of anointing booze the Tenth, I found humorously appealing and began thinking about the artists, writers, songsmiths, and musicians who produced significant work while under the influence.

Since here were the makings for an interesting book, I jotted down The 10th Muse as a working title.

At first I envisioned it along the lines of Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World, in which I collaborated with 16 contemporary illustrators who profiled 16 giants of the cartoon medium, in the sequential art format.

Yet, because a cocktail’s characteristics — its transparent / semi-transparent nature and range of nuanced hues — is visually similar to watercolor, the idea of having the entire project rendered in that medium really took hold.

Greg Clarke, who handled the Edward Gorey profile for Masterful Marks, was also a long-time contributor of unusual, wit-filled narratives rendered in watercolor to BLAB!, so I knew what he was capable of. In addition, because of the idiosyncratic nature of the subjects at hand, I felt he would make for the perfect collaborator.

Greg loved the idea. My agent loved the idea. Publishers loved the idea. When all was said and done, we went with Harper Collins / Dey Street, whose editor suggested we narrow the focus down to just the writers.

So, that deep dive into the topic of alcohol was prompted by a single cocktail.

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Booze is perhaps the second most popular liquid in the world. What makes it so?

Aside from the long-standing reasons, which is everything under the sun regarding the human condition, the ad guy in me points the finger at marketing. Take beer, for example. For each of the forty-three thousand runners who crossed the finish line at this year’s Chicago Marathon, there was a Goose Island beer awaiting them. Several years earlier, over a billion dollar, six-year deal was struck between Anheuser-Busch and the NFL, positioning Bud Light as the official beer at their seasonal events. Also, the craft beer community has turned the surfaces of their cans and labels into canvases for scores of lowbrow artists, adding a huge collectibility and entertainment factor to their product. There’s also the manufacturers of spirits. Absolut’s collaboration with world famous fine artists such as Warhol and Keith Haring has remained wildly popular over the course of the past 30 years. Yet, the reason may be much more simpler than that. Perhaps we’re all just wired by nature to consume alcohol. After all, it is an offshoot of food.

For many booze is also a dangerous addiction, how does that sync up with the great authors who consumed so much of it?

Many of them were hooked — BIG time. No matter how serious the wake-up call, very few of them could shake the monkey off their back. Faulkner, for example, passed out against a steam radiator severely burning his back, and still he kept saucing it up. Some who pushed the pedal to the metal wound up in an early grave. Grace Metalious, of Peyton Place fame, succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver at age 39. Gin hound, F. Scott Fitzgerald also experienced an untimely death. GONE — at age 44. And for those literary alkies who made it to their “golden years”, several passed away rather gruesomely. Fifty-nine year old Edna St. Vincent Millay tumbled down the staircase of her home during the wee hours of the morning, breaking her neck. She loved her gin.

Still, booze was the muse that inspired many a literary great. Fitzgerald felt that his stories when written sober, were stupid. This, from the man who gave the world The Great Gatsby.

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I’ve managed to abstain for decades to the point where just the smell makes me wretch. How do you feel about drinking?

I’m on the fence about it. The work week is normally booze-free unless a friend or business associate comes to town. But when the weekend rolls around, I’m game for any number of alcoholic concoctions. I also like the social aspect of drinking. It’s great to hang out in a weathered bar on a Saturday night and hear what someone you’ve never met before has to say. I’ve met some incredible people that way.

Although I’m abstinent I love looking at the bottles lined up in bars. There is something appealing, are the writers that you feature interested in the aesthetics of drinking?

One would think so, yet we didn’t find a whole lot of that. The watering holes in which they drank were rife with aesthetics. The back bars were often majestic, ornate, one-of-a-kind creations hand-carved from the finest of wood. And then there were the accompanying accoutrements themselves — dozens of diversely-shaped decanters and bottles sporting compelling, colorful labels; tin litho serving and tip trays; figural cork bottle stoppers, whiskey jugs, and the hand-painted, hand-carved tavern signs that hung outside the early establishments. Those who spent time in Paris were surrounded by large, inspirational lithographic liquor advertising posters from the La Belle Époque period produced by the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, and Jules Chéret. And then there is the look of the drinks themselves — the liquid hues
of wine, whiskey, or brandy — and the ornate glassware in which it was served. So you’d think there’d be a lot more about the aesthetics of drinking in that early writing. You can find snippets of it in poems such as John Keat’s Ode to Nightingale, yet anything more full-bodied generally focuses on the act of drinking, not the aesthetics. For example, Baudelaire’s Get Drunk.

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Another confession. I was a bartender for about six months at an Irish playhouse. Listening to the writers and others talk over their drinks yet separated by the bar was an enlightening experience. This is a long way of asking how’d you do your research?

Greg and I first put together a list of writers, slotting them into a particular chapter, of which there were eight (wine, beer, whiskey, gin, vodka, absinthe, mezcal / tequila, and rum). And once we figured that aspect out, we began working on the book a chapter at a time. So, while Greg was working on wine for example, I’d be pulling together visual reference and historical info on beer. When he then sent me the initial rough on wine to edit-review, he’d then start in on beer. So it was a ping-ponging approach, back and forth, until we got it right. One particular visual tidbit I managed to dig up was the actual revolver that Verlaine shot Rimbaud with.

We pored over first hand material whenever we could — original interviews, newspapers and publications of the day, biographies. Unfortunately there wasn’t a historian such as yourself documenting that early scene as it was unfolding, so a lot of first-hand information was buried by the sands of time. The internet we were suspect about. A lot of the snappy quotes attributed to some of these early writers are off, and there’s also the parroting of wrong information, which then becomes etched in stone as gospel. For example, Edgar Allan Poe being ordained as the poster child for Absinthe. Not so. Poe scholars are highly doubtful that he drank the stuff. By the time the Absinthe scene had kicked in, Poe was dead.