Prohibition in New York City
By Michael A. Lerner
Harvard Univ. 351 pp. $28.95
In this exceptionally interesting book, Michael A. Lerner accurately observes that "there was much more at stake in Prohibition than booze." It was "the most ambitious attempt to legislate morality and personal behavior in the history of the modern United States," the "defining issue of the 1920s, one that measured the moral and political values of the nation while shaping the everyday lives of millions of Americans." It affected the entire nation but nowhere more than New York, the chief target of the prohibitionist zealots because they loathed its rich mix of ethnic groups, many of them new to the United States, and feared its "wet ways as a contaminating influence" on the rest of the country.
After reading Dry Manhattan, one can only wonder that, in the more than seven decades since Prohibition ended in December 1933 with the adoption of the 21st Amendment, no one else has thought to write the history of the Noble Experiment in New York. Lerner more than makes up for the lost time. He is associate dean of studies at the Bard High School Early College, an imaginative public/private educational undertaking in Manhattan, and he clearly knows New York well. He also clearly appreciates all the aspects of New York that the drys so deeply dreaded: its Catholics, Jews and Eastern Europeans, its saloons, its theaters and chic restaurants, its tolerance of difference and dissent, its sheer urbanity. He turns out to be exactly the right person to tell this story, and he tells it very well.
Prohibition came into effect in 1920 -- the 18th Amendment authorizing it had been approved a year earlier -- after a vigorous two-decade campaign by the Anti-Saloon League, which in its zealotry and hardball tactics was a forebear of today's religious right. Its triumph "was less an expression of populist will than the product of political opportunism and a generation's worth of aggressive lobbying," but its timing was perfect. It came just as the Progressive movement was at its zenith and reform was in the air; even in New York, "the dry movement appealed to urban reformers who shared the league's desire to bring order and sobriety to American cities," and initially there was more support for Prohibition in the city than one might imagine.
That support lasted for about five minutes. Immediately upon the beginning of Prohibition, it "seemed to inspire New Yorkers not to change their ways to comply with the demands of the dry lobby, but rather to devise new, more creative ways to evade the law." It wasn't just that New Yorkers (and tourists) wanted their drinks, but that people turned to illicit drinking as a way to assert their individual rights and to thumb their noses at the drys. The Anti-Saloon League scarcely helped its cause by appointing William Anderson, formerly its man in Maryland, to run its New York operation. He was able and hard-working, but he also was motor-mouthed, opinionated and bigoted. Before his reign ended in disgrace in 1924 -- "he was convicted of forgery and sentenced to two years in prison" -- he managed to offend just about everyone in the city, including those who initially had been willing to give Prohibition the benefit of the doubt.
The Anti-Saloon League failed to think through the consequences of its policy. It was all well and good to make booze illegal, but not a moment's planning seems to have been done for what came next. Enforcing Prohibition was left to a patchwork of federal, state and local authorities, many of whom had no enthusiasm for the task -- this was especially true of New York's police -- and many of whom quickly got involved in "staggering cases of corruption and abuse of power." The Volstead Act, belatedly passed by Congress in 1919 after the approval of Prohibition, was draconian, and ordinary citizens soon were horrified as they came to grasp the infringements on civil liberties that it blithely mandated. In New York, drinking didn't decline, it increased rapidly:
"As quickly as the dry fashion had swept the nation, William Anderson's vision of a dry New York had collapsed. There would be no more celebrations and no further assertions that Prohibition was ushering in 'a new era of clean thinking and clean living.' Rather than uniting New Yorkers behind a single moral agenda, as Anderson and his fellow drys had hoped, the imposition of Prohibition on the city had polarized New York between irreconcilable dry and wet camps, one bent on enforcing Prohibition at any cost and the other set on rebelling against it."
The mood of the rebellion was at once defiant, merry and desperate. People started drinking more because they feared the well might run dry, and much of what they drank was almost literally poisonous. The federal government, in one of the most certifiably insane decisions it has ever made -- which is saying something -- "added poison to industrial alcohol to 'denature' it and prevent it from being diverted for human consumption," blithely ignoring the obvious fact that "bootlegging operations routinely used denatured alcohol anyway," passing along the lethal booze to their customers. That was in the early 1920s. In 1928, the feds outdid themselves, "doubling the amount of poison . . . added to industrial alcohol," leaving New Yorkers "wondering to what lengths the government would go next in its efforts to enforce a decade-long failed experiment."
Prohibition, of course, coincided with the Jazz Age, and the rebellious mood it engendered fed the rebellion of the young in particular but, in New York, just about everybody. The liberalizing effects it had throughout society -- precisely the opposite of what the drys had in mind -- included drastic changes in the social and political behavior of women. The flapper -- knocking back bootleg gin, her hair pertly bobbed, her skirt short and her chest flattened -- became the most prominent symbol of the new woman, but what was more important was "the transformation of the relationship between women and the American temperance crusade, as women moved from the traditional role of moral guardians and reformers in service to the dry lobby to rebels against the double standards of Victorian morality."
In that regard, Lerner performs the considerable service of rescuing from the dustbin of history a woman who was pivotal in leading the country out of Prohibition. Pauline Sabin, a prominent, wealthy New Yorker and initially a supporter of Prohibition, was horrified by its unintended consequences and ended up forming, in 1929, the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform. She turned out to possess "political savvy and [an] ability to learn from the mistakes of her predecessors, both wet and dry." She "took great pains to reach out to middle-class and working-class women in the belief that a broad coalition of women would pose the greatest challenge to the dry lobby." Lerner says that she, along with Al Smith, the former governor of New York, did more to bring Prohibition down than anyone else, for which the nation owes her everlasting gratitude.
Gratitude, of course, that we now can choose to drink -- or not to drink -- as free individuals, but also gratitude because Prohibition was an utter disaster. It did not have a single redeeming quality. The incidence of alcoholism rose sharply in New York and elsewhere, mocking the law became a national pastime, Americans were pitted against each other with a bitterness rare in the country's history, and -- the one subject to which Lerner pays insufficient attention -- organized crime gained a stranglehold on the nation. It isn't enough to say, as Lerner does, that organized crime came into being well before Prohibition. Prohibition gave it opportunities it had never before had, and it seized them with calamitous and permanent effects.
That, though, is a cavil. Dry Manhattan is in all important respects exemplary, a singularly useful and revealing contribution to our understanding of a time from which the nation probably never will recover. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.