The irony of Truman Capote's recent death was not lost on the group of writers who gathered downtown one night to poke over the bottle's seemingly tireless pull on America's literary lions.
But the coroner's awaited ruling on whether drink ended or merely shortened the 59-year-old Capote's career prompted little interest. For those at the forum sponsored by Washington Independent Writers, the self-proclaimed alcoholic was simply the latest on an impressive list of native literary casualties:
Nobel Prize-winners Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill and William Faulkner were all alcoholics. Fellow recipients Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck were at least heavy drinkers, bringing the toll among the American Nobel literary elite to five out of eight.
Wallace Stevens. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker. Edgar Allan Poe. e.e. cummings. Dashiell Hammett. Jack Kerouac. Ambrose Bierce, Edwin Arlington Robinson, O'Henry.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ring Lardner both drank their way to early graves in their forties. Hart Crane. John O'Hara, who went dry at 48 after he narrowly survived a bleeding ulcer and swollen liver . . . Suicides Jack London and John Berryman.
The whys of this frequently desperate marriage between literature and drink pricked at the assembled writers, many of them admitted alcoholics.
"My general feeling is it has to do with the job: It's lonely. You need some sort of catalyst, something to trigger things in your mind," ventured Andy Jenkins-Murphy, 43, a Washington technical writer and textbook author who stopped drinking 11 months ago.
Others posed different theories: How much of the attraction, they mused, is impelled by romantic lore about the macho, drunken excesses of a Hemingway or a Fitzgerald?
To what degree does a withdrawn, insecure personality predispose a writer to risk? Do success and fame raise the ante? ("If you are an artist, self-destruction is quite expected of you," John Cheever once said. "The thrill of staring into the abyss is exciting until it becomes, as it did in my case, contemptible.") Do poor and obscure writers run the same danger?
Still more troubling -- especially to the newly committed non-drinkers at the meeting -- was the repeatedly voiced fear that when the writer goes dry, so does his or her pen.
"The juices are no longer there, and I'm not talking about the booze," complained a woman in her forties named Donna, who said she gave up drinking nearly five years ago. "I sit in front of my typewriter. I scream, I cry and nothing helps."
"I have this gut feeling that I'm never ever going to be able to write as well as I did when I was drinking," echoed Bill Bloemsma, 48, a retired U.S. Army pilot and occasional free-lancer. "Whether that's true or not is not important as long as I believe it."
The nature of the connection between writing and drink is not a new subject. It has long been a source of painful scrutiny. But is there really an unusual incidence of alcoholism among writers?
"Folderol," says Allan Lans, associate director of New York's eminent Smithers Alcoholism Treatment and Training Center, where patients have included John Cheever and, at least by his own admission, Capote.
The reputation of the writer as drinker, argues Lans, 52, derives partly from the "heroic" stature given popular American authors, along with an attendant powerful mythology. "If you drive a subway and are an alcoholic, so big deal, but if you're a writer or an actor or a doctor, well, you can say it's more excusable because of the stress of your work. It's glamorous to excuse it on that basis."
Accordingly, Smithers and other treatment programs make a point of mixing patients, regardless of occupation.
Says Washington writer L. Allen Grooms, 39, who relied on self-help groups for support when he decided to stop drinking: "If you're a writer, there is a grandiosity, a thinking that 'I'm special. I'm unique. It doesn't belong to anyone else.' That's not true."
Mohan Advani, 50, director of the Metropolitan Alcoholism Center in Washington, also dismisses the idea of any special susceptibility among writers. "If you see the general population as a whole I think the distribution curve evens out."
Writers who drink heavily, however, need not look far for excuses. Says Emanuel Hammer, a New York psychoanalyst whose work has focused on writers and artists:
"Connecting with the feelings most of us cover up generally exposes the creative person to discomfort, to anxiety, to awesome feelings of 'Oh my God. Is that me? Do I have such terrible feelings within?' that in turn prompts a looking for alcohol or drug states to give some relief, some escape."
Also, he says, "The writer or artist more often faces the issue of 'Am I drying up?' A dentist in midlife doesn't face 'I have nothing more to be a dentist with.' "
Powerful reinforcement, says New York writer Pete Hamill, himself a reformed drinker, comes "out of the romantic tradition. I mean romantic in the sense of constantly pushing against the walls of possibilities, the skyrocketing young genius, which is bull----. I don't think James Agee did himself or others any favors by burning himself out at 45.
"The romantic image that you go into a saloon like Greenwich Village bohemian poet Maxwell Bodenheim and dash off a poem on a cocktail napkin is just garbage. Bodenheim died a skid row bum. What the hell is romantic about that?"
Says Robie Macauley, executive editor at Houghton Mifflin: "A lot of people think that because Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, because Faulkner was an alcoholic, because Malcolm Lowry was a big drinker that there's something romantic about it, but there isn't . . . On Faulkner's trips to New York he used to drink himself into a stupor until he passed out . . . We don't know how much good writing was killed by that bad habit."
There's an American aspect to the idea of the writer as a two-fisted he-man drinker, holds New York author Tom Dardis, at work on a book called The Thirsty Muse, slated for publication next year by Ticknor & Fields.
Says Dardis, who calls the correlation between writers and drink more than coincidence: "There's a very famous line: 'There are no second acts in American lives.' Fitzgerald wrote it in his notebooks."
Meaning, says Dardis, "The careers of American writers, unlike those of European writers, come to an abrupt stop in their thirties and forties . . . American writers either commit suicide or dry up and write third-rate books. Look at the later Faulkner, the later Hemingway, the later Fitzgerald. I think drink has a lot to do with it."
The effect of drink on writers' work has been the subject of considerable debate.
O'Neill wrote his most critically hailed plays after he became unwillingly dry at age 38. On the other hand, Kerouac reportedly wrote everything on drugs or booze. Lardner practiced abstention until he completed a quota of work. "No one, ever," he said, "wrote anything as well even after one drink as he would have done without it."
At one time in his career, Capote was reportedly downing a quart a day.
"In some cases," posits Dardis, "drinking led to extraordinarily brilliant -- if short-lived -- periods of writing. 'The Bridge,' by Hart Crane -- probably the greatest poem of the century outside of 'The Wasteland' by Thomas Eliot -- was written with the aid of Cutty Sark . . .
"Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby through Tender Is the Night while a regular drinker. But by the time he got to Tender Is the Night, he was fighting hangovers and going through withdrawal and it took him nine years to finish the book."
Writes Donald Newlove in his 1981 book, Those Drinking Days: "Something disastrous happened when Faulkner turned 49; whatever grip he had on his alcoholism faded, and so did the hot focus of his imagination.
"He wrote for 22 years, but his brain was stunned. What we get is the famous mannered diction, senatorial tone, a hallucinated rhetoric of alcohol full of ravishing if empty glory. Dead junk compared to the sunburst pages of The Sound and the Fury . . ."
Do editors and publishers promote the image of the hard-drinking writer?
Less than in the past, suggests Macauley.
"Things have changed. Publishers used to like to give authors a lot to drink as a means of making them friendly. I think the writers and publishers tend to be much more abstemious these days. No publisher wants to have a drunk on his hands as a writer."
And there is evidence of growing disenchantment among writers themselves with the idea. Writes Newlove in his confessional book, "That the greatest writing is made out of loneliness and despair magnified by booze is an idea for arrested adolescents."