The First Drink*


H. Allen Smith

THERE WAS MUCH DRINKING at the Sidney Skolsky party. There was much drinking everywhere, all the time. I don't think I knew anybody who didn't drink and most of those I did know were the type who got so drunk they couldn't see through a ladder. These were days when the bitterness against Prohibition was growing stronger every day and people were all but drinking themselves to death just to make a point. I am offering no apology for the boozing in this book; it is merely the boozing that was in my life. And all this leads us to another event that took place in the same year on the twelfth floor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The date was December 5, 1933.

A week prior to that day it came to my attention that Prohibition was approaching its end in the United States. I knew that I would be called upon to write some sort of an obit on the death of the Eighteenth Amendment, and so I dreamed up a stunt.

With the wire facilities of the United Press at my command, I decided to make it possible for a single individual, selected in advance, to take the first legal drink swallowed in the United States of America in thirteen years. I wanted to get H. L. Mencken for the enterprise but Mr. Mencken, who leaned to beer, was in Baltimore. Then I thought of Benjamin DeCasseres, whose Gramercy Park home I sometimes visited and who was always fond of talking about his skill with tankard, flagon, and shot glass. Mr. DeCasseres was an author of the iconoclastic school and had moved in a group that included Edgar Saltus, James Huneker, and the young Mencken.

Mr. DeCasseres fairly leaped at the chance to make history, get a free drink, and get his name in the newspapers. I arranged for him to meet me at the Waldorf-Astoria immediately after lunch on December 5.

Before going to the hotel myself I had to check all the arrangements. The end of Prohibition was to be accomplished in Salt Lake City where the Utah Constitutional Convention was voting that day to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. Ratification by three fourths of the states was necessary, and Utah was the thirty-sixth state to vote.

The United Press had, of course, a direct line from the Salt Lake City convention hall into its offices in New York. I arranged to have another wire set up between the office on Forty-second street and a room in the Waldorf-Astoria. The flash would come from Salt Lake City to New York and then would be swiftly relayed to us in the hotel suite and Mr. DeCasseres would hurl the first legal drink down his hatch. A telegraph operator was installed in the hotel suite and at the other end of the wire, in the United Press office, sat Alfred D. Greene, night wire chief of the United Press. Mr. Greene was to relay the flash to the hotel the instant it bounced off the wire from Utah.

I had a brief whispered conversation with Al Greene before I left the office for the hotel.

Arriving at the Waldorf suite, I found Mr. DeCasseres with an illegal highball in his hand and an expression of beatific abandon on his face. The hotel management had agreed to furnish a bottle of liquor for the stunt, but a marvelous mistake had been made somewhere along the line and an entire case of Scotch stood on the floor beside a divan.

Mr. DeCasseres and I, with two hours to go before the flash from Utah was due, began making inroads on that Scotch. After a while Mr. C. V. R. Thompson, New York correspondent for the London Daily Express, telephoned and asked if he might chisel in on the stunt. He wanted to have Mr. DeCasseres interviewed, over the transatlantic telephone, by one of the editors of his paper in London. I agreed to this, being already in an expansive frame of mind, and before long Mr. Thompson joined us and was assigned to a bottle of Scotch, at which he began taking heroic belts.

The telegraph operator was making a show of testing the hookup with Al Greene, but I could see him casting envious glances at us, so he was invited into the party. Mr. DeCasseres, who once described himself as an intellectual faun, was in good form, as he usually is, and was making an effort to remember how many times he had been hurled bodily out of Jack's restaurant in the old days.

Around four-thirty the brass sounder began chattering and Al Greene informed us that the Utah delegates had assembled and that the flash would be upon us within the next ten minutes. Having given us this warning Mr. Greene telegraphed an off-the-record query: "Have them bums started drinking yet? Wish I was there." The telegraph operator was in his place at the table and Mr. Thompson began putting his call through to London. Mr. DeCasseres sat across the room in an overstuffed chair and said:

"Whose house are we in? The bounty of the Lord! Columbia, the gem of the ocean! God giveth and God taketh away! Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord! Hard work never hurt anybody!"

I directed Mr. DeCasseres to the chair he was to occupy during the historic ceremony. He was across the table from the telegraph operator. The London connection had been completed and a telephone was placed in Mr. DeCasseres' left hand. He began talking to the British editor as though the transatlantic telephone were a fake and a fraud, as though he were actually shouting across the bosom of the sea. I fixed him a fresh highball and another for myself.

We settled into our assigned places. Off to one side stood Ted Saucier, of the Waldorf staff, wondering if he hadn't made a horrible mistake by permitting such goings-on in these austere precincts. I stood directly behind Mr. DeCasseres. Mr. Thompson was at his side and had taken the telephone away from him.

"In a few moments," Mr. Thompson was saying into the instrument, "we shall have the flawsh from Utah. Then Mr. DeCasseres shall take the first drink, and then I shall put Mr. DeCasseres on the wire for the interview."

It was 4:39 P.M. We were all tensely quiet, though weaving a little. Then the telegraph instrument sounded.

Click pause. Click pause. Click.

Unobtrusively I raised my glass to my lips and took a long swig. At once the instrument broke into a chatter.

"Flash!" yelled the operator. "Prohibition repealed!"

Mr. DeCasseres drank-drank fiercely, pouring part of the highball over his chin. He put down his glass and Mr. Thompson handed him the telephone.

"Hurrah for Tom Paine!" cried Mr. DeCasseres across the ocean. "This is the second Declaration of Independence! Bang the fieldpiece, twang the lyre! Whoooooopeeee! Gimme another drink, boys, I'm thirsty!"

The man in London tried to get in some questions but Mr. DeCasseres wouldn't stop. He was bursting with patriotic fervor and international brotherhood. He spoke feelingly of Thomas Jefferson, George Bernard Shaw, Wayne B. Wheeler, and the Gaekwar of Baroda. He declared his personal love for all the peoples of the world and Scotch whisky. He was still going when Mr. Thompson wrenched the telephone from him and rang off to save money.

After that I had to write a report of the affair for immediate use on the United Press wires. It was not the most intelligible piece ever written but it had words in it. When I had finished with it we sat around and had some more Scotch, and then I had to return to the United Press office and write a story for the night wires.

I left Mr. DeCasseres trying to remember for Mr. Thompson and a couple of visitors-Lou Wedemar and Forrest Davis-the number of times he had been thrown out of Jack's in the old days.

So that is actually what happened on the afternoon of December 5, 1933, in the Waldorf-Astoria. Mr. DeCasseres never suspected that he had been double-crossed. He could not know that when the telegraph instrument clicked three times, those clicks were a signal to me. Al Greene was telling me that the flash had come in, that Utah had voted, that Prohibition was no more. Al Greene was giving me the better part of a second to quietly take the first legal drink. And I took it.

*Reprinted from The Best of H. Allen Smith Copyright © 1972 by H. Allen Smith

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