Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Dry Manhattan," by Michael Lerner

"Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City" tells you a lot about New York, a little less about Prohibition, and somehow gets the mix right.

The Eighteenth Amendment, if author Michael Lerner's research and interpretations are correct, was birthed by the boozy saloons of New York City's immigrant quarters and foundered upon the same immovable rock of intemperance.

Protestant folks in middle America couldn't abide by the sin-soaked goings-on in the Big Apple and other urban centers. In the end, making something almost everybody approved of a matter of general disapproval did not present the property recipe (if ever one existed).

Lerner dissects William H. Anderson's stealth effort to make alcohol illegal in New York and the lackadaisical response of local politicians and citizens to his ultimately successful campaign.

It is a fatalistic march marked with the same strange inertia that led to other historical debacles like Hitler’s rise to power, the South’s secession from the union, or George W. Bush.

"Dry Manhattan," is a story about how Manhattan was never dry at all, even when defying the law landed a goodly number of people in jail or ruined lives.

In the end, there was something stuffy, Anglo, and very 19th Century about the Eighteenth Amendment that quickly wore out the efficacy of its most persuasive arguments.

Prohibition didn't make America better. It made it much worse. Especially through illegal mafias that sought to accumulate windfall profits associated with the risk of moving such contraband around.

Crazy innovating entrepreneurs! They're as American as the Martini.

More than anything else, Lerner's book details how the cool crowd (yes, even then) was able to infuse illegal drinking with a cachet all those Mabels and Myrtles from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union could never combat.

And most importantly, there was New York and its drinking habit, alone atop the country's media circus. It was not the only place America looked to for pointers on style and novelty, but the dry folks could hardly expect help from the wacky western pole that harbored Hollywood.

"Cosmopolitanism" is what Lerner sees as a key to the Wet counter-reformation on alcohol. And what place was more so than Manhattan?

The book resuscitates the name of New York Governor Al Smith and discusses how his losing campaign for president actually laid the groundwork for a national Democratic coalition that would reign supreme over five decades; on-and-off, and more-or-less.

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