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Eat & Drink » Drink

Hollywood Swigging

An irreverent history of tippling in Tinseltown

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A couple of months ago, I received a review copy of a book in the mail. I took a quick glance at it and then placed it in a pile with about 50 other cookbooks, cocktail books and such that I thought I'd never get around to reading. But then I stumbled upon it again recently and picked it up. I'm glad I did, because Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History is a really fun and informative read. It's a boozy book that will appeal to libation lovers and Hollywood historians alike.

Written by Mark Bailey and illustrated by Edward Hemingway, Of All the Gin Joints is a fun and fascinating romp through Hollywood's alcohol-soaked golden years: The Silent Era, The Studio Era, Postwar Era, the 1960s/New Hollywood (1960-1979). Its cast of characters reads like a Hollywood Who's Who, with tipplers ranging from Spencer Tracy, Mary Pickford and Frances Farmer to Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, Elizabeth Taylor and Dennis Hopper. In total, the book documents some of the more spirited stories of some 70 iconic actors, actresses, directors and screenwriters in Hollywood and elsewhere.

But there's a lot more than just the boozy bite-size bios in this very readable (think bedside or bathroom) compendium. There are also cocktail recipes, clever quotes about alcohol and imbibing, fascinating behind-the-scenes tales of the making of some of America's most memorable movies and—one of my favorite features—sidebars detailing with history of Hollywood's legendary watering holes: places like Musso & Frank's, Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic's, The Brown Derby, Chateau Marmont, Mocambo, Formosa Cafe and many more. All of it is imbued with illustrator Edward Hemingway's keen eye for caricature. As Chelsea Handler put it, "This book is like being at the best dinner party in the world."

Oh, what today's paparazzi wouldn't give to be flies on the wall at some of Hollywood's most gin-soaked moments—such as the moment when Tallulah Bankhead, self-described as "pure as the driven slush" and "ambisextrous," pretending to be a damsel in distress, flung herself into a pool at Hollywood's resplendent Garden of Allah Hotel. She hoped to be rescued by Olympic gold-medal swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who had just debuted on the big screen as Tarzan. Yes, there was plenty of booze involved, and—once in the water—Tallulah's dress disappeared. Bankhead "found her way into Weissmuller's arms, naked," Bailey wrote. As she was carried out of the pool, she said to the gathering crowd, "Everybody's been dying to see my body. Now you can."

While in Hollywood's heyday, whisky and gin were the libations of choice, there were exceptions: Steve McQueen had a fondness for Old Milwaukee beer (along with LSD, hash, peyote and other drugs, apparently), while John Wayne was a tequila man (Sauza Conmemorativo, to be exact). Frank Sinatra's legendary love affair with Jack Daniel's is well known, but Humphrey Bogart's allegiance to Bourbon milk punch, not so much. Bogie celebrated Christmas and his birthday—both Dec. 25—with a big bowl of Bourbon milk punch, the ingredients of which include 16 ounces Bourbon, 1 quart half & half, 2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract, 2/3 cup confectioner's sugar and freshly grated nutmeg.

With a cast of semitragic characters like Natalie Wood, William Holden, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Judy Garland and Lon Chaney Jr., Of All the Gin Joints contains moments both sweet and sour. But it's the incredible wit of so many of the subjects that keeps shining through. Maybe director John Huston summed it up best, saying, "I prefer to think of God as not dead, just drunk."

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