Both a rollicking recap of the Roaring ’20s and a cautionary tale about how a government’s attempts to legislate and monitor morality are nearly always doomed.
Book- and magazine-publishing veteran Okrent (Public Editor #1: The Collected Columns (with Reflections, Reconsiderations, and Even a Few Retractions) of the First Ombudsman of The New York Times, 2006, etc.)—former editor-at-large of Time, Inc., and managing editor of Time and an editor at Knopf, Viking and Harcourt—joined forces early with filmmaker Ken Burns, and his new book will be prominently featured in a 2011 Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary about Prohibition. The author assembles a phenomenal cast of characters who emerged during Prohibition’s conception, birth, swift life and death. Evangelist Billy Sunday, P.T. Barnum, Jack London, hatchet-wielding Carry Nation, Wayne Wheeler (of the Anti-Saloon League), Jane Addams, Warren G. Harding, Andrew Mellon, Eliot Ness, Al Capone, Andrew John Volstead and countless others strutted across the stage and then, frequently, disappeared. Okrent muses about the evanescent fame/notoriety of Wheeler, for example, who for a time made Senators tremble and was among the most powerful men in America—but who’s heard of him now? The author skips around the country to examine the vast dimensions of the crime, corruption and plain disregard for the law that ensued when the 18th Amendment went into effect in January 1920. Liquor flowed in from Canada; entrepreneurs took drinkers on long Caribbean cruises; mom and pop got prescriptions for “medicinal” alcohol from physicians benefitting from kickbacks; racism and xenophobia reigned; Catholic churches and other religious institutions suddenly needed much more wine for rituals; and brewers and blenders tried near-beers and grape juices. In addition, the tax coffers emptied while gangsters bathed in liquidity. It took the Depression to help end it all—and the pervasive realization that only criminals were winning. Okrent’s style is bracing and wry, his research is vast and impressive and his insight is penetrating.