A speakeasy in the desert

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“Come on in and have a drink.”

I have always thought I was born several generations too late. I get nostalgic for decades that passed long before my birth. Perhaps that’s the reason I love writing about the past. There are several periods I wish I could have been around to experience, among them: 1940s London and 1960s San Francisco—but most definitely near the top of my list are the 1920s. The decade brings to mind jazz, illicit cocktails, gangsters, flappers, literary salons, and smoke-filled speakeasies.

The speakeasy has always fascinated me. The National Prohibition Act was ratified as the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution at midnight on January 16, 1920. The nightmarish law made it illegal to “manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor.” When American cities were wrung dry, the speakeasy was born. It was a portal to another world, transporting those lucky enough to know where to look into a parallel realm of sinful entertainment and strong drinks.

I’ve always considered the speakeasy to be my kind of place—so, you can imagine how cool it was to find out there’s one not far from the Arizona town where I live. It’s beneath an Italian restaurant downtown. Access is gained via an unmarked stairway. At the bottom is a single door beneath a red light bulb. Walk through the door and you find yourself in a dark, subterranean cavern with low-hanging lights, exposed brick walls, red leather booths, and a well-stocked bar. My wife and I took a seat and immediately soaked in the ambience.

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The cocktail menu is fun to browse. Alongside each listed drink is the year and city in which it was first created. The drinks are made as they were back in the day. I was torn between the Trader Vic Mai Tai (Oakland, CA, 1943) and the Aviation (New York, NY, 1916). My wife settled for a Cosmo (alas, I failed to note the details of its provenance). I opted for the Aviation, a strong concoction of Aviation American Gin, Maraschino liqueur, Crème de Violette, and lemon juice, served in a coupe champagne glass with a Maraschino cherry.

It was excellent—and I’m happy to say I’ve found my new regular drinking haunt!

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Don’t call him ‘Pappy’

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I love reading the personal letters of my favorite authors. Here’s one penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his 11-year-old daughter, Scottie, while she was away at summer camp. Among the many things evident is his absolute hatred for being called “Pappy”:

La Paix, Rodgers’ Forge
Towson, Maryland

August 8, 1933

Dear Pie:

I feel very strongly about you doing duty. Would you give me a little more documentation about your reading in French? I am glad you are happy — but I never believe much in happiness. I never believe in misery either. Those are things you see on the stage or the screen or the printed pages, they never really happen to you in life.

All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly. If there is such a volume in the camp library, will you ask Mrs. Tyson to let you look up a sonnet of Shakespeare’s in which the line occurs “Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

Have had no thoughts today, life seems composed of getting up a Saturday Evening Post story. I think of you, and always pleasantly; but if you call me “Pappy” again I am going to take the White Cat out and beat his bottom hard, six times for every time you are impertinent. Do you react to that?

I will arrange the camp bill.

Halfwit, I will conclude.

Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about Cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship
Worry about. . .

Things not to worry about:

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions

Things to think about:

What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:

(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?

With dearest love,

Daddy

P.S. My come-back to your calling me Pappy is christening you by the word Egg, which implies that you belong to a very rudimentary state of life and that I could break you up and crack you open at my will and I think it would be a word that would hang on if I ever told it to your contemporaries. “Egg Fitzgerald.” How would you like that to go through life with — “Eggie Fitzgerald” or “Bad Egg Fitzgerald” or any form that might occur to fertile minds? Try it once more and I swear to God I will hang it on you and it will be up to you to shake it off. Why borrow trouble?

Love anyhow.

This letter appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters and Letters of Note.

Writers and their cocktails

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Photo: Esquire.com

As suggested by my last couple of posts, I’ve been reading a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald. This, naturally, got me thinking about authors and alcohol. While Googling the subject, I came across a great post on a website called The Kitchn. It lists the the favorite cocktails of famous authors. This should be required reading for anyone who enjoys a good book and a strong libation (preferably at the same time). Here’s the list as it appears on The Kitchn (click here for the full article)—complete with nice literary quotes. Indeed, drinking should be educational.

Ernest Hemingway: The Mojito – Hemingway is associated with a number of cocktails (he was, after all, a heavy drinker), but none more so than the Mojito. According to Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide, the mojito was invented at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba, where Hemingway drank them.

 “My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita.” – Ernest Hemingway, a signed quote hung on the wall of La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba

William Faulkner: The Mint Julep – Faulkner’s Mint Julep recipe, as seen in Rowan Oak, the estate where William Faulkner lived from 1930 until his death in 1962, consisted of whiskey, 1 tsp sugar, ice, and a sprig or two of crushed mint, served in a metal cup.

 “Isn’t anythin’ Ah got whiskey won’t cure.” – William Faulkner

Scott Fitzgerald: The Gin Rickey– It’s rumored that Fitzgerald’s passion for gin stemmed from his belief that you could not detect it on his breath. Traditionally a rickey is made with gin, but it can also be made with scotch or rum.

 “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Raymond Chandler: The Gimlet – The gimlet didn’t catch on in America until Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe introduced it in The Long Goodbye.

 “A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s lime juice and nothing else.” – Terry Lennox in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye

Ian Fleming: The Vesper Martini – In Fleming’s Bond series, the Vesper Martini is the first drink Bond ever orders – and the only time he orders it. The Vesper differs from Bond’s standard cocktail of choice, the martini, in that it uses both gin and vodka. Bond would later be known for ordering vodka martinis. (Interesting side note: in total, Bond orders 19 vodka martinis and 16 gin martinis throughout Fleming’s novels and short stories.)

 “A dry martini… One. In a deep Champagne goblet…Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?” – James Bond

Truman Capote: The Screwdriver – Capote is said to have called the Screwdriver—made with vodka, orange juice, and orange slices—”my orange drink.”

“In this profession it’s a long walk between drinks.” – Truman Capote

Edna St. Vincent Millay: The “Between the Sheets” – The story goes that Edna St. Vincent Millay, while writing and drinking late one night with Edmund Wilson and the poet John Peale Bishop, asked the men to hold her in their arms, one holding her lower half, the other her upper. Thus, the seductive “Between the Sheets” cocktail, which is basically a Sidecar with rum.

“Ah, drink again
This river that is the taker-away of pain,
And the giver-back of beauty!” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

John Steinbeck: The Jack Rose – Also known as “Jersey Lightning,” the Jack Rose is for “the brandy drinker who also happen[s] to be a champion of the working class,” according to Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide. It was Steinbeck’s favorite drink.

 “I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.” – John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley

Jack Kerouac: The Margarita – Kerouac is said to have developed a taste for margaritas during one of his many trips through Mexico, a country and culture he loved.

 “Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” – Jack Kerouac

Tennessee Williams: The Ramos Gin Fizz – Are you from New Orleans? Apparently folks there still drink this famous Southern cocktail in honor of Williams. The drink was featured many times in his writings. The standard recipe contains egg, cream, lemon and lime juice, sugar, gin (of course), and a bit of orange flower soda water.

 

Fitzgerald Fascination

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I have recently—for reasons unknown—become slightly obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald. The fortunate product of this Fitzgerald fascination is it prompted me two weeks ago to read The Great Gatsby. The book was assigned reading in high school many eons ago, but I foolishly cheated myself and opted for the Cliff Notes. Truly reading the book for the first time was a wonderful discovery and education—for while I loved the story, I was completely blown away by the writing.

I can’t recall a book with more beautiful prose. Descriptions of simple things, like fading sunlight on a woman’s face, are stunning:

For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened—then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.

Such writing in high school was wasted on me; I didn’t appreciate, back then, the effort involved.  After reading Gatsby, I read A. Scott Berg’s Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius, a biography of Fitzgerald’s editor–the same guy who discovered Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, among others.

It was interesting to note in Berg’s book that when Fitzgerald sat down to write Gatsby, he did so not with commercial success in mind but rather to see how far he could push his talent.  “This book,” he wrote Perkins in 1924, “will be a consciously artistic achievement.”

The end result obviously speaks for itself.

Next on my reading list: Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.

Film rights optioned!

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Very exciting news this morning: The film/television rights to Winston Churchill Reporting have been optioned by a production company. I can’t go into details just yet, but needless to say I’m riding pretty high at the moment.

This is actually the second book of mine to be optioned this year. The television rights for my first book, On the House, were optioned a few months back with the intent of turning it into a multi-part miniseries.

I’ll post more info on both fronts as things develop . . . and as I’m permitted.

Muses Aren’t Real, and Now is Always the Best Time to Write

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“Writing a book is an adventure,” wrote Winston Churchill in 1949. The man knew a thing or two about writing. He wrote four bestselling works of nonfiction and a novel before he turned 26. Never one to tackle anything in a half-hearted manner, he completed his first book (85,000 words) in roughly two months. There were some nights he wrote so long and hard, his hand cramped to the point where he could no longer hold a pen.

Why mention this? Because Churchill, in my mind, exemplifies the writer’s discipline at its very best. He wanted to write, and so he did. There was no waiting around for inspiration or searching for the muse. There was simply a desire to produce.

Like my favorite historical figure, I don’t believe a muse is necessary when it comes to writing. Actually, I don’t even believe in the muse, nor do I believe in waiting for inspiration to strike. You can wait for that wonderful moment of clarity, when all your thoughts coalesce into a glorious narrative that’s ready to spill forth on the page, but you might end up waiting a long time.

Search the web, and you’ll find plenty of blogs and articles offering tips on how to summon your muse. The time spent reading such advice could be spent tackling a blank page. Writing is all about discipline. If you want to write something, you have to sit down and do it. Such a pragmatic view might be blasphemous to some. “You can’t force or hurry art,” one might argue. Frankly, I don’t approach my writing as high art; I approach it as a job.

This less-than-romantic attitude is, in part, the result of my background. I’m a journalist by trade, having spent more than a decade working on daily newspapers. I took great pleasure crafting well-honed stories under tight deadlines. Also, the fact I don’t write fulltime might have something to do with my attitude. I have a “day job” to pay the bills. My writing-and-research time is limited to several hours on the weekends and a few precious hours each night after my wife and kids have gone to bed. I don’t have time to sit around waiting to feel inspired.

All the inspiration in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t buckle down and force yourself to put words on a page. Waiting for the muse to send a message, is—in my opinion—a delay tactic, an excuse not to do the hard work. Mind you, this is not to say I’m a writer without influences. As a non-fiction author, I’m influenced by Cornelius Ryan, Antony Beevor, Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, William Manchester, and Rick Atkinson—historians who relate history not in dates and facts, but compelling narratives that rival the best novels. In my early years, when I thought I might write fiction, Stephen King’s command of story and pacing had a huge impact.

But the one writer whose influence has remained constant throughout the years is Ian Fleming. This might seem strange for one who writes the sort of books I do, but I’ve always admired Fleming’s straightforward approach. He honed his writing skills as a reporter for the Reuters News Agency, learning to write fast and well. As an author, he tackled his books with a journalist’s discipline—not waiting for inspiration or the whisperings of a muse, but working feverishly to get the words out.

Fleming was a man of habit. Once he established his writing routine, he stuck with it and never deviated, writing for three hours every morning—no excuses. He knew the importance of getting a story out quickly. Here’s what he advised a friend who was contemplating writing a book:

You will be constantly depressed by the progress of the opus and feel it is all nonsense and that nobody will be interested. Those are the moments when you must all the more obstinately stick to your schedule and do your daily stint . . . Never mind about that brilliant phrase or the golden word, once the typescript is there you can fiddle, correct and embellish as much as you please. So don’t be depressed if the first draft seems a bit raw, all first drafts do . . . Don’t let anyone see the manuscript until you are very well on with it and above all don’t allow anything to interfere with your routine. Don’t worry about what you put in, it can always be cut on re-reading.

Nothing about muses or inspiration there. “Stick to your schedule and do your daily stint” is what he says. That, I think, is the best writing advice one can give.

Our time on this planet is a finite thing, so if you want to write—just do it. Time waiting to feel inspired or searching for your muse is time wasted. If inspiration is something you really need to get started, just think how great it will feel to hold that completed manuscript in your hand.