We had published an earlier book about the drinking habits of famous American writers. This was in part because I was a writer who drank and because my creative partner—the wonderful illustrator Ed Hemingway—is the grandson of a very famous writer who drank. You can guess who that is.
The book was called Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide to Great American Writers. Everyone seemed pleased with it, so we decided to do a follow-up book. Since I am also a screenwriter and had by then moved from NY to LA, we landed on Hollywood and its movie stars as the next area of exploration. It turned out to be a much bigger subject than we had anticipated—a lot of boozing has gone down in this town.
What makes a great gin joint?
Good question. To me, I think a convincing lack of self-awareness is key. The joint needs to at least feel real, a place that knows what it is. There is nothing more lame than a bar that tries too hard. To me, it seems the joints that work the best have a real person with a real personality behind them—a proprietor who loves the place and fights for it—a proprietor whose character is imprinted on the joint. Not unlike Rick in Casablanca.
What was your favorite along the way?
Right now, my favorite watering-hole in LA is the Chateau Marmont. You can’t find a place with more history that is still up and running, that after more than 80 years is still cool. As for the old haunts now shuttered, for a place to drink—the Cock N Bull seems like it would have been great fun. And I just missed it. For the swirl, the Cocoanut Grove or Ciro’s. As a place to hang out—the Stanley Rose Bookshop back in the day or the back room at Musso’s—I think most writers would kill to have had even an evening or two there. But now that I really think of it—the Garden of Allah is the answer, hands down—I imagine the Garden beat all of them.
Was classic Hollywood simply perpetually drunk?
There was a lot of drinking in Hollywood for sure. These were stars with enormous wealth and power —and they did not have many people in their lives who wanted to say no to them. Added to that, they had the protection of the studios, these giant PR machines invested in maintaining their image. So you could pretty much do whatever the hell you wanted and get away with it.
The screenwriter Anita Loos put it well, “To place in the limelight a great number of people who ordinarily would be chambermaids and chauffeurs, give them unlimited power and instant wealth, is bound to produce a lively and diverting result.”
Of all the stars you researched, who was the most notorious, Drunkest Star of All-Time—who gets the title?
“Drunkest” is a tricky phrase, and giving any one star the title seems too subjective. I can tell you who I think maybe drank the most. But some stars you come to realize had an astonishing capacity for alcohol—could drink ungodly amounts without becoming hammered. Of early Hollywood, John Barrymore, by a mile. Of later Hollywood, Richard Burton. Others like Flynn, Mitchum, and Richard Harris were up there too. For women, I think Tallulah Bankhead and Elizabeth Taylor—and Ava Gardner too.
Speaking of research—tell us a bit about that. Did you sample the drinks? Get ripped at the Rainbow? Tie one on in the Brown Derby? If so, what was your favorite celebrity cocktail? Which one was the most tasty? The highest-octane?
We hired some mixologists, two great guys named Drew Jacobson and Paul Keo who are owners of a bar in downtown LA named Ebanos Crossing. Many of the cocktails were classic drinks with well-established recipes – the Mai Tai, the Zombie, the Moscow Mule. With these cocktails, we just tried the recipes and sometimes re-tried them, making sure they were truly delicious (tough work, I know).
Other recipes, we had to create with the mixologists—most often we knew the ingredients, but not the proportions (as with Mitchum’s Hangover remedy, Sturges’s Applejack & Tea or Harris’s Port & Brandy mix). These we kept tweaking and testing until we had something we really liked.
As for my favorite cocktail in the book, the Brown Derby Cocktail was a terrific discovery for me. Bourbon (or rye if you want), grapefruit juice and honey mix—it is a wonderfully balanced drink. But if you are only interested in the highest-octane, Ava Gardner’s Mommy’s Little Mixture and Oliver Reed’s Gunk can be real lightning, but they taste pretty awful. John Ford’s Torpedo Juice, made with grain alcohol and pineapple juice, packs a wallop and is at least potable.
How has Hollywood culture changed since the Golden Era(s)?
Not only has Hollywood culture changed, American culture has changed. Of All the Gin Joints offers a look back at what is really a lost world. This was before we were health-conscious, before we had AA, before other recreational drugs held sway. It was a different time—wild and funny and tragic too. And while you can read the book and hopefully catch the feeling, maybe get a little taste of it, there is no going back—which is probably a good thing.
MARK BAILEY is an author and Emmy-nominated screenwriter. Bailey’s books include American Hollow, Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide to Great American Writers, and the children’s book Tiny Pie. His films have appeared on HBO, PBS and Lifetime. Bailey lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children.