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Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition…

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (2010)

by Daniel Okrent

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Well done review of the Prohibition thought processes and detailing of the various ways in which society dealt with the banning of their very favorite pastime. ( )
  cyclops1771 | Nov 13, 2014 |
This book was way more interesting than I first thought it would be when I bought it. Although it is about one of my favorite subjects, I feared that it would be drab and boring recollection of facts. I am very pleased to say that the author did a fabulous job of intertwining facts with anecdotes of the day, along with pictures of real advising and people involved.

The book starts with a look at how the prohibition movement got started, the political parties that favored it, how it managed to make its way through the amendment process, and then some of the best parts of the book: how enforcement of the law was almost completely nil. Even with very little enforcement, the courts at all levels were bogged down with prohibition cases. The book discusses how while prohibition cut down the amount of drinking we did as a nation as a whole, if you wanted to drink, you would easily find a way. Finally the book went into the reasons it was finally repealed.

It was an interesting read about a time in our nations history that really shaped us a nation--it built up and funded the mob in many cities, helped people amass large fortunes through bootlegging, and really openly defy the constitution. Pretty interesting stuff! ( )
  csweder | Jul 8, 2014 |
Very interesting examination of the rise and repeal of Prohibition, of life during the dry years and of the long and short term impacts of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Prohibition movement on contemporary politics and society. ( )
  nmele | Apr 30, 2014 |
This is a very good book about Prohibition. It charts its roots in the 19th century and how it was passed through a series of unlikely alliances. It does a great job showing how poorly it was enforced, through lack of will and lack of money. And it shows that it was repealed because of how poorly it was enforced, how rich people wanted it removed so they could repeal income tax, and bringing the booze industry back into the legal world would help the economy and government finances after they had been hit by the Depression.

This is written to a mass audience, citing few sources but using tons of entertaining stories. Even with that, it keeps an informative narrative that stay true to its title. It does trace the rise and fall of Prohibition. I don't think I would use it as a sole textbook for a class on the era, but I would love to use parts of it to spice up the class. And I would definitely recommend it to friends whether they are historians or not. ( )
  Scapegoats | Feb 13, 2014 |
My great-grandfather was a bootlegger. He didn't start out as one, of course--he learned his trade as an electrician in Parma, Italy, but according to my grandfather (who was understandably rather bitter at being dumped off, after his mother died in childbirth, at the local monastery to be raised by the holy brothers) there was always something a bit shiftless about him even after he started a new life in Canada and the United States. Unfortunately, he wasn't a very good one. After commencing his new profession in the waters between Windsor, Canada and Detroit--the famous "City on a Still"--wettest of the many prohibition defying cities--beating, according to author Daniel Okrent, such booze-loving towns as Boston, New Orleans, and San Francisco-the gunplay-and "probies"-became too intense for the casual criminal and he moved his operations to Vancouver. Even that semi-rural area, whose low population density never attracted the same amount of interest for criminals and the federal government alike-proved to be too much for the amateur he remained. He was caught by prohibition agents, despite scuttling his boat and making a run for it--and promptly deported. All of this--the start in the thirsty East--the ignominious end in laid-back West where highly organized criminal operations never gained a real foothold--the swift deportation as the US government used any excuse to get rid of immigrants--turned out to be a perfect template laid out in "Last Call". I just didn't realize it until this summer, when I both read the book and talked to my mother and her youngest sister about their grandfather's activites. (Any attempt to bring the subject up with my now-deceased grandfather invariably produced atypical agitation--even vitriol-as the passing of the years did nothing to mitigate my grandfather's annoyance with his own father).

For you see, my grandfather's life--indeed the fate our our entire family--got caught up with my great-grandfather's decision to run a bit of Seagrams through the San Juan Islands. My great-grandfather was refused entry back to Italy--Mussolini was in the middle of his big purge of home-grown organized crime and wasn't exactly interested in importing criminals. The French, however, were more sanguine. He settled in Cannes, where he remained through the outbreak of the war. Times were hard in Vichy France; my great-grandfather wrote a letter to his son in Canada pleading for money. My grandfather did the duitiful thing, stuffed some bills in an envelope, and as he was busy that day--gave the letter to his cousin and business partner to mail the letter in the United States, as the US was still neutral. (Back then, the border was more a slightly interesting concept than something most people paid attention to, and people flitted back and forth all the time). The cousin did mail the letter-except he forgot to mail it in the US and instead mailed it in Canada. My grandfather was promptly hauled in by the Canadian government, which wanted to know why he was aiding and abbetting the enemy.

My grandfather never got over his arrest. One of my mother's favorite anecdotes is the story of her father, white-faced and trembling, returning after his grilling by authorities and burning every communist magazine and tract in the house.(Parma is a very red part of Italy.) Anyway, my grandfather was finished with his adopted country from that moment. He insisted, until Alzheimer's overtook him, that his real reason for leaving was his inability to handle for any longer the quaint Canadian habit of leaving dead bodies in storage until the spring thaw, but the rest of the family knew better. He began plotting his escape. After the war, he moved to Southern California, despite my grandmother's protests, and set himself up as an electrician/glassblower, where he did his part to make the Southland the neoned tacky glory it was in the 50's and 60's.

All this is just a long-winded way of saying I have more than a normal interest in American Prohibition, and view it as the reason why I was born a Californian, or indeed why I was born at all. Of course, for all of us, there are a million causalities as to why we are here on earth, and if anything, I should point a finger at the idiotic cousin WHO COULD'T FOLLOW THE SIMPLEST INSTRUCTIONS. But this is my narration, and I'm sticking to my story. I like a grand historical spin.

But back to the book I'm supposed to be reviewing. It's wonderful. Yes, it could seem that I don't have the clearest perspective, but honestly, it is a great read, and an essential one for anyone who is interested in American history. I admit that I am a bit low-brow, and would have preferred a few more "Chicago typewriters" (tommy-guns) in the tale, but I know, as much as I like a bit of "Boardwalk Empire" sleaze, that the story of how the United States sort-of swore off booze for a dozen years has just as much to do with sweeping sociological movements and legislation. Daniel Okrent entertainingly explains how United States has always been awash with alcohol, and how there has always been an opposition to all that drinking, and how the anti-saloon movement started to gain force after the Great Awakening. I was the most annoying person while I was reading this book, prone to shooting out random tidbits of trivia whenenver anyone wandered within earshot. Did you know the Clan was dry-and pro suffrage? Did you know that plea-bargaining started as the government was overwhelmed by all the cases in the docket? Did you know that the federal income tax really started as a way of recouping projected lost revenue? Did you know that all the said lost revenue by illegal bootlegging was equal to the ENTIRE federal government budget--including the military--in 1926? Did you know....and so on. Everyone in the household was relieved when I finished the book.

All of this could have been as dry as some of the midwestern counties which actually OBEYED the Volstead act, but Okrent is a witty writer, and a master of the trenchant character sketch. On the axe wielding Carry Nation: "Carry Amelia Moore Gloyd nation was six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache." Or Calvin Coolidge's idea of governing "...it was if he viewed government as a vestigial organ of the body politic." And there are many amusing anecdotes along the way, from the time of the colonial distilleries, to the repealing of the Volstead act (which ironically helped to make many municipalities drier than they had been previously).

A fun read. For those who yearn for more than a bit of Al Capone-type action and are impatient with legislative maneuvering, 4 stars. For political wonks and those who are here on the planet thanks to American Prohibition, 5 Stars. ( )
  gaeta1 | Nov 9, 2013 |
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For my sister, Judith Simon,
and in memory of absent friends:
Robert N. Nylen (1944-2008)
Richard Seaver (1926-2009)
Henry Z Steinway (1915-2008)
First words
(Prologue) The streets of San Francisco were jammed.
America had been awash in drink almost from the start - wading hip-deep in it, swimming in it, at various times in its history nearly drowning in it.
If a family or a nation is sober, nature in its normal course will cause them to rise to a higher civilization. If a family or a nation, on the other hand, is debauched by liquor, it must decline and ultimately perish.
- Richmond P Hobson, in the U.S. House of Representatives, December 22, 1914
The prohibitionists say that the liquor issue is as dead as slavery. The wet people say that liquor can be obtained anywhere. You'd think they'd both be satisfied.
- Marjory Stoneman Douglas, in the Miami Herald, October 7, 1920
The thing that sticks out clearly now is that for years our politics promises to be thoroughly saturated with this wet and dry stuff. It will warp the whole political fabric, prevent clear thinking - even by those who are capable of thinking clearly - and hide the merits of the men who run for office in a fog of feeling.
- Frank Kent, Baltimore Sun, quoted in an Anti-Saloon League reprint, circa 1922
As was said before upon a memorable occasion when the very incarnation of morality was about to be sacrificed, 'What thou doest, do quickly.' - Malcolm C. Tarver, a Georgia dry, in the House of Representatives, December 5, 1932
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743277023, Hardcover)

A brilliant, authoritative, and fascinating history of America’s most puzzling era, the years 1920 to 1933, when the U.S. Constitution was amended to restrict one of America’s favorite pastimes: drinking alcoholic beverages.

From its start, America has been awash in drink. The sailing vessel that brought John Winthrop to the shores of the New World in 1630 carried more beer than water. By the 1820s, liquor flowed so plentifully it was cheaper than tea. That Americans would ever agree to relinquish their booze was as improbable as it was astonishing.

Yet we did, and Last Call is Daniel Okrent’s dazzling explanation of why we did it, what life under Prohibition was like, and how such an unprecedented degree of government interference in the private lives of Americans changed the country forever.

Writing with both wit and historical acuity, Okrent reveals how Prohibition marked a confluence of diverse forces: the growing political power of the women’s suffrage movement, which allied itself with the antiliquor campaign; the fear of small-town, native-stock Protestants that they were losing control of their country to the immigrants of the large cities; the anti-German sentiment stoked by World War I; and a variety of other unlikely factors, ranging from the rise of the automobile to the advent of the income tax.

Through it all, Americans kept drinking, going to remarkably creative lengths to smuggle, sell, conceal, and convivially (and sometimes fatally) imbibe their favorite intoxicants. Last Call is peopled with vivid characters of an astonishing variety: Susan B. Anthony and Billy Sunday, William Jennings Bryan and bootlegger Sam Bronfman, Pierre S. du Pont and H. L. Mencken, Meyer Lansky and the incredible—if long-forgotten—federal official Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who throughout the twenties was the most powerful woman in the country. (Perhaps most surprising of all is Okrent’s account of Joseph P. Kennedy’s legendary, and long-misunderstood, role in the liquor business.)

It’s a book rich with stories from nearly all parts of the country. Okrent’s narrative runs through smoky Manhattan speakeasies, where relations between the sexes were changed forever; California vineyards busily producing “sacramental” wine; New England fishing communities that gave up fishing for the more lucrative rum-running business; and in Washington, the halls of Congress itself, where politicians who had voted for Prohibition drank openly and without apology.

Last Call is capacious, meticulous, and thrillingly told. It stands as the most complete history of Prohibition ever written and confirms Daniel Okrent’s rank as a major American writer.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:13 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Okrent explores the origins, implementation, and failure of that great American delusion known as Prohibition. "Last Call" explains how Prohibition happened, what life under it was like, and what it did to the country.

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