I figured we would get around to talking about these particular personalities. Not only have these characters turned their lives over to the literary arts, but also to the infamous ‘demon’ in the bottle. There they are, huddled by themselves at the end of the bar, notepad and pen in hand, desperately clinging to a watered down Jameson rocks, trying to put down the lines that will make them immortal.
There’s always the standard drunk writers everyone knows about. Ernest Hemingway ranks up there (and you know he wanted to be the best) as one of the ‘papas’ of the drunken literati. But even he admitted that he did not drink while he wrote. William Faulkner also claimed he didn’t imbibe during his writing frenzies as well. Funny enough, Hemingway called out Faulkner, saying he could always tell the moment William had started drinking when his sentence structure changed in his prose.
You got Hunter. S. Thompson, literate King of the Drug Lifestyle, notorious for ordering several appetizers, full course meals, and over 10 different alcoholic drinks in one sitting at a restaurant (all on the tab of whomever hired him). Edgar Allen Poe, famed misanthrope, adored his booze all the way to his mysterious death in Baltimore, after being found incoherent (and not in his own clothes), wasted in an alleyway.
We are not talking about which writers were better drunks (if that can even be rated. And I think we all could agree that Mr. Bukowski takes the cake on this one).
We know one of the by products of writing is drinking, anyhow. But why, you may ask, are so many of these literary figures drenched in their own alcoholic glories? What aspects of the writer make the consumption of alcohol (and drugs, let’s not forget) a necessary devil in the art of books?
One of the reasons is that it is readily available. Every corner store, every bodega, every restaurant, alcohol is both attainable and cheap. When you are toiling at the page for days, months, years, something ‘easy’ and ‘cheap’ sounds like a perfect match to me. Also, the amount of brain activity, attention to detail, and pure imagination required in writing novels can drive anyone to find some kind of libation to put away the troubles and stresses in the form of a rum punch or a mint julep makes perfect sense. Alcohol kills sensation, memory, and brain cells.
Just what the doctor ordered.
We are discussing the great writers of our past who wrote at the bars, on napkins and in journals, right then and there at the bar itself.
When I bartend, I seek out these shy types. Right after they order a drink from me and slip out a notepad and pen, I pour them a gratuitous shot on the house. They look up, bewildered that someone is being nice to them. I smile, hold up a shot of whiskey for myself and cheers to them. I know where they are coming from. As E.L. Doctorow (recipient of 2014’s Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction) once said: “Writing is the only socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”
Hey kids, this Bud’s for you.
So who are some of the less known writers, know for drinking and writing at the bars?
Here’s a short list of these heroes from the bar stool:
This writer was the ultimate drunk bar writer. To the point that his favorite watering hole in Dublin had his typewriter installed at the end of the bar. No one fucked with him while he typed away, chugging whiskies back like it had the antidote. And maybe it did.
Mr. Brendan Behan was an Irishman, which already has the curse of alcohol consumption, but also the blessing of great storytelling. Brendan drank himself to caricature proportions. He was great with the quotes (“I’m a drinker with writing problems”) and had a knack for biting satire (“the only bad press is the obituary”), but eventually the booze got him. Just like Mr. Jack Kerouac (and what a tragedy that fellow was), Behan failed to complete more master works in his life, himself shipwrecked on the island surrounded by an ocean of alcohol. The drinking got worse, and finally, ostracized by fame and even some bar owners because of his drunken antics, collapsed at the Harbour Lights Bar in Dublin, dead at 41.
Another writer from the Isles, this time a Welsh man, was a notorious writer leaning over a couple whiskies, penning those fine lines from the villanelle “do not go gentle into that good night.” He lived up to those famous lines, but much less poetically than I’m sure he was looking for. He was famous in his lifetime, but that didn’t much stop the rash of blackouts and chest problems that he struggled with in his later years.
On a trip to New York City, he met up with his then assistant and lover for several drinking engagements. But when he retired one misty November night to his room at The Chelsea Hotel, he couldn’t resist that familiar night call. At 2 in the morning, he stumbled into the now famous White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, and got ragingly wasted. Falling out of the bar he was quoted saying: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskey’s. I think that’s a record.”
It may have been. But when he didn’t wake up the next day, his lover called the authorities. He died days later. He was 39.
Now maybe it is because women live longer than men, but despite the tragic stories of the men above, witty Dorothy Parker, empress of the Algonquin Table writers in the Jazz Era of New York City, lived to a ripe age of 73. No stranger to the drinking world (after all, it was the time in America when Champagne flowed like the Hudson River), Ms. Parker avoided early death and remain sarcastic pretty much about everything until the end (she wanted to put on her epitaph: “excuse my dust”). An early model for ironic hipsterism, she dodged suicide (only one attempt after her first abortion, to which she said: “what a fool I was to put all my eggs into one bastard”), and side-stepped falling off the proverbial bar stool by getting arrested for protesting the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti and railing the government for equal rights for women. Maybe a sense of humor keeps you going through the rough parts? It certainly kept her from the clutches of cirrhosis. And in her last will and testament, in a total baller move, left her whole estate to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Yep. Straight up gangster.
So what did we learn today kids?
That’s right. Don’t be a writer. Stick to the job. Aim for retirement. Because if this path of the pen tells you anything, it’s a signature of doom.
Don’t sign the contract.
Till next week.
THE IRISH CURSE. I WOULD NEVER KICK YOU OUT OF MY BAR, BRENDAN!
I DRANK AT THE WHITE HORSE TAVERN ONCE TOO AND I THOUGHT I'D BE JOINING THIS GUY AFTERWARDS.
LADIES, KEEPING IT REAL. IF SHE WAS ON TINDER I WOULD TOTALLY SWIPE RIGHT.