The Old Man and the Seagram’s: A Brief History of Literary Doping

“I’m very glad to meet you, sir—you know I’m an alcoholic.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s favorite introduction

Civilization has firewater—the writer’s Eucharist—to thank for many masterpieces. But, as Maxim Gorky observed after abandoning Dead Souls II, becoming a reborn Christian, and taking only the savior’s blood, “Many drink more than they write.”

Luckily urine tests have never been given in Stockholm. Otherwise Pearl Buck and Nelly Sachs would have been the only American laureates.1

London loved his martinis. Kerouac, his margaritas. O’Neill, his Gibsons. Carver, bloodies. Bukowski, boilermakers. Jones, Singapore Slings. Carson McCullers, her Sunny Boys.

Few women writers have been drunks. They don’t seem to have the natural aptitude. Dorothy Parker, Mary McCarthy, and Edna St. Vincent Millay threw a few back, but didn’t find themselves under the table or as an alley ornament with any regularity.

Fitzgerald once challenged a friend: “Can you name a single American artist except James and Whistler who didn’t die of drink?”

The This Side of Paradise author once warned another colleague, Robert Benchley: “Drinking is a slow death.” To which the Algonquin Round Table regular replied over his Manhattan: “Who’s in a hurry?”

When Lauren Bacall once asked the 5’ 5” Faulkner why he drank so much, he told her: “When I have one martini, I feel bigger, wiser, taller. When I have a second I feel superlative. When I have more, there’s no stopping me.”

Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises in Paris’s Dingo Bar where he’d carried out his drinking buddy, F. Scott, the year before, and on a regular basis since. Finishing his debut novel after six weeks, he said: “I don’t like to write like God. It is only because you never do it, though, that the critics think you can’t do it.”

For this effrontery, the Almighty didn’t take what was left of the braggart’s vitals. Instead, he had left self-deified novelists to discover their own limitations. So, Hemingway eventually found that his fiction required more and more courage until, in the end, he couldn’t drink his way into a short story or even an inauguration piece for JFK.

Early on, his consumption had been moderated by his professional ethic: “Write drunk, edit sober.” Otherwise he said he drank “to make people more interesting.” So, as people became less and less interesting to him, his habit grew.

Not so with Fitzgerald. According to his father-in-law, a judge, Scott was never sober. His daughter, Scottie, corrected the record: she said her dad was drunk only “75% of the time.” He didn’t have Hemingway’s legendary capacity. Shots in quick succession were enough to deliver him into an alternative reality. A few more shots and he blacked out.

At first it was all flapper fun with his wife and friends. Once, he and Ring Lardner did the Charleston on Frank Doubleday’s lawn, hoping to be joined by the publisher’s houseguest, Joseph Conrad. Another time, he and Zelda barked like dogs outside Sam Goldwyn’s party until the movie mogul let them in. Years later, taking a play from Scott’s book, Dylan Thomas barked at, chased, and bit Chelsea Hotel guests, then pounded eighteen more whiskeys and slipped the mortal coil.

“Parties are a form of suicide,” said Fitzgerald. “I love them.”

After another one, he got to waving a gun around, it went off, and nearly hit Thornton Wilder. The next morning, as often happened, he had no recollection of the incident.

By the mid-thirties, Fitzgerald was drinking a beer for breakfast and consuming up to thirty-six bottles more before bedtime. The fun was over. “He was a vicious drunk, one of the worst I’ve ever seen,” said his last mistress, Sheilah Graham, with the bruises to prove it. She further recalled, “In 1935 he saw beetles and pink mice scurrying all over him and elephants dancing on the ceiling.”

Before the DTs set in, Scott, like his colleagues, drank for professional reasons. “Any stories I have wrote when I was sober were stupid,” he said. He explained that drink “heightens my emotions and I put them in a story.”

Faulkner’s friends and doctors, like Fitzgerald’s, tried to interfere with his emotions by cutting his supply. “Pouring out liquor is like burning books,” he complained. He, too, passed out regularly. Once he did so on a steam pipe in a New York hotel room, burning himself to the bone. The ER doctor asked him why he did this. “Because I like to,” replied the novelist.

In 1936 he checked into Mississippi’s Wright’s Sanatorium where he underwent electro-shock therapy and anti-alcohol injections. He became a regular patient and died at the dry-out facility twenty-six years later.

When the author of The Sound and the Fury wasn’t on a gurney taking voltage, or at home writing under the influence, he was FUI in his airplane, or fox-hunting on horseback in the Oxford backcountry, flying headlong into fences and hedgerows. Once, after being thrown again, his riding companion asked if he “liked” horses.

“I’m scared to death of horses,” replied the Nobel laureate. “That’s why I can’t leave them alone.”

After another equestrian mishap in ‘62 he washed down a fistful of reds with a fifth of courage and was carried to Wright’s for the final unction.

The American trinity successors—Mailer, Styron, Bukowski, Cheever, Carver, through King and beyond—continued to take communion, with hapless editors and agents trying to keep pace.

When former Random House editorial director, Jason Epstein, met Edmund Wilson for lunch at the Princeton Club, the critic ordered six martinis and asked his colleague, “Would you like a half dozen, too?”2 Dick Snyder told the Times’ Roger Rosenblatt that during his heyday as Simon and Schuster CEO in the ‘80s and ‘90s: “All you had to know to succeed was alcohol . . . The three-martini lunch was normal. If you didn’t get real business done before noon, the rest of the day was lost in an alcoholic haze.”3

Teetotalers are hard to find in the history of literature, but not those in denial. “My sole drink is water,” insisted Poe. Some wanted to be regarded as disciplined. “I never write when I’m drunk,” declared W.H. Auden. Others were pragmatic. “One of the disadvantages of wine is that it makes a man mistake words for thoughts,” declared Samuel Johnson who spent nine years on his Dictionary of the English Language and avoided any controlled substance that might aggravate his Tourettes and drive him to the Tarantella.

Then there was Ray Bradbury, who, going to the root of the existential rub, advised: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”  

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