If the stories are true, it seems that all of Hollywood was perpetually drunk during Prohibition. Alcohol flowed at the private parties of the rich just as easily as it did in the shabby low-end speakeasies tucked into Sunset Boulevard. No matter who you were it was easy to find a drink if you wanted it, Volstead Act or no. As a result, many people in Hollywood became famous not just for their legendary performances. Early Silent Era film stars like Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, John Barrymore, Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton and many others were just as famous for their off-screen antics as their on-screen ones, many of which involved cocktails.
So, here are a few Hollywood cocktails—and some scandalous gossip to boot. Reader beware, however: some of these stories are a bit off-color…
Charlie Chaplin, the famous creator of the iconic comic character The Little Tramp, was a heavy drinker and a notorious womanizer. When not acting or directing, he was busy getting drunk and getting it on—particularly with underage girls. One of them, Lita Grey, was a 16-year-old actress he met while on the set of The Gold Rush.
Chaplin originally wanted to film The Gold Rush on location in Truckee, California with homeless bums—the same kind that found gold in the Klondike Pass. So, he sent his producer/director, Eddie Sutherland, to round up some Truckee bums to use as extras. Sutherland rounded up five hundred of them in a week, then gained their trust by drinking with them every night. This was fine—until the production crew ran out of alcohol. By the time Chaplin finally arrived on set, Sutherland had been reduced to drinking Sterno strained through a sock and diluted with water (kind of like torpedo juice, right?). But he survived, and filming went on as scheduled—until Lita Grey got pregnant. Forced to marry her or end up in prison for statutory rape (he was 35 and she was 16!), he was forced to rush to Mexico to get married, abandoning the half-finished film. The whole thing was re-shot in its entirety on a Los Angeles film set.
Chaplin also managed to have flings with quite a number of other famous stars. One of them, actress Louise Brooks, loved to tell friends “the glowing red penis story.” According to Of All The Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History (2014), the story goes like this: “Apparently, Chaplin had heard that a drop of iodine on his penis could prevent venereal disease. During a three-day sex bender with Brooks and another couple, he decided to be extra cautious. He emerged from the bathroom naked, with an erection, his storied ‘eighth wonder of the world’ penis completely covered with red iodine. He proceeded to chase the screaming girls around the suite.”
Supposedly, this escapade was aided by liberal amounts of Orange Blossom cocktails. This Pre-Prohibition precursor to a Screwdriver was popular with other Silent Era stars as well, including Fatty Arbuckle and Robert Benchley. It was also the favorite drink of master director D.W. Griffith, creator of seminal films such as Birth of a Nation (1915). In his drunken twilight years, Griffith supposedly kept the windows of his room at the Hotel Knickerbocker lined with oranges, the key ingredient to his favorite cocktail.
T H E O R A N G E B L O S S O M
A precursor to the modern-day Screwdriver, the Orange Blossom is a simple but lovely combination of gin and orange juice. While A. S. Crockett claims in his 1935 bar book that the Orange Blossom was probably created by “some young bridegroom or other who wanted something novel to use at his final stag party,” it’s been around far longer than the Thirties. Interestingly, this About.com article claims that the recipes listed below are actually for a drink called an Adirondack, and that a true Orange Blossom involves 3/4 oz of sweet vermouth. While vermouth was a common early cocktail ingredient, all the books I looked at seemed to disagree—even the modern version only calls for simple syrup.
T H E 1 9 1 3 V E R S I O N :
One portion gin
One portion orange juice
Dip a spoon into honey, and dissolve in the gin only what honey adheres to the spoon.
Then add the orange juice, fill with ice, shake well, and strain into a cocktail glass.
T H E 1 9 1 4 V E R S I O N :
½ jigger orange juice
½ jigger gin
T H E 1 9 2 2 V E R S I O N :
¼ gill of Gin
¼ gill of Orange Juice iced and well shaken with a little dash of Orange Bitters.
Add a dash of Grenadine if required sweet.
T H E 1 9 3 4 V E R S I O N :
1 Drink Dry Gin
Juice of ½ Orange
Stir well with cracked ice and strain.
T H E M O D E R N V E R S I O N :
2 oz. gin
2 oz. freshly squeeze orange juice*
¼ oz. simple syrup
1 orange wheel (for garnish)
Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice cubes. Shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with orange wheel.
*For best taste, make sure the orange juice is freshly squeezed.
Incidentally, there is another cocktail made in the 1920s which bears Chaplin’s name: The Charlie Chaplin, whipped up at the Waldorf-Astoria Bar in New York City. It’s a sweet cocktail with lots of fruit flavor to cover up the harshness of the gin. Many books recommend using sloe gin because it’s more smooth. While it was made in Chaplin’s honor, no one seems to know if he ever drank one.
T H E C H A R L I E C H A P L I N :
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
¾ ounce gin
¾ apricot brandy
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
John Barrymore was the most notorious drinker in the Silent Era. Considered to be one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century, Barrymore was also Hollywood’s wildest party animal. Known as “The Monster” among his drinking buddies, the Bundy Drive Boys, Barrymore spent his time off-set drinking up a storm and calling his buddies—affectionately, of course–“shithead.” A true-blue alcoholic, Barrymore would drink anything from his wife’s perfume to a pint of engine coolant without complaint. He continued to drink like a fish right up until his death in 1942. Even when confined to his deathbed—from drink, no less!—his friends managed to sneak in a bottle of French cognac to see him off.
Before he was confined to bed, however, Barrymore was a regular guest on Rudy Vallee’s radio show. Every day at 4 PM on his way to the studio, he’d stop by St. Donat’s Bar and order one of these:
T H E P I M M ‘ S C U P
Whenever Barrymore drank a Pimm’s cup, he was going back to his roots as an Englishman. This early European cocktail traces its origin back to James Pimm, who created the key ingredient—Pimm’s—as a digestion aid for his London oyster bar back in 1820. Pimm itself is a gin-based liqueur mixed with quinine, fruit extracts, and a secret blend of herbs; the “cup” part of a Pimm’s Cup refers to early punches, which were spirits mixed with fruit, sort of like a gin-based sangria. Pimm began his drink empire with Pimm’s No. 1 mix in 1859. It was so popular that by WWII there were five more versions, each with a different spirit base: No. 2 was scotch whiskey, No. 3 was brandy, No. 4 was rum, No. 5 was rye whiskey, and No. 6 was vodka. While Pimm may have made the additive, he wasn’t the one who popularized it—it was his successor, Samuel Morey, who turned it into a cocktail and started selling it at the oyster bar. Today, it’s recognized as a staple of British summer: as the English say, “it’s always Pimm’s o’clock.”
Technically, there are two versions of this classic fruity drink: a Pimm’s Cup and a Classic Pimm’s, which is more of a highball than a cocktail. These two modern-day recipes come from the Employe’s Only Bar in New York.
P I M M ’ S C U P
2 oz. Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
3/4 oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
3 thin cucumber wheels
6 fresh mint leaves
1 oz. ginger ale
Pour the Pimm’s, Cointreau, and lime juice into a Collins glass. Add the cucumbers and mint. Fill with large cold ice cubes and cover the glass with a small shaker top. Shake briefly and top off with ginger ale.
C L A S S I C P I M M ’ S C U P
2 oz. Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
3 thin cucumber wheels
6 fresh mint leaves
3 ounces lemon-lime soda
Pour the Pimm’s into a Collins glass. Add the cucumbers and mint and large cold ice cubes. Top off with the soda.
Not all of early Hollywood’s party animals were male. Louise Brooks, the fiery, independent actress with the sharply bobbed hair—a 1920s trend she helped popularized—was well known for her drinking escapades. Like many of her scandalous female counterparts in Hollywood, Brooks was a big fan of sex, booze and cocaine—but her greatest love was gin. She drank as much as possible whenever she could. Lucky for her, she could also act while wasted. They say that throughout the filming of Prix de Beaute, every day before filming she’d wake up at 6 a.m., drink a full bottle of champagne, and fall back asleep. Then, when it was time for filming, attendants would carry to the car (still asleep), take her to make-up (still asleep), then haul her to the set. When it was time for her to act they’d wake her up somehow, shove her in front of the cameras–where she would totally nail her scene!–and then lead her back to her dressing room, where she’d start in on the gin and fall asleep again until they needed her for the next scene.
While Brooks preferred straight gin, it’s possible she may have been forced to drink one or two Gin Rickeys in her day. These popular Pre-Prohibition cocktails were ubiquitous throughout the Roaring Twenties as yet another way to mask sub-par gin. While I doubt Brooks would ever want water in her gin, it makes a fine drink all the same…
T H E G I N R I C K E Y
The origins of this popular Prohibition drink go back to the 1880s, when Col. Joseph Rickey’s bartender added a lime on a whim to his daily dose of bourbon and sparkling mineral water. Unlike most cocktails, there is no sugar. This is by design, however: Col. Rickey felt that “drinks with sugar heat the blood.” When the drink was revived during Prohibition, the bourbon was often replaced with gin, which was easier to get hold of. Add ginger beer and you get a Gin Buck, another popular Prohibition drink. Either way, you get a refreshing summer drink. For more about Col. Rickey and his namesake drink, try this short Imbibe blog post or the Wikipedia page for the drink.
THE 1913 VERSION:
Juice 1 lime; leave half of the pressed lime in glass; one lump ice; one wine glass Tom gin. Fill with siphon.
THE 1934 VERSION:
Take 1 Cube of Ice; Juice of 1/2 or whole Lime, 1 Drink of Gin. Fill up with Carbonated Water and serve with small bar spoon in glass.
THE MODERN VERSION:
2 oz. dry gin
3/4 oz. strained, freshly squeezed lime juice
Squeezed shell of 1/2 a lime
One of the interesting things about the Gin Rickey is how versatile it is, and how just a small change in the recipe can create an entirely different drink. According to The 12 Bottle Bar, one popular Prohibition variation on the Gin Rickey was the Gin Buck: it was the same as the Rickey, except with ginger beer instead of club soda. Change out the lime for a lemon, nix the lime shell, add a bit of sugar and you get a Tom Collins. Shake up everything but the soda and pour it into a glass with no ice, then add the soda, and you get a Gin Fizz. The list is practically endless!
Hollywood stars weren’t the only ones who spent time blotto in Hollywood: screenwriters and directors were equally notorious for getting blitzed behind the scenes. Raymond Chandler, the famous novelist and screenwriter, was a well-known drunk; they say he spent the final eight days of filming The Blue Daliah hammering out the end of the script while on an entirely liquid diet—he had doctors inject glucose into his arm so he didn’t have to stop to eat (though he still drank, naturally). Another person named Chandler (specifically Charlotte Chandler) was also the first person in Hollywood to learn the secret of Fritz Lang’s mysteriously seductive original cocktail: the Blue Martini.
Yes, you read that right. Fritz Lang, the German Expressionist director who created masterpieces of film like Metropolis, M, and The Big Heat was a master of seduction—once a lady tried one of his special cocktails, anyway. According to Lang, after a sip she’d “be mystified, intriguied, enchanted, and fall into my arms.” The secret, he claimed, was in the special ingredient that, “when mixed with the gin and vermouth, caused a chemical reaction that turned the drink a deep shade of blue.”
While you might think at this point that the “secret ingredient” is roofies, it’s actually something much more prosaic. Check out the recipe below:
T H E B L U E M A R T I N I
Fritz Lang’s personal recipe, or so they say…
2 oz. Tanqueray gin
1 oz. Noilly Prat dry vermouth
2 drops blue food coloring
Pour gin and vermouth into a mixing glass filled with ice cubes. Add food coloring and stir well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon peel.
Thirsty for more Hollywood gossip and great booze? Try these other great Hollywood cocktails here.
Straub, Jacques. 1914. Drinks. Chicago, IL: The Hotel Monthly Press. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/012393286 (full text available)
Duffy, Patrick Gavin. 1934. The Official Mixer’s Manual. New York, NY: R. Long & R. R. Smith. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/010747167 (full text available)
Bailey, Mark. 2014. Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
Kosmas, Jason, Dushan Zaric, and John Kernick. 2010. Speakeasy: classic cocktails reimagined, from New York’s Employees Only Bar. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Solmonson, David, and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson. 2014. The 12 bottle bar: a dozen bottles, hundreds of cocktails, a new way to drink. New York, NY: Workman Publishing Company.