by Vince Keenan
If the new book Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History (Algonquin, September 2014) is any indication, no night out with the stars had a happy ending.
Writer Mark Bailey and illustrator Edward Hemingway have already collaborated on a bartending guide to great American writers. Their survey of Tinseltown tippling serves up a heavy pour of debauchery, garnished with blackouts and drunken, unfunny pranks. If you’re seeking a celebration of the conviviality created by cocktails, look elsewhere. But there’s diligent research to spare in this informative book.
Bailey breaks the movie industry down into four periods, profiling boldface names, noteworthy nightspots (helpfully flagging the few still open for business) and particularly pickled productions from each. Organization is somewhat haphazard; given that John Ford won multiple Oscars before Pearl Harbor he’s arguably a product of the Studio, not Post-War, Era, while Dean Martin seems out of place in the New Hollywood section. Hemingway sketches every entrant in an amusing if idiosyncratic style, his John Cassavetes resembling David Schwimmer.
All the usual suspects are accounted for save Peter O’Toole, one of the twentieth century’s most heroic imbibers, who crops up in several entries yet doesn’t warrant one of his own. The stories told are almost uniformly grim, like Spencer Tracy’s unhygienic solitary binges and MGM’s need for a “Tracy Squad” to hustle the actor and other inebriated luminaries out of watering holes. Fortunately Bailey has a punchy prose style—in his early days, Cary Grant “would walk on stilts in the morning and get legless at night”—and a thorough knowledge of the terrain, exemplified by his terse treatise on Rita Hayworth and her “manager” husband Dick Haymes. The book has the feel of a boozy late-night conversation with an insider who has an ax to grind and a tab at the Formosa.
Bailey and Hemingway feature some forty drink recipes, making a concerted effort to avoid the expected cocktails in favor of those boasting show business provenance. Included are several unjustly forgotten libations along with curios like the “blue martini,” the primary arrow in director Fritz Lang’s quiver of seduction (the secret: food coloring). Too bad, then, that the recipes are presented in busy layouts rendering the fractions in the ingredients difficult to read. Worse, the drinks aren’t listed separately or highlighted in the index, so good luck tracking the formulas down again. Not that you’ll mind searching for them. Of All the Gin Joints is an entertaining book likely to leave you with a contact hangover—but at least you’ll have the recipe for Robert Mitchum’s eye-opener, retrieved from his personal file at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
While I was in no hurry to sample a variation on Ford’s “torpedo juice” made with Everclear, I did want to try some of the book’s other selections. The Orange Blossom was the drink that first laid Robert Benchley low and provided D. W. Griffith with a soupcon of solace in his filmmaking exile. Revived now, this simple-to-make concoction stands as a near-perfect brunch offering. Named for the taste-of-the-tropics supper club in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, the Cocoanut Grove is a light and bracing cocktail reminiscent of the Pegu Club, with lime balanced by the sweetness provided by maraschino. The Vendome Special Sling hails from the fabled Café Trocadero, “the jewel of the Strip” that glittered for over a decade. Fix this one with a peppery ginger beer and you’ll be whisked back to those halcyon days. Just keep an eye peeled for the Tracy Squad.
2 oz gin
2 oz freshly squeezed orange juice
¼ oz simple syrup
Shake. Strain. Garnish with an orange wheel.
Cocoanut Grove Cocktail
2 oz dry gin
½ oz maraschino
¼ oz lime juice
¼ oz grenadine
Shake. Strain. Garnish with an orange wheel and a maraschino cherry.
Vendome Special Sling
1 ½ oz gin
¾ oz lime juice
½ oz cherry brandy (Cherry Heering works just fine)
¼ oz simple syrup
Shake all ingredients except the ginger beer. Pour into a Collins glass filled with ice. Top with ginger beer. Stir.
Vince Keenan is the associate editor of Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation. His book Down The Hatch: One Man’s One Year Odyssey Through Classic Cocktail Recipes and Lore , collecting the essays featured in Slate and USAToday.com, is a Kindle bestseller. He writes about cocktails and popular culture at blog.vincekeenan.com. An ex-pat New York Mets fan, he lives in Seattle.