In defense of the Noble Drunk
Yesterday, while toughing out 20 minutes of enforced motionlessness as I iced my elbow, I ran across an old favorite from movieland, and it got me to thinking. Now, how I developed golfer’s elbow remains a mystery as I don’t play. You may be thinking it could be due to the repetitive strain of lifting glasses of wine, bottles of beer or cases of what have you; however, it has afflicted my left elbow, which is not my
drinking lifiting elbow, but that’s a story for another day.
As I said, I was sitting with the elbow swaddled in an ice pack with some time to kill, so I snapped on the tube and was thrilled to stumble upon one of my all time favorite movies featuring one of my all time favorite actors. And since I’m slinging the term around, it was My Favorite Year with none other than the magnificent Peter O’Toole swanking around New York as the dipsomaniacal swashbuckler Alan Swann. Take a look:
If you haven’t seen this movie, you really must. And if, after viewing it, you still buy that codswollop* about demon liquor ruining your life, destroying your family and flushing decent society down the spout, consider our man Pete, still going strong as his 80th birthday nears — or it may be his 79th depending on which source you consult. It’s hard to know when the birthday boy himself is unsure, but I attribute that to lax Depression-era record keeping at the time of his birth rather than any “forgetfulness” on the part of the man himself. In any case, once you make it past 70, what’s a year or two one way or another?
So as I drank in (pardon the cheap pun, I couldn’t resist) the glory of Peter O’Toole in full whiskey-sotted excess, it occurred to me that in these days of rigid abstemiousness, high colonics, juice cleanses, monastic dietary regimes, yoga, kettle bells, personal training, Gwyneth bloody Paltrow and one-glass-of-wine-a-night groupthink, what we as a society could really use is some highbrow Dionysian excess such as has been modeled by history’s greatest Noble Drunks.
Now when I speak of the Noble Sot, I’m not talking about Charlie Sheen, Paula Abdul, those mooks from The Jersey Shore or anyone who thinks that swallowing Jell-O shots qualifies as actual drinking. The Noble Tippler uses alcohol as fuel for the muse, grist for the party mill and fodder for the odd frolic, as the great O’Toole once put it.
The entertainment industry has given us some of the great Noble Drunks of our time — Richard Harris, WC Fields, and Spencer Tracy to name but a few.
In the Thirties and Forties Nick and Nora, as interpreted on celluloid by Myrna Loy and William Powell, took imbibing to elegant heights, courtesy of Dashiell Hammett (who was no slouch at the bar, and you wouldn’t have been either if you’d had to bunk with Lillian Hellman).
But I think we can agree that the ultimate marriage(s) of Noble Drunks in Hollywood was Liz and Dick. I maintain that there is absolutely no way they could have portrayed George and Martha that well without having lived a life of protracted dissolution, or something very like it. If you haven’t screened the movie adaptation of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, put it at the top of your list. Scathing, devastating and as black as comedy gets right before it turns to horror, it is worth every second to hear Liz hiss, “If you existed, I’d divorce you.”
Now no hommage to the great lushes would be complete without reference to the literary world, where boozy colossi bestride the landscape like, well, colossi really. Some of the cleverest and greatest works of fiction were penned by history’s most vigorous barflies: Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Raymond Chandler and Scott Fitzgerald to name but a few.
As a rule, no list of tippling typists is complete without a reference to Hemingway, but it strikes me that he was probably something of a tool. Brilliant of course, but no fun with a load on, though he is responsible for the best writing advice I’ve ever read, namely, “Write drunk. Edit sober.”
And of course, there’s Kingsley Amis who was no stranger to cocktail hour and gave us Jim Dixon, one of the greatest Noble Drunks in literature (second only to Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, of course), as well as the most brilliant description of a hangover ever committed to paper in Lucky Jim:
He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.
In the field of nonfiction, journalists too have long been renowned boozers. Among the most notable was the late Christopher Hitchens, one of the quickest wits and best minds of our time and a legendary iron man of the tavern, who said of drink, “Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.”
Politicians and military men, too, have their poster boys, such as US Grant and Winston Churchill, who managed an entire country in wartime, and won, with a snifter, stem or highball glass in hand most of the time. Of his tippling, he famously said, “Always remember that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
And lest you believe all that fitness hot air, let me remind you that the world of sport has given us some of our most splendid boozers, such as golfer John Daly or pitchers David Wells (Boomer famously threw a perfect game “half drunk” with just three hours’ sleep separating him from a legendary bender) and the Spaceman Bill Lee. He of course branched out into chemicals, the combination of which apparently shorted out his internal edit button and caused him to say things like, “You take a team with twenty-five assholes and I’ll show you a pennant. I’ll show you the New York Yankees.” You’re not going to get quotes like that from Tim Tebow, people.
But when we think of athletes with a fondness for the shaker, more often than not we think of Babe Ruth. One of the greatest baseball players of all time and an unapologetic one-man barroom, the Babe set records, showed up for work every day and knocked the stuffing out of his opponents, frequently with a gut full of suds, a hangover or both, and without ever sticking himself in the ass with anything you couldn’t get on tap. That we know of.
So as you contemplate your evening cocktail and consider the possibility of an after dinner drink, bear in mind the wise words of P.J. O’Rourke:
Anyway, no drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we’re looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn’t test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.
* * * * * * * *
* Which is not to say that I have not seen the devastating effects of alcoholism up close and personal on many occasions; I certainly have and would urge anyone with a problem to seek help from friends, family, church, AA, doctors or Betty Ford, all of whom are capable of wondrous works of great and lasting good.