Onion soup dawns

Athens-Greece-based writer Stefanos Christoforos wrote at Weekly Hubris on 7.1.13:

“…There are many ways to gauge the relationship that expatriates have to their adopted country. I have two: one is how well they speak the language of the place they have come to call their second home or have been obliged, by marriage, circumstance or career, to live in; the second is what they drink. Since the acquisition of a foreign language is a matter as much of talent as it is of desire and study, the alcohol is the better test.

On the one side are the unrepentant colonials, who recreate an ersatz mini-homeland in their gated or virtual enclave of like-minded nationals, the mono-linguals of drink who quaff Pimm’s Cup on the Dalmatian Coast and sip afternoon G&T’s on terraces in Athens and Madrid. At the other end is the set of ultra-orthodox gone-natives who will drink nothing but ouzo or Pernod or Amontillado—as the case may be—and who will refuse a Scotch even when their local host is drinking one. And then there are the in-betweens who feel equally comfortable (or uncomfortable) in both cultures, but manage to amalgamate parts of both in a new sui generis—and often creative—identity. They are mixers of traditions and spirits alike.

Harry MacElhone was one of them. A Scot by birth and a New Yorker by trade, he relocated to London and then to Deauville and Paris, a choice dictated by the rapidly evaporating professional prospects for a first-rate bartender—he manned the bar at the Plaza Hotel—at the onset of Prohibition. Harry eventually opened up his own place in Paris, aptly named Harry’s New York Bar, a watering hole that soon acquired fame and such celebrated patrons as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Noel Coward and George Gershwin.

MacElhone was a master mixologist who invented such cocktails as the French 75 and the White Lady. And it was in his bar where the Americano turns international. The drink marries the spirits of two continents: New World bourbon and Old World bitters (Campari and Italian vermouth). It is a lovely cocktail, the buttery tobacco-and-butterscotch flavor of the bourbon intermingling with the bitterness of the Campari and the spicy complexity of the vermouth.

Although some credit MacElhone with the invention of the drink, the bartender’s own account suggests that the source may have been another expatriate. As Tony Cecchini notes in his case study of the Boulevardier for The New York Times, MacElhone mentions the cocktail in the epilogue to his Barflies and Cocktails (1927), which is devoted to his bar’s patrons and members of a (fictional) society of “International Bar Flies.” MacElhone writes: “Now is the time for all good barflies to come to the aid of the party, since Erskinne Gwynne crashed in with his Boulevardier Cocktail: 1/3 Campari, 1/3 Italian vermouth, 1/3 Bourbon whisky.” [My note: contemporary recipes usually up the bourbon to a 2:1:1 ratio.]

“Cherub-faced and rumpus-raising” Erskine Gwynne (in the words of a 1929 Time magazine report), was a great-nephew of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt and brother of Kiki Preston, a notorious socialite affectionately known as “the girl with the silver syringe.” Gwynne was a writer of sorts, serving as a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune and later publishing his one novel, Paris Pandemonium (1936), a roman à clef about the bar-hopping wealthy partying set in the Paris of the late 20s, (if one goes by O.O. McIntyre’s little précis that appeared in 1936 in his massively successful syndicated column “New York Day by Day”):

“The crowd that smoothed a path from the Crillon, to Ciro’s and the Ritz for indeterminable exiled years will find their escapades audaciously mirrored in a book Erskine Gwynne, ex-Paris playboy, has prepared for spring publication. It is called ‘Paris Pandemonium’ and the loosely moraled married women and their gigolos will be faithfully sketched. The volume covers that mad spending era of blurry nights and onion soup dawns that prospered in Paris as never before from 1925 until the smash up.”

Onion soup dawns, indeed.

In Paris, Gwynne published a monthly magazine titled The Boulevardier (March 1927 until January 1932). Despite claims to the contrary in the cocktail blogosphere, it was not a literary magazine; at least not primarily a literary one. It did not even pretend to be, at least at first. As Gwynne noted in the first issue, “Your Boulevardier . . . will not tell one tenth of what he really knows. He is a kindly soul and does not intend to hurt anybody. If on the other hand you think that he is not gossipy enough, write and tell us about it.”

A true literary magazine such as The Dial would feature contributions by artists and writers such as Paul Cézanne, Hart Crane, e. e. cummings, André Derain, D. H. Lawrence, Pablo Picasso, Bertrand Russell, Paul Valéry, Vincent van Gogh and William Butler Yeats (and all this in one issue, Vol. 83, of the magazine). The Boulevardier, on the other hand, was more a middle-brow periodical for the upper-class expatriate. In its entry on Erskine Gwynne, the Dictionary of Literary Biography reports: “Travel, horse racing, golf, and yachting filled the recreation columns. The offerings for women readers included reports on shopping, fashion, and social events, often illustrated with drawings of prominent individuals . . . . Gossip, sometimes bordering on the malicious, appeared regularly in ‘Ritz Alley,’ but also found its way into many other columns of Boulevardier.”

It wasn’t all fluff. Noel Coward and Ernest Hemingway wrote pieces for the magazine. But then again, they probably drank with Gwynne at Harry’s.”

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