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Ken Burns' Prohibition: Bootleggers, Organized Crime + The Glamorization of Getting Blitzed

Prohibition-era peep hole
Prohibition-era peep hole
Chicago Tribune file photo

We all know that Prohibition was a brief, controversial, Jazz Age constitutional amendment that made drinking a big, jail-worthy offense, and turned on a spigot of organized crime instead. But did you know about the saga of how criminalizing the sale, manufacture and transporting of all things firewater became law (thus making it incredibly glamorous to drink intoxicating beverages)? Or what sorts of cash-generating industries sprang up around the ban? Or that the 18th amendment is so crazy and oddly contemporary-sounding (hello anti-everything Tea Partiers) that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick turned it into a must-see three-day, 5 ½ hour PBS television event?

Called Prohibition, the documentary will air on October 2, 3 and 4th. And to celebrate this event, we caught up with Brooklyn-born, Emmy-winning Burns to talk 1920's America, the war between the "wets" and the "drys" and why he's never sampled the grain alcohol, water, juniper berries and glycerin concoction known as "bathtub gin."

Ken Burns' Prohibition: Bootleggers, Organized Crime + The Glamorization of Getting Blitzed
New York Daily News

Squid Ink: How did you become fascinated by the idea of doing a documentary about a law that banned the one thing that makes many people feel life is worth living?

Ken Burns: You're first drawn to the great stories about the compelling individuals you've never heard of -- like Wayne B. Wheeler or Mabel Walker Hillebrand or the bootlegger Roy Olmstead or George Remus. Then you begin to realize that the collision of these stories and how [current] they feel. You have single-issue campaigns and the demonization of immigrants and the whole group of people who want to take back their country. It just sounds like today. You don't even have to point arrows at it. You just tell the story and it's really obvious.

SI: Like making a connection between the German-bashing of that era and the French hating that swept the country when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003?

KB: Yes. When Germans became our enemies "sauerkraut" became "Liberty Cabbage," and you think, "Wow! Isn't that like Freedom Fries?"

SI: Did you go into the project knowing that Prohibition was essentially a law that targeted people who moved here from other countries?

KB: I knew there was a dimension to it where the countryside was pitted against the cities and [by countryside] that would mean the folks that are trying to cling to the myth of an agrarian Jeffersonian America that, in point of fact, never really was. That these were people who were scared of all the very different changes as that came with Catholics and Jews from Central and Southern Europe arriving here. African Americans, newly freed, started sort moving to the North and exerting what little political power they might have, and Prohibition was an attempt to regulate them.

SI: One point you drive home is that in Europe a bar was (and is) so much more than a place to get a nice glass of red wine...

KB: ...It was a political center, a social center, a job center, a translation center, a place to have your mail delivered. Human beings have been drinking since there were human beings. People say, "Oh, you can't legislate morality." Well we DO legislate morality. We have laws against murder and stealing. But in this case, this was something that lots of people had always done and then all of the sudden they were told, "Oh, you can't do that anymore." Unless you had a perfect law perfectly applied, it wasn't going to work. It was an imperfect law and it was imperfectly applied -- and it was a DISASTER.

This just tells you that sometimes these tensions that we see in America between Puritanism and prurience, between generosity and greed, between Saturday night and Sunday morning, aren't just between us. They're within us. Is it so shocking these days that we hear about some evangelical preacher who's been railing against homosexuality turns out to have visited a male prostitute? Nope.

SI: Your documentary Prohibition and HBO's Prohibition drama Boardwalk Empire overlap in so many ways. Was this coincidence or a 150% proof plan?

KB: We just had a wonderful co-mingling of our forces at the 21 Club, the old speakeasy in New York City with the head of HBO, the head of PBS and Terence Winter, the creative guy behind Boardwalk Empire and Lynn and me, and we just talked about the similarities.

SI: Are you referring to George Remus, the real-life wildly successful bootlegger who appears on both shows and who was so nuts that he spoke of himself in the third person?

KB: Yes. I loved George Remus. I thought "Why isn't there a feature film about him?" and then my wish comes true because he's a big part of Boardwalk Empire, which isn't a feature film but still. I saw [Terence Winter's] George Remus for the first time [that night] and he saw my George Remus for the first time and it was hilarious. [The two shows combined] give you a deeper dive into everything, into what the Women's Christian's Temperance movement and how it actually came about, into the intricacies of the bootlegging industries across the country. Our film complements your enjoyment of Boardwalk Empire. If you're a fan of documentaries, it's really wonderful to have a drama that extends out imaginatively about the lives of the people you've been hearing about.

SI: Just to be thorough, did you drink bathtub gin?

KB: No, I didn't.

SI: Not even a sip? Why NOT?

KB: I'm not much of a drinker. I have a little bit now and then. But through most of the Prohibition project I was myself tee-totaling, not through any sort of desire but because every once in a while I just do that, just to get a lot more work done. With four daughters, one grand-daughter and eight film projects, you got to keep going.

SI: The people who created the documentary about Prohibition were all abstainers? There is a joke here but we're not sure what it is.

KB: No. We did do a lot of filming of [liquor being poured into glasses] and there was lots of sampling of the rye and the whiskey and the various stuff. But [assembling a 5 ½ hour documentary] is very unglamorous: When you're working 14 hours a day the last thing you want is a drink. We're in Boston today and just an hour or so ago, we were in a bar, an old speakeasy, and at one point someone said, "Can I serve you something?" and I was like, "Are you kidding? It's 10 a.m. I'm working. I'll have some water, please."

SI: According to your documentary, New York was the wettest city in the country. What was Los Angeles's wetness ranking?

KB: Actually New York was ONE of the wettest cities in the country. It was New Orleans that was THE wettest city in the country. It took a Prohibition agent, Izzy Einstein, thirty nine seconds or something like that, before his cab driver reached under his seat and offered him a swig from his flask. For a metropolitan city, Los Angeles was particularly dry. It didn't get a reputation until much later.

SI: That's interesting. In our random and very unscientific Squid Ink survey about Prohibition, we discovered that nine times out of ten when you bring up the subject someone has a family story about the era.

KB: We found that, too! Everyone had a story! Even if it was "My grandmother was in the women's Christian Temperance Union." We interviewed Justice John Paul Stevens before he resigned from the Supreme Court. He said his mother told him, "Lips that touch wine shall not touch mine."

SI: Um, yeah. Those aren't the kind of anecdotes we heard...

KB: ...it was more like "behind this wall was where we'd hide our booze."

SI: Indeed. Another Squid Ink finding: Watching 5 ½ hours of archival footage of beer kegs being smashed, "medicinal" whiskey being procured from pharmacies and folks knocking back illegal cocktails at a speakeasy seems to have an odd effect. Can you guess what that is?

KB: Yes. It's a reaction we get all the time. "Let's have a drink!" We did a family and friends screening, three or four hundred people in New York city in June, and we served alcohol afterwards. People walked out saying, "I AM THIRSTY."

SI: On view in the fascinating treasure trove of old-timey photographs that are part of your documentary are the many ways folks smuggled liquor on their person including a woman who kept her firewater in a walking stick with a hollow center...

KB: ...or with a garter or stuck underneath the seats of their roadsters or in the door panel of their car or in a carved-out book. We are a pretty inventive culture. I didn't mind the setting in the woman's garter. I thought that was a pretty interesting place to keep your booze.

SI: Were cocktails better back in the day?

KB: [laughs] I think cocktails are in the hand of the beholder so the answer, I imagine, is yes. There was certain amount of excitement about doing something that was illicit. There's been a whole new interest in the Prohibition era and mixology and drinks and we've met folks that have written in a scholarly fashion about these things.

SI: Have you heard of The Varnish?

KB: I have heard of it but I haven't been there.

SI: Again, Mr. Burns, research!

KB: I'm a dull boy. I'm just working all the time.

SI: Did you get the feeling that Prohibition could happen again?

KB: It was such a huge mistake. But it also remains as a kind of cautionary tale, does it not? Whenever this group or that group comes along and goes, "Hey, we've got the solution. We need an amendment to the constitution for THIS..." people kind of go, "You know what? I don't think so."

SI: Because?

KB: People thought Prohibition was going to be the magic bullet, that it was going to solve everything, that there would be no more slums. The evangelist Billy Sunday said, "Heaven will forever be for rent." I just thought, "Are you kidding me? Did you really believe that this is going to happen? You didn't think about the unintended consequences that you were going to create?"

SI: Besides the enhanced need for a drink those were...?

KB: It created organized crime. Prohibition has left us, but organized crime hasn't. I think people would take a few steps back and say, "Jeez, I wonder what the unintended consequences are here?"

SI: Throughout the 5 ½ hours of Prohibition, you can help think about how liquor being illegal resonates with the issue of legalizing marijuana.

KB: Or the Tea Party or the current immigrant thing. There's lots of stuff. There's not such a direct correlation with marijuana. Alcohol has been drunk by every culture since there were human beings and drugs have been a sub-cultural event. Probably if you just legalized it and regulated it you'd also have to spend a lot of time thinking about those unintended consequences that will inevitably happen. Whenever you push something down there, it's going to come out there.

SI: There is a shocking statistic in the first episode: By 1830, the average American over 15 years of age drank 88 bottles of whiskey a year. That makes it sound as if everyone was hammered 24/7.

KB: I think most men were. Per capita they were drinking as much as three times as they were now. But women weren't drinking. So it was six times as much. You had somebody like John Adams, the second president of the United States, drinking hard cider at breakfast and lunch. People stopped in the factories to have drinks. Once you add distilled spirits, you have a much bigger social problem. Let's not kid ourselves: It's a social problem now. We don't mean to make fun of it. A large section of our population suffers from that addiction. Having said that, what we tried to do was use it as a political wedge, a political cudgel, to apply the solution to 100% of the population. It not only did not work, it was an abysmal failure and left us with many horrible legacies.

Check back in later today for a Prohibition-era cocktail courtesy of Eric Alperin, co-owner of The Varnish in historic downtown Los Angeles...