F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third cinematic portrayal of his popular book The Great Gatsby opened throughout world cinemas earlier this month. Set during the heights of prohibition glitz in early 1920’s New York, the film brings to life an era in a which the lead protagonist, played by the suave Leonardo DiCaprio, portrays the romantic adventures of a mysterious millionaire bootlegger come bon-vivant named Jay Gatsby. A fictitious portrayal of a man in a society with a shift in the moral dial from tee total dry to outright debaucherous wet. An era described as, “offering a graduate course for training in the crime industry”, where the bootlegger was king and glamour ruled.
A number of biographers have followed the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald with fascination. A man who was known to build many of his stories around people or events of his own experience, has shown evidence of developing Jay Gatsby on a real life bootlegger acquaintance name Max Gerlach. Reportedly one of Fitzgerald’s primary suppliers of illicit liquor during the same period, Gerlach - like Gatsby - was an ex WW1 officer turned bootlegger with a love for the parties. Despite his potential role in developing one of the greatest icons of the era, very little is known about the man despite one biographer paying a private investigator to research any references to his claim. With Gatsby described in the book as "…a retired Army officer ... a military bearing ... an Oxford accent", Gerlach was himself of military background after previously studying in an English university.
Further investigation uncovered a letter written from Gerlach to Fitzgerald in 1923 in which he signed off with “Enroute from the coast—Here for a few days on business—How are you and the family old sport?” the final phrase of which found itself written 45 times in the original story. While not entirely compelling an earlier biographer having interviewed Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda, quotes her direct reference to Gerlach as inspiration on the lead character Jay Gatsby. Regardless, little more is known of the roll he played during prohibition nor his method or calibre as a bootlegger.
By the time the law was finally repealed on December 5th 1933, Gerlach found himself at the end of a failing automobile agency in Queens. A downward spiral which, along with his failing eyesight, is presumed to lead him to his suicide in 1958 at the age of 55, shooting himself in his pyjamas in the New York Mansfield Hotel. An aptly dramatic end to the life of a potential real life Gatsby.
As a term previously used to describe the concealment of a knife or pistol inside ones bootleg, “bootlegging” became synonymous with the act of smuggling liquor overland while “rum running” implied the equal over water. During the same period set in the story, an estimated annual sales from bootlegging topped around USD$3.6 billion - an amount almost equal to the entire federal budget at that time. Not that bootlegging was without its overheads. Capone’s own bespoke armoured car came with a fee of USD$350,000 and fellow Chicago gangster Terry “Machine Gun” Druggan equally dished out a vast sum for his solid silver toilet seat (bet it was cold in winter).
While Gerlach was described during this time as “a wealthy yachtsman,” (a term which one biographer mentions is a euphemism for “rum runner”), the fictitious Jay Gatsby built his empire on the distribution of “medicinal alcohols” over the counter of his many privately owned drug stores. A very real concept and one of the greatest loop holes to be found in prohibitions governing Volstead Act.
Gatsby’s character extorted a system in which alcohol was still regarded by the AMA (American Medical Association) as vital in the combatance of diabetes, asthma, cancer, indigestion and even snakebites. As such certain volumes of alcohol could be easily and legally stockpiled, prescribed and sold through any registered pharmacy. A common prescription would entitle a small bottle of Spiritus Frumenti(Latin for “Spirit of Grain”) with the common guidance to take three tablespoons a day or a pint every 10. Doctors, dentists, pharmacists and even vets were qualified and issued cheque book like prescriptions pads on behalf of the US Treasury Department with which a patient could legally purchase liquor “for what ails them”. Despite base controls on the volume and number of prescriptions issued per practitioner per month - at a time when up to 60% of Chicago’s police force were already engaged in the liquor business - it was an unsurprisingly simple system to exploit.
Should a morally grey practitioner of medicine not be available to dispense your Spiritus Frumenti, there were no shortages of alcoholic remedies (aka “snake oils”) legally availableon the market to any wishing to part themselves of some coin or potentially their eye site.Boasting not just the ability to heal all ailments, but also the legal promise to contain novolumes of alcohol higher than 0.5% by volume (which by definition also ruled outsauerkraut), these were in most cases a blatant lie on both counts. Two of the most popularof the time were Colden’s Liquid Beef Tonic, sold as a cure to alcoholism despite containing26.5% a.b.v. [alcohol by volume] or the popular Pickham’s Vegetable Compoundwhichpromised to help treat “female complaints” and increase the chance of conceiving a girl.
Pickham’s was also owned by a staunch abolitionist by the same name and yet still contained illegal levels of ethyl alcohol. For the more enterprising there was always home brew. With any commonly obtained industrial alcohol, oil of juniper, glycerin, water and a bathtub you could make your money back while having an almost inexhaustible supply of liquor. One such producer would remark that his “gin is aged about the time it takes to get from the bathroom where it is made to the front porch where the cocktail is in progress”.
With the rise of such cheaply produced, spiked and high proof alcohols also came the rise in cases of alcohol related illnesses, cripplings and deaths. One such especially evil spirit was produced by an organization out of Buffalo Texas which, with an enterprising bi-weekly delivery, supplied cheap cans of 38% abv wood spirit to willing consumers. More commonly used in antifreeze this pure methanol liquor was one of the most poisonous types of alcohol available directly attacking the central nervous system where continual use can cause blindness, coma and death. A dark etymology to the common saying “blind drunk”.
Worst of all though was the spirit softly remembered as “Jake”. Sold as a medicinal remedy under the guise of “Jamaican Ginger Extract”, this 70%-80% a.b.v. spirit managed to poison an impressive 15,000 people, permanently crippling 500 of them. The culprit was the addition of a cheap neurotoxin named tri-ortho-cresyl-phosphate (T.O.C.P). Directly attacking the nerves in the hands and feet, the toxin left victims with a shuffling gait known as “Jake Walk” or “JakeLeg”.
Prohibition for the Great Gatsby, his shadow Max Gerlach or the imagination of F Scott Fitzgerald was a time in which men were measured by the volume of their glass. And after almost 14 years of prohibition national consumption of alcohol had only dropped by around 30%, the majority of which was credited to the more rural states. The era would be best summed up however by a New York Sun columnist when writing, “The history of the United States can be told in 11 words, Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, Volstead, two flights up and ask for Gus”.