July 14 2010 12:00 AM

’Last Call’ reveals facts and myths about Prohibition




It’s easy to picture author Daniel Okrent at a large oak table, huddled over diaries, letters and old books and taking notes with a No. 2 pencil. After all, he spent five years researching his most recent book, “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.”

“I love the research; it’s the writing I hate,” Okrent said, in a recent phone interview.

Much of his research was done right here in Michigan, at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan and at the Reuther Library at Wayne State University. It was like old-home-week for Okrent, who grew up on Detroit’s east side and graduated from the University of Michigan.

It was while researching his last book, “Great Fortune,” about the building of Rockefeller Center, that the idea came to him about delving into the history and impact of Prohibition on the country.

He discovered that the Rockefeller Center was built in the heart of speakeasies and that the owners were more powerful than the Rockefellers.

“I asked, ‘How the hell did that happen?’”

His answer is a 468-page book that is not only a finely tuned research document, but also an intriguing look at the social mores, the social movements and the characters who permeated the creation and the illegal distribution of alcohol in this country.

Don’t be scared off by the research documentation gathered in the last 100 pages. The book is a breezy and fun read.

Okrent said along the way he discovered the few previous histories of Prohibition focused on the popular images of gangsters and were written from what he calls a puritanical viewpoint.

Okrent looked deeper, and the first part of his book is the history of the variant social movements that helped create Prohibition, ranging from the Women’s Suffrage Movement to the Ku Klux Klan, and from the Nativist Movement to the Industrial Workers of the World and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

He also details in wonderful narratives the individuals and their force of personality which helped launch Prohibition, including suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; WCTU founder Frances Willard; the Abolitionists; iand ndustrialists such as Dupont and our own Henry Ford. Then there was the incredible Wayne Wheeler, who should be named the grandfather of prohibition for his untiring proselytizing.

“The overlap between the groups was enormous. It was a grassroots movement without precedent,” Okrent said.

Michigan’s role in Prohibition is front and center in “Last Call,” due in large part to the shared border between Canada and Michigan. Michigan also was a hotbed for Prohibition fervor and was one of the first states to enact anti-alcohol laws.

In his book, Okrent tells how the Detroit River became a favorite path for rum runners with thousands of speedboats making daily runs, laden with alcohol. Shootouts on the Detroit River were not uncommon as the “liquid crop” made its way to Detroit. The author also explains how speedboat technology quickly advanced during Prohibition, with the Coast Guard and the runners constantly building faster boats.

“The same boat yards were making boats for the good guys and the bad guys,” Okrent said.

He shows how in the South especially, fast cars used to run illegal alcohol were the forerunners of today’s NASCAR circuit.

Fast boats and fast cars — along with income tax and growth of the federal government — weren’t the only unintended outcomes of Prohibition. Okrent deftly shows how government corruption flourished during the era.

“The money was enormous,” he said. “Government was riddled with corruption, and certain jobs were like winning the lottery.”

Many popular cocktails were created during this time — largely out of necessity, since much of the bootleg liquor tasted so awful.

However, probably the most dramatic and lasting unintended outcome of Prohibition (which officially started in January 1920 and ended in December 1933) was the creation of a national crime syndicate.

“Before Prohibition, crime organizations were entirely localized,” Okrent said.

But moving and selling large quantities of alcohol across long distances required an organization that crossed state lines. This resulted in the likes of Chicago’s Al Capone and Detroit own Purple Gang, both ruthless enforcers of their territorial boundaries.

Okrent also makes a cogent case that the excesses created by Prohibition were its undoing.

Draconian laws, such as Michigan’s “life for a pint” law, which resulted in a sentence of life imprisonment for a 48-year-old Lansing woman with 10 children convicted of selling two pints of liquor to an undercover cop, contributed to its downfall. (Her sentence was commuted).

Okrent is at his best when writing about the various scams and creativity used to circumvent Prohibition. Who knew about rabbis selling “sacramental wine” for religious services, or a frozen block of grape juice called Vin Sano Grape Brick that was available by mail, complete with a warning of what not to do to make wine.

He also directly attacks other myths of Prohibition, such as Joseph Kennedy’s role and the theory that Prohibition actually increased drinking. Not true, Okrent says, and he provides the facts to back up that assertion.

“Last Call” also allowed Okrent to reconnect with his old pal, documentary videographer Ken Burns; they had worked together on the “Baseball” and “Jazz” documentary series. Okrent said that when Burns called and asked to collaborate on a film, “I thought he was blowing smoke.”

No, just sipping whiskey.

Okrent said the “Last Call” documentary is due for release next year. So expect to hear a lot more on this fascinating time in American history.

Although Okrent did not cover the current war on drugs in his book, he sees many similarities.

“You can’t help but connect the dots,” he said. “(The war on drugs) is really a scandal. It’s harder for a 15 year-old to buy liquor than it is marijuana.”