The Prohibition Portia

Despite Prohibition, booze flowed freely in 1928 New York thanks to bootleggers and lax enforcement by everyone from cops to judges. One major exception was Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1921 to 1929 who among other things handled cases concerning violations of the Volstead Act.

Oct. 20, 1928 cover by Constantin Alajálov.

Although Willebrandt herself enjoyed the occasional drink (she was personally opposed to prohibition), she was nevertheless serious about enforcing the law, and rather than chasing small-time bootleggers or padlocking speakeasies, she targeted the big-time operators.

How Willebrandt fits into this blog entry can be found in Lois Long’s “Table for Two” column in the Oct. 20, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, in which Long described the current state of affairs of Manhattan’s nightlife, including the departure of boozy torch singer Helen Morgan from the speakeasy scene for Flo Ziegfeld’s late-night Broadway revue, the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic:

WELL-KNOWN TO THE POLICE…Helen Morgan started singing in Chicago speakeasies in the early 1920s, where she defined the look of the torch singer, including the draped-over-the-piano pose, which was her signature. (amanandamouse.blogspot.com)

Morgan, who at the time was also starring in Broadway’s Show Boat, had been arrested the previous December for violation of liquor laws at her own popular nightclub, Chez Morgan. She would not return to performing in nightclubs until after the repeal of Prohibition.

Long also looked in on the popular Harlem nightclubs, where the dance music was “throbbier than ever.”

HOPPING IN HARLEM…Lois Long wrote that you couldn’t get near the popular Small’s (left) on a Saturday night, while Connie’s Inn (right) offered a new show that was “as torrid as ever.” (harlemworldmag.com, New York Public Library)

There was a sober undercurrent to all of this merry-making, namely Willebrandt’s determined efforts to go after the big bootlegging operations that were fueling all of this mirth. Long wrote:

PROHIBITION PORTIA…At left, Mabel Walker Willebrandt being sworn in as U.S. Assistant Attorney General in 1921. At right, Willebrandt on the cover of Time magazine, August 26, 1929. (legallegacy.wordpress.com)

Willebrandt decried the political interference and the incompetence (or corruption) of public officials who undermined the enforcement of the Volstead Act, and even fired a number of prosecutors. As her office also oversaw the enforcement of tax laws, she developed the strategy for prosecuting major crime bosses for income tax evasion. It was an approach that would finally put the famed Chicago gangster Al Capone behind bars in 1931.

Lois Long’s mention of Willebrandt was doubtless due to the 1928 presidential campaign, during which Willebrandt openly campaigned for the “dry” candidate, Republican Herbert Hoover, over the “wet” Al Smith, who referred to Willebrandt as “The Prohibition Portia.” Smith was referencing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in which the play’s heroine, Portia, outwits the merchant Shylock in a court case by referring to the exact language of the law.

Jim Dandy

New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was well-known for his taste in clothes (as well as for the nightlife), so E.B. White (writing in “The Talk of the Town”) decided to pay a visit to the mayor’s personal tailor to see how the “royal garments” were created. Excerpts:

CLOTHES HORSE…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was a well-known dandy and a familiar face at Manhattan nightclubs. Rarely seen at City Hall, Walker used the lavish Casino nightclub in Central Park as his unofficial headquarters. (uptowndandy.blogspot.com)

 *  *  *

In one of my recent entries (The Tastemakers, posted Nov. 28) I noted how Prohibition had driven some advertisers to absurd lengths, including manufacturers of non-alcoholic beverages who appealed to the refined tastes (and snobbishness) usually associated with fine wines (see Clicquot Club ad below). Gag writer Arthur H. Folwell had some fun with such pretensions:

Speaking of refinement, when was the last time you saw someone dressed like this at a hockey game?

Before they graced the silver screen, the Marx Brothers were one of Broadway’s biggest draws, including their 1928 hit “Animal Crackers,” advertised in the back pages of the Oct. 20 New Yorker.

Our cartoons are courtesy Peter Arno, who looked in on a Hollywood movie set…

…and Gardner Rea, who rendered a scenario for an upper class emergency…

Next Time: Lighter Than Air…

 

 

 

 

 

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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