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“there Is Something About A Martini”
IT’S MORE THAN JUST A POTENT DRINK, AND MORE THAN THE INSPIRATION FOR SOME HANDSOME ANCILLARY EQUIPMENT. IT IS MODERN TIMES, BROUGHT TO YOU IN A BEAUTIFUL CHALICE.
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
But in its artistic affiliations, as in its design and presentation, the martini has a special affinity with the “modern,” that impossible-to-define tectonic shift that began around World War I and ended sometime in the late 1960s. Starting in the twenties, the martini features in major works by Sinclair Lewis, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Mencken, and John O’Hara and, overseas, in Maugham, Coward, and Graham Greene, to name just a few.
Tellingly, it’s probably most closely identified, in life and art, with the most influential of the American modernist writers, Ernest Hemingway. In The Sun Also Rises (1926), Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley, weary from emotional disasters in Pamplona, share a final drink at a hotel bar: “We sat on high stools at the bar while the barman shook martinis in a largen nickelled shaker…. We touched the two glasses as they stood side by side on the bar. They were coldly beaded. Outside the curtained window was the summer heat of Madrid. ‘I like an olive in a Martini,‘ I said to the barman.” In A farewell to Arms (1929) Frederic Henry enters the Grand-Hôtel & des Isles Borromees in Stresa after making his separate peace with the war: “The sandwiches came and I ate three and drank a couple more martinis. I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.”
These might be called the martini’s primal scenes. The cool, clean cocktail figures not only as prop but as a kind of analogue to Hemingway’s style, the essential American modernist style: powerful yet understated, with both guts and grace, tough yet elegant, spare and simple yet suggesting great complexity.
This affinity is a key to the martini’s meaning, its mystique and status, its international success as one of American popular culture’s great achievements. Combining energy and austerity, power and subtlety, urbanity and sophistication, all in a sexy, elegantly simple, streamlined package, the martini is the essence of American modernism in drinkable form. It’s modern America as cocktail.
Its glass evokes the streamlined industrial design of the interwar period in its bold, clean lines. Its shape suggests lightness and airiness and imminent flight like Brancusi’s Bird in Space or a skyscraper. Its transparency is also modernist. Like a building that respects the intrinsic beauty of naked steel, glass, and concrete, there is no decorative distraction. Mies van der Rohe would approve (and apparently did; the martini was his favorite drink).
Like the american skyscraper and the business suit, with which it’s linked in hundreds of novels and movies, the martini disdains frippery. It finds its beauty in the harmonious blending of a few basic elements. Its material is honest and plain as wool and concrete: not fancy brandy and champagne but ordinary gin. Like suits and skyscrapers, gin started out common and working-class; like jazz and the speakeasies, it had lowlife associations and a shady past. As other modernist masterpieces do, the martini takes popular, vernacular “slang” and “primitive” elements and, revealing their beauty, reworks them into its art.
Finally, like other modern art, the martini creates order out of discord and difficulty. “Its pleasure,” Lowell Edmunds writes in his authoritative Silver Bullet , “which is not voluptuous but astringent, can only be expressed by oxymoron—sensuous coldness, opulent dryness, mysterious clarity, alluring purity.” The almost painful dryness and coldness are part of its honesty, its rejection of saccharine sentimentality. In their different ways Igor Stravinsky and Louis Armstrong took the raucous clangor of the twentieth century and humanized it, made it abstract and musical. The martini takes the bitter coldness of modern life and transforms it into abstract art, turning it not only bearable but pleasurable.
THE DRINK symbolized the new multinational power of American corporations: it was monumental, energetic, and elemental, and it had no aristocratic European baggage.
The postwar forties, fifties, and sixties would inherit a cocktail whose apparent simplicity reflected nearly eighty years of refinement, just as it inherited modern architecture and design. Like the American classics in those arts—the Seagram Building, the furniture of companies like Knoll, streamlined appliances from KitchenAid—the martini’s spare perfection of form seems to hark back to American origins as well as reflect the affluent postwar material culture. The martini’s pleasurable austerity, its opulent dryness, its alluring purity, like other great products of American modern, somehow combined the hard religion of the founders with the sensuous blandishments of the Good Life.