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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
Like so much in American life, the martini subtly but definitely changed after World War II. American corporations began to adopt modern art, architecture, and design as the appropriate image of their new multinational power; it was monumental, energetic, and elemental, and it had no aristocratic European baggage. In the same way and for the same reasons, they adopted the martini.
As modernism went from daring and avant-garde to corporate and imperial, John Held’s martini-swigging flappers of the 1920s, which had given way to the elegant martini-sipping couples of Peter Arno cartoons of the thirties and forties, now yielded in turn to the angry and frustrated gray-flannel suiters of New Yorker cartoons of the fifties and sixties. In the 1920s Cole Porter penned “Two Little Babes in the Woods” for Greenwich Village Follies : “They have found that the secret of youth / Is a mixture of gin and vermouth / And the whole town’s agreed / that the last thing in speed/Is the two little babes in the woods.” Nearly forty years later Frank Loesser in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying used a similar rhyme: “You have the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth / Yet there’s the slam bang tang reminiscent of gin and vermouth.” Sung by a rising young executive to himself.
In keeping with the change, the martini’s sexual significance turned macho. Instead of Nick and Nora, or Bette Davis (“I’d like a martini, very dry…. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride”), there were Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and the Rat Pack drinking “see-throughs” and “silver bullets.” And, of course, there was Bond. James Bond.
Casino Royale (1953) introduced the master spy and his drinking habits: “‘A dry martini,‘ he said. ‘One. In a deep champagne goblet…. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel…. ‘When I’m … er … concentrating,’ he explained, ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made.’” His British colleagues take traditional scotch-and-sodas and brandies at their clubs; Bond’s drink, like his technological sophistication, is modern and American. In the novels, and then in the movies, Agent 007 offered the postwar Company Man both an escapist fantasy and an idealized/cd self-image.
The new male corporate culture of the martini found its most peculiar expression in a new fetishism of dryness, an early symptom, perhaps, of impending crisis. Bernard DeVoto, in 1949, spoke for the past when he pronounced that the “point where the marriage of gin and vermouth is consummated…. may be generalized as about 3.7 to one.” That same year, Hemingway was drinking at the Finca Vigia the martinis he would dub, in Across the River and Into the Trees , “Montgomery’s”: fifteen-to-one, after the favorable odds the British general allegedly required before he would attack the enemy. In 1952 The New York Times Magazine lamented: “The affliction that is cutting down the productive time in the office and destroying the benign temper of most of the bartenders is the thing called the very dry martini. It is a mass madness … which may very well earn for this decade the name of the Numb (or (Glazed/ed) Fifties.”
To aid in the pursuit of the driest possible martini, Hammacher Schlemmer introduced the calibrated “vermouth dropper,” and there were other devices involving syringes, scales, and vermouth-infused stones. In all this you hear the accents of the new scientific and technical corporate managers. It’s also there in the humor: Nick’s Restaurant in Boston issued a placard commemorating August 16, 1963, the day its bartender “succeeded in isolating the vermouth molecule.” Three years later a letter to the Sunday Boston Globe announced that a bottle of vermouth was hidden in the atomic device at White Sands, New Mexico, and vermouth could now be added to martinis by holding a glass out the window: the “fissionable Martini.”
THE MARTINI remains a powerfully appealing icon—smart and sexy, technologically advanced, intelligently made, an example of Americans leading the world.
The martini, dry and powerful, was now a man’s drink, to be contrasted with sweet “girl drinks,” the kind with umbrellas and tropical fruit. There were historical ironies here, since the masculine saloons out of which the martini had come had served equally sweet liquid toothaches. But there was no time for irony. There were standards to uphold, and behind the obsession with dryness lay the fear that despite apparent social orderliness, something was going wrong. Countless jokes and cartoons reinforced the point, like the angry executive on a train who fumed, “This is a hell of a way to run a railroad! You call that a dry Martini?”