“there Is Something About A Martini”

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The martini, pure and clear, was a haven, a last bastion of standards in an imperfect world that was getting worse. For an entire generation of white-collar workers—advertising executives and PR men, editors and illustrators, engineers and architects, intellectuals devoting their skills to aims in which they often didn’t believe—martinis signified unsullied ideals while helping solace their compromise. David Acheson said that his father, Truman’s Secretary of State, preferred martinis because he “liked drinking something transparent after all the murky transactions of statecraft.”

The fact was, the martini was under siege. One enemy was insidious—tasteless and odorless. The worldly gigolo Chance, in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), had to instruct the rubes in his home town: “Man, … nobody drinks gin martinis with olives. Everybody drinks vodka martinis with lemon twist nowadays, except the squares in St. Cloud.” Unknown here before World War II, vodka was launched using the first cocktail invented as a marketing tool, the Moscow Mule. Like many American fads, it caught on first in California. In an early and extremely savvy instance of product placement, the screen version of James Bond drank Smirnoff martinis. The first vodka martini recipe was published in 1951; by the early 1970s vodka martinis outsold gin.

There were dangerous innovations of form too. The martini-on-the-rocks, product of the new casualness of the sixties, undermined the cocktail’s austere geometric beauty, and shrugged off as well its careful rite of preparation. More serious than this inner and outer transformation, the martini had an image problem. In a way it had become a victim of its own success. FDR, the Constantine of martini history, had sanctioned it as the state cocktail, and the postwar corporate Establishment had turned it into a class ritual. Once racy, illicit, and avant-garde, the martini was now conservative, Republican, and suburban, and the cultural winds were shifting. Having begun its rise as a symbol of un-sentimental American truth, the martini entered its decline when it seemed to reflect American falseness and sham.

The backlash began as early as 1951. In J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye , which presaged the coming youth culture in this as in much else, only the pretentious Luce orders martinis, at the Wicker Bar, “one of those places that arc supposed to be very sophisticated and all, and the phonies are coming in the window.” By 1973 James Villas could write in Esquire : “Young people do not like martinis and they’re not drinking them. Ever! Anywhere! … Generally, the martini signifies absolute decadence. Specifically it means a bitter, medicinal-tasting beverage. It stands for everything from phony bourgeois values and social snobbery to jaded alcoholism and latent masochism.” In October 1976 antimartini sentiments erupted into the political arena, along with a new catch phrase. “Candidate Jimmy Carter,” reported The New York Times , “signaled his intent to abolish what he called the ‘$50 Martini lunch’ as part of his tax reform plan.” (Forbes reported that the White House denied using the expression three-martini lunch . Carter went on record on the issue the following February: “I don’t care how many martinis anyone has with lunch, but I am concerned about who picks up the check.”)

What had happened? How did a cocktail that once signified modern America at its best head into decline? Perhaps a clue lies in the portrayal of the martini-drinking suburban commuters of John Cheever’s Shady Hill stories. In “O Youth and Beauty!” (1953), a man who can’t face the reality of passing youth drinks martinis to recall his years as a college track star. The adults in “The Sorrows of Gin” seem unable to establish emotional connections with their children, one of whom observes an evening martini party: “Amy had once seen Mrs. Farquarson miss the chair she was about to sit in, by a foot, and thump down onto the floor, but nobody laughed then, and they pretended that Mrs. Farquarson hadn’t fallen down at all. They seemed like actors in a play. In the school play, when you knocked over a paper tree you were supposed to pick it up without showing what you were doing, so that you would not spoil the illusion of being in a deep forest, and that was the way they were when somebody fell down.”

Cheever writes in “The Country Husband” (1955), “The people in the Farquarson’s living room seemed united in their tacit claim that there had been no past, no war—that there was no danger or trouble in the world.” Their martini drinking is the symbol of that denial. The smooth, clean, stream-lined modern lines of the martini have taken on the negative connotations of the too-clean, too-smooth, too-stream-lined lives of corporate businessmen and their regulated, repressed lives. The purity, transparency, and lack of messiness of the perfect American cocktail now seemed to mirror a sterile lack of messiness in life and work, won at the expense of emotional involvement and the realities of life.