- Historic Sites
Seeking a monument to Prohibition’s immense impact on American society, the writer finds it in a French colony.
April/May 2007 | Volume 58, Issue 2
We ascended along rocky upland barrens, then crested a broad hill with a sweeping view of a glimmering sea. Moments later the driver edged to the side of the road, put on his flashers, and pointed to a green picket fence. I approached it and peered up an overgrown drive at an immaculate but tiny house, white with red trim, that from the road looked no bigger than a child’s play-house. New, larger houses had sprouted nearby, the Saint-Pierre version of sprawl. The taxi driver told me that the “villa” —clearly the locals had a sense of irony —was the summer home of an elderly woman in town, but lately it hadn’t been well cared for and its future was uncertain.
As monuments go, I thought it lacked a certain grandeur.
Later that afternoon i walked down to the harbor’s edge and headed east. Andrieux had earlier suggested I stop by the Hôtel Robert, which is owned by his 81-year-old mother. Here, in a long room just off the restaurant, he’s put on display some of his collection of Prohibition leftovers. I went in and examined liquor crates and ship models, empty bottles discarded by the case after Repeal made them worthless, and manifests for illicit liquor shipments.
I was especially keen to see a straw hat in a glass case. This had belonged to Al Capone, or so Andrieux told me. The most famous of all gangsters had unexpectedly shown up at the hotel late one night. Andrieux’s mother’s cousin was at the hotel that night. “They were singing out, ‘Angelina, Angelina, open up the bar, Al Capone is here!’” Andrieux said. His grandfather was also there and, according to family lore, complimented Capone on his splendid hat. The mob boss took it off and handed it to him.
The hat served as a conversation piece at the Andrieux country house for decades. But when Andrieux rescued it some 30 years ago, it was serving as a nest for kittens. The chapeau’s former glory is behind it now, with a tear near the top and the wide brim lusterless. But there it sits in its own reliquary, a crown of a former empire.
What fascinated me most, though, were the old black-and-white photos arrayed on a table and lining walls here and in a back room. They depicted the heady rumrunning days on the island: drays hauling huge loads of liquor from the wharves to the warehouses, ships tied up dockside, a rumrunner dispensing thick plumes of oily smoke (a smuggler’s trick to give the slip to pursuing agents).
Poring over the photos, I was struck by a small realization that steadily grew into a large one. The buildings that I had been strolling past over the last two days? They were the old liquor warehouses and export offices, although so transformed that I didn’t recognize them.
The video store two blocks from my hotel had been the headquarters of the Northern Export Company, set up by the Bronfmans for outbound sales. Henri Morazé’s office was in the building now occupied by the Musée Héritage. The bar and disco across from my hotel—where the talk was of hockey and the background classic American rock rather than accordion music—had been another warehouse for stockpiling liquor.
When I walked out of the Hôtel Robert that afternoon, I suddenly saw Prohibition everywhere. Two concrete warehouses were emblazoned with spss, standing for St. Pierre Slips and Stores, and dated 1928 and 1929. (Today they house a hardware store and a Lions Club.) Another sturdy warehouse had been built by one Louis Hardy around 1925 and used by Morazé, and a hulking warehouse—that of Morue Française, built in 1928—lay farther along the harbor.
I had been in the middle of a Prohibition park without even knowing it. Saint-Pierre was the town illicit liquor had built.
I headed back toward my hotel in a buoyant mood; I had found what I had come for. I stopped by a liquor shop—and why not?—with the thought of a acquiring a souvenir. I looked over an impressively large selection of rums from Martinique and an even more sizable collection of French wines. Eventually I found myself standing in front of a slender bottle of absinthe, a liqueur made by infusing alcohol with herbs, including wormwood, which supposedly has a psychoactive effect. Largely forgotten today, it was the preferred drink of European bohemians a century ago, featured in paintings by Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet, and Pablo Picasso.
And one other thing: It’s been banned in the United States since 1912. Prohibition, it turns out, can still be found by the bottle.