- Historic Sites
How sex, rum, World War II, and the brand-new state of Hawaii ignited a fad that has never quite ended.
August/September 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 4
duke carter collection2006_4_41
Donn beach remained a fixture in Honolulu until he died in 1989 at the age of 81. The New York Times ran a brief obituary that painted him as a sort of Thomas Edison of the thatched-roof bar, the inventor of 84 bar drinks, including one immensely enduring libation called the mai tai.
This was not without controversy. “There has been a lot of conversation over the beginning of the mai tai, and I want to get the record straight,” Victor Bergeron, better known as Trader Vic, once said. “I originated the mai tai. Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a stinker.”
Victor Jules Bergeron was born in San Francisco in 1903, the son of a French Canadian waiter and grocery-store operator. Before he was six he had survived the great earthquake of 1906 and a ravaging bout of tuberculosis that claimed his left leg. In 1934, with $300 of his own and $800 borrowed from an aunt, he opened a small beer joint and luncheonette in Oakland. It was called Hinky Dinks, and it would likely have come and gone like so many other largely forgettable restaurants, but Bergeron, like Donn Beach, didn’t set low expectations for himself. Prohibition had recently ended, and Bergeron’s customers displayed an uncommon curiosity about cocktails—the more outlandish and inventive, the better. In 1937 Bergeron took a vacation to New Orleans, Trinidad, and Havana and sampled some of the famous cocktails then in fashion, like rum punch in Trinidad and daiquiris made at the legendary El Floridita in Havana. Back in California, Bergeron visited a tropical-themed restaurant called the South Seas that had recently opened in Los Angeles, then went on to visit a place everyone was talking about. It was Don the Beachcomber.
Bergeron headed back to Oakland and set about reinventing his restaurant and himself. He got rid of the name Hinky Dinks (which he concluded was “junky”) and cast around for a new one. His wife pointed out that he was always involved in some deal or trade. Why not Trader Vic’s?
Bergeron hastily spun a whole history to go with his new name: He now told his customers that he had lost his leg to a shark. Like Donn Beach, he filled his newly christened restaurant with South Sea detritus, lined the walls with dried grass mats, used palm tree trunks as columns, and hung fisherman’s floats, masks, and spears—all things that brought to mind the mysterious South Sea Islands, none of which he’d ever visited. Bergeron would take the idea launched by Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt and upon it build an empire.
Trader Vic’s both tapped into the zeitgeist and helped shape it. South Pacific culture had a small but growing hold on the American pop imagination in the 1930s, as the middle class began to embrace a bowdlerized version of an old avant-garde favorite. Primitive art from the South Seas had fascinated the cultural elite since at least the paintings by Paul Gauguin in the late nineteenth century, and through a sort of obscure cultural alchemy, these primitive forms became popularized and marketed in the form of the tiki statue—an outsized carved wooden figure of a human form, often grotesquely exaggerated. It soon took its place in the American living room.
The restaurants existed in a perpetual twilight, lit by propane torches and the fiery eyes of island.
The 1937 Bing Crosby movie Waikiki Wedding introduced more Americans to the exotica in their back yard. Then came World War II, which further directed America’s attention to a little-considered region of the world. When the war ended, returning servicemen brought home stories and snapshots of Pacific lands.