July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
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.
In November 1943, as Allied leaders met in Teheran to plan the defeat of Nazism, Franklin Roosevelt asked Joseph Stalin to join in a toast. Inevitably, at that moment in history, the drink the American President offered was a dry martini.
In November 1943, as Allied leaders met in Teheran to plan the defeat of Nazism, Franklin Roosevelt asked Joseph Stalin to join in a toast. Inevitably, at that moment in history, the drink the American President offered was a dry martini.
Stalin was grudging. “Well, all right,” he is reported to have said, “but it is cold on the stomach.” Anyway, it worked. An administration official characterized U.S.-Soviet relations under DR as the “four martinis and let’s have an agreement” era. The President liked his with a teaspoon of olive brine.
When Stalin first sipped one, the martini was at the dazzling pinnacle of its career. Behind lay a spectacular rise from outlawry to international prominence; ahead loomed a strange descent into the obsessions of the Cold War era (when Nikita Khrushchev, more respectful than his predecessor, would call it “America’s lethal weapon”). FDR and Stalin shared, at its culminating moment, the premier American cocktail, which, by the time they met in Teheran, had acquired formal perfection, a glamorous mystique, and a growing reputation as the most written-about and praised cocktail in history.
Bernard DeVoto called it “the supreme American gift to world culture.” For H. L. Mencken, it was “the only American invention as per fect as the sonnet.” Americans invented the drinks we call cocktails, and in just under two hundred years we’ve invented thousands, nearly all now just curiosities. Only the martini, with the timelessness of a classic, has continued to please, tease, inspire, and provoke.
Above all, the martini is a modern cocktail. You could say it’s the modern cocktail. At the dawn of this century, the recipe coalesced: London gin, French dry vermouth, and a dash of orange bitters. It would get drier over time, but it found its essential form at just about the same time as the skyscraper, the airplane, jazz, and the two-piece business suit. Like them, the martini evoked something essential about twentieth-century America. Linked early on with the new century’s avant-garde, the martini for nearly seventy years would express both “American” and “modern.”
Well into its sixth decade, its contemporaries long since faded into period pieces, the clear, stark, glistening cocktail still meant modern. When the saxophonist Paul Desmond of the Dave Brubeck Quartet was asked how he developed the cool, elegant, sinuous clarity of tone that defined fifties modern jazz, he said, “I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry martini.”
Like jazz, film, and other modern arts, the martini has its roots in the Gilded Age. For several decades the new cocktail groped for a form and for a name, Martinez competing with Martini . These names have inspired several myths of origin. One involves “Professor” Jerry Thomas, a legendary mixologist who in 1862 wrote the first bartender’s manual and invented, among other drinks, a flaming scotch cocktail called the Blue Blazer. Thomas claimed to have invented the Martinez in the 1860s, at the Occidental Hotel bar in San Francisco’s Montgomery Street, for a traveler bound for Martinez, California.
Citizens of Martinez claim their hometown (of course) as the starting point and San Francisco as the destination.
East Coast partisans fasten hopefully on the immigrant bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia, who served dry gin-and-vermouth cocktails at New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel early in this century—several decades too late for serious contention. The British trace the name to the kick of the Martini & Henry rifle used by their army in the 1880s, the Italians to the Martini & Rossi brand of vermouth. The prize for hardest-to-swallow birth-of-the-martini story must go to the German (!) theory, which ascribes the invention to an eighteenth-century composer, J. P. Schwarzcndorf, who adopted the surname Martini —worth mentioning only because it is retailed on a World Wide Web site devoted to the martini cocktail.
The facts are these. The marini was probably invented in the decade following the end of the Civil War, because it was popular enough by the 1880s to begin appearing in bartender’s manuals. Its first-known recipe is O. H. Byron’s, in The Modern Bartender’s Guide (New York, 1884), in which a Martinez is described as a Manhattan made with gin instead of whiskey. Jerry Thomas, whose groundbreaking manual of 1862 contains no recipe, lists a Martinez in his 1887 second edition. In 1888 Harry Johnson’s New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual or How to Mix Drinks of the Present Style is the first to spell it Martini . By the 1890s it is a rare guide that does not include a recipe, and martini edges out martinez by the turn of the century.
These early cocktails, like most mixed drinks served over the great mahogany bars of America’s fancy saloons, were achingly sweet. Here’s Harry Johnson’s recipe:
Old Tom was a sweetened gin, the intended vermouth is the sweet Italian kind, and gum syrup is sugar syrup. It’s a long way from the modern dry martini, but a decisive step had been taken: the mixture of gin and vermouth.
Vermouth, whose name derives from the German for wormwood, a key ingredient, was being made in Italy in the late Renaissance. But its history in the United States dates from only the middle nineteenth century. The first shipment of French vermouth reached New Orleans in 1851, and Martini & Rossi began exporting its sweet rosso in the 1860s. By the 1870s creative bartenders were experimenting with both kinds. In 1874, for example, at a banquet celebrating Gov. William J. Tilden’s electoral victory at New York’s Manhattan Club, a new drink called the Manhattan was invented by adding sweet Italian vermouth to the rye, bitters, curaçao, and syrup of the traditional whiskey cocktail. On the same principle, adding sweet vermouth to the traditional gin cocktail created the prototype of the modern martini. Maraschino cherry optional.
As the century wore on, a taste for (relative) dryness developed. First the gum syrup disappeared. As William T. (“Cocktail”) Boothby put it in Cocktail Boothby’s American Bartender (San Francisco, 1891), “This popular appetizer is made without sweetening of any description, as the Old Tom Cordial gin and Italian vermouth of which it is composed are both sweet enough.” By 1896 the next crucial unsweetening step had been taken. That year Thomas Stuart’s Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them presented, in “New and Up-to-Date Drinks,” the Marguerite: 1 dash orange bitters, 2/3 Plymouth gin, 1/3 French vermouth. Plymouth gin, unlike Old Tom, is a dry, unsweetened London gin, and French vermouth is the dry pale yellow kind. A similar recipe was published a few years later as the Puritan, perhaps with reference to its ascetic dryness. This would remain the standard recipe well into the 1930s.
Marguerite and Puritan never caught on; it was easier to remember an established name and order a “ dry Martini.” As the new century began, more and more people did. In the first decade, annual sales of Noilly Prat dry vermouth tripled from twenty-five thousand to seventy-five thousand cases.
The cocktail’s role in American life was changing, in ways that encouraged the martini—s new dryness. In the nineteenth century cocktails were considered a morning “eye opener” or at least an any-time-of-day drink. William Terrington, in Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks (1869), wrote, “Cocktails are compounds very much used by ‘early birds’ to fortify the inner man”; a “Kentucky breakfast” was “three cocktails and a chaw of terbacker.” But cocktails were coming up in the world, and a new institution evolved to accommodate them. Between the turn of the century and World War I, America’s grand hotels took their established English custom of five o’clock tea and transformed it into the five o’clock cocktail hour. (Early cocktail shakers were modeled on teapots, and cocktail hours were called teas well into the 1930s.) What was desired now was a pre-dinner appetite stimulant, not a dessertlike confection, and the dry martini fit the bill.
In 1918 the New York Sun carried a remarkable archeological item. “Percival Slathers“ reported his discovery of the cult of Dri Martini, ancient Egyptian god of thirst and priest of the goddess Isis. The god was depicted “shaking a drink in a covered urn of glass while the 15th pharaoh of the dynasty of Lush is shown with protruding cottony tongue quivering with pleasurable expectation.” By war’s end the martini had arrived and, like all arrivistes, had acquired an ancient pedigree. Considering the period of flappers and “primitive” rhythms that lay just ahead, it was appropriately a pagan god.
The martini really took off in the 1920s, thanks to Prohibition. The Noble Experiment gave all varieties of hard liquor a boost—an illicit truckload carried higher profit margins than beer or wine—but especially gin, because it was easier to counterfeit than whiskey. Gin, from genièvre, or juniper, its main flavoring agent, was a spirit first isolated in Holland in the seventeenth century. It had come to America with the Dutch settlers, hut took a hack seat first to imported rum and brandy and then to domestic rye and bourbon. Both here and in England—see Hogarth’s Gin Lane —it had lowlife, skid-row associations, as its American slang names blue ruin and strip-and-go-naked suggest.
In the twenties, gin came out of the alley, and the dry martini had its first great vogue. Now that society types were rubbing shoulders with known gangsters in speakeasies, or going to Harlem to listen to the dangerous rhythms of jazz, perhaps gin’s shady past had an attractively sexy quality. (This was the decade that popularized the term slumming .) In any case, “bathtub” gin was easily manufactured from alcohol and oil of juniper, but it required mixers to mask its raw taste and stretch the limited supply. Americans everywhere were drinking gin cocktails, and the martini was the queen. Young Walter Winchell referred to the speakeasy crowd as “gintellectuals,” and Upton Sinclair suggested that the traditional “Wine, Women, and Song” had been “modernized” into “gin, janes, and jazz.” The Algonquin wit Robert Benchley, who took his martinis at the most famous speakeasy of all, Jack and Charlie’s “21” Club, gave his recipe as “gin, and just enough vermouth to take away that nasty, watery look.”
But Prohibition did more than boost the martini’s popularity: It gave the martini an attitude. In the face of the Volstead Act and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, to drink was to defend the values of modern civilization. It was, as the writer William Grimes has observed, the worldly urbanite’s defiant retort to Bible Belt intolerance and “Victorian” repression. Jerry Thomas had spoken for nineteenth-century mixology when he told his readers that the cocktail “is generally used on fishing and other sporting parties.” Now Prohibition changed this and gave the martini an urbane sophistication it still retains. Bernard DeVoto, the staunch and eloquent Cato of traditional martini virtue, put it best: “The Martini is a city dweller, a metropolitan. It is not to be drunk beside a mountain stream or anywhere else in the wilds, not in the open there or even indoors…. A martini is never bad and 1 could not be brought to dispraise it but it does not harmonize with campfires and sleeping bags.”
Urbanity and sophistication were one part of its modernness. The other was a new sexuality. While the dry martini was transforming American drinking habits, speakeasies were revolutionizing the relations among classes, races, and especially sexes. Outlawing liquor had put the gentlemen-only saloon and hotel bar out of business, and what replaced it was a new cocktail culture where women drank with men. Frederick Lewis Alien, writing Only Yesterday in 1931, had still fresh in his mind the image of “well-born damsels with one foot on the brass rail, tossing off Martinis.” “The old days when father spent his evenings at Cassidy’s bar with the rest of the boys are gone,” wrote Elmer Davis; “since Prohibition mother goes down with him.”
Freud was in, repression was out, and the preferred pose was romantic disillusion combined with heroic dissipation. As Alien put it, “Victorian and Puritan were becoming terms of opprobrium…. It was better to be modern,—everybody wanted to be modern,—and sophisticated, and smart, to smash the conventions and to be devastatingly frank. And with a cocktail glass in one’s hand it was easy at least to be frank.” Lines ascribed to Dorothy Parker captured both the new frankness and the martini’s vaunted sexual power:
Like its urbanity, the martini’s association with a more open sexuality survived Prohibition. When, at Repeal, liquor companies began advertising again, Dixie Bell gin ads featured the first in a long line of attractive and elegantly attired couples (married? dating?) sipping martinis in a private, romantic setting that would dominate gin and ver mouth advertising for four decades. (Scotch and whiskey ads meanwhile pictured older, wiser patres familiae surrounded by respectful junior males.) Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, as played in the movies by William Powell and Myrna Loy, epitomized the way thirties screwball comedies carried over the twenties’ ethos of sexy and equal companionship between men and women. Their drink, naturally, is the dry martini, and Nick is first spotted in The Thin Man instructing a bartender in its preparation: “A Manhattan should be shaken to a fox trot, the Bronx to a two-step, but a dry Martini must always be shaken to a waltz.” Nora, waking up the next morning with an ice pack on her forehead, asks what hit her. “The last Martini,” says Nick.
Racy, sophisticated, and avant-garde, the martini epitomized American culture between the wars.
Europe had always resisted cocktails as a colonial barbarity. The Londoners Henry Porter and George Roberts sniffed in 1863: “For the ‘sensation-drinks’ which have lately travelled across the Atlantic we have no friendly feeling … we will pass the American Bar … and express our gratification at the slight success which ‘Pick-me-up,’ ‘Corpse-reviver,’ ‘Chain-lightning,’ and the like, have had in this country.” It was the same in Paris. John Thomas, in his 1926 novel Dry Martini: A Gentleman Turns to Love , recalls “a day—yet fresh in the minds of the reminiscent— when … Paris was to the thirsty exile a desert of quaint pink extracts, innocuous wines, nauseous liqueurs, disappointing cognacs, and inadequate beers.”
All this now changed. The dry martini was part of the new self-confident American export culture, first introduced by the doughboys serving in World War I. “Right and left over the fair city by the Seine they sowed the hardy Martini, the fruitful Bronx, the sturdy Manhattan, the rugged highball,” wrote Thomas. “From the broad plateau of the Place de la Concorde to the pleasant slopes of Montmartre … bar after bar sprang like alcoholic mushrooms among the drab cafes.”
Cocktail entered the Parisian vocabulary along with shimmy and jazz . In Paris Harry’s New York Bar—whose mahogany counter and backbar were reassembled from a pre-Prohibition New York City saloon—and the Ritz Hotel bar were the most popular spots and the first to serve chilled American cocktails. (Harry’s still claims credit for inventing the Bloody Mary.) In London the Savoy Hotel bar was dubbed “the 49th State.”
The British, who after all were long familiar with gin, took to the martini most readily, even contributing to its literature. Noël Coward, in Blithe Spirit , used martinis in the American way as a sign that characters were modern, sophisticated, not about to be taken in by out-of-date notions like ghosts. As early as 1921 Somerset Maugham had a character reflect, “When I had nothing better to do in the penitentiary 1 used to amuse myself by thinking out new cocktails, but when you come down to brass tacks there’s nothing to beat a dry martini.” Maugham, a martini devotee, had strong feelings about the shaking-versus-stirring controversy: “Martinis should never be shaken. They should always be stirred so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of each other.” Maugham’s countryman the Savoy bartender Harry Craddock, on the other hand, instructed: “Shake the shaker as hard as you can: don’t just rock it: you are trying to wake it up, not send it to sleep.” In this he was followed, of course, by Ian Fleming, who insisted on the cocktail’s being “properly aerated,” but not by Fleming’s friend Kingsley Amis, for whom the cocktail shaker was an “important non-need.” (It took Bernard DeVoto’s pragmatic American spirit to produce the closest thing to a final word: “This perfect thing is made of gin and vermouth. They are self-reliant liquors, stable, of stout heart; we do not have to treat them as if they were plover’s eggs.”)
Unlike the Brits, most Europeans just didn’t get it. “It is a little difficult to understand,” wrote Frank Schoonmaker in a 19.34 New Yorker , “why Frenchmen, who drink iced Pernod or Mandarin curaçao (a mixture if there ever was one) with so much gusto before lunch and dinner, should evince such positive terror at the sight of a bit of vermouth and gin…. The average European cocktail-drinker usually drinks not cocktails but alcoholic salads…. [In] a cocktail competition in Madrid last summer, the first prize was given by the Spanish jury to a bartender … who suggested blending the sweetest vermouth that is manufactured with maraschino, orange juice, Cointreau, rye whiskey, and a piece of pineapple. This might not kill a Spaniard, but if it won’t, nothing will.”
If there was no “American bar” in sight, it was better to make your own, as Hemingway did in Cuba. “We have found a way,” he wrote to a friend, “of making ice in the deep freeze in tennis ball tubes that comes out 15 degrees below zero and with glasses frozen too makes the coldest martini in the world. Just enough vermouth to cover the bottom of the glass, 3/4 ounce of gin, and the Spanish cocktail onions very crisp and also 14 degrees below zero when they go into the glass.”
Making their own was what Americans increasingly did from the twenties on. The martini, unchallenged champion of public, social drinking here and in sympathetic outposts abroad, was going “home.”
Not that this was an entirely new idea. Bar manuals for home mixers rather than professional barkeepers had appeared in the 1890s. In 1892 the Heublein company of Hartford had begun to market pre-mixed bottled “Club Cocktails,” including a martini, York, Manhattan, whiskey, Holland gin, Old Tom gin, and vermouth (“A better cocktail at home than is served over any Bar in the world”). For the socially very advanced, drinking began to be a domestic activity, so ads were directed at women as well. A turn-of-the-century Heublein ad pictured a woman having emerged from a coach and directing her butler: “Before you do another thing, James, bring me a CLUB COCKTAIL . I’m so tired shopping make it a MARTINI . I need a little Tonic and it’s so much better than a drug of any kind.” But the actual mixing of drinks was still for the most part a mystery best left to the guild of bartenders: Jack London had martinis mixed in bulk by an Oakland bartender and sent up to Wolf House, his home in Sonoma’s Valley of the Moon.
Things changed quickly after World War I, hand in hand with another new American institution. “The ‘party,’” wrote Malcolm Cowley in 1931, “conceived as a gathering together of men and women to drink gin cocktails, flirt, dance to the phonograph or radio and gossip about their absent friends, had in fact become one of the most popular American institutions; nobody stopped to think how short its history had been…. It was introduced into this country by Greenwich Villagers—before being adopted by salesmen from Kokomo and the ounger country-club set in Kansas City.”
The new cocktail-party culture from Victorian styles of entertaining. Reduced immigration and rising wages meant middle-class households could no longer afford domestic servants, and kitchens and dining rooms in modern homes (and apartments) were too small for elaborate formal luncheons and dinners. Martini-and-Manhattan parties were a natural solution.
Prohibition accelerated things, driving drinking indoors for the millions of Americans who didn’t live near, or feel comfortable in, speakeasies. With the coming of the Depression, even casual get-togethers moved from public establishments to private houses. The change received the imprimatur of respectability from the President himself. After Repeal, FDR—who had motored around golf courses with an illegal silver shakerful—mixed the first legal martinis in the White House, at informal afternoon gatherings for secretaries and staff he called “the Children’s Hour.” Mixing cocktails at home became one of the manly arts, like carving a turkey. The age of the middle-class martini ritual had begun.
The bar-accouterment industry boomed to keep pace. Hollywood movies had already made the Art Deco cocktail shaker and glass a ubiquitous symbol of modern American elegance. By the middle twenties, reflecting home-grown modernist design trends as well as influences from the Bauhaus and Wiener Werkstätte, new avant-garde shapes had appeared in studio glassware, among them the now-iconic stemmed straight-flared V. It originated as a simplified and geometrically abstracted version of the saucer champagne glass, which had replaced the flute at the turn of the century. A five- to six-ounce size was intended for champagne, a smaller size for cocktails served chilled and straight up.
These modernist glasses came to be associated especially with the martini and Manhattan because these cocktails were eclipsing all others. Reaction had set in to the mixological extravagance of the twenties, thanks partly to the return of decent booze at Repeal. Less was more, and the martini’s elegant simplicity, like the streamlined glass that complemented it, seemed an imaginative advance over the elaborate, ornate concoctions of the past. H. L. Mencken wrote: “The same sound instinct that prompts the more enlightened minority of mankind to come in out of a thunderstorm has also taught it to confine its day-in and day-out boozing to about a dozen standard varieties.” The newly founded Esquire magazine in 1934 lampooned “The Ten Worst Cocktails of the Previous Decade“: the Bronx, Alexander, Pousse-Café, Sweetheart, Orange Blossom, Pink Lady, Clover Club, Fluffy Ruffles, Pom Pom, and Cream Fizz. It listed among the Ten Best a three-to-one martini, the driest the dry martini would get before World War II.
As the Depression deepened, movies and the new photo-magazines glamorized the martini and its paraphernalia as part of the chic lifestyle of New York and Hollywood café society. Glass companies, like other appliance manufacturers, hired modern industrial designers and mass-produced streamlined cocktail shakers and cocktail sets, called “martini sets” from the middle thirties. Essential for home entertaining and one of the era’s most popular wedding gifts, the sleek forms were an affordable luxury in hard times.
Like toasters and other appliances in American kitchens, the martini set brought streamlined design, with its elegance, technological sophistication, and Utopian vision of modernity, into the iving room. Cocktail shakers would not survive the retooling of the metal and glass factories for the war effort, and the subsequent age of the blender. But the spare, geometric martini glass would. “As poised as a ballerina on point” is how Barnaby Conrad III describes it in his handsome recent book, The Martini , although given its architectural beauty, “dramatically and perfectly cantilevered” might be better. As formally harmonicoust with the zigzags of Art Deco as with the hourglass shapes of the fifties “New Look,” the martini glass is one of the few American designs to make a seamless transition from modern to modern.
By the late thirties the martini had its modern recipe, associations, and glass shape. It lacked only one thing to fulfill its aesthetic destiny. Ogden Nash referred in 1935 to a “yellow martini,” and John Thomas a decade hefore wrote of “a fragrant amber.” Vermouth, up to the early forties, had a yellowish tint that by World War II had been all but eliminated through new processes of stabilization and filtration. By the time Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met in Teheran, the finishing touch had been put on the martini as American modernist masterpiece: clear yet mysterious, simple yet subtle, delicate yet potent.
Perfected between the wars, the martini was also at home in the experimental new literature and art of that period. There were a few earlier sightings. The first literary appearance, if it can be called that, is probably in “A Daring Game,” a comic anecdote by the pseudonymous “Hidley Dhee” in the August 1896 number of The Crescent (house organ of the tony Crescent Athletic Club of Brooklyn, New York): #8220;One of the jeunesse dorée in the party tipped his chair back … and as he sipped his martini and inhaled its seductive bouquet, a far-away look came into his baby-blue eyes.”
The West Coast weighed in with “The Great American Cocktail,” in the 1902 San Francisco News Letter :
O. Henry mentions martinis in his 1904 story “A Gentle Grafter,” and there’s a prescient 1910 Jack London novel, Burning Daylight , about a high-powered tycoon who drinks them to relieve the pressure of competition.
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 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.
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, 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?”
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.
The changed meaning of the martini as modernist ensign was part of the reason for its two-decade decline starting in the 1970s. Another was a new awareness of the toll alcohol could take. Like the car and the airplane, the flip side of the martini’s streamlined beauty was a seductive power that could turn destructive. Branded, justly or not, as a uniquely powerful drink, it was the first victim of Americans’ adopting a saner approach to drinking.
But even for an age that better understands the consequences of misuse, the martini remains a powerfully appealing icon: product and symbol of a time in America when “modern” meant something good —smart, sexy, and pulse-racing, technologically advanced, intelligently made, an example of Americans leading the world. Maybe that’s the reason for its recent comeback, now that the businessmen who gave it a bad name have switched to fizzy water and white wine. Detached after two decades from culturally embattled associations, it is ready to be seen as we see the best examples of literature and design of the period.
There’s also, in its elegance, sophistication, and sexiness, something appealingly adult . This resonates with the aspirations of a generation that seems to reject the sixties’ idealof youthful rebelliousness as a way of life, however campily expressed in the neococktail culture of the 1990s. (And in the new oversize martini glasses, which, like the ubiquitous neodiners, refract fifties American modernism through a pop/camp sensibility.) One imagines that after the exuberance of the cocktail’s rediscovery has moderated, blue-berry-hazelnut and chocolate martinis will go the way of the Pom Pom and Fluffy Ruffles, and the classic martini will reign once again in pristine perfection.
Because there’s something about the martini that invites return. Elegant, powerful, and beautiful, the martini is also pure . Its clear, glistening transparency seems to promise that transforming, renewing return to origins that we Americans are endlessly seeking.
The filmmaker Luis Bunuel, an eighth-degree martini master, understood this well: “Connoisseurs … suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative power of the Holy Ghost pierced the Virgin’s hymen ‘like a ray of sunlight through a window —leaving it unbroken.’”
Closer to home, Bernard DeVoto celebrated the same quality and probably best conveyed why it is that the martini, like all classics, will survive: “The goal is purification and that will begin after the first round has been poured, so I see no need for preliminary spiritual exercises. But it is best approached with a tranquil mind, lest the necessary speed become haste. Tranquillity ought normally to come with sight of the familiar bottles. If it doesn’t, feel free to hum some simple tune as you go about your preparations. … Do not whistle, for your companions are sinking into the quiet of expectation. And you need not sing, for presently there will be singing in your heart.”