The Great American Saloon Series

The Metaphysical Martini

R.I.P. Werner Dannhauser. A toast to you.

By From the November 1981 issue

Ken30684 (Creative Commons)
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Editor's Note: As John Podhoretz describes him, Werner J. Dannhauser, the former Commentary editor and Cornell professor who died on Saturday at age 84, was a rarity—a deeply serious intellectual and life-loving party animal. We were honored to publish him many time during the Reagan years, and perhaps nowhere so perfectly as in this “unforgettable, unimprovable” (as a knowing friend calls it) tribute to the martini. Who can ever drink one and not think of him?

I HAVE NEVER met a martini I did not like. Under no circumstances would I assert that any martini is as good as any other; my mind may be soaked, but not in rampant egalitarianism. I am willing to argue, however, that while the best martini demands to be called "perfect," the worst is nevertheless passable, and far better than no martini at all.

Surprisingly enough, so wondrous a drink has failed to spawn much of a literature that celebrates its wonders. It may well be that most sane men would rather drink martinis than read about them and would rather read about them than write about them. Yet that tempting explanation fails to satisfy, simply because martinis can be held in one hand, so that anyone who can talk and chew gum at the same time can just as well teach himself simultaneously to sip a martini and to read or write about it.

Nor will it do to contend that the absence of a library of works on the martini constitutes an undisguised blessing because writing about them would resemble what Leo Strauss once called "the loathsome business of explaining a joke." That was in another context and besides the great man's imposing list of virtues did not include a love of martinis. A mystique surrounds martinis, to be sure, but it does not suffer from an attempt at articulation. Indeed, for many of us the joy of drinking martinis is enhanced by talking about the joy of drinking martinis.

WHAT, THEN, can the matter be? The safest explanation takes into account the drink's youthfulness. The martini was born in the nineteenth century and has flourished--perhaps peaked--in ours. The occurrence of phenomena necessarily antedates their comprehension, as Hegel might have remarked, and no wise man tries to hurry history, as Adlai Stevenson did in fact maintain, so true understanding may have to await the fullness of time, to borrow Martin Luther's felicitous phrase.

The patience we need while hoping for the appearance of the martini's philosopher (not to be confused with the philosopher's martini) will surely be strengthened by a reading of Lowell Edmunds' The Silver Bullet: The Martini in American Civilization. It can hardly be called the definitive book on the subject, but it is a pioneering work in the best sense. It abounds with information, including the above tidbits about the age of the martini; it luxuriates in insights educing the shock of recognition; it promulgates bold postulates demanding reflection and attempts at verification; in short, it performs an invaluable service and puts all of us in the author's debt.

I learned a great deal from this book. For example, I found out that Franklin D. Roosevelt changed not only the face of America, but the contents of the traditional martini--by adding fruit juice. I was taught almost more than I could absorb about vermouth, that most necessary of evils required to make a good martini--it is a "fortified wine." I discovered poetry by Auden, New Yorker cartoons, pictures of various permissible glasses, and a bibliography that will enable me to begin research on Scotch and other estimable beverages should the spirit ever move me to study spirits.

I mention the above matters to convey something of this slender volume's richness, not to suggest that Professor Edmunds devotes himself primarily to the collection of intriguing trivia. Nothing could be further from the truth. After the briefest of introductions, the author at once turns to the task of giving an adequate account of the martini. He attributes the perennial fascination the martini exerts to three fundamental ambiguities surrounding it and constituting "the source of its symbolic power." First of all, the martini comes across as both civilized and uncivilized. On the one hand, it is consumed by solitary drinkers who become nasty and brutish, if not short; on the other hand, it serves as the centerpiece of various social and communal experiences that make for better living in this blessed land, and others emulating our ways. It can act as a spur both to love and hate.

Secondly, the martini appears both in the guise of the classic and the individual. For Professor Edmunds, a distinguished classicist, the classic denotes the unitary and perfect, as opposed to the sickly romantic. One suspects he would subscribe to Winckelmann's beautiful description of the ancients as characterized by "noble simplicity and serene grandeur." That can be said of martinis as well, at least half the time. The other half, the martini provides a lovely playground for idiosyncrasy and eccentricity. Some spend a happy lifetime pursuing the ideal perfect martini, a drink unsullied by anything merely personal, while others use the cocktail hour as a fine vehicle for creativity and self-expression.

Finally, according to Edmunds, the "Martini is in itself both sensitive and tough." It was adored by the sensitive W. Somerset Maugham as well as the tough James Bond, and the sensitive Auden sang of its toughness in sensitive verse.

The author obviously has a taste not only for martinis but for ambiguity; at any rate he does not directly attempt to reconcile the opposites he documents. Instead, he goes on to detail the "simple, unambiguous messages" conveyed by the martini, propositions which "function as the propaganda, as it were," for the martini and "play on several common prejudices." The reader never quite knows whether and to what extent Professor Edmunds shares those prejudices. Be that as it may, the seven messages sent out by the martini are that it is American and nothing else, urban rather than rural, upper class, a man's and not a woman's drink, optimistic and not pessimistic, for adults and not children, of the past, albeit of the living past, and not the present. These propositions are obviously debatable, but they are stated so reasonably one finds himself wishing he could discuss them with the author, over a martini, of course.

Having provided the reader with ample drink for thought, Professor Edmunds concludes on a profound note by relating the martini's nickname, "Silver Bullet," to its deepest meaning. He ingeniously connects it with the Lone Ranger, who also "embodies all the characteristically American ambiguity" by being gentle and tough, a loner in the service of the common good.

SUCH A SKELETAL OUTLINE necessarily violates the book on which it reports, for which I apologize, especially since I must now divulge some differences I have with the author. The book is admirable, but good books deserve and demand the toughest possible criticisms. Here, then, are mine.

Let me begin with trifles. Like any pioneering work, his book omits a bit of needed information here and there. Two examples must suffice. Many of us do not really know what bitters are and the author fails to tell us. What is more serious, in his generous selection of martini drinkers from American literature the author fails to include Melville Godwin, from John P. Marquand's Melville Godwin, U.S.A. Rumor has it that the character was modeled on Eisenhower, in which case his predilection for ever drier martinis as the years went by would take on added significance. Moreover, his inclusion might well shed light on a question that vexes me at least once a year: Is Marquand worth reviving?

This is as good a point as any to introduce some methodological reservations about the author's approach. For mysterious reasons of his own, the author relies too much on examples from literature instead of real life, an especially problematic procedure inasmuch as most of the fiction and authors he cites must be described as second rate. To put it bluntly, this little jewel of a book contains too many references to Bernard DeVoto. It would be churlish to blame the author for the martini's inexplicable failure to find its Homer, but one does feel that Professor Edmunds might have concentrated on consumers instead of producers.

By that I do not mean to imply that his study lacks historical perspective. On the contrary, at times the author almost falls into the dastardly pit of historicism, the insidious doctrine that one can explain things only in the light of their origins. He is saved above all by his familiarity with classical philosophy, as a passing reference to Aristotle's distinction between nature and history (in the Poetics) suggests, but he is not saved often and radically enough. The reader finds too many anecdotes of the past and too few of the scintillating generalizations of which Professor Edmunds is quite capable. I commend to him Marion Magid's sage observation that one cannot order a martini at the bar of history.

In the absence of a poet, what the martini needs above all is a philosopher. This study, however, forthrightly settles for less, declaring itself as belonging to "the field of bacchanology." Now science surely has its uses and some of my best friends are scientists, but a work owing even a tiny bit, as this one does, to Roland Barthes errs on the side of being too chic in its scientific bent. The author realizes as much by sounding suitably embarrassed when mentioning matters like "the semantics of material culture." The science yearns to be more than science but Professor Edrounds tends to shy away from what is above science by virtue of being its queen. He avoids philosophy.

Now for most of us the avoidance of philosophy is a matter of self-understanding and suitable modesty; philosophers are hard to find and we simply realize that we do not belong to the world's most exclusive club. But Professor Edmunds does not strike me as a humble man. I have no intention to give umbrage and I suspect Professor Edmunds will not take it, being familiar with Aristotle, who thinks of humility as a vice. I do not think he feels he is below philosophy, because I fear he thinks himself above it. He writes like a genuine member of a genuine nobility, for whom philosophy is a mere game. He is, in short, a perfect gentleman. I have nothing at all against gentlemen, and if so few of my best friends can be called that it is because gentlemen shun me and not because I avoid them. But the author's nobility does at rare times tinge his excellent book with a bit of dubiousness, and since I must love truth more than I love Edmunds I must also force myself to mention two shortcomings.

The first of these is what might be called false purism. Believing as I have already confessed that there is no such thing as a bad martini, I also would not hesitate--in fact I don't--to use tap water for making ice cubes, to pour in the vermouth in a cavalier if sparing way, scorning measurement, and in madcap moments to experiment recklessly. What is more, I would drink warm martinis out of dixie-cups without blinking or blushing. Rather than continue with this catalogue of what some would call crimes--I have more, much more, to confess--I will add a base truth about drinking martinis, one which the author is too noble to accentuate: Martini drinkers drink to get drunk, or at least to get high. One does not denigrate martinis in the least, I insist, by emphasizing the efficiency with which they do the job we assign them. Let no one sneer at the power of our national cocktail. We vote as many, but we drink as one. And let nobody deny that martini drinkers show great interest in what alcohol does to us. I have met many martini drinkers and loved not a few, but I have yet to encounter one who drinks only martinis.

Probity, always exacting, also demands that I take issue with Professor Edmunds over a second and closely related matter. One does him no injustice to call him a martini elitist. Now let me make one thing perfectly clear. In general, I admire elitists. In democracies they are absolutely essential to combat leveling tendencies and to return to the word "discrimination" its pristine sense. But it is no less true that for the health of democracy we elitists share as many of the fine things of life with the many as possible. That ennobles democracy and safeguards us elitists at one and the same time. Some things must always remain beyond the ken of the many, alas, but not martinis. Making them can be taught to the meanest capacities and enjoying them to the coarsest palates. We who are true conservatives should prize magnanimity very highly, and that virtue demands of us that we reach out to bring the uncommon martini to the common man.

BUT I HAVE NO WISH to engage in unseemly disputations with Professor Edmunds. His book brought me great pleasure and I am grateful to him. In a small way it even resembles Aristotle's Ethics. Reading it one is bound to think of happy times in one's life. Even as I write this my mind becomes warm with tender recollections.

I remember many a communal rite of a pre-dinner martini or two. The occasions have varied from reunions with dear friends to ceremonies before dinner parties. I love the preparation, the toast, the first cool, bracing sip. In some ways I am especially partial to the toast. My favorite is l'chayyim--to life--which I proffer to all friends who are Jewish or would like to be. But I am graced with courtesy of the heart when it comes to toasts. As a good host I suit the words to the situation. For example, when I drink with my students I love to salute their triumphs, for I am made happy by their happiness. It ought to go without saying, but it doesn't, that I enjoy drinking with my students. On those joyous occasions I may even have taught some of them something more valuable than drinking martinis --a tall order. In any event, my students and I constantly expose as foolish prattle the ideas one sometimes hears bandied about concerning teaching as a power relationship.

I remember also the martini of the relationship. I think of sitting in peace with my beloved. Call her Jenny. We sit together, talk of common plans, let speech suffuse itself in love, feel blessed in our closeness, safe in trust; the very air grows intimate.

I remember, finally, the solitary martini. I put away my work, the daily drudgeries. Relaxing, I prepare my drink with loving care. Then I sit back and think of once and future deeds and speeches, but mostly of the past. I summon up the living and the dead, rehearse old scenes of tenderness and wit. Then time melts slowly as betrayals lose their sting. My friends and I are young again, alive with hope. Grace smiles on me as Mr. Death assumes a modest stance, and all the while martinis make the music for my memories. 

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