American Women Tell Their Story in New Documentary 'Prohibition'

From Carrie Nation to Zelda Fitzgerald, it was one wild ride

By Susan Toepfer
prohibition image
Female dancers performing the Charleston, 1926
Photograph: ©Scherl/Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/The Image Works

Novick: They were brilliant. I may not agree with them, but I respect their savvy: All the brewers are German so if you buy beer they will send the money to Germany and you are supporting Germany our enemy. It worked!

More: I wonder how they made that work, when so much of the population was German by heritage—still is.

Novick: It’s amazing. It had to do with the beer drinking habits of Germans.

More: Also, German women drank.

Novick: And they drank on Sunday afternoon. They had beer gardens; the whole family was there, having a few beers.

More: Another great character in your documentary is the bootlegger George Remus. I had never heard of him—and then he popped up on the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire the other night! But what a great story—lawyer turned bootlegger, goes to jail, his wife takes up with a Fed, he murders her and the jury lets him go!

Novick: We didn’t know that story, either. Once we heard it, we had to make the film. Remus was very famous in the 1920s. He had the big house, the swimming pool, the lavish parties. I think he was the model for Jay Gatsby. Even if he wasn’t the model for Gatsby, he represents the era and Fitzgerald would have seen the headlines.

More: I also liked Lois Long, the woman who wrote about night life in the ‘20s under the pseudonym Lipstick in The New Yorker. But how did she get away with that? How did she write about boozing when it was prohibited?

Novick: This is the interesting thing. Prohibition is going on, but it’s just a weak link, at least in New York. Drinking was more or less out in the open, not completely in the early ‘20s but certainly by the late ‘20s. In 1929, the mayor of Berlin came to New York and went on a tour of night clubs with the New York mayor, Jimmy Walker. At the end, he asked, “So when does this Prohibition thing go into effect?” In cities, it was unenforceable. The statistic that says the most to me is: By the late 1920s, America was the biggest importer of cocktail shakers in the world.

More: There’s a lot of talk in Prohibition linking it, ironically, to the liberation of women.

Novick: Very ironic. But we have to be careful not to put all the eggs in one basket in terms of Prohibition. There were a lot of other things going on. Teenagers had started rebelling against Victorian mores in an earlier period; there was the rise of mass media. There were a lot of reasons women rebelled, but add alcohol and men and women together drinking and dancing—exactly what the women who worked for temperance didn’t want—and you get sexual liberation, too. The historian, William Leuchtenburg, says in the film, “Men and women enjoyed sex more. Men had discovered the clitoris.”

More: That’s a pretty stunning moment when he says that.

Novick: When he said it during the interview, an 87-year-old historian—he  just brought it up—we knew we had to include it.

More: I didn’t realize how close Prohibition and women getting the right to vote were in terms of timing. They both happened in 1920.

Novick: The same year, but Prohibition, the 18th Amendment, came first. Women did not vote it in; men did. By then, women realized that they needed the right to vote so they could be the moral guardians of society. Originally, getting the vote was the more extreme idea. But once women saw the impact they could have, they didn’t want to go back.

More: Let’s talk about the U.S. Assistant Attorney General who enforced prohibition. Mabel Walker Willebrandt—hero or villain?

First Published September 28, 2011

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