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Fast Elbow Work on Highball Gives Bon Vivant First Legal Drink

Although there was some dispute, Benjamin De Casseres, writer and bon vivant, appears to have been the first man to take a legal drink in the United States in 13 years immediately after Prohibition ended. He downed a Scotch highball two and one-half seconds after repeal became effective. Here is his own account of the event.

By
Benjamin De Casseres
Benjamin De Casseres poses with his highball awaiting word of Prohibition's repeal via a cable set up by the United Press at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, Dec. 6, 1933. File photo by United Press/public domain
Benjamin De Casseres poses with his highball awaiting word of Prohibition's repeal via a cable set up by the United Press at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, Dec. 6, 1933. File photo by United Press/public domain

NEW YORK, Dec. 6, 1933 – I want to be as modest as possible about being the first man in the United States to have a legal drink in 13 years. It didn't involve much effort outside of fast elbow work. The bartender handed me the glass when the flash came across the bar and I flung it head-on at my teeth. The time, I am told, was precisely two and one-half seconds.

To me it was a joyous moment. I drowned the noble experiment in Scotch and Soda, my favorite drink. Why is it my favorite drink? Because I can drink more of it, and feel good, than any other drink.

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If the country would stick to Scotch, dry wines and beer, there would be no digestive troubles. I'm sorry to admit that I have them, but the years are beginning to tell on me. I certainly stowed it away in my time.

I am emphatically opposed to all these fool regulations. Liquor should be sold by any person who has the price of the license. If liquor is not made as easy to purchase and as cheap as food, the speakeasy and the bootlegger will remain with us. I am for the return of the saloon, for the alleged evils of the old days were nested in dark back rooms where people sat down. The bar was for song and conversation.

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If there was an occasional black eye, that only added a little local color to the mise en scene.

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My happiest memories are of the nights and night and nights I spend in Jack's, Martins', Mouquins, the Brevoort, Joels and at the Knickerbocker bar. I hope to see them all return. Some have. More will.

The [sic] psychopathical effect of the abolition of prohibition will be a return of national gaiety, of buoyancy. A terrific weight has been lifted off our minds. We are like a nation coming out of a 13-year jail sentence.

As I took the first legal drink, there flashed through my mind memories of gorgeous legal sessions with Jim Huneker, Jack London, Booth Tarkington, Don Marquis, George Luks, Franke War O'Malley, Arthur Leonard Ross, Richard Le Gallienne, Jack Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, Sinclair Lewis, Fiorello La Guardia, Caruso, Odd McIntyre, Bugs Baer, Hype Igoe, Wilson Mizner and others galore.

And I heard the carol of the old songs in my brain as I took that first legal snort. Everything from "Little Annie Rooney" and "The Man Who broke the Bank of Monte Carlo," to "Over There."

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My first drink, when I came to New York in 1897, was at the Old Waldorf bar. And I claim that I am the first man to take a drink as the restoration was proclaimed, and it was at the New Waldorf. My first drink in New York was with my foot on a rail. I took the first drink after repeal sitting on a sofa, piled with pillows. The hotel management said they doubt the legality of my standing at one of their four bars.

I actually don't care for slang, but --

NUTS!

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By The United Press CHICAGO, Dec. 6 -- Oscar Mayer, inventor of the skinless hotdog, who lost by a second and a half for the distinction of being the first person to take a legal drink since 1919, today said he might demand a "recount."

"I drank a Virginia toddy, a real old-fashioned drink, while my New York opponent, according to reports, swallowed two fingers of Scotch," Mayer, 75-year-old veteran of pre-prohibition days, said.

Benjamin De Casseres of New York was declared the winner when he completed his drink in two and a half seconds. Mayer was timed at four seconds. Both started at the instant the word was flashed Utah had ratified repeal.

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"The reason De Casseres beat me," Mayer said," was because I drank like a gentleman should drink, leisurely. My drink was an American drink, half whiskey and half water. I sipped it as it should be. Apparently De Cassares tossed off his drink with a simple flourish of the arm."

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HOLLYWOOD, Dec. 6 -- The Four Marx Brothers today claimed the honor of having had the first legal drink in the United States since 1920, and branded as "impostors" Benjamin De Casseres and others who contested the claim.

"We Marx Brothers," said Groucho, spokesman for the group, "play second drink to no man."

It might seem a paradox that the fourth of the four brothers, Harpo, was in Russia, but the very fact was used by the film comedians in claiming a clean sweep.

"If somebody could have beaten the three of us who actually are in Hollywood -- which we doubt -- that somebody could not have beaten the Marx brothers, for we cabled Harpo to start drinking vodka and hour before prohibition was declared dead," said Groucho.

"Not only do we claim that we had the first legal drink after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment," he continued, "but we also claim to have had the last illegal drink.

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"In fact Zeppo was all split to pieces. The drink he started at 3:32 p.m. yesterday afternoon was half illegal and half legal for, though he drink it straight down, he didn't finish until 3:33 p.m. Mountain standard time. The amendment was repealed at 3:32:30, as I understand it."

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