The USA had such major upheavals over alcohol in the first part of the twentieth century that absinthe was just a colourful marker bobbing about on a prohibitionist tide. Absinthe has maintained, however, a shadowy presence which became more distinct and enticing with the coming of the Internet in the late twentieth century.
Tour guides remark that when visiting New Orleans ‘you absolutely must visit’ the Old Absinthe House, the bar where the cocktail was said to have been invented. Travellers have been so advised for the best part of two centuries. The Absinthe House has kept the name of absinthe alive in the USA, along with the memory of Louisiana’s wild days of unrestricted drinking and prostitution.
Aleister Crowley, mystical poseur, wrote ‘The Green Goddess’ in the Absinthe House in 1916 while waiting for a woman friend.
There is a corner of the United States which [time] has overlooked. It lies in New Orleans, between Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue; the Mississippi for its base. Thence it reaches northward to a most curious desert land, where is a cemetery lovely beyond dreams. Its walls low and whitewashed, within which straggles a wilderness of strange and fantastic tombs; and hard by is that great city of brothels which is so cynically mirthful a neighbour… Art is the soul of life an the Old Absinthe House is heart and soul of the old quarter of New Orleans.
Crowley, an eccentric and self-styled magician, was a link between the decadents of the 1890s and the writers of the twentieth-century. His first book of poems, White Stains, was published by Leonard Smithers, the decadents’ publisher. Crowley’s use of absinthe was a minor feature in a life devoted to drug addiction and controlling other people by means of bogus supernatural powers. ‘I have myself made extensive and elaborate studies of indulgence in stimulants and narcotics,’ as he put it.
New Orleans was by way of being a city of eternal decadence in the industrious America of the nineteenth century. The state of Louisiana owed its cultural appeal to the fact that it was held by the French until it was sold to the USA in 1803, retaining its French style and contacts, so such French specialities as absinthe were freely available. A drink called ‘absynthe’ was appearing in advertisements in 1837, though it was thought to be not much known in other parts of the country.
The building later to be called the Old Absinthe House, on Bourbon Street and Bienville, was constructed in the middle of the eighteenth century, and in 1806 was established as an importing and commission house. Later it became a grocery store. Absinthe was imported and sold there at least from 1826 in what was described as the first established saloon in New Orleans. The role of absinthe seems to have been that of a variety of drinks available in a hard-drinking area. By 1836, with a population of 60,000, New Orleans had 543 licensed premises, with doubtless many unlicensed also; gambling houses and brothels added to the city’s attractions.
The best-known character in this environment, whose name is often associated with absinthe, is Edgar Allen Poe, who was born in Boston in 1809. Poe, whose work influenced Baudelaire and Verlaine was a severe alcoholic, who interspersed long periods of sobriety with heavy drinking bouts which reinforced his reputation as a self-destructive genius. Poe’s father, brother and sister were alcoholics, or at least very heavy drinkers.
The brooding self-recrimination of his characters, such as the narrator who is guilty of horrible crimes in The Black Cat, bring to mind absinthe-induced reveries, but absinthe’s role in the creation of nineteenth-century gothic horror seems more part of a scene than a motivating factor. Absinthe does not feature a single time in the concordances for Poe’s poetry and prose. Biographers and contemporaries did not mention it as a remarkable aspect of Poe’s alcoholism, and absinthe was an imported drink which had to come in from France and Switzerland; the perennially hard-up Poe would have got drunk more cheaply on brandy.
By the 1830s, when Poe was in his twenties, it was said that New Orleans had ‘the most luxurious drinking places in the county … Drunkeness was very prevalent.’ The bar which became the Old Absinthe House was called Aleix’s Coffee House in 1846. In the Civil War, with its devastating consequences for Louisiana, it became a rendezvous for army officers and others in the Confederate army. In 1869, the owner, Jacinto Aleix, hired Cayetano Ferrer, who was to become a major figure in the history of alcohol in the USA, as ‘principal drinks mixer’. Ferrer, from Barcelona, had learned his trade as barman at the Paris Opera House, and he introduced the Louisiana public to the dripped absinthe ‘served in the Parisian manner’.
Ferrer leased the bar, which he called the Absinthe Room, and which made him, and absinthe, famous. In 1874 he produced a cocktail, absinthe frappe, comprising egg white, anisette and absinthe poured over cracked ice. The whole building came to be called the Absinthe House. Visitors to the city would not think their tour of the attractions complete until they had sampled Ferrer’s absinthes. In a book on famous New Orleans drinks, Stanley Clisby Arthur writes, ‘What the customers came for chiefly was the emerald liquor into which, tiny drop by tiny drop, fell water from the brass faucets of the pair of fountains that decorated the long cypress bar’. Ferrer was introducing the New Orleans public to the bourgeois refinements of drinking absinthe with elaborate water drippers, the paraphernalia adding to the cost of an already expensive drink. In the post-Civil War period of the ‘gilded age’, when everyone wanted to forget the misery of war and reconstruction and enjoy life again, absinthe was one of a number of refinements.
The Absinthe House was so proud of its tradition as a tourist attraction that it became custom for visitors to tack their calling cards on the walls and ceilings, so the impression was given of a location to which people had flocked from all over the world. Indeed, New Orleans was a major destination; Degas, whose mother was a Creole from New Orleans, visited his two brothers, who cotton merchants in the city in 1872 in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War and the commune.
Food Inspection Decision in 1912 banned the import of absinthe into the USA and its sale in inter-state commerce. Newspapers covered attempts at shipping absinthe into the USA, but the absinthe story was subsumed into the bigger picture of teetotal agitation and prohibition. Absinthe was a very minor issue in US national debate, if it were mentioned at all. Newspaper coverage of legal action against absinthe was in small pieces, indicating the comparative lack of importance accorded it compared to the actions of Anti-Saloon League and successive state votes on prohibition. Georgia was in the lead of the national drive against alcohol, having agreed state-wide prohibition in 1907. Banning the use of minor drugs was reaching ridiculous proportions in the USA at this time: in New York City the Sullivan Ordinance of 1907 banned women from smoking cigarettes in public.
Alcohol prohibition measures were already enforced in other countries: spirits and other strong drinks were banned in Iceland between 1908 and 1934, Russia 1914-24 and Finland 1916-27. In this context the prohibition era in the USA from 1920 to 1933 seems less of a bizarre anomaly. Prohibition was passed in 1919 by the Eighteenth Amendment. Such absinthe substitutes as Pernod and Herbsaint had been used to keep an alcoholic drink in circulation, but by 1920 liquor sellers had more on their minds than maintaining a taste for absinthe.
Prohibition did not succeed in its primary aim, to prevent the drinking of alcohol; its main achievement, by criminalising a widely practised activity, was a multiplication in the number of criminals. New Orleans was a major centre for the import of illegal alcohol, with smugglers running drinks in via the Mississippi. Most restaurants and cafés in New Orleans served alcohol during prohibition, but made efforts to conceal it from the general view. The surreptitious nature of drinking in the prohibition era – waiters serving alcohol from hip flasks, barmen squirting a syringe of pure alcohol into soft drinks they were serving – was not conducive to absinthe, which was a drink of display and provocation. Moreover, as a specialist drink, it was even less easily available than wine, beer or whiskey.
For some, the extra illegality of absinthe made it a special challenge at a time when breaking a foolish law was an expression of individual independence. Elizabeth Anderson, wife of short-story writer Sherwood Anderson and part of the literary scene in New Orleans, wrote in a memoir:
There was a great deal of drinking among us but little drunkenness. We all seemed to feel that Prohibition was a personal affront and that we had a moral duty to undermine it. The great drink of the day was absinthe, which was even more illegal than whiskey because of the wormwood in it. Bill Spratling [who worked at Tulane University] had bought ten jugs of it from some woman whose bootlegger husband had died, and he shared his booty liberally with his friends.
When she met a reporter in the Absinthe House, by this time a speakeasy, both sipped absinthes, and the reporter, filled with the need to share her taste of forbidden fruit, announced in her pages, ‘Miss Elizabeth spends her days sipping absinthe in a popular New Orleans bistro’. New Orleans was so blatant in its continued drinking that it was described as the ‘liquor capital of America’, and inevitably attracted attention from federal agents, who raided the city in their hundreds in 1925. The Absinthe House was closed under ‘padlock proceedings’ for violation of prohibition in 1925 and again in 1926. A newspaper article noted that:
The place has been identified with some of the most colourful meetings in history of New Orleans. The military of the old Spanish regime and then of the French rubbed shoulders there with actors, artists and noted men of all professions. The marble font bears deep fissures worn by the constant dripping of soda in the preparation of the milky concoction from which the place drew its name.
The Absinthe House was to celebrate 100 years of doing business in 1926, but as the New Orleans Picayune noted: ‘[the] doors of the historic old Absinthe House were closed on its hundredth anniversary Saturday when the United States marshal nailed them together following a padlock injunction of the United States Court’.
After the doors were nailed shut, many of the fittings were sold to a Pierre Cazebon, including the cash register, the pictures on the walls, the old fountain to drip water into the absinthe, and the marble topped bar. He moved them down Bourbon Street to open another bar, later to be called the Old Absinthe Bar, which also came under attack from the authorities in October 1929, when ‘deputy United States marshals descended on the old bar, placed the proprietor Pierre Cazebon, and the bartender, Sam Mitchell, under arrest and clamped a padlock on the door’.
Prohibition was finally lifted in 1933, but as absinthe had been banned for eight years before prohibition, its use had declined, and by 1933 few felt moved to revive it. It was the North American expatriates and travellers Robert Service, Harry Crosby and Ernest Hemingway, following in the earlier travels of Jack London, who now made the most of absinthe – the green fairy was now part of the thrills of travel, enticingly illegal in their own country. It was not now the drink of effete intellectuals and poets, it was a man’s drink for sailors, war correspondents and other manifestations of the tough guy in world literature. ■
Jad Adams is an historian and the author of Hideous Absinthe – a book that describes how absinthe came to symbolise the high points of art and the depths of degeneration.
The painting at the top shows Guy Pene du Bois‘ The Old Absinthe House (1946), while the photograph reveals the New Orleans’ Old Absinthe House interior from 1903.