My Career as a Lawbreaker
(The Easy Chair, Harper’s, January 1954)
To a writer the word “euphoria” tends to mean the brief period when the last hundred pages of a book are writing themselves. In the summer of 1931 it had that meaning for me and another one as well. A friend of mine had lent me his summer place in northern Vermont. It was too big for my family needs and luxurious above our station, but we soon found that we needed all its facilities. For it had an additional feature which brought my Cambridge friends up in numbers that kept the several guest houses full and sometimes had an overflow sleeping in the woodlot: it was just twenty minutes from the Canadian border.
Regularly at four o’clock every afternoon I put the manuscript of Mark Twain’s America aside and got into my car. At 4:20 1 reached Derby Line, a Vermont village whose main street, in fact its only one, straightway crossed a brook that was the international boundary and became the main street of Rock Island, Province of Quebec.
Parking just inside the United States, I walked across the bridge and at 4:22 entered the village tavern and ordered a bottle of the Canadian ale that still seems to my nostalgic palate the best brew made on this continent.
The tavern was in the basement of a small hotel. It hummed with geniality in two languages but its principal fascination was a breed of loungers of wildly unconvincing appearance but great narrative skill. Some day the scholars of the American Folklore Society will get round to the Prohibition story. They will find all the sagas, cycles, variants, and modulations that they keep turning up in other sectors of popular belief, the same culture heroes, the same Sinbads and Paul Bunyans. I heard all the stories at the tavern, where for the price of another bottle of beer, which I remember as thirty cents for a twenty-ounce pint, I could take my pick of flight, chase, cunning, bribery, the Inspector Outwitted, the Fox Confuted, in fact anything except murder. For the folk artist was a borderer after all, a Vermonter or a Canadian, and on the border rum-running was a good deal more genteel than it was on Cape Cod.
I assume now that everything I heard was art, not history, but during Prohibition, our national fantasy, it was both pious and patriotic to believe anything you were told about rum-running. And of course great quantities of liquor were run across the border, by automobile on woods roads and by boat up Lake Champlain. Long before 1931 an originally competitive business had been organized and most of the traffic was monopolized by two groups. They did sometimes feud with each other but in a fraternal way and the casualties seldom amounted to more than a black eye or a ducking in the lake. Nor did the revenuers of the saga, the Border Patrol, offer more than a formal dissent. The honorable tradition of smuggling in these parts is older than the United States. Not only its skills but its loyalties have been developing for two centuries. No one wants to get a neighbor into trouble, still less to shoot at him.
A visit to the tavern was the first item on the program of entertainment which I devised for people whose affection for me was so warm that they would drive the nearly three hundred miles from Cambridge prepared to stay indefinitely. There were some good effects too, as on the afternoon of July 4, when the place filled with thirsty men in uniforms more splendid than any you would see at the Governor-General’s ball in Ottawa. They were the American Legion of Newport, Vermont, ten miles away at the head of Lake Memphremagog. They had spent several hot hours parading to celebrate the birth of freedom, and now they had crossed over for a glass of beer.
The second item on my program was a picnic. The. nearest Quebec Liquor Commission store was at Sherbrooke and we would arrive there just before noon. We bought French bread a few minutes out of the oven, butter, the cheese called Oka that is made by Quebec Trappists, and an appropriate amount of wine, justly estimated at one bottle per person and one for the pot. Well, one extra per automobile. Then we repaired to the shore, of some neighboring lake, where for some hours the afternoon had more blue and gold in it than could be seen on the Vermont side.
But a compulsion which Prohibition had produced showed itself when an American entered store where he could legally buy whisky — and could be sure that the whisky he bought was what the label said it was. Such a novelty could be intoxicating in itself. Going in search of a poet or a professor of English who seemed to have dropped out of our party, I was likely to find him sitting on the curb, brandishing a bottle of Haig & Haig which he had not yet bothered to open, and singing loudly, to the scandal of Sherbrooke and the shame of his fellow-slaves.
No one wanted to drink whisky on such an occasion but no one intended to leave it in Quebec, either. Besides, it was judicious to build up a reserve in Vermont, lest illness or the weather keep us home some day. Finally, a citizen must do what he could to end our national disgrace. So we joined the company of patriots who in all countries and all ages have fought despotisms by smuggling. Whenever I went to Sherbrooke I brought back a couple of bottles of whisky. It would have been perfectly feasible to put them in the glove compartment or for that matter to leave them unwrapped on the rear seat. The Derby Line customs officials never searched my car; to do so would have marred the friendship that had sprung up between us on my daily visits to the tavern.
But everyone was an actor in the Prohibition drama, the make-believe forced on us by the mores of the time. Coming back from a picnic, we would stop a mile short of Rock Island and spend up to an hour putting into effect whatever expedients had been worked out at a staff conference the evening before. Once the inspiration ran to jacking up a car, half-removing the splash-pan, and laying fifteen dollars’ worth of Scotch on it before bolting it back, a job that would have cost fifteen dollars at a garage. When I was alone, I used a complicated harness of twine which would hoist a couple of bottles behind the cushion of’ the rear seat, where no inspector would find them unless he ran his hand over the cushion or stooped to look up.
The customs officials, of course, knew by heart every device a tourist could invent to outwit them. It was always pleasant to spend half an hour watching them work, with several pints of ale making me tolerant at the end of an afternoon. Usually they waved cars on after a glance at the first suitcase but occasionally they gave one the works. The embarrassment of freeborn and defiant Americans caught striking a blow for freedom was intense out of all proportion to either the offense or the penalty, which amounted merely to confiscation of the liquor. One day a U. S. Senator who was a bellowing Dry came through. The whole force forsook everyone else and let cars line up bumper to bumper for fifteen minutes while they all but took the upholstery off his Cadillac. They were practicing caste discrimination, for I am sure that at least two of them saw the Senator’s chauffeur hand me a bottle for safekeeping when he got out of the car.
Thus the mantel and sideboard of my borrowed summer estate soon carried a display of fine liquors. This richness led to the establishment of an importing firm that was to become the admiration of Cambridge, or at any rate of my rapidly expanding circle there. One evening a friend whose identity I am not concealing when I call him Emery and whose patriotism had been warmed by the best Scotch he had drunk in years — Emery and I fell to lamenting that we could not assure ourselves for the coming winter such comfort as we were experiencing at. the moment.
I remind you that such talk was extraordinary realism: it recognized a truth which one was duty-bound to deny. The fantasy of Prohibition required everyone to believe that he was one man who knew how to get honest, uncut liquor. His bootlegger employed Pullman porters to bring Real Old McCoy down from Canada, or personally supervised its transportation from the Cape Cod beach where it was landed, or had an in with enforcement agents and so got his pick from confiscated stock. The pretense did not extend to gin, which we were not obliged to regard as anything but what it was. One Dedham bootlegger was widely approved for using a printed label on which his name appeared above the legend “High Grade Bathtub Gin.”
Emery and I laid our problem before a farmer who lived down the road a piece. He had a name so typical of Vermont that it could serve as the title of a Walter Hard poem: call him Eli. Having kept an eye on our activity, Eli had an answer already worked out. He converted a canvas hunting coat into a vest with fourteen pockets, each capable of holding an imperial (forty-ounce) quart. His wife drove him to Sherbrooke in the family Model T. He bought the fourteen quarts that he reckoned be his optimum load, and she drove him back to a curve in the road about three miles north of the border. Here he entered the only vestige of the Great North Woods remaining in the area and his wife went on to wait for him at a rendezvous about four miles below the border on the Vermont side.
It is time to look at the price 1ist issued by the Quebec Liquor Commission, whose Sherbrooke store was at 186 rue King Ouest. I have preserved a September 1932 issue, a 32-page pamphlet which makes stimulating reading. Quebec being devoted to frugality as well as wine-drinking, there are a great many wines at forty and fifty cents a bottle, but for picnics we were interested in lordlier stuff.
I developed an affection for an Alsatian wine that I cannot find in Boston nowadays, Clos Ste. Odile; it is listed at a dollar a bottle. Chateau Latour 1922 cost $2; Haut Brion and Margaux of the same year, $2.50; Lafite Rothschild 1925, $1.75; excellent lesser clarets, $1.50 and on down to $1. First-rate Burgundies ran about $1.50 but I suspect there is a touch of sophistication in the listing of 1919 Clos Vougeot, $1.75, and Hospice de Beaune, $2.50. I can certify, however, that the Montrachet of the same year at $2 was just what it claimed to be and I would rejoice to get a Bernkasteler now as good as the one listed at $1.75. For $3.25 or $3.50 a vintage Heidsieck, Lanson, Roederer; or Moët & Chandon would assuage your memory of the fortified and carbonated cider that we called champagne in the United States.
The list covers the spirits of the entire civilized world, including Chinese liquors called Ngkapy and Mukweilu at $3 a bottle. The most expensive are old brandies but, considering the habits Prohibition had forced on us, who wanted them? At the top of the list is “Bisquit Dubouché Napoléon 1811,” $16.40 and certainly a phony. Apart from such esoterica, the highest price is that of two twenty-five-year-old Scotches, $7.25 an imperial quart, which is fourteen and a half ounces more than an American fifth. (For comparison, one of them is currently offered in Boston at $18 a fifth.) Standard Scotches such as Hudson’s Bay, Teacher’s Highland Cream, White Horse, Johnnie Walker, and Dewar’s range from $3.15 to $6.25. Considering quality, probably the best buy on the list is the youngest of three cognacs under the Quebec Liquor Commission’s own label. Six years old and just such a cognac as you would expect to find at an inn in the region where it is made, it is listed at $4 an imperial quart.
For toting fourteen forty-ounce quarts through seven miles of forest, Eli set a fee of one dollar per bottle. (On one trip he fell and broke a bottle; since an honest man must guarantee delivery, he refused the fee for that one.) When Emery went home — he lives in Andover — he took with him a selection of QLC spirits. At the end of the summer I took to Cambridge all that my car would hold. At intervals thereafter, and they tended to grow shorter, Emery and I sent Eli a check covering three or tour trips across the border, forty-two or fifty-six imperial quarts, and a list of what we wanted, A week or so later we received a postcard saying that there had lately been a lot of rain in Vermont or that Eli’s setter had had pups. Thereupon we drove to Rock Island and spent an evening in the tavern, or went on to Sherbrooke for a better dinner and some wine. The next day we returned to Vermont, stopped at Eli’s house for our cargo, and drove home.
The whole QLC list was ours to choose from but, though we were glad to drink well beyond our means, there were limits. So we stuck mostly to $3.50 or $4 Scotches and the $4 cognac. Nowadays, repentance would swiftly come upon me if I were to drink brandy and soda very often but I was twenty-two years younger then — and, besides, any genuine spirits were more emollient than the liquors we had been hardened to. We never brought in gin; it would have been pointless without vermouth and the importation of low-proof goods would have been an economic waste. We did buy a few collectors’ items, simply for swank and vainglory. A bottle of Greek brandy or eau-de-vie de Marc, even one of Benedictine, suggested to the Cambridge hedonists that any whim could be gratified at my house. An expensive Scotch, say Grant’s Best Procurable, made a fine gift, being reverenced far beyond its cost.
Eli, however, refused to transport mere frivolities. Arriving at his place on one occasion, I found that he had not brought a bottle of champagne which I had ordered for a friend’s birthday. He said that he would not help me spend my way to the town poor farm.
I gave a bottle of the liqueur Scotch I have mentioned to an editor who always took me on a tour of the speakeasies when I went to New York. He later admitted that he did not much care for it, missing the smoke that was ladled into the domestic product and the throat-corroding bite. And it took me a long time to find a rum that could please a famous Boston connoisseur, who was used to the offscourings of the New York trade. I finally succeeded with a viscous Demerara of 160 proof that would have felled an ox.
Our importing firm stayed in operation till good liquor came on the market following Repeal, which, the elders among you will remember, took some time. Ethical men both, Emery and I retained our amateur purity; we never sold a bottle to a friend. But our cellars and our connoisseurship gave us a popularity we could not afford, and we were forced to abate it by occasionally letting some intimates club together and order a load. They invariably refused to bring the liquor down themselves, convinced that the traffic was hazardous to an extreme. At least their cars would be confiscated, beyond that there were jail sentences, and who knew but that they might be forced into bribery, assault, even gunfire? They thought of us as professionals, with spectral cutlasses between our teeth and a wad of protection money in our wallets — just such characters as spent their leisure in the hall of heroes at the Rock Island tavern. We could not see that the illusion did them any harm.
And in fact the best part of an exhilarating experience was that drive south from Eli’s house. I suppose the only risk we ran was the unlikely one that we might have a collision in the presence of a city cop. Even that would have had to occur in circumstances which required the cop to be censorious rather than sympathetic about a lot of spilled whisky. But the dramatic fantasy of Prohibition had us driving U.S., 3, 4, and 5 with the certainty that every quarter-mile was hazardous. At any moment a pursuit car might overtake us, round every curve we might be stopped by a road block. I often drive those highways now and the landscape remains beautiful but it has lost its zest. No revenuers are chasing me.
On the evening of December 5, 1933, my wife and I went to the Parker House for the ceremonies befitting the return of legal liquor. The legislature of my native Utah was selling out its Mormon teetotalism for the publicity that would attend its becoming the thirty-sixth and decisive state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment. The flash came through about 11:00 p.m. and at once our waiter brought us a new legal bottle of Rhine wine in a now legal ice bucket, an insipid Liebfraumilch — all the good wines in Boston were locked up in closed, dispirited speakeasies. But a newspaper photographer made a flash of it and us, and next morning’s Herald ennobled it as the first champagne sold legally in Boston since 1920.
During the last war Canada diluted its whiskies and enormously raised the tax on them. It has neglected to abate either evil and now the smuggling through the Derby Line and Rock Island customs houses runs north. Thrifty folk come down from Quebec to buy good, cheap liquor at Vermont state stores and hoist it up behind the rear cushion with a harness of twine. And a little while back I remarked to some young person, “I was a bootlegger once.” The appalling lack of social understanding that characterizes the modern young showed in his bewildered question, “Whatever for?” At that, I was bragging like a tavern lounger. I was never a bootlegger, I was not even a rum-runner. Eli was the rum-runner; I was merely in the carrying trade.