Register Sunday | March 18 | 2018

When Writers Drink

The Maisonneuve Decanter

F. Scott Fitzgerald called it “the writer’s vice,” and Hemingway, more memorably, described it as “idea-changing liquid alchemy.” According to Donald Goodwin, former chair of the psychiatry department at the University of Kansas Medical Center and author of Alcohol and the Writer, 71 percent of writers drink to excess—a rate higher than any other profession surveyed.


This issue the Decanter examines the role that booze has played in the careers of a few select scribes and imagines the (alas, fictional) drinks those scribes might inspire.



F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

Charming when sober, F. Scott Fitzgerald became a boorish nightmare when drunk. He frequently humiliated himself in public and embarrassed his many prominent friends. Even Hemingway, himself an intolerant drunk, claimed that bullfights were sedatives compared to weekends with Fitzgerald. Yet literary historians have treated Fitzgerald’s devotion to booze kindly. “He was a writer who was also the victim of a disease,” wrote Julie M. Irwin in a 1987 article, “not a self-destructive drunk bent on wasting the talent he was given.” This sympathy may be inspired by the other factors in Fitzgerald’s life that kept him on the bottle—none more prominent than his unstable wife, Zelda, whose mental-health bills were a constant source of stress, forcing Fitzgerald to continually put aside his novels in order to concentrate on the more immediately lucrative activity of short-story writing. But short fiction also allowed him to keep drinking: “A short story can be written on a bottle,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “but for a novel you need mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head.” Between 1933 and 1937, Fitzgerald was hospitalized eight times for alcoholism and arrested at least as often—his work and his health both suffered as a result. Needing money for Zelda’s hospital bills, Fitzgerald accepted a contract with MGM and moved to Hollywood. His screenplays met with little success, but he was over halfway through a new novel, The Last Tycoon, when he suffered a fatal heart attack in December 1940.

The De-Zeldanator
9 oz. gin
2 oz. vermouth
4 crushed Valium (dissolved)



Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Perhaps the most famous drunk in American literary history, Ernest Hemingway considered his habit part of his writing process: late in his career, for instance, he would wake at 5 am, write until 10 am and then immediately begin drinking. He was often heard to say that he drank in order to “stop writing.” In 1939, Hemingway was ordered to cut down. He tried to limit himself to three Scotches before dinner but couldn’t do it; in 1940, he began breakfasting on tea and gin, then swigging whisky, vodka, absinthe and wine at various times during the day. As time went on, alcohol began to erode his sense of clarity and memory—and, no surprise, his literary vision. In the end, alcohol truly did stop him from writing. In the 1950s, Hemingway started hearing voices and developed a number of other ailments credited to his alcoholism: hypertension, kidney and liver diseases, edema of the ankles, high blood urea, mild diabetes mellitus, chronic sleeplessness and sexual impotence. After struggling with depression in his final years, Hemingway committed suicide in July 1961, three weeks before his sixty-second birthday. His last work, True at First Light, was edited by his son, Patrick Hemingway, and published in 1999. It has been called the worst book ever written by a Nobel Prize winner.


Poppa’s Slinger
3 Scotches (before dinner)
4 wives
6 Viagra
Crushed mint



Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)

While the Parisian literary community dismissed Arthur Rimbaud as a boor, the poet fell in love with the two greatest influences on his writing: Paul Verlaine (who read Rimbaud’s work and declared it genius) and absinthe. Rimbaud and Verlaine spent hours drowning themselves in the infamous green liquid and playing delusional, sadistic tricks on each other. Although it is unknown if (or what) Rimbaud wrote while under the influence, the green fairy certainly provided him with material: “Knowing pilgrims, seek repose,” he wrote, “By the emerald pillars of Absinthe.” Rimbaud’s inner exploration during his absinthe bouts was also the inspiration for “The Spiritual Hunt,” a work which Verlaine considered a masterpiece. Sadly, the manuscript was lost during the couple’s travels. The two men’s tumultuous relationship came to an abrupt end one evening when an angry and absinthe-soaked Verlaine shot Rimbaud, earning himself two years in prison. Rimbaud’s notorious poem “A Season in Hell” explores this darker side of love and drinking. By the age of twenty-one, Rimbaud had given up on poetry and absinthe. He travelled extensively and worked for many years in Africa and the Middle East as an agent for a trading company. Suffering from severe swelling of his right leg, most likely cancerous, he returned to France in 1891. Doctors immediately amputated the leg, but it was too late; Rimbaud died less than six months later, at the age of thirty-seven.


Beverage of the Vowels
10 parts absinthe
8 parts ego
3 parts ice
1 part orange juice
5 parts ugly male lover (armed)
youth (optional)



Jean Rhys (1890-1979)

Jean Rhys once called herself “a doormat in a world of boots.” This sensibility is reflected in her fiction, which features women who are spurned, poor and drunk, haunted by memories and victimized by their dependence on men. Like many of her protagonists, Rhys came to rely on alcohol as a form of escape—especially when her fiction could not serve such a purpose. After her 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight, she retired to Devonshire with her second husband, stopped publishing and disappeared from public attention for the next twenty years. For most of this time, she was believed to be dead. That assessment was half right: according to her letters from this period, she spent her time “two days drunk and one day hungover.” She was tracked down in 1958, after the BBC became interested in adapting her work. Publishers—shocked that she was still alive—started once again publishing her stories. In one of the greatest literary comebacks of all time, Rhys followed up two decades of penniless alcoholic silence with Wide Sargasso Sea, her masterpiece.


The Doormat (with a twist)
Bruised gin
Sour bar mix
Twist of West Indian lemon



Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

Jack Kerouac’s drinking was more a result of his writing than a catalyst. After On the Road was published to immense success in 1957, this Columbia-educated French Canadian boy from Massachusetts turned to the bottle as a means both of coping with celebrity and of living up to his wild, freewheeling image. His self-destructive behaviour in the sixties aged him prematurely and ravaged his talent—Dharma Bums and Visions of Cody were actually written before 1957, back when no publisher would touch them. In 1969, Kerouac got into a booze-fuelled bar fight. He died a few weeks later after suffering a massive internal hemorrhage in the bathroom of the house he shared with his mother. He was forty-seven.


The Ti Jean (“little John”)
Several bottles of port
Countless tanks of gasoline
Lapsed Buddhism
Sprinkle with irony



Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

The reports of Edgar Allan Poe’s drinking are almost as harrowing as his fiction, even when measured against other booze-loving writers. He was an impulsive binge drinker; once he started, the only thing capable of stopping him was lack of funds or of consciousness. He was often discovered passed out in the street—wearing the clothes of a hobo, not knowing where he had been—and was once arrested for drunkenness. “It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life,” Poe said. “It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.” In 1849, Poe was found on the street in Baltimore, very much the worse for wear. He was taken to a local hospital, where he died four days later of causes unknown to us. Much speculation surrounds Poe’s death, as his whereabouts during the six days before he surfaced in Baltimore are unclear. Theories as to the cause of death include assault, heart disease, brain lesions and even rabies. Intemperate consumption of alcohol, though, remains the most popular explanation for the poet’s early demise.

The Wanderer
325 ml of wine
Bail money



Jack London (1876-1916)

Jack London used booze to write—although for most of his life he didn’t take a sip while actually putting words on paper. Early in his career, he vowed that he would allow himself his first “little jingle” only after writing a thousand words (usually before lunch). He was known to stop writing in mid-sentence—as soon as the thousandth word was down—in order to claim his intoxicating reward. But his jingles became more frequent as he traveled to places like the Klondike, Mexico, Hawaii and the South Pacific. Insomnia and hangovers became routine, as did the need to drink in order to write. In 1913, at the height of his jingling, London published a book about a serious boozehound titled John Barleycorn (his wife suggested he call it Alcoholic Memoirs) in which he vividly described the “white logic” and the “long sickness” of alcohol. London was diagnosed with kidney disease in his thirties and died at the age of forty. It has never been determined if he died of renal failure, accidentally overdosed on pain medication or committed suicide.


Little Jingle
3 parts Yukon whiskey
2 parts San Francisco oyster sauce
1 part Mexican tequila
1 part Okolehao
Dash of wolf’s blood
Seawater (to taste)


Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966)

The New York literati immediately heralded this twenty-five-year-old poet and critic as one of the most promising authors since T. S. Eliot for his 1938 debut, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, which included a clutch of poems and the eponymous short story. Erratic and manic by nature, Schwartz wrote in mad spurts, producing reams of work. He was convinced that alcohol, barbiturates and amphetamines contributed to his genius. His insomnia and booze-driven obsession climaxed in 1959: having hallucinated an affair between his wife and art critic Hilton Kramer, he attacked Kramer and as a result was handcuffed, straitjacketed and remanded to Bellevue Hospital. He got out with the help of his friend Saul Bellow and drifted through a succession of depressing West Village walk-ups and seedy Manhattan hotels. He could often be found pontificating for hours at the White Horse, a shabby Greenwich Village tavern and famed literary hangout. By 1964, he had acquired a following of students (Lou Reed among them) to whom he would talk for hours without stopping, drinking shots of bourbon and paying for them with hundred-dollar bills. He read from his tattered copy of Finnegan’s Wake, told long-perfected anecdotes about his success and T. S. Eliot’s sex life and once even detailed Queen Elizabeth’s Asian fellatio techniques, apparently practised on none other than Danny Kaye. He soon became intolerable even to his disciples and checked himself into the Times Square Hotel to focus on his writing. “The years pass and the years pass and the years pass,” he wrote in the margin of a letter, “& still I see only as in a glass / darkly and vaguely.” He died of a heart attack in 1966. For two days, his body sat in the morgue, unclaimed.


The Great American Failure
47 bottles of bourbon
120 Dexedrine
65 Nembutal
35 Seconal
6 pots of coffee
Saul Bellow’s phone number



Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

Bukowski’s work reflects his lifestyle with staggering accuracy: irreverent, adventurous, dangerous, harsh and driven by alcohol. He was thrown out of his childhood home in 1941, after his father read some of his stories. With virtually no money, the poet travelled across the United States several times, drinking compulsively. In 1955, he was hospitalized with a booze-induced bleeding ulcer that had to be treated with eleven pints of blood. Famously, he stopped at the bar on the way home. His brush with death inspired him to start writing poetry, and his free-form verse and narrative poems quickly acquired a cult following. Fortune eventually found him after he wrote the screenplay for the 1987 movie Barfly. Buk, as he was known to his friends and followers, made a career out of writing about drinking—after fifty-odd years on the bottle, no one expected him to die in a hospital. But that is what he did. At the age of seventy-three, with a BMW in his garage, Charles Bukowski died of leukemia in a San Pedro health centre. His tombstone reads, “Don’t try.”


The Buk Knife
Spirits, beer and wine (in any combination)
11 pints of a stranger’s blood