Speaking Easy: Wet Washington (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Speaking Easy: Wet Washington

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:38:57
Welcome back to ''Metro Connection.'' I'm Rebecca Sheir.

MR. ROB SACHS

13:38:59
And I'm Rob Sachs. And today, we're talking about underground D.C., both underground as in physically underground, archeological digs, tunnels.

SHEIR

13:39:07
And underground as in secret, hush-hush. And what we'll hear about next is or was something very hush-hush in Washington until, of course, it wasn't. I'm talking speakeasies, those secret bars that popped all over the country during Prohibition, when Congress banned the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol in the U.S. Prohibition went from January, 1920, to December, 1933.

SACHS

13:39:32
And though Congress expected Washington to be a model dry city, I hear we were actually quite the hotbed for speakeasies.

SHEIR

13:39:41
In fact, we were. And to learn just how rampant that underground drinking was, I called up this guy, his name's Garrett Peck. He has a book coming out this spring called ''Prohibition In Washington: How Dry We Weren't.'' Garrett's also a tour guide of sorts. His temperance tour shows the sites of a bunch of former speakeasies and I met up with him at one of those sites on Connecticut Avenue in northwest D.C.

SHEIR

13:40:03
Back in the day, it was this swanky joint called The Mayflower Club owned by this guy, Zachariah Zebbie Goldsmith. But these days, the space is home to Dirty Martini, a posh multi-level restaurant and bar. And to get inside, all you really have to do is, you know, come off the street go through the big glass doors and, bam, you're in. But during Prohibition, as Garrett Peck explains, that wouldn't have been the case at all.

MR. GARRETT PECK

13:40:27
Many speakeasies operated out of upper story apartment buildings or office buildings and so there would've been a business downstairs and then you would've come upstairs here secretly through a secret door or very sturdy door to get in to prevent police raids.

SHEIR

13:40:40
What sort of raid action did we see in this space?

PECK

13:40:42
The Mayflower Club actually opened up in 1933 so Goldsmith, at that point, realizes that Prohibition's going to end so therefore he's going to open this really swanky high-end joint, which is The Mayflower Club. In the summer of 1933, he has the place opened and the police staged their very first raid. They find nothing and so in November, they come back and they hit the jackpot. They find tons of liquor, they find a printed cocktail menu. There's a 30-foot bar, there's two-dozen tables, there's waiters, there's porters and bartenders. They kick everybody out and arrest Goldsmith and his key porter.

PECK

13:41:15
This is in, again, November, 1933, so about a month before national prohibition actually ends. So December 5, 1933, Utah becomes the state that puts the 21st Amendment over the top. So Goldsmith asks for a trial. The trial date actually was December 13, 1933. Prohibition's over at that point, right? So the case is dismissed. Goldsmith comes back and reopens this bar as a speakeasy again, but it's not legal yet to have a bar in the District.

PECK

13:41:42
So in February of 1934, the police come back once more and this time they brought in axes and crowbars, destroyed all the furniture, all the glassware, seized all the liquor. They wanted to make sure that Goldsmith's investment was destroyed and he never re-opened the place.

SHEIR

13:41:57
So Mayflower Club was just one of many speakeasies in the district. Any idea sort of how many there were in the heyday?

PECK

13:42:04
Most historians believe there were between 2,000 and 3,000 speakeasies in the city at the time. Before Prohibition started, there were actually, licensed, 300 bars. In 1933, there was anti-Prohibition group called the Crusaders and actually it took all the police records and they literally drew a map and -- which was printed front page of The Washington Post, The New York Times. They showed how much Prohibition was failing in the nation's capital. The city was supposed to be the model dry city, right?

PECK

13:42:28
What they found in that first year, which actually only covered seven months, and they found 934 speakeasies that were raided. So basically, three times the number of legal bars that existed before Prohibition. Then two years later, they produced another map that was from a full year and that basically mapped out more than 1600 speakeasies that were raided.

SHEIR

13:42:47
D.C. is different from other cities in that we have all of these political leaders here, the congress people are here, the presidents. During Prohibition, do we know if they were following the rules as well?

PECK

13:42:58
They most certainly were not following the rules. One of the most interesting stories -- and I have a whole chapter on this in my upcoming book. The chapter's called ''The Man In The Green Hat.'' That particular person was named George Cassidy and he was one of the key bootleggers to Congress. But he's the only one who spilled the beans and he did it in grand style, five front-page articles in The Washington Post in October 30, 1930, a week before the mid-term congressional elections.

PECK

13:43:23
He estimated four-fifths of congressman were his customers. That's amazing. This is a Congress that is absolutely committed to voting dry and yet in their personal lives, are totally wet.

SHEIR

13:43:33
Do we know anything about the presidents?

PECK

13:43:35
There were five presidents during Prohibition. The most famous drinker of the lot was Warren Harding, who had a completely wet White House during that time. I mean, when he moved into the White House, he actually brought a huge liquor cache with him. In fact, Wayne Wheeler from the anti-salon league finally had to go to the White House and basically read him the riot act and tell him, you can't do this. You’re setting a very bad example for the rest of the country. And I think Harding promised that he would dry up, but he never really did. But his tenure in office was very, very short. He ended up actually dying.

SHEIR

13:44:04
So after Prohibition, when, you know, when Prohibition officially ended in D.C., how long did it take for things to go back to normal?

PECK

13:44:12
Things went back to normal fairly quickly. The reason D.C. ended Prohibition a few months later after national Prohibition ended, it actually ended three months later, was because Congress, at that point, really wanted to give careful consideration to how to license alcohol. As a result, as well, they established a taxation scheme. They put that authority in place by March 1, 1934, when Prohibition actually ended and the first 200 liquor establishments got their licenses that night.

PECK

13:44:38
The National Press Club actually got the very first liquor license and then by that summer, they had basically doubled the number of licenses. And this was the deepest part of the Great Depression and it was a big money maker for the city because suddenly we had need for bartenders and delivery boys and everything else in between. So it created several thousand jobs overnight once Prohibition actually had ended.

SHEIR

13:44:59
For more on Garrett Peck's upcoming book ''Prohibition In Washington: How Dry We Weren't,'' visit our website metroconnection.org.
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