To those of you who do not read, watch old movies, or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce this chapter by explicitly stating that I wrote Bette Davis’s biography, Dark Victory. My name is Ed Sikov. My native habitat is my living room, which used to have a VCR, then a laserdisc machine, and now a Blu-Ray player. I am essential to the world of film biography.
No, I’m not being completely insulting and obnoxious; I’m paraphrasing one of the cinema’s most articulate egomaniacs—Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), the theater critic in Bette’s marvelous, incomparable All About Eve. I’m reminded of Addison’s snarky self-introduction because I’ve been thinking about Bette all day, particularly the earlier Davis classic—Jezebel, for which she won her second Oscar. Jezebel is set in a particularly hothouse New Orleans, the city that bestowed upon the world the cocktail known as the Sazerac. My partner, Dan, loves Sazeracs. They’re the only cocktail he ever voluntarily orders when we’re out. I sometimes order two of something by, ahem, “mistake,” before he arrives, so he obtains a little alcoholic nourishment from something other than his beloved chilled Pernod. In Jezebel, Bette ruins her life by wearing the wrong dress to a New Orleans cotillion. Her intended, played by Henry Fonda, has this enormous stick up his ass and drops her because of the dress, but then comes down with yellow fever near the end, and Bette climbs aboard the cart that’s dragging him to the island of the lepers, and they both are presumed to lose their noses to leprosy and die happily ever after. It’s fabulous.
Recipes for Sazeracs are just like certain scenes in Jezebel: elaborate and courtly rituals that are utterly meaningless and destructive. “Take two glasses; put a sugar cube in one and rub the rim of the other with a lemon peel, but don’t dare put the peel in the drink or I’ll challenge you to a duel. Pour Absinthe onto the sugar cube in the first glass, and then add precisely 4 drops of bitters…” You get the picture. I refuse to participate in rites that Southerners treat as “antebellum” but are actually antediluvian. If I want a drink, I want to mix it and drink it now, not spend what seems like 6 hours in order to make the quaint-to-the-point-of-inanity traditional New Orleans Sazerac recipes that are handed down from New Orleans father to New Orleans son—much like the slaves these fine, hidebound white people used to own before they lost the Civil War and had to give their human chattel their freedom.
Moving right along…Dan and I were at the beach house by ourselves, for once, and I couldn’t deal with Dan’s sipping a simple chilled Pernod while I experimented with liquors and potions for my cocktails column, so I surprised him by arriving first and buying a bottle of good rye and a bottle of the wicked, brain-melting Absinthe. “I’ll make mine with Pernod,” was his response to my offer of a wormwood-aged, formerly-illegal Absinthe-kissed Sazerac.” “Cripe!” I blurted. “Make what you want.”
I took the Absinthe out to the deck and forgot entirely about mixing it with rye.
The next evening I was still on the ant antebellum crusade.
“This is just like Jezebel,” I snarled as I leafed through the cocktail books. Some were mine, but most came with the house, which was built by the guy who owned “Showers”—it’s a bar in Chelsea that features guys in Speedos drenching , self-lovingly soaping, and rinsing themselves onstage. The old gang showers at the Columbia gym were hotter.
The Sazerac was born in the Big Easy. Easy? That’s a laugh! “The South should have seceded,” I muttered. “These recipes are inane.”
“Then don’t make them,” Dan sighed. “I’m sorry I brought it up. I had one at that conference in Satan’s humid maw” (New Orleans), “and I thought you’d like it. I should have my head examined.”
“For what? Lice?”
Poor Dan. “Listen to this,” I said. “‘Pack a 3 ½ -ounce glass with ice.’ (‘Not a 4-ounce glass, not a 3-ounce glass, but a precious little 3 ½ -ounce glass. Cripe!’) ‘In another 3 ½-ounce glass, moisten a sugar cube with water, then crush it.’ (‘Oh sweet Mary!’) ‘Blend with rye and bitters. Add cubes of ice and stir. Dump out the ice and pour in the absinthe. Coat the inside of the glass and pour out the excess.’ (‘No, asshole—drink it!’) ‘Strain the rye into the absinthe-coated glass. Twist a lemon peel over the glass so that the lemon oil cascades into the drink.’ (‘Cascades! That’s Bette’s psycho asylum in Now, Voyager!’) ‘Then rub the peel over the rim of the glass.”
Then came the most idiotic sentence ever written in a cocktail recipe: “As Wilfred Frisbee St. Bernard says, ‘Do not commit the sacrilege of dropping the peel into the drink.’”
“Ohhhh,” I intoned. “It’s a sacrilege. Remind me to plop a whole lemon in.”’
Dan was getting sick of it. “I wish I—no, you had never been born. Why don’t you drink your vodka on the rocks and I’ll have Pernod and we’ll give the absinthe away to a needy child.”
“No!” I shouted a bit too loud. (I’d been sneaking hits of absinthe all afternoon.) “I’ll make the damn Sazeracs. Only I’m going to do it my way. Let New fucking Orleans declare war on me.”
By the third round of Sazeracs, which are quite powerful, we’d done 180s: I was extolling the virtues of antebellum gentility, while Dan was strategizing the next Civil War.