Vanity Fair, December 1915
MY BATTLE WITH DRINK
Being the First of Vanity Fair’s Great Redemption Stories
Confided by the Addict to P. G. Wodehouse
(Editor’s Note— It may seem to some that this sort of article has been done to death by Kate Jordan and Maximilian Foster in interviewing McClure’s Magazine’s troupe of trained dipsomaniacs. But it was the general opinion in the Vanity Fair office that it would be criminal to let this confession get past us. A human document of vital, palpitating interest, it is also the most striking warning to the youth of this country ever penned. Next month: “How I Quit Chewing Gum,” by a hopeless pepsin-fiend.)
I COULD tell my story in two words,—the two words “I drank.” (But while editors make a practice of paying for human documents by length, I’m hanged if I’m going to do so.) But I was not always a drinker. This is the story of my downfall,—and of my rise, for, through the influence of a good woman, I have, thank Heaven, risen from the depths and can now go through Times Square without even hesitating at the drug-store. The other day I met a wild young fellow, a chum of my unregenerate days, up in New York for a good time. He took my arm and began to steer me to the nearest Riker and Hegeman. “Come, Cyril,” he cried. “We shall only be young once. Let us enjoy life while we may. I’ll blow you to a nut sundae.” I shook him off. “No, Clarence,” I replied, kindly but firmly, “I am through with all that sort of thing. I am saved.”
I lost a friend, but I retained my self-respect.
I was not always a slave of the soda-fountain. The thing stole upon me gradually, as it does upon so many young men. As a boy, I remember taking a glass of root-beer, but it did not grip me then. I can recall that I even disliked the taste. I was a young man before temptation really came upon me. My downfall began when I joined the Yonkers Short-Hand and Typewriting Correspondence College.
It was then that I first made acquaintance with the awful power of ridicule. They were a hard-living set at college—reckless youths. They frequented movie-palaces. They thought nothing of winding up an evening with a couple of egg-phosphates and a chocolate fudge. They laughed at me when I refused to join them. I was only twenty. My character was undeveloped. I could not endure their scorn. The next time I was offered a drink I accepted. They were pleased, I remember. They called me “Good old Cyril!” and a good sport and other complimentary names. I was intoxicated with sudden popularity.
HOW vividly I can recall that day! The shining counter, the placards advertising strange mixtures with ice-cream as their basis, the busy men behind the counter, the half cynical, half pitying eyes of the girl in the cage where you bought the soda-checks. She had seen so many happy, healthy boys through that little hole in the wire netting, so many thoughtless boys all eagerness for their first soda, clamoring to set their foot on the primrose path that leads to destruction.
It was an apple marshmallow sundae, I recollect. I dug my spoon into it with an assumption of gaiety which I was far from feeling. The first mouthful almost nauseated me. It was like cold hair-oil. But I stuck to it. I could not back out now. I could not bear to forfeit the newly-won esteem of my comrades. They were gulping their sundaes down with the speed and enjoyment of old hands. I set my teeth, and persevered, and by degrees a strange exhilaration began to steal over me. I felt that I had burnt my boats and bridges; that I had crossed the Rubicon. I was reckless. I ordered another round. I accosted perfect strangers and forced sundaes upon them. I was the life and soul of that wild party.
The next morning brought remorse. I did not feel well. I had pains, physical and mental. But I could not go back now. I was too weak to dispense with my popularity. I was only a boy, and on the previous evening the captain of the Checkers Club, to whom I looked up with an almost worshipping reverence, had slapped me on the back and told me that I was a corker. I felt that nothing could be excessive payment for such an honor. That night I gave a party at which orange phosphate flowed like water. It was the turning-point.
I had got the habit!
I WILL pass briefly over the next few years. I continued to sink deeper and deeper into the slough. I knew all the drug-store clerks in New York by their first names, and they called me by mine. I no longer even had to specify the abomination I desired. I simply handed the man my ten-cent check and said: “The usual, Jimmy,” and he understood. I neglected my business and undermined my health. It became a regular thing for me to steal out during office hours and hurry to a drug-store. My manner with customers became strange. I was nervous and distrait. I became a secret candy-eater.
At first, considerations of health did not trouble me. I was young and strong, and my constitution quickly threw off the effects of my dissipation. Then, gradually, I began to feel worse. I was losing my grip. I found a difficulty in concentrating my attention on my work. I had dizzy spells. Eventually I went to a doctor. He examined me thoroughly, and shook his head.
“If I am to do you any good,” he said, “you must tell me all. You must hold no secrets from me.”
“Doctor,” I said, covering my face with my hands, “I am a confirmed soda-fiend.”
He gave me a long lecture and a longer list of instructions. I must take air and exercise and I must become a total abstainer from sundaes of all descriptions. I must avoid limeade like the plague, and if anybody offered me a Bulgarzoon I was to knock him down and shout for the nearest policeman.
I LEARNED then for the first time what a bitterly hard thing it is for a man in a large and wicked city to keep away from soda when once he has got the habit. Everything was against me. The old convivial circle began to shun me. I could not join in their revels and they began to look on me as a grouch. In the end I fell, and in one wild orgy undid all the good of a month’s abstinence. I was desperate then. I felt that nothing could save me, and I might as well give up the struggle. I drank two pin-ap-o-lades, three grapefruitolas and an egg-zoolak, before pausing to take breath.
And then, one day, I luckily met May, the girl who effected my reformation. She was a clergyman’s daughter who, to support her widowed mother, had accepted a non-speaking part in a musical comedy production entitled “Oh Joy! Oh Pep!” Our acquaintance ripened, and one night I asked her out to supper.
I LOOK on that moment as the happiest of my life. I met her at the stage-door, and conducted her to the nearest soda-fountain. We were inside and I was buying the checks before she realized where she was, and I shall never forget her look of mingled pain and horror.
“And I thought you were a live one!” she murmured.
I confessed everything to her. It seemed that she had been looking forward to a little lobster and champagne. The idea was absolutely new to me. She quickly convinced me, however, that such was the only refreshment which she would consider, and she recoiled with unconcealed aversion from my suggestion of a Kumyss and an Eva Tanguay. That night I tasted wine for the first time, and my reformation began.
It was hard at first, desperately hard. Something inside me was trying to pull me back to the sundaes for which I craved, but I resisted the impulse. Always with her divinely sympathetic encouragement, I gradually acquired a taste for alcohol. And suddenly, one evening, like a flash it came upon me that I had shaken off the cursed yoke that held me down; that I never wanted to see the inside of a drug-store again. Cocktails, at first repellent, have at last become palatable to me. I drink high-balls for breakfast. I am saved.
Compare this excerpt from “The Hardest Ride a Man Can Take: Showing How Very Easy it is to Swear off, but—” as told to Maximilian Foster (McClure’s, August 1915):
This is not a tract. Neither is this the record of an ordinary drunkard. I pride myself on that. Far worse, I was instead that most dangerous of all topers, the moderate drinker. The drunkard, you see, knows his peril. The other though lives on in a fool’s paradise of fancied safety. Not until his nerves are gone, his digestion a memory, does he awake to what has happened. But never mind that. I read no one a sermon on Demon Rum. I merely hand you my experience the time I sought to give Demon Rum the hoo-hoo.
Riker & Hegeman owned some 90 drug stores in leading Eastern cities. In October 1915 the United Drug Company acquired a controlling interest in the company.
Bulgarzoon, zoolak, and Kumyss are cultured dairy beverages, somewhere between buttermilk and yogurt. More information at this web site.
The only reference I’ve found to Eva Tanguay’s preferred beverage is one which says she “spent a week at The Roycroft Inn, drinking buttermilk.”
—Notes by Neil Midkiff