The Points Interview: Daniel Okrent

Author interviews will be a recurring special feature on Points, and our first foray into the genre is with Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

But what about the Bronfmans?

LAST CALL tells the difficult-to-believe story of Prohibition— how a surprisingly diverse coalition of organizations united to achieve the unlikely goal of amending the Constitution in a way that limited personal freedom; how the 14-year reign of Prohibition altered American politics, economy, jurisprudence, and social life; and how a combination of failed implementation policies, official corruption, and the devastating economic effects of the Depression brought about Repeal. In short, my book seeks to answer three simple questions: How did it happen? What exactly was it? And how did it end?

What do you think a bunch of alcohol & drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Many scholars have trod this ground before, but I think that few have presented the Prohibition story as a well-populated narrative.  Beyond that, though, I’m especially proud of how I was able to establish the interconnection of economic and tax policy to both the rise and fall of Prohibition. This was the case in Prohibition’s advent (its leading tacticians understood that it could not occur without the prior ratification of the 16th amendment, authorizing an income tax), and in its demise.  I do think that the evidence I found in the papers of the du Pont family and the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment proves incontrovertibly that the du Ponts and their allies in the AAPA were driven as much by their anti-income tax fervor as by their acknowledged belief in personal liberty.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing you find most interesting about your book?

Well, the easy answer would be “everything.”  The joy of working on this book was having my preconceptions shattered at every turn.  I had no idea that the KKK and the IWW had both lined up on the side of Prohibition; that an organization I had never heard of before beginning my research – the Anti-Saloon League – was unquestionably the most effective political pressure group in American history; that the most successful evasion of the Volstead Act occurred under the auspices of the Catholic Church and a large number of rabbis – and so on.

But, re-reading the proposal my agent circulated to publishers in 2005, I see that I had promised to tell the story of Joseph P. Kennedy’s involvement in bootlegging. Although you can’t prove a negative, I believe my research establishes with a probability of, oh, 99 percent that Kennedy had nothing at all to do with bootlegging.  What’s more, I think I’ve successfully traced the origin of the popular, if mistaken, belief that he did.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned.  What stone from Last Call are you most curious to see turned over soon?

The Bronfman family’s eight-decade effort to disguise the illegal origins of the family fortune hasn’t been totally successful, and I think I (and other researchers) have done a decent job of countering their mythology. But nothing would thrill me more than the emergence of their business records from the 1920’s.  A Bronfman brother-in-law claimed in testimony before a Royal Commission appointed by the Canadian government that he had burned the business’s records because “I had no further use for them.”  He was probably telling the truth, but if not….

Since you kindly agreed to be our first interview, how about a Special Bonus Question?  Jeremy Irons, Tom Hanks, and Oliver Platt provide voiceover narration in Ken Burns’s Prohibition.  Did they have to audition to see who sounded the most like you?

Casting me was easy: throughout the completed film (which will air on PBS this fall), there’s a gray-haired, overweight, somewhat beaten-down talking head who is identified on screen as “Daniel Okrent, author.” I don’t know where they found him, but he’s very believable.

[Got an author you’d like to see interviewed? Contact Points Managing Editor Trysh Travis as ttravis@ufl.edu.]

2 thoughts on “The Points Interview: Daniel Okrent

  1. In 1992 the Social History of Alcohol Review published my article“Who Will Pay the Tax”, In this article i explored the connections between the federal income tax, Prohibition, and Repeal. My book, Brewing Battles, published in 2007, presented the same story. I am happy that Mr. Okrent agrees with me..

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