Putting on the Ritz

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It was a time of grandiose parties at Gold Coast estates, jazz bands and nightclubs, flappers and gangsters, rum runners and speakeasies. F. Scott Fitzgerald had immortalized the carefree and lavish lifestyle in his 1925 classic The Great Gatsby, and for the most part, Long Islanders were living it up in pure Gatsby style.

At the same time, the country was dealing with the temperance movement, a poorly attempted means of getting the population to drink less alcohol and to abolish intoxication. The movement was lenient in the beginning, and pushed for nothing but drinking in moderation, but taverns and saloons were looked upon as places of evil and debauchery. It was decided that the best way to rid society of these evils would be to abolish alcohol completely.

Prohibition, which banned the consumption and production of alcohol, began in 1920 and lasted for 13 years. When the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution took effect on January 16, 1920, restaurants and bars on Long Island and beyond, draped their tables in black cloths. It was the end of an era. Back in 1919, when the law was still in the discussion stages, many people purchased large amounts of alcohol and stored it in hidden places.

img20141020_10473322_optPhoto courtesy of Gary Lawrance, Mansions of the Gilded Age

Prohibition wasn’t going to stop the Gold Coast’s rowdy partygoers. Once the stored alcohol ran out, the cosmopolitan rich turned to makeshift stills known as “bathtub gin” and “white lightning.” These stills produced all kinds of libations. What didn’t come from local stills often came from outside the country.

Using high-speed boats and cars to outrun the U.S. Coast Guard, rum runners created an underground business transporting illegal alcohol from places as far away as the Caribbean and Canada. Route 25A was known as the Kings Highway, and the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway was referred to as Rum Runners Road.

It was dangerous business for the rum runners whose only job was to smuggle illegal alcohol into the country. While high-stepping, cigarette-smoking women sported their short bob haircuts and danced the Charleston with young rich men, the rum runners put their lives on the line to provide booze to their glamorous parties. Of course, business is business, and there was money to be found in this occupation. Also seeing the high demand for alcohol were gangsters who opened up their own speakeasies and made profits from illegal sales.

For those less-affluent people who did not have the luxury of living in one of the North Shore’s mansions, they had to satisfy their drinking needs in other ways, via secret locations. Speakeasies, run by bootleggers, began to crop up all over Long Island. They were located in the basements of build- ings, restaurants and clubs. The speakeasy was a place where people could socialize and get a drink, but to enter, a secret password was often required.

All types of interesting brews began to emerge at the speakeasies. A concoction known as “bath-tub rye” was made of a poor-quality and potentially toxic alcoholic liquor called “rotgut” and was sold at a place called Old John’s Shack in the woods of Bellmore. For $1.50 you could order a large pitcher of beer at Otto’s Silver Wave in Freeport, or at Fred’s Roadhouse in Wantagh. Sunrise Highway, which became known as the Great Light Way, was lined with speakeasies that served shots of gin for 50 cents. Young men were often seen leaving these places with flasks of whiskey attached to their hips.

Along with the speakeasies, nightclubs playing the latest jazz bands began to surface. These nightclubs attracted all kinds of people, including politicians, actors and actresses who came to dance and illegally drink. Even New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker was spotted on occasion at one or more of these establishments. Many of the clubs existed along Merrick Road, where Guy Lombardo once played at the famous Pavillon Royal where Champagne might sell for $100 a bottle. Before long, Merrick Road became known as Glitter Alley.

Those people not wanting to venture out into the nightlife stayed at home and made their own moonshine. Some crafty entrepreneurs even sold their liquors for profit. An older woman who lived in Garden City actually advertised her homemade libation as “Guaranteed Scotch.”

No matter what the government told them, alcohol found its way back into the lives of everyone who enjoyed it, illegal or not. Prohibition, which was later called “The Noble Experiment” was finally repealed on December 5, 1933, after growing pressure from the anti-prohibition movement. The Great Depression was right around the corner af- ter the stock market crashed in 1929. There was a need for jobs and money which could be brought in by the manufacture and sale of alcohol. The 18th Amendment had been repealed, and the 21st Amendment once again made alcohol legal.

Long Island’s Gold Coast estates had reason to celebrate and the good times rolled once again.