10 Big-Time Literary Drunks

The blank page is terrifying. We all know the feeling. Anxiety is an integral part of writing — there's no getting around it. Healthy ways of dealing with the horror of filling emptiness with words that don't suck include stepping away from the computer and doing crunches, or meditating, or jerking off. But many of us are too fucked up to make these healthy choices, and we respond to the anxiety by pouring a little drink or three. Some of us know when to stop; others don't. Alcoholism is to writing what black lung disease is to coal miners. In our misspent youth, we may have been attracted to the image of ourselves sitting at our desks late into the night pounding out prose while pounding down Jack Daniels. I know I was. But after a while, I got so sick of waking up hung over and depressed that I began to confine my drinking to cocktail hours and parties and leave the bottle in the kitchen when I sit down to write. 

Here's a list of the casualties — writers who couldn't help themselves. They were all brilliant writers (well, nine of them were), and they all suffered from alcoholism. Most died way too young. Let this be a cautionary tale. Actually, it's a cautionary mini-series: next month we'll deal with literary druggies. 


Truman Capote

“I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius,” the author of the brilliant In Cold Blood once declared. It’s tough to argue with any of his claims. Capote drank and drank, peppering his liquor with prescription pills, to the point that when he had a hallucinatory seizure in 1980 at the age of 55 his doctors discovered that his brain had literally shrunk from all the pickling. He died at 59 of liver disease in 1984. That's only three years older than I am now. Oh God.

 

Grace Metalious

You have to be either an unconscionable snob or a moron to fail to appreciate Metalious’s masterpiece, the spectacular Peyton Place. The astounding success of the 1957 film and the subsequent — and equally popular — television series (1964-1969) have eclipsed Metalious’s novel, and that’s too bad; it’s a great read, particularly if you’re from a small and hypocritical town of the sort Metalious came from and subsequently blasted to smithereens in delightful detail in print. Alas, Metalious drank with such gusto that she died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1964 at the age of 39. I can't even remember being 39.

 

Jack Kerouac

The author of On the Road, which changed my life for the better and remains one of the most romantic novels I've ever read, was as unhappy when he wrote it as I was when I read it. But while the novel made me see the possibility of human connections, it appears to have done the opposite for Kerouac, who soon began consuming more and more alcohol in order to soothe his grinding emotional pain. “I’m Catholic,” said Kerouac, “and I can’t commit suicide. But I plan to drink myself to death.” And so he did. Kerouac was only 47 when he bled to death internally, the result of too many drinking binges. Would I trade the last nine years of my life for Kerouac's reputation? Can't answer that.

 

Anne Sexton

"The odor of death hung in the air/ like rotting potatoes," Anne Sexton once wrote. She was not a happy poet. Sexton, who liked to mix liquor with tranquilizers, took her own morbidity so far as to resent Sylvia Plath for swiping the suicide she believed was hers and hers alone: “She took something that was mine! That death was mine!" Sexton complained. She successfully managed her own suicide in 1974 at the age of 45 by drinking a tumbler full of vodka and sealing herself in her garage with the car’s motor running. I don't have the option; I have neither a car nor a garage.

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Scotty Fitzgerald was such a great wordsmith that he came up with this pithy description of the progressive nature of alcoholism, the disease that ended up killing him: “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” Fitzgerald tried many times to quit, and he managed to succeed for short periods of time, but his system never managed to recuperate, and he died of a heart attack at the age of 44. That's crazy. So many great books, so young to write them, so young to die.

 

Dorothy Parker

A heavy drinker herself, Parker attended the viewing of Fitzgerald’s body and had the presence of mind to quote from her friend’s best novel, The Great Gatsby: “The poor son-of-a-bitch.” Parker was an unusual drunk in that she managed to live a longer life than any of the other drinkers chronicled here. (She died at 74.) And she produced one of the great verses devoted to booze: “I like to have a martini,/Two at the very most./After three I'm under the table,/after four I'm under my host.”

 

Raymond Chandler

Talk about tying one on! The author of The Big Sleep and other Philip Marlowe detective novels as well as the cowriter of the screenplay for Double Indemnity, Chandler was known to produce his best writing only when blind drunk. He described his routine: “I start with a drink of white wine and end up drinking two bottles of Scotch a day. Then I stop eating. After four or five days of that I am ill. I have to quit…. I shake so that I can’t hold a glass of water.” Some might say that this explains the incoherence of Chandler's work. (See my highly unpopular "Your Favorite Book Sucks: The Big Sleep.")

 

Tennessee Williams

The playwright who gave the world A Streetcar Named Desire, A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, and other landmark works of the American theater was fond of the New Orleans classic cocktail, the Ramos Gin Fizz. It’s quite a mixture: gin, lemon juice, lime juice, simple syrup, egg white, orange flower water, and to top it all off, heavy cream. That Williams could get drunk on this noxious brew is a testament to his liver’s superhuman strength. He didn’t die from cirrhosis but rather from choking on the cap of a medicine bottle. My question: who opens a medicine bottle with his teeth?

 

Dylan Thomas

With death from alcohol-induced encephalopathy looming, the great Welsh poet declared to an astonished friend at the Chelsea Hotel in early November, 1953 that he had just come from the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village and boasted, "I've had 18 straight whiskies. I think that's the record.” He was dead within 48 hours. The night wasn't good, and he didn't go gently into it.

 

 John Cheever

To say that Cheever was a mess is an understatement. The so-called “Chekhov of the suburbs” spent most of his life unable to accept his sexual attraction to men, so he often obliterated consciousness with alcohol. His friend John Updike wrote of him, “for decades he brought to social intercourse the impatience of an incorrigible alcoholic, his inmost attention focused on the next drink.” I'll end with Cheever because Cheever did manage to sober up at the end of his life, just in time to write his masterpiece, Falconer. See? This column has a happy ending. Sort of.


I know I left out many, many alky writers; the roster is simply too lengthy to include more than a handful. Which of your favorite drunks did I leave out? But remember: we're confining ourselves to drinkers this month. Next month's column is devoted to the stoners and acid freaks we love and whose ends we fear.

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Comments

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words March 1, 2013 - 5:51pm

Malcolm Lowry - I think that Under the Volcano is the key story that got me seriously interested in literature.

Christopher Provost's picture
Christopher Provost from Nashua, New Hampshire is reading The Zombie Survival Guide March 1, 2013 - 5:58pm

Hemingway and Poe.  I guess Bukowski should be in there too, but everyone uses him as an example.

Casey Gomes's picture
Casey Gomes March 1, 2013 - 6:09pm

The name I thought for certain would be listed here would be that of Eugene O'Neill.  His Bowery days are legendary.

Robert Granger's picture
Robert Granger from Calgary, Alberta is reading Gone Girl March 1, 2013 - 6:56pm

I second Hemingway as a write-in and also nominate Hunter S Thompson.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Robert Caro's THE POWER BROKER March 1, 2013 - 7:32pm

Yeah, yeah, Hemingway. I left out Hemingway because I don't like Hemingway. And I'm starring Hunter Thompson in next month's druggie list. O'Neill is a great choice, and so are Poe and Lowry. Thanks for reading, guys!

--Ed

MMoreno's picture
MMoreno from California is reading Dance, Dance, Dance March 1, 2013 - 7:35pm

+1 for Hemingway, Poe, and Hunter S. Thompson

MMoreno's picture
MMoreno from California is reading Dance, Dance, Dance March 1, 2013 - 7:37pm

Oops, double post.

Trevor Duplessis's picture
Trevor Duplessis March 1, 2013 - 7:57pm

Sorry about the repeats, folks. My keyboard's dying. 

 

Trevor Duplessis's picture
Trevor Duplessis March 1, 2013 - 7:55pm

You just had to go after Chandler again, didn't you? If you're looking for the definitive incoherent drunk, I'd say Joyce would be a better fit.

 

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Robert Caro's THE POWER BROKER March 1, 2013 - 8:39pm

Yes, I was compelled to rip into Chandler again. I couldn't help myself.  Attacking Joyce, however, is a low blow.

--Ed 

Christopher Provost's picture
Christopher Provost from Nashua, New Hampshire is reading The Zombie Survival Guide March 1, 2013 - 8:52pm

Yeah, I agree with Hunter on the druggie list, for sure.  You don't like Hemingway - fair enough.  But I thought this was a list of literary drunks.  The man was a titan among raging alcoholics.  You can bash his writing all you want but you can't take that away from him.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Robert Caro's THE POWER BROKER March 1, 2013 - 9:06pm

You have a point, Christopher. But then I would have had to leave out someone. I don't like chandler either, but 2 fifths of scotch a day was a detail that I believed required mentioning. I have polished off a lot of booze in my 56 years on the planet, but I have never come anywhere close to 2 fifths a day. That's mindblowing.

--Ed 

Christopher Provost's picture
Christopher Provost from Nashua, New Hampshire is reading The Zombie Survival Guide March 1, 2013 - 10:07pm

Fair enough. Two 5ths a day is pretty fucking staggering.

Anthony M.'s picture
Anthony M. from Michigan is reading Girl With Curious Hair by DFW March 1, 2013 - 10:20pm

How could you leave out Bukowski!?

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Robert Caro's THE POWER BROKER March 1, 2013 - 10:38pm

I don't know, Anthony. I don't know.

--Ed

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks March 2, 2013 - 5:36am

Loved the list, though, especially the inclusion of Anne Sexton. So often neglected in these lists because her suicide overshadowed her acts. But yeah, Joyce should have been on here, if only because I credit him as the reason I write.

As for druggies? For God's sake, William S. Burroughs. Speaking of Burroughs -- Augusten Burroughs could have warranted a place on this list, if it wasn't for the fact that his writing was shit until Wolf at the Dinner Table.

(I expected Hemingway so much and saw his name in the tags that I somehow convinced myself that he WAS included and thought all the comments about him were from people who hadn't read the article. I should sleep.)

Michael Thomas's picture
Michael Thomas from South Jersey is reading books March 3, 2013 - 2:44pm

Cool column, and I agree with everyone that's been named except nobody said Faulkner. He should be near the top.

drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines March 4, 2013 - 5:28pm

This: 

Alcoholism is to writing what black lung disease is to coal miners~ 

is solid gold and exuses any exclusions in this lovely assemblage of literary alkies, aka my people. 

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn March 4, 2013 - 6:33pm

Bukowski is almost too obvious to include on the list. Plus he lived pretty damn long being as pickled as he was.

Definately Poe.

Even though John O'Brien was a gun-shot suicide, his sad, alcohol-drenched book, "Leaving Las Vegas," was essentially his suicide note.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Robert Caro's THE POWER BROKER March 5, 2013 - 11:39am

Great call on O'Brien, Dino. And thanks for the kind words, drea, Michael, and Courtney!

--Ed

Trevor Duplessis's picture
Trevor Duplessis March 5, 2013 - 7:00pm

Sorry about the low blow, Ed. I couldn't write as well as you or any of them on their drunkest day. 

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Robert Caro's THE POWER BROKER March 7, 2013 - 12:09pm

That's kind of you to put me up there with these folks, but I only wish.  You could definitely write as well as I can. Just get yourself a fifth of Jack and let 'er rip!

 

--Ed 

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer March 18, 2013 - 1:27pm

Hemingway, Thompson, and Bukowski are honorary membors of the league of extraordinary drunks with typwriters and do not need mention here. 

What about pot-head writers?

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Robert Caro's THE POWER BROKER March 21, 2013 - 10:03am

Tom1960: Druggies are the subject of April's column, though the ones I picked rarely if ever stopped with mj.

--Ed