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.
“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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.”
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.")
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?
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.
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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