Topical Guide 15
He swallowed the last of his Scotch. My father immediately signaled Whitey to bring him another, which Mr. Beaker began drinking without noticing that it was a new drink. . . .
He looked at May, who was waiting for him to finish the thought, and at Whitey and my father, also waiting. Then he looked at his drink. . . .
He smiled and pushed his glass toward Whitey with more vigor than he had intended. It slid across the bar and over the edge. Whitey snatched the glass out of the air and began refilling it. . . .
He reached for his drink, then rejected it with a scowl and a wave. “Good night to all,” he said. “Whitey, you run a very nice place here. Where is the door?”
Little Follies, “My Mother Takes a Tumble”
Drinking and smoking are both themes, appearing most markedly in Reservations Recommended and Passionate Spectator, but also here and there throughout the Personal History. Often the activity of smoking or drinking is emphasized, rather than the effect of either. In fact, it seems to me that the activity, the bit of theatrical business, is most often the reason for including smoking or drinking: tapping a cigarette before lighting it as a way of introducing a pause in the action or drawing attention to the cigarette-tapper, ordering a drink as a way of interrupting or terminating a difficult conversation, stubbing a cigarette out in an ashtray as a way of ending a scene.
At the time when “My Mother Takes a Tumble” may be supposed to be taking place, a time that resembles 1946, both smoking and drinking were regarded as appropriate adult amusements, even as marks of sophistication.
Here is B. H. Friedman recalling his introduction to the sophisticated art of smoking at a somewhat earlier time, probably around 1938:
By the time I finish grade school I try two or three of Mother’s cigarettes. I puff them in front of the bathroom mirror, getting the smoke in and out of my mouth as quickly as possible. I attempt to blow it out through my nose as if inhaling, since inhaling itself makes me cough and feel dizzy. I like what I see in the mirror: a little movie star, perhaps a Dead End Kid, tough and with a lot of savvy. . . .
Several times at high school I smoke cigarettes given to me by classmates. By now I can more easily blow the smoke out through my nose to give the impression I’m inhaling, but real inhaling still makes me cough and feel dizzy. Finally I buy my first pack of cigarettes. I go to a wedge-shaped tobacco shop at Columbus circle on the fringe of the first-run movie theater district. The store has cigarettes of all nations. I select Sweet Caporals, which are no longer popular, but which I remember as the brand Studs Lonigan “pasted in his mug.” I can hardly wait to get out of the store and smoke one. Walking down Broadway with the cigarette lit, I feel both manly and elegant, as sophisticated as Adolphe Menjou or William Powell. A beggar asks if I can spare a smoke. I give him a cigarette. Nobody has ever asked me for one before.
B. H. Friedman, “Drinking Smoke,” in Coming Close: A Novella and Three Stories as Alternative Autobiographies
By the way: I know for a fact that Kraft read “Drinking Smoke” in The New American Review, where it first appeared, in the early 1970s.
I wonder how many men attempted to emulate the cigarette-lighting savoir-faire that Paul Henreid exhibited in 1942’s Now Voyager? Need I point out to you that there is much more to the whole business than economically lighting two cigarettes with a single match? Wink-wink, nudge-nudge?
A personal note: About twenty years after the release of Now, Voyager I successfully, and smoothly, performed the cigarette-lighting stunt for myself and Margot and Martha Glynn, thus out-performing Henreid by fifty percent. I have other smoking anecdotes that you might enjoy, but this is not my Topical Autobiography, nor is it a substitute for my Topical Autobiography.
[more to come on Wednesday, June 2, 2021]
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