06/08/2015 11:55 AM

 

William Vermilye Toffey, III. In 17 years old, 1931.

William Vermilye Toffey, III. In 17 years old, 1931.

 
 

 

Learn more…"William Toffey Reflects on Drink"

Speaking of the Temperance Society, it would occasionally hold quilting parties on our sun porch. My mother was amused overhearing the temperance ladies discussing their tonics which made them "feel so good."

Our evening drink was a Tom Collins -- gin, lemon juice, sugar and club soda, which we referred to as vichy water or seltzer water. The soda came in refillable siphon bottles – heavy glass bottles with spouts and levers in a metal head.

It wasn't hard to find a bar during Prohibition, especially in Hoboken where I went to prep school. Occasionally on our way to the trolley after school a few of us would stop in at Kelly's Clam House. Unlike a lot of bars in that era which had peepholes in the doors and you were looked over before being admitted, you just swung the door open at Kelly's and walked in.  Beer was a dime a glass.

The Hoboken police didn't bother the bars. I have no doubt that the McFeeley Democratic machine which ran the city was PAid well to allow them to stay open.

However, they would periodically close up Kelly's and padlock the door. The bar would open up next door. When the second bar was padlocked, Kelly's would reopen in the site next to that. By the time the third site was locked up, the lock would be off the first site and the whole thing would start all over.

The Meyer's Hotel ratskeller was another Hoboken feature. The waiters wore Bavarian costumes and all of them sang. So a group of us would visit there in an evening, order a pitcher of beer and join in the singing of the Schnitzelbank.

A reperatory company set up shop in a Hoboken theater and tried a few contemporary plays before hitting on a revival of "After Dark," a mid-1800s melodrama. It went over big.

Then the Bohemians discovered Hoboken. Bohemia was the name given to the artists, writers and other intellectuals who inhabited New York City's Greenwich Village. Christopher Morely, a popular writer and thinker of the day, wrote a small book referring to Hoboken as the "Seacoast of Bohemia."  People flocked to Hoboken to enjoy the good Hoboken beer and to hiss the villain.

On the night I attended "After Dark," Otto Kahn, one of America's leading financiers, occupied a box seat. Up until that time Hoboken, except for the area around Stevens Tech, had been looked down upon. It had been the butt of burlesque comedians' jokes. But Hoboken was the place to go as long as Prohibition lasted.

When the voters finally dumped prohibition, Kelly's became a respectable and popular seafood restaurant and to my knowledge it still is operating.                                                                                                        Meyer's Hotel, on the other hand, decided to fancy things up by hiring vaudeville acts and soon closed up.

My chum, Karl Burkardt, had a friend who knew the New York City "speakeasies" and we sampled a few, from a very fancy and expensive Bergerac to a friendly little bar on Varick St., around 10th St. There was a man guarding the door at each. They didn't hesitate to admit 17-year-olds since it wasn't anymore illegal to serve underage drinkers than to serve anyone else.

While I was working as a bellhop at the Wellsley Farms hotel at Thousand Islands, N.Y., prior to freshman year at college, I almost got a whole case of good Johnny Walker scotch. Since we were on the Canadian border, liquor was readily available. A man in a small motor boat would show up at the hotel and take orders, then go to Canada, pick un the liquor, and deliver it. One night the revenuers spotted him and gave chase. He turned into the canal that ran past the hotel and, since it was private property, the revenuers couldn't follow. He dumped his case of scotch into the water. Next day, I donned my swim suit and spent the better part of the morning in the 10-foot deep canal searching the bottom for the liquor.  I found it, but it was almost time for me to go on duty. I told the gardener about it, then took off. When I came off duty at 7 P.M., I met the gardener. The bootlegger had returned with a diver, the gardener said, and he had shown them where the liquor was. They retrieved it and gave him a bottle. He gave me a drink out of his bottle.

When I arrived at Lehigh University, I discovered that good beer and drinks were cheap and readily accessible there, too. It seems that the chief of police of Bethlehem, PA, was a former chaplain at Lehigh. Knowing the students, he apparently felt that they were going to drink anyway, and the same went for the workers  at the Bethlehem Steel works, so he let the bars operate and just kept an eye on them.

The students' favorite saloon was Mickey White's, which had a 72-foot bar. During fraternity house party weekends, the bar would be lined up three deep. On one such night, we found a policemen in front of the place. Our first thought was that Mickey White's had been raided. But no, the cop was just directing the parking.

There was a small bar not far from the campus which we liked. It was run by a man who had been a footba11 player for Lehigh many years before. I'm not using the word "student." (By the time I got to Lehigh, the university was boasting about its simon-pure athletic sponsorship policy.) A group of the town's doctors would meet there and talk about their cases. I won't repeat here some of the ripe yarns that I overheard.

I was home for the weekend shortly after Prohibition was repealed in 1933. As I got off the bus I decided I would like to have a drink. But now that it was legal to drink, it was illegal to drink on Sundays!

I told my dilemma to one of the locals I had exchanged pleasantries with in the past. He led me down an alley, knocked on a door, and I was admitted to membership in the Club Caprice. Private clubs were permitted to serve liquor on Sundays.

Later, at a second-floor bar, I was initiated into the Jeffersonian Democratic Club.

When I joined Sigma Phi Epsilon I also joined the nearby Beethoven Mannerchor, a German organization which had a large men's chorus, a women's chorus and an orchestra. It had a spacious building which student dues were in large measure responsible for and which consisted of an upstairs auditorium and a large downstairs barroom.

We'd like to get to the Mannerchor on Wednesday nights at about the time the men's chorus was ending its rehearsals. The thirsty singers would then crowd down to the bar and, after quenching their thirsts, would set up a chorus of "We want Schlegel." This meant that, after the serious singing, they were ready for the director to lead them in some fun singing.

With the repeal of Prohibition, student drinking gradually diminished. The novelty of defying the Constitution wore off.

"Dad; William Vermilye Toffey III"

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