One of my early film memories, and still one of my favorite films, is The African Queen starring Bogart and Kate Hepburn. It was an early model for what I assumed my life would be, fueled as I was at the time by golden age adventure films and Illustrated Classics versions of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. Naturally, I would become a grizzled adventurer and lead the kind of life where I spent a lot of time drinking whiskey at the end of a jungle bar in a joint of French Colonial design and where I was known simply as “The American.” While my life hasn’t been without its adventures, both grizzled and clean-shaven, they’ve rarely attained quite the rarefied airs of dragging a boat through a leech-infested swamp, though I did once find myself caught in the middle of a massive frog migration in Paynes Prairie, Florida. In the summer of 2015, however, I came a little bit closer to my childhood (and later) dreams of living an African Queen adventure, thanks to the fact that the actual African Queen ended up, through a circuitous series of events, docked in Key Largo (a fittingly Bogart location) where it is available for tours of the canals and coastline.
The famous Savoy Hotel is first mentioned in the James Bond canon in Fleming’s 1956 novel Diamonds are Forever, when M reveals to 007 that one of his targets, a diamond importer by the name of Rufus B. Saye, lives at the Savoy. Bond himself, of course, never needs to stay at the Savoy; he lives in London, after all, and no hotel maid service, no matter how distinguished could compete with the services of Bond’s own attendant, May, his “Scottish treasure.” For Ian Fleming himself, however, and for many of Great Britain’s intelligence workers, The Savoy was one of the most important spots in all of London during World War II. Not just because of it’s historic and highly regarded bar; but also because it had its own power supply, which meant that even during power outages caused by German bombing, the Savoy could continue to operate.
2015 marks Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. Over on Alcohol Professor, I’ve chosen to commemorate The Chairman of the Board’s centennial with The Chairman, The Poet, and The Dancer, looking at the history of Jilly’s Saloon, the joint Sinatra used as his home base whenever he was in New York City and owned by Jilly Rizzo, Sinatra’s right hand man. When he retired and sold the restaurant, it passed into the hands of a trio of Russians — including a Nobel Prize winning poet and the most famous ballet dancer in the world — who turned it into a hotspot for Russian ex-pats, intellectuals, and artists. Oh, and Johnny Carson was almost assassinated there by an angry Mob boss. Because of its length, it’s being posted in two parts. Part two is available here.
Over on The Alcohol Professor, I’m writing about that time George Washington bro-hugged his generals and bid them farewell with tankards of ale and bowls of turtle soup. The Bar that Birthed America celebrates the storied history of New York City’s Fraunces Tavern. From the Sons of Liberty to George Washington’s party, from nearly becoming a parking lot to getting blown up by terrorists, it’s a stunning slice of American history and a lovely place to have a drink.
There is a whimsical character in so much of what constitutes Prague, a tendency to find the creative, the artistic, and sometimes the absurd in even the darkest of places. That indomitable creative spirit is most evident in the place where many of the Czech Republic’s creative spirits have come for their final rest. Historic Vyšehrad Cemetery, located on a hill high above Prague and on the grounds of old Vyšehrad Castle, was established in 1849 as a cemetery dedicated almost entirely to the dizzying number of musicians, painters, sculptors, writers, dancers, actors, and other artists who made Prague in particular and the Czech Republic in general one of Europe’s most interesting nations.
Author’s note: I wrote this piece for the Winter 2001-2002 issue of Route 66 magazine. It was my first professionally published magazine piece. I was a different writer then, though not perhaps quite that different than I am now. In the spirit of a happily haunted Halloween, I reprint it here, literary warts and all, unaltered even though some of the details are no doubt out of date. Photos by Ellie Tam.
On October 25, 1829, the gates of Eastern State Penitentiary — ESP — creaked open to admit the first of many criminals who would be confined behind its walls and within its solemn cells. Designed by John Haviland, one of the most storied architects of 19th century Philadelphia, it was the first true penitentiary in the young United States of America, embracing the “Pennsylvania System” conceived of by Benjamin Franklin. The primary principle behind the system was that imprisonment should be a time of reflection and penitence, with prisoners confined to solitary cells with very little to do beyond stare at the blank white walls and think about their sins.
Last Halloween, I wrote an article on Alcohol Professor about haunted bars in New York City. Well, gather ’round the campfire, children, because I’ve more macabre drinking tales yet to tell. Only this time, we’re going global. Son of Booooozy Tales: Haunted Bars Go International looks at haunted pubs, bars, and watering holes in New Orleans, Seattle, London, Wales, Dublin, Edinburgh, and Sydney. Be ye fairly warned. The person sitting next to you at the bar might have been there since the 1800s.
When it comes to spooks and spectres and things that go bump in the night, Prague is undeniably one of the richest towns in the world. Its bizarre history, winding streets, and jumble of architecture spanning centuries’ worth of styles make it the perfect setting for tales of the macabre and unexplained. On these streets prowled the golem created by Jewish mystic Rabbi Loew and the socially awkward Iron Knight, still trying to get a young woman to listen to him for a couple of hours so he might be freed of his murderer’s curse. Most famously, Prague was the center of medieval alchemy thanks to the obsession of its one-time ruler, Emperor Rudolf II, who invited mystics and alchemists and wizards from across the world to come to Prague. Deep beneath the cobblestone streets of this most mysterious of cities, at the Speculum Alchemiae, one can walk the secret passages and hidden laboratories where these sorcerers sought to unlock the secrets of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life.
My latest Frolic Afield at Alcohol Professor takes me far afield indeed, through New England, past Halifax, and up into the wild north of Nova Scotia. Malt & Moose is the tale of this journey most epic, a journey that included inadvertent weapons smuggling, attractive border guards, grazing moose, and of course whiskey since the point of the trip was a visit to Glenora, Canada’s first single malt whiskey distillery.