Sunday, July 27, 2008

On the Town With Lucius Beebe

Lucius Beebe is little remembered today. But for a long time, from the 1930s until his death in 1966, he was the personification of various (mainly French) terms which are (sadly) no longer in popular use: Gourmand, epicure, boulevardier, bon vivant, flaneur, etc. A columnist for the New York Herald-Tribune in the '30s and '40s, he was remarkably elegantly turned out and a tad decadent for a journalist. Walter Winchell called him "Luscious Lucius." And he frequented the culinary and society centers of the day: The Colony, "21," El Morocco, The Stork Club and more. Today, he is perhaps best known for having coined the term "Cafe Society," a group of which he was undoubtedly a member.

He was also a prodigious drinker, of wine, cocktails and just about everything.

While in New Orleans recently, I dropped by Crescent City Books and picked up the Holiday Magazine Book of the World's Fine Foods. It's a huge coffee table book that offers a wonderful view onto what eating and drinking and entertaining was in the U.S. circa 1960.

Beebe wrote four chapters in the book: ones of caviar, one on top cuts of meat, and a "Spendthrift Tour" of both New York and San Francisco. Imagine: Holiday paid him to spend as much money as possible on food, drink and lodging over a long weekend in both cities. Journalism certainly has gone downhill since then. I can't get any of my publications to pay my way across town.

Anyway, the article in a fascinating study in how people (well, Lucius) consumed comestibles in those great bygone days of Yankee glory. Here are a few sections:

An additional reason I cleave to the St. Regis over the years, and perhaps a trivial one, is that it has never attempted to charged me for ice service to my apartment. One of the most miserable of petty larcenies, the practice of charging four bits for cube ice and highball set-ups, came into existence during the years of World War II and has never ceased to arouse me to a state of rage...

At the St. Regis you will be officially registered in which Chief Bartender Fernand Petiot set two three-ounce martinis in front of you, and you hoist the first one of the day in the direction of the Fiddlers three behind the back bar.

Notes the size of the Martinis in those days: Three ounces. The correct size still, by my lights.

For breakfast:

We find that the Madison Avenue Longchamps a few blocks from our hotel is suited to more expansive whims. Here out-of-season strawberries or melon, liver and bacon, creamed codfish or shirred chicken livers, together with fine hot French croissants and superlative coffee, come to about $3.50 each and assure confidence until the noontime martini looms on the horizon.

The noontime Martini! Beebe and his companion never stop drinking during this essay of the happenings of four days. A lot of Martinis, and usually Champagne with dinner. He favors Bollinger. He dines as The Colony, "21," Quo Vadis, Sardi's, Le Pavillon, Baroque, the Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel and Luchow's. My God! What a town New York was then.

The bill at Henri Soule's Le Pavillon—the restaurant of its day—comes to a whopping $109.25. This was in 1960, remember! A fortune! There he had only one Martini at the bar, because..

A minimum of two wine and a limited number of spirits is de regueur; and it's better to be able to walk out.

His wines that night were a Grands Echezeaux Burgundy from Romanee-Conti and a bottle of Dom Perignon 1947.

According to Lucius' account, tipplers had to wait until 1 PM on Sundays to be served alcohol, and waited upon that bell anxiously. For some reason, he favored Gibsons over Martinis at Sardi's. And at Luchow's, it was tall steins of dark Würzburger Hofbräu all the way. Twelve of them!

Lucius' tab for the whole weekend came to $750, picked up by Holiday. Nice work if you can get it.


Anonymous said...

One of my favorite writers. Thanks for bringing him back to the public eye!

Robert Simonson, "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches"-New York Times. said...

Ah, glad to see someone else appreciates Lucius. While he lived, he strode the City like a giant

Michael Dietsch said...

My local library sells donated books for a buck a pop. Yesterday, I found The Lucius Beebe Reader and pounced on it. Really looking forward to reading it.

I glanced through it, and saw a passage in which he's on a cross-country train, talking a woman drinking double Gibsons. Imagine getting a Gibson on Amtrak.

This world is going to hell.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother was his first cousin and had great stories to tell of him around family reunions.