Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Irvin S. Cobb: The Paducah Whiskey Man

Once he was among America’s top celebrities:  Author of 60 books , a writer compared favorably with Mark Twain,  he was the country’s highest paid journalist; a star of radio,  motion pictures, and the lecture circuit.  He hosted the Academy Awards in 1935.   He received the French Legion of Honor and two honorary doctorates.  A bridge over the Ohio River,  parks,  a major hotel, and a brand of cigars all were named for him.  Yet today,  75 years after his death, almost no one knows who Irvin S. Cobb was or what he did.  Importantly, as we shall see, Cobb deserves to be remembered as a stellar opponent of National Prohibition and a true whiskey man.

Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb was born in 1876 at his grandfather’s house in Paducah, Kentucky, shown here.  Because of the death of that grandfather and the alcoholism of his father, at the age of 16 he was forced to quit school to support his mother and siblings.  His native intelligence was soon apparent.   By the age of 19 he was the youngest newspaper editor in America, working for the Paducah Evening News.   

Cobb then went to work for the Louisville Evening News where his interest in whiskey first surfaced as the title of a humorous column he began to write called “Kentucky Sour Mash.”   Elated by the success of the column,  and encouraged by his wife,  Cobb headed out to New York City to make his mark.

In the Big Apple, after several false starts,  Cobb landed a job with the New York World, and within months was writing a nationally syndicated column, one that eventually boasted a readership of millions of Americans.  His popularity was enormous. In 1920 while covering the Democratic Presidential Convention, Cobb received votes for President from the Kentucky and Washington delegations. 

His fame spread to Hollywood where beginning in 1915 he starred in silent and later talking movies.  Among them was “Steamboat ‘Round the Bend,” a scene with liquor barrel and jug shown here.   Cobb also was a screenwriter for more than a dozen motion pictures.   

At the height of his reputation and popularity in 1920, National Prohibition was enacted.   Although later Cobb would claim to be only a light drinker, fellow journalist O.O. McIntyre once said of him:  “He belonged to that illustrious period when clean-minded newspapermen drank their rye neat...got drunk like gentlemen and took over the lines of the cab driver for a spin up Broadway as a red sun bleared an eye over Manhattan.” 

As a native Kentuckian,  Cobb was steeped in the lore of whiskey making.  He once wrote: “While I was growing up, through boyhood,  through my youth and on to manhood, I had the example of whiskey-drinking all about me.  Many of our oldest and most respected families owned and operated distilleries.  Some of them had been distillers for generations past;  they were proud of the purity of their product.  Men of all stations of life drank freely and with no sense of shame in their drinking....There were decanters on the sideboard; there were jimmy-johns in the cellar; and down at the place on the corner twenty standard varieties of bottled Bourbons and ryes were to be handed at an exceedingly moderate price.  Bar-rail instep, which is a fallen arch reversed, was a common complaint among us.”

National Prohibition also fell hard on Cobb.  At first he dealt with it humorously,  writing that:  “Since Prohibition came in and a hiccup became a mark of affluence instead of a social error, as formerly, and a loaded flank is a sign of hospitality rather than of menace,  things may have changed.” And again:  “Booze is a bad thing for some people and much too good for many of the others.”

That jocular attitude had vanished by 1929 when Cobb wrote the only American novel devoted to the whiskey industry.  Called “Red Likker,” his book tells the story of an old Kentucky family that founded a distillery called “Bird and Son” in the wake of the Civil War.  It traces the history of this operation up to the time of Prohibition when it is forced to close.   Ultimately the distillery is destroyed by fire and the family is reduced to running a crossroads grocery store.

Central to the novel is Cobb’s polemic against Prohibition.  Colonel Bird, the fictional founder of the distillery, argues with his sister, Juanita, a teetotaler and Prohibitionist,  at great length about the pros and cons of permitting the sale of alcoholic beverages.  The Colonel ultimately triumphs:   When the Volstead Act reduces the 42% alcohol in Juanita’s patent medicine,  she is shown to be an alcoholic.  She revives only when the Colonel pours her a shot of Kentucky bourbon. 

Not only did Cobb inveigh against Prohibition in his literary works,  he also made it a personal crusade.  In 1919 a white-haired former U.S. Navy officer and lawyer named Capt. William H. Slayton founded an organization called the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA).   Impelled neither by financial interests in the liquor industry nor by political ambition,  Slayton based his opposition on what he viewed as a misuse of national government power over U.S. citizens.   With this highly-principled approach he was able to attract a number of prominent Americans to the standard of the AAPA.  Among them was Irvin Cobb.  

Cobb became chairman of the Authors and Artists Committee of the AAPA.  The committee,  under his vigorous leadership, ultimately boasted 361 members including some of the leading figures of the day.   As chairman,  he released statements to the press blaming Prohibition for increased crime, alcoholism and disrespect for the law.  “If Prohibition is a noble experiment,”  he said in one, “then the San Francisco fire and the Galveston flood should be listed among the noble experiments of our national history.”   

Espousing the anti-Prohibition cause seems only to have enhanced Cobb’s popularity.  On April 30, 1929, the Irvin Cobb Hotel, the largest and most opulent of its kind in Western Kentucky, had its grand opening in his home town of Paducah.  He attended the ceremony.  Several months later a bridge across Ohio River also was named for him.  The New York Times on July 29, 1929, reported that Cobb had given his name to “a cigar, a dahlia, a Missouri corn cob pipe, a race horse, a bass bait, a hunting shirt, an Oregon canyon, a Texas street and a pointer dog.” 

When Prohibition finally ended in 1934,   Slayton, and Cobb were credited for their efforts.  Although many forces combined, the AAPA was a key element because of the strength of its arguments and the many influentials among its members.   The first night liquor became legal, Cobb reportedly went to a hotel bar that once again had begun pouring, pulled out a $20 bill and hollered,  “Drinks for everyone!”

Immediately after Repeal the whiskey trade was concerned that the buying public no longer knew how to make mixed drinks.  A raft of drink booklets resulted.   When the newly revived Frankfort Distilleries, maker of “Paul Jones Straight Whiskey,” needed a someone to author a “recipe book” for cocktails containing its spirituous products, Cobb was chosen for the assignment.   According to the distillery,  the author of “Red Likker” had brought to American literature “the best story of whiskey-making ever written.”

Cobb did not let his sponsors down.  The 52-page booklet is an eloquent testimony to the wonders of American whiskey and particularly to the brands produced by the distillery, including Paul Jones Bourbon.  Others were brand names the company had bought from defunct competitors.  The centerpiece of the drink book shows several of these whiskeys.  It also contained line drawings of black men serving whites that today would be considered racial stereotyping.

In “Irvin S. Cobb’s Own Recipe Book,” the author claimed, perhaps fancifully, that his ancestor,  one Deacon Henry Cobb,  an immigrant from Ireland,  was the first English-speaking resident in North America commissioned in 1636 to “draw spirits.”  He suggested that Deacon Cobb “was the pioneer licensed publican and victualer of all the glad New World.”   Two centuries later, Cobb  added, his great grandfather went west to Kentucky and founded “Squire Cobb Tavern,” along the Cumberland River in Kentucky, a business which he reputedly abandoned one jump ahead of the sheriff.

Cobb’s decline in popularity was as a rapid as his rise to celebrity had been.  A 1937 movie he scripted was a critical and popular flop.  Increasingly he began to espouse conservative causes and to write demeaningly about African Americans.   In 1941 his national column, that had run continuously since 1922, was canceled.   In failing health throughout the early 1940s Cobb, at age 68, died on  March 10, 1944.  He was buried in Paducah’s Oak Grove Cemetery.  The inscription on his stone says simply “Irvin Shewsbury Cobb,  1876-1944, “Back Home.”

Although once compared by critic H.L. Mencken to Mark Twain (Mencken quickly regretted it), Cobb’s literary reputation faded rapidly.  None of his books are currently in print, though many are available through used book outlets.  His style today seems highly dated and out of step with contemporary writing.   In the 74 years since his death he largely has been forgotten. Nevertheless, Irvin S. Cobb can be remembered as a true whiskey man, honored for his role in ending Prohibition, the “Great Experiment” that had become a great disaster.
Notes: The material for this article is drawn from a number of sources.  Principal among them was Cobb’s only book-length biography,  entitled “Irvin S. Cobb”  by Anita Lawson (Bowling Green State University Popular Press,  Ohio,  1984).  Cobb’s whiskey novel, “Red Likker,” was published by Cosmopolitan Book Corporation (New York, 1929).


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