- Through the Glass Clearly
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Like a languorous panther, the martini is both exquisite and dangerous. Its strength is only matched by its glamour. But it is not to be trifled with. Lauded by Bernard DeVoto as the “supreme [End Page 85] American gift to world culture” and by H. L. Mencken as the “only American invention as perfect as the sonnet,” the martini, when drunk in excess, can be ruinous. But when imbibed properly, in the proper quantity and at the proper time with the proper company, it can be the most joyous and transcendent cocktail in the world. But it is far more than just a cocktail. The martini is an experience, an art form whose sought-after perfections are perpetually elusive. It is less product than pursuit. It is a constant study. And like all art elevated to that high aesthetic plane, the martini is intensely personal and fiercely debated among its loyalists, of whom I once counted myself a rank-and-file member.
The first martini is not unlike a first kiss or first lover in that it is always remembered. I drank my first in college at a friend of a friend’s apartment. The woman who poured the silvery cocktail had lovely bronze skin, luminous eyes, a mass of wild black hair, and a voice that purred. “Coat the glass with vermouth, and then toss it down the drain, dahling,” she said with affectation. Wagging her finger, she added, “No more, no less.” I would later learn that this is the “in and out” method, and I adopted it for years. She served my drink with a single large green olive stuffed with a pimiento, and it was—despite what I now realize was mediocre gin—delicious. I was smitten.
But if I am honest, I was by equal measure drawn to the great American cocktail for what it represented at the level of idea, or symbol. For me, a young social climber born into the doldrums of a dusty Idaho cow town that celebrated feats large and small with kegs of watery beer, the martini pointed to a glamorous silver-screen world where cocktail hour, Sinatra, sailing, world travel, and fine literature were the manifest accoutrements, if not birthrights, of cultured men and women. It was a vast and recognizable cultural symbol, but it was a deeply personal symbol for me, a first-generation college student who ached for a better life.
In a sense, I wasn’t alone. In John Leonard’s 1964 novel The Naked Martini, Brian Kelly, the social-climbing protagonist, longed to be among the “sons and daughters of Ft. Lagersmith’s patrician class.” Leonard writes that “Brian Kelly had a simple ordinary sort of dream.” His dream was to transcend the trappings of his working-class background so “someday he would have a boat; someday he would wield the rudder while a tawny female . . . made cocktails, and they would waft off toward Tahiti in white yachting togs, and when dusk dropped and spilled . . . they would anchor in a secluded cove and swim naked beside the boat and dry each other off and make love and drink martinis.” I [End Page 86] would be lying if I said I haven’t entertained my own lustful fantasies of social ascension wherein the martini figured prominently.
In 1961, Pulitzer Prize–winning travel writer Stanton Delaplane, a martini devotee, dispatched one of his once-famous and now—sadly—largely forgotten “Postcards,” which in this instance entailed the story of a cocktail party comprised of patricians, among whom was the once-noted anthropologist Dr. Maurice Allison Mook. Delaplane writes how the “talk fell to the dry martini.” Mook, Delaplane says, described the martini as America’s “tribal symbol” and further noted that the drink was a telltale sign of class and social position. Said Mook, “‘Among us strangers, how do you tell the Boy or Girl with umph? Clothing, manners and accent no longer show who is rich or poor. Knowing or naïve. [But] from Madison Avenue to Hollywood, ice-cold and stately, the dry...