Daniel Okrent

okrent1 Daniel Okrent

Journalist-turned-historian Daniel Okrent clearly has been around the (media) block—a founder of the much heralded New England Monthly, book editor, (the first) public editor (ombudsman) at The New York Times, head of Time, Inc.’s early Internet initiatives, inventor of “rotisserie” or fantasy baseball, occasional actor (Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown) and aspiring off-Broadway theatrical producer.

As you will learn in the conversation that follows, Okrent’s true love(s) are researching and writing books—from Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game (1985) and his 2004 Pulitzer-nominated Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center to his most recent opus, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

Diligently and exhaustively researched, Okrent’s Last Call makes clear the numerous and varied parts to the complex story of America’s “noble experiment” to outlaw the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Describing his subject, Okrent observes:

"It’s not about prohibition—it’s about suffrage, the income tax movement. It’s about racism. It’s about xenophobia. It’s about religion, distribution of income… It was very hard for me to get my arms around it. Juggling a lot of balls at once to bring it together."

Last Call is a splendid and vivid history that gives a readable account of an era prone to being mythologized and misunderstood. Okrentrather handily, I might adddoes the juggling and brings all the pieces together.

Robert Birnbaum: I was reading a speech that Errol Morris gave recently at the University of California Journalism School. At the end he talked about journalism being an obsession. What do you think?

Daniel Okrent: I think it is for some people—not for me. It depends where you are drawing the line between that which is avocational and vocational. For me, I like to find things out. I am curious. I guess I would be obsessive about the accumulation of information. The impartation of that to others, that’s vocational.

RB: In his definition, he includes pursuing a story beyond its natural interest—you doggedly pursue a story.

DO: I do exactly that. I spent about four years researching this, and I had to force myself to stop because for me the process of research, that’s the blast. I love every second of it, and I can’t stand the writing. I shouldn’t say I can’t stand it, but it’s really hard and painful and really tough on my wife and my friends. But the gathering of the information is just pure joy and sharing with my friends. And if I am going to share it with the rest of the world, then I have to sit down at the damn keyboard.

RB: You like to read.

DO: Yeah, yeah. And I love to read in archives particularly.

RB: I found it interesting that—in my estimate there are about 600 books in your bibliography—what do those books represent?

DO: Represent?

RB: You didn’t read all those books?

DO: No, no. Well, no, I didn’t read all those books. But every one of those books I consulted. Actually, when I made the bibliography, I eliminated all those books I never cite. So those are just books I got something worthwhile from. And the something worthwhile might have been context or a particular fact or a wonderful quotation. I would guess I probably read over effectively 200 of them—two to three hundred. The others I index read. If I am writing about William Jennings Bryan, I need to know everything about him relating to what I am doing. I don’t need to read all three volumes of his autobiography. Although it is a really good biography.

RB: Biography or autobiography?

DO: That’s a biography. Paulo Colleta was the first three-volume bio. Then there was one by Michael Kazin [A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan] a few years ago, which is excellent. Where I came up with the idea that Bryan was a faith-based liberal. Except on race—he was a monstrous racist. But in everything else he would of have been a progressive evangelical, if you can think of such a thing. In the 600 items, a lot of them are scholarly journal articles. And that of course, you can get without ever leaving your house.

RB: I know a writer, Erik Larson, who refuses to avail himself of the Internet and loves to go to library and look at real books.

DO: I like libraries too. But if I need to search for something in six daily newspapers—I can’t believe—well, the thing of Erik’s work, it’s confined in time, so he can read everything for a four-year period. My book covers 90 years. So it would be a little harder to do that.

RB: This is a scholarly work, not a popular history. Is this a departure for you?

DO: I wrote about baseball first, then I did a book based on a collection of photographs of New England in the ‘40s, and then my last book was a history of Rockefeller Center. I was a finalist for the Pulitzer in history—I didn’t train as a historian. It was always an interest of mine, and even to the degree that I had any academic interest when I was in college, history was what I cared the most about. But the actual practice of history began with that book.

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RB: Is it apocryphal, the story that Rockefeller objected to Diego Rivera’s Lenin in the mural he was doing for Rockefeller Center and they walled it off?

DO: They ended up destroying it. It’s the chapter of that book that I am proudest of—because I found out things, again in archives—I found in the Archives of American Art in Ben Shahn’s papers—Shahn had been an assistant, working on the painting with him. And nobody had ever touched these papers before. What happened there—Rivera had done three jobs in a row. He did Dwight Morrow’s house in Mexico. Then he did the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange and then he did the Garden Court in the Detroit Institute of Art for the Ford Family. Then he goes on to the Rockefellers. And the CP [Communist Party] kicks him out of the party because he is only working with the plutocrats who are running the country. So he needs to demonstrate his lefty chops. So he very willfully puts Lenin in there and dares them to take it out. And they ask him to take it out and he says no. He gets a lot of his lefty cred back and there is a big rally in support—but what I found in the Shahn papers was this letter which said that he would rather they destroy the mural than alter it. It was written by Shahn. Rivera’s English wasn’t nearly good enough and Shahn was much more of a lefty than Rivera was. And Shah pushed him in that direction. The Rockefellers, to their credit, Nelson Rockefeller, who had quite a close relationship with Rivera and they had a very friendly relationship in the years after—he tried to preserve and move it to his mother’s new museum, the Museum of Modern Art. But you couldn’t move this fresco, so the hammers came in.

RB: The thing about the Prohibition period that is fascinating is that it is kind of an unruly subject. Especially once you start to read your account—there are all sorts of intermingling strands—

DO: It’s not about prohibition—it’s about suffrage, the income tax movement. It’s about racism. It’s about xenophobia. It’s about religion, distribution of income. And “unruly” is exactly the word. I am going to borrow it for all future interviews. It was very hard for me to get my arms around it. Juggling a lot of balls at once to bring it together. And also it was kind of shocking to me that I found that people historically that I would consider to be good guys were for prohibition. And people I would consider bad guys were against it. That’s very destabilizing.

RB: Apparently there was more to this story than meets the eye. Most startling was the name of the gin that was marketed to black people [Black Cock Vigor Gin]. That was pretty venal. But not the only venal aspect.

DO: No, but that one—that’s another piece of research I am really proud of—many scholars of the period have written about that article and phenomenon, but nobody had found the name of the gin. In the article that Will Erwin wrote that was in Colliers, he said if he mentioned the name of the gin then the magazine couldn’t go through the mails. So I hired a graduate student and found in Kansas City in the National Archives records of the trial from 1909–and there it was. For those of us involved in the subject this was the greatest discovery in the history of the world. Nobody else gives a shit, but for me it was really thrilling.

RB: Does anyone have a bottle?

DO: A bottle of that gin? No, believe me, I tried. I wanted to see the label.

RB: How about the advertisements?

DO: No one could find those either. Well, the label had the naked white woman on it and it was described in the court papers. And as you can imagine there are a lot of people who collect bottles from the period, and I really, really wanted that bottle. I couldn’t get it.

RB: In your estimation, there is a big cast of screwballs and odd life forms—who is the most fascinating oddball?

DO: Wayne Wheeler, I think. Because here is this figure, when he died The Washington Post said, “When the history of our time is written, his will be the first name mentioned.” And nobody has heard of him.

RB: (laughs)

DO: And his influence did not disappear. Prohibition disappeared, but his influence on how to operate a political movement, how to use a minority to get what it wants by manipulating other minorities—the man was brilliant. And he is the precursor of Karl Rove and James Carville, David Plouffe. His techniques—he refined pressure politics, and everyone else has been playing from his playbook. He is really interesting to me. I mean, a lot of them were.

RB: Prior to your book, was there a book that was a good history of Prohibition?

DO: Yeah, I think that the best one—I can’t talk about my own in this context—was probably Andrew Sinclair’s, which was published in 1964. He was a graduate student of [Richard] Hofstadter’s at Columbia, an Englishman, and his dissertation was expanded into a book called Prohibition: The Era of Excess. I think mine does several things his doesn’t do, but it was 40 years ago and lots was not accessible then. There were archives that were not open, and there has been historiography that has made it easier for me to advance the bar. The whole thing about the role of the income tax both coming and going was critical. And the previous historians of Prohibition don’t acknowledge the first at all. They don’t see the connection between the advent of the income tax and Prohibition, and at the end they are much too nice to the DuPonts. They really did have other issues. But this, from the private correspondence of the Dupont brothers it was clear it was what they cared about—they didn’t want to pay income tax any longer. I am an economic determinist—it’s the way that I look at the world. So I suppose I am seeing this more vividly than other people. Some might say I am placing too much emphasis on it, but I am convinced I got it right.

RB: Might Prohibition be a misnomer?

DO: The great public debate today is not really about same-sex marriage, it’s about who is going to run the country. And that’s what Prohibition was about—who was going to control the country.

RB: It wasn’t simply Prohibition—it required some enabling legislation.

DO: Yeah.

RB: So when the amendment was repealed, was the legislation repealed?

DO: I don’t even know the answer to that. I believe—yes, of course. I know it was repealed because first it is amended in March of ’33 so that beer is no longer considered an intoxicating beverage. You could change that with 50% [a simple majority] but you didn’t need to go through the constitutional amendment process.

RB: There those three big exceptions, which were ludicrous.

DO: Hilarious.

RB: Today it would be impossible to get a constitutional amendment, wouldn’t it?

DO: Yeah, I think we have seen the end of constitutional amendments unless there are things like changing the date of the inauguration from March to January. The notion that two-thirds of each house of Congress and three-quarters of the states could agree on something? Yeah, Mother’s Day. Beyond that I can’t imagine.

RB: Does that more fossilize the Constitution or—

DO: It clearly does. I think that it is an all-but-unamendable document. The Equal Rights Amendment came within three states [of passing]. And that was the last substantive thing that came even close.

RB: What was offensive or troublesome about the Equal Rights Amendment?

DO: Again, control of the country.

RB: But it was so innocuous, big deal.

DO: Absolutely innocuous, and yet today it wouldn’t have a prayer. It’s not about what it seems to be about.

RB: Attempts have been made to have an anti-abortion amendment?

DO: Also for a balanced budget. Those are the two that have gotten the most traction. But even abortion Bush, W, he never formally endorsed a constitutional amendment—he thought he could do better by legislation. He probably realized that a constitutional amendment was an impossibility.

RB: The fulcrum of constitutional change now has to be the courts. And the process of choosing judges seems to be seriously flawed.

DO: Yeah, terrible. This is maybe a dangerous thing to say—and I say this as a reasonably leftish liberal Democrat. It’s our fault. It was the Bork hearings. Bork was clearly qualified. But we didn’t like what he said. So that made it possible to attack people for their ideology. And it has been since then.

RB: That smacked of exactly the same arrogance as we had as Vietnam War protestors.

DO: Yes, of course.

RB: We refused to accept or acknowledge as legitimate the feelings of people we didn’t agree with.

DO: And—that’s the worst period of my life because I was a draft dodger and I was able to dodge the draft because I had the privilege of an education, white skin and all those other things—it’s inexcusable.

RB: I hesitate to say that one period of history seems bleaker than another, but this really does feel like a very bleak period.

DO: Here’s the good news, going back to the subject of my book—this, too, shall pass. If you look at what they were able to do to bring about that amendment—as late as 1930 people like Clarence Darrow were saying we would never be able to get rid of this amendment. We have to do it other ways. Wow, things can change. And what it took to change it was an economic catastrophe. The Depression changed everything, and who knows what we have ahead of us.

RB: Two things that I think may mitigate a sense of optimism are that climate change is real and urgent and desperate and I don’t see stemming nuclear proliferation.

DO: That’s really scary. So I can’t retreat to my usual—

RB: (laughs)

DO: On the global warming issue—you may remember from my book, I compare this racket run my Marian Hannah Hanchett Hunt in Boston that was taught in every state in the country and it was all scientific bullshit. And people at the time knew it. The opponents of global warming will see it and have to accept the science.

RB: Except that the science says that we are precariously close to any mitigation or reversal of the damage.

DO: I don’t know enough about it. There was a famous controversy with Paul Ehrlich and the conservative economist Julian Simon in the 1980s, and Simon turned out to be right. We do respond in time—we’ll see.

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RB: In writing this book, what were some of your hopes for it? Other than the work of a few historian/writers like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, I don’t see Americans as fond of understanding their history.

DO: Right. I guess my hope speaking in terms of the potential success of the book—what I sought to do was something that in terms of scholarship was unimpeachable, and I think it is. I hope it is. We’ll see the scholarly reviews showing up in about four months. But written in a popular and engaging way. I mean, I am a journalist by training, and I am not trying to compare myself to Goodwin, Ambrose—although unlike Ambrose I write it all myself. I am not going to say anything about Doris because I am too close to her house. The driver asked me, ”What do you do?” “I write popular history.” And I hope it’s popular, I know it’s history.

RB: I have a lowbrow view of history and biography—I would much prefer a 200-page biographical essay written by a writer who had some feeling for his subject—Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, Garry Wills on St. Augustine—than the 600-page, full-bodied and heavily annotated scholarly work written in leaden prose—

DO: —Let’s put in every fact we ever found. For example the Joseph Ellis book I like the best, Founding Brothers, I like the tightness of it.

RB: Was there a basic interest in Prohibition—it had all these collateral features, glamour and oddities attached?

DO: I have worked on a lot of different projects, and this one—people ask, “What are you doing?” And I say, “Writing a history of Prohibition.” They respond, ”Prohibition? What the hell was that?” It’s also surprising how little people know—even how long it lasted.

RB: They do know Eliot Ness and Al Capone.

DO: They got it all wrong, but they know it.

RB: No doubt interest in the book will expand exponentially with Ken Burns’ film release.

DO: The idea was that Ken’s film would be out the same time as the book—the film is done and it is very, very good. But for reasons of his own having to do with the spacing out of his work, he held it for a year. Much to my—

RB: —What was his last project?

DO: He did National Parks in the fall and then he has a postscript to Baseball this coming fall. Because of that, it pushed the Prohibition film off—for a while. We thought he was going to be on the air this fall and we would hold the book until then, but he says not until 2011.

RB: Nonetheless the book has the little sticker announcing the film. (laughs)

DO: They thought it would help get it into bookstores—who am I to argue? When the paperback comes out…It happened with Ambrose’s Lewis and Clark book—when Ken’s film came out, the book took off. So, I’ll sell some paperbacks.

RB: It may contradict the conventional wisdom that a new book has a six-week window for sales.

DO: That’s the hope.

RB: A work of history should not be judged on short-term sales.

DO: From your lips to god’s ears.

RB: (laughs) I recall that you were an editor at a wonderful failed journalistic project—New England Monthly.

DO: (laughs) You are a New Englander. Yeah, thank you very much. That was my first experience at a magazine. I had been a book editor before that, and I was living in the Berkshires and had two little kids at home in a big old wooden house that we heated with wood. And I had to find a job locally instead of being a freelance baseball writer. I loved it and was really proud of it and the people who came out of it—it launched some great careers. And we had a good time.

RB: How did it launch great careers? Was it because anyone who would attach themselves to a project that had so little chance of success —

DO: (laughs)

RB: —but of such high quality had to marked for great achievement?

DO: Brendan Gill, 30 years ago, encountered my wife—we were then engaged and she had a small pendant around her neck and he observed that it must be a gift of love being so small. I think you are right. People attached themselves to that, though we paid very poorly and the circulation was small but people could do some really good work.

RB: It was disappointing to see it fail, but I am struck that mediocrity continues to flourish in the region. I don’t buy that the public is being given what it wants.

DO: I have a theory on popular culture that it’s a pyramid and the more refined the work is, you are appealing to fewer people. And to bring things down to where the mass audience is going to want it, it has to get less interesting for you and me. I think there’s enough at the top of the pyramid—I hope that I can continue to make a living writing books. Writing good books, I hope. But it is discouraging. Gene Lees, who died last week, he had that wonderful line about swing music—he said it was the last time when good music was popular and popular music was good. And it’s just downhill since then.

RB: It seems to be true of popular music—it’s been fractured into umpteen categories. Where there was previously a handful.

DO: Yeah, there is no mass audience any longer—so if you are going to do anything on a large scale, you have to do something lousy, I think. If you look at the Times bestsellers list from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the books were much better.

RB: I think Gore Vidal did it first, but I think Anthony Lane picked it up—choose a bestseller list from the past and go through it.

DO: I remember when Vidal did that. He really ripped apart a book written by the father of one of my dearest friends. It still hurts her 40 years later. I would like to think that some popular fiction is good. At least well crafted. Look at Ian McEwen—even his bad books are bestsellers.

RB: So-called genre fiction has a lot of good writing—Elmore Leonard—

DO: Absolutely.

RB: Alan Furst is a fine writer.

DO: I love what he does. Absolutely love it. My great hero in the genre is Le Carre. He is a superb novelist. One of the great novelists—so it can be done. And in nonfiction, it seems to me—whether it’s the big doorstop of a McCullough or Goodwin—that it’s in history more than anywhere else that people are writing bestseller nonfiction of quality.

RB: Part of it has to do with a rising interest in writing social history, which includes unlikely subjects like the concept of hygiene in 16th century England. Which can be fascinating in the hands of a good writer.

DO: Aha, aha.

RB: So are making this transformation into historian/writer instead of journalist/writer?

DO: I think I have pretty much made it. I do very little journalism any longer. I still have a relationship with Time [magazine]. I write for them three or four times a year.

RB: Will Time exist by this time next year?

DO: Next year, yes.

RB: [laughs] The year after? Newsweek is for sale.

DO: The only person who is going to buy it is someone who’ll buy it for ego and be prepared to lose a lot of money. Because I still do work for them I don’t want to knock Time on the record. I think the newspaper is dead, and I am not mourning it that much. It had a good 400 years. That’s not bad (laughs) and we’ll have something else.

RB: Except for the something else, journalism doesn’t seem to be particularly creditable.

DO: No, but what we will have is something digital. It will be called The New York Times or something and it will become the standard. And in fact be read by many, many more people than were able to read the print edition. The Times today—there are 20 million people around the world reading it. The print edition never has that.

RB: They are, of course, trying to monetize that which will be an interesting game plan.

DO: My theory is if they can get 10% of those people [20 million] to pay $5 a month, they’ll be doing fine. They won’t need printing press or trucks all that other hazarai that has nothing to do with what the words are. If you wanted to compete with The Boston Globe 20 years ago, you needed 100 million dollars to start a newspaper. Now you need a computer and a brain and legs.

RB: I know people who wanted to buy the Globe—I couldn’t figure out why.

DO: Well, I know a couple of people in one of the groups trying to buy it—Ben Taylor’s group wanted to buy it because I think he felt guilty. One of the other groups that tried to buy it, they were going to do what some Canadians did for a San Diego paper—just rape it for the cash flow, just milk it. But no, the only thing I can imagine worse than the newspaper business today is the newspaper business tomorrow.

RB: You have a website–designed by a smart 13 year old?

DO: No, a smart 24 year old. Everybody said I needed a website. So I spent the money—why anyone would go there I don’t know. But there it is.

RB: It may grow on you and you may make it work for yourself, which means readers may like it.

DO: That’s a very interesting point.

RB: Sometimes you need a jump-start.

DO: When this book was coming out, everyone told me I needed a website. I go to one of the domain registries and request danielokrent.com. I get a message back that it is owned—why would anyone squat on my name? I’m not Stephen King.

RB: Maybe there is another Daniel Okrent.

DO: Yeah, and he’s an accountant on Long Island. So I wrote to the registry to contact the owner—you know who owned it? I did. I bought it seven years ago.

RB: (laughs)

DO: At least I didn’t get into a bidding war.

RB: What’s next for you?

DO: It couldn’t be more different from what I’ve done. There’s a website called OldJewsTellingJokes.com. You must go to it—I’m on it I am the youngest old Jew on the site. That was volunteer labor, and Random House has a book coming out called Old Jews Telling Jokes. A friend of mine, an editor at Random House and I have bought the rights, and we are going to produce an off-Broadway show. And that’s what I am doing next.

RB: Brilliant. I was at a memorial service and someone got up and told a 15-minute joke about a starving Russian artist in the zoo. It was told because the person being memorialized loved the joke.

DO: I wanted to tell a joke at a friend’s funeral, but my wife restrained me—you know the answer game. I give you the answer and you give the question?

RB: Right.

DO: The answer is CS Lewis what’s the question?

RB: Hmmm—what did Lewis write?

DO: No, the question is, “What’s that old cocksucker Lewis calling himself these days?”

RB: (laughs) Well, I guess that’s a good place to stop. Thanks very much.

DO: Thank you, this was a fun conversation.

(Interview conducted in May 2010)

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