The Cocktail Hour: Robert Penn Warren

grapefruit gin punch cocktail recipe

“I had a birthday – only a few days ago – and am now thirty-eight,” wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1943. I’ve had birthdays on the brain, having also celebrated one recently. It wasn’t a big, round number, but it was a perfect square, the mathematics of which somehow seem especially daunting. It’s that age when we’re expected to put away childish things and start careers, find ourselves, tie the knot, settle down, paint the nursery, take out a mortgage. Instead of doing those things, I started this blog.

Clearly, a cocktail was in order. Luckily, Warren had just the thing.

Although it doesn’t have the universal significance of a 30th or a 40th, Warren’s 38th birthday was actually a very noteworthy one: It meant he could no longer be drafted into World War II. To celebrate, Warren threw “a gentlemen’s party with a particularly insidious punch” and invited his colleagues from the University of Minnesota, where he directed the creative writing program. If you think tenured professors don’t know how to party, think again: The revelry lasted almost seven hours, and they went through four gallons of punch.

If Warren’s parties were anything like his letters, they would have been a wickedly good time. Biding his time before At Heaven’s Gate to be published, he was full of writerly gossip, from who was a hack to who just got thrown in prison. He hates on the Chicago Tribune (“the world’s stinkingest paper but pays well”) and gives begrudging praise to The Nation (“doesn’t pay well but … is respectable”). August Strindberg and William Somerset Maugham? “Pure horse droppings.”

I can only imagine what bons mots Warren, on a little too much punch, might have dropped at his birthday shindig. He claimed that “high aesthetical conversation raged until a late hour,” but later dropped the act and just admitted the discussion was “more noise than wit, but the noise sounded like wit at the time.” It’s easy to take yourself too seriously as major birthdays loom, which might be why so many grown-ups have such dull parties. But Warren shows it doesn’t have to be that way. Just mix a group of good friends, a lot of noisy laughter, plus a glass of something delicious to wash it all down.

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Robert Penn Warren grapefruit gin punch

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The Cocktail Hour: E.B. White

Learning about the drinking habits of your favorite children’s book author is both disconcerting and a little thrilling. It’s like that teenage realization, so obvious yet somehow inconceivable, that your parents likely were sloshed at some point during your early years and you didn’t even notice.

When you’re raised with Charlotte and Stuart Little, it’s harder to remember E.B. White’s other pursuits, ones that make him a more likely candidate to kick off a cocktail feature. Besides revising that English-major staple The Elements of Style, he was one of The New Yorker’s top contributors for an incredible 50 years. After a half-century in that crowd, you’re bound to pick up a few mixology tricks.

Writers are a notoriously well-soused bunch. But a martini probably has the most literary pedigree of any drink in the repertoire: the publishers’ three-martini lunch, Dorothy Parker’s poem, James Bond. White was one of its most vocal devotees, praising it as “the elixir of quietude. … Martinis, if anything, have a muting effect on the constant ringing in my ears.”

It’s still hard for me to picture White, martini glass in hand, writing the words I would later read with a flashlight under the covers. It’s easier to imagine him early on: just out of Cornell and working at an ad agency, looking for a newspaper job on his lunch breaks. “I wouldn’t mind going without the food if I could have a little luck with the jobs, but it’s damn hard to have neither success nor sandwiches at noon,” he wrote in 1921. When his first New Yorker piece was published, four years later, I envision him sitting down with a celebratory turkey club and pouring out a much-deserved drink.

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