Last Call
The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

The idea for Last Call arose from my research, back in the 1990's, for Great Fortune, my history of Rockefeller Center, published in 2003. To assemble the property on which the Center was built, John D. Rockefeller Jr. had to acquire the ground leases on 228 buildings, mostly decrepit row houses, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues -- the heart of what was Manhattan's speakeasy district. Looking through city records, I found the Rockefeller agents tangling with various speakeasy owners -- and it turned out that many of them had more political clout than the Rockefellers.

This is the sort of thing that gets a book started. What gave it fuel was the continual revelations that popped up in my research. I knew that much of the Prohibition movement was religiously motivated -- but I hadn't known that the allies of the era's "religious right" included large segments of the women's suffrage campaign, the Progressive Party, and other reform movements. I knew that drinking continued during Prohibition -- but I hadn't known that much of it was sanctioned by the Volstead Act, in the form of "medicinal liquor" (doctors sold prescriptions for three bucks each), "sacramental wine" (which, in some instances, was stretched to include sacramental brandy and Champagne), and "preserved fruit" (aka hard cider and applejack). I knew that crime was rampant in the 1920's -- but I hadn't known that trans-national organized crime was the direct consequence of Prohibition, which required the cooperation of criminal syndicates in many cities because of the complications of shipping millions of gallons of liquor from place to place.

I hope that the resulting book is as surprising to its readers as my research was surprising and exciting to me. I also hope that I've made the large cast of characters -- from Billy Sunday to Sam Bronfman, from Carry Nation to Al Capone, from Pierre S. du Pont to a remarkable (if forgotten) woman named Pauline Morton Sabin -- as vivid as they deserve to be.

For a while, I wanted to call my book How the Hell Did That Happen? -- how, in other words, did a nation that loves its freedom install in the Constitution an amendment that sorely limited that freedom. I backed off from using it as a title, but I believe I've answered both that question and its corollary -- how Prohibition happened, and what it did to America. I hope you'll join me on a voyage toward answering both questions, and that you'll enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed writing about it.
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