Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Written by Daniel Okrent
Review by Bruce Macbain

When Wayne B. Wheeler died in 1927, an obituary in the Washington Post stated, “No other private citizen of the United States has left such an impress upon national history.” Wayne who? Well, Mr. Willard was for a decade the chief lobbyist for the Anti-Saloon League and, indeed, politicians quaked whenever this small, unprepossessing man entered the room.

But Wheeler is not the only Prohibition-era titan to have utterly vanished from our national memory. There was Frances Willard, “immortal founder” of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; there was Mabel Willebrandt, Assistant Attorney General for Prohibition Enforcement, whom Daniel Okrent in this fascinating new history calls “without question the most powerful woman in the nation.” And there was Izzy Einstein, star prohibition agent who made over four thousand bootlegger arrests. (Eliot Ness of Untouchables fame was a pipsqueak.)

Okrent, in lively ironic prose, presents a detailed analysis of the interplay of class, ethnicity, and religion that made, and then unmade, the 18th amendment to Constitution. The reader will learn why German brewers and Jewish distillers failed to unite against the forces of temperance. And why prohibition was supported simultaneously by northern progressives and the Ku Klux Klan. The book is filled with jaw-dropping facts. How, for example, the loophole which allowed for the production and sale of sacramental wine to Catholic bishops and Jewish rabbis was turned into a gigantic swindle. And one could go on and on. For anyone with an interest in American history Last Call is a must read.