31. White Lady

21 Sep

Modernity, it would seem, has reached out from the age of machinery into the world of the restless shades who haunt ancient castles and houses. One of Britain’s famous lady ghosts is reported to have been seen again—this time with bobbed hair. […] Have the ghosts of history, like the ghost of Hamlet in modern dress, brought themselves completely up-to-date to accord with the world of today?

— “Even Ghosts Have Joined the Moderns”, New York Times, 17 January 1926.

The “White Lady” is the ghostly equivalent of Smith: it’s the longest entry in the spirit world’s telephone directory, with countless spooks across different cultures going by that particular soubriquet. And the name is not exactly uncommon in the other spirit world either. In the first decades of the last century several new-born, and quite distinct, cocktails were christened “white lady”. The one that survived, a gin-based confection, is usually credited to Harry Craddock of the Savoy. Here’s how it appears in the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930):

1/4 Lemon Juice

1/4 Cointreau

1/2 Dry Gin

In 1919 another great mixological Harry, Dundee-born Harry MacElhone, who at the time was working in Ciro’s Club in London, created a “white lady” that combined brandy, Cointreau and crème de menthe. That recipe appears in a few other bar books and cocktail guides of the period, like G. Selmer Foughner’s Along the Wine Trail  (New Boston: Stratford, 1935), before it was dropped from the repertoire. In the 1986 reprint of Harrys ABC of Mixing Cocktails, however, the brandy is omitted and the formula given as “1/3 Lemon Juice, 1/3 White Crème de Menthe, 1/3 Cointreau”. MacElhone’s son, Andrew, himself a distinguished bartender, then notes that in 1929, after he had opened the famous Harry’s Bar in Paris, his father changed that “original” recipe to “1/3 Gin, 1/3 Cointreau, 1/3 Lemon Juice.” MacElhone, Sr. evidently capitulated before the greater success of the Craddockian version: he began using the same ingredients, but in slightly different proportions.

But there seems to have been another drink called “white lady” that predates even MacElhone’s first attempt. In a 1907 article about the epidemic consumption of absinthe and other related aperitifs, the Washington Post reported that over a ten year period admissions to insane asylums had increased 37 percent: “If Frenchmen do not stop drinking green, yellow, snow-white, and sky-blue ‘pick-me-ups'”, worried the paper, “the whole race promises to end in shady, high-walled gardens, digging for buried treasure” . Along with intriguingly named mixtures such as Swiss Girl (white absinthe, eau vulneraire and ice water), Fireman’s Hose (champagne cognac, orgeat syrup, ice water and served with a straw) and Tiger’s Milk (Santa Cruz rum and four liquors), we read of the White Lady, a kissing cousin of the Green Fairy:

The White Lady is another reliable awakener of tired youth and regenerator of maturity. To make her eyes shine you take white absinthe, shaken with the whites of two fresh eggs to form a protecting coating to the lining of the stomach. Prolonged gayety is the primary effect. Secondarily, a brain jolt, as if done with a bung-starter, after gladsome hours. The White Lady really requires a traveling companion, or at least a messenger boy, to tell the cabman where to drive.

— “Some ‘Crazy Drinks’ are Rapidly Sending French to Insane Asylums”, Washington Post, 8 September 1907, p. 7.

By the end of the 1930s, certainly, Craddock’s white lady was firmly established as a modern classic. One of the best-known writers of the early twentieth century—the Stakhanovite producer of schlocky thrillers, E. Phillips Oppenheim, who, like most of his fictional heroes, was a “firm believer in cocktails before a meal”—confided to an interviewer that the white lady was his favourite tipple, with the dry martini a “close second”. However, Oppenheim clearly preferred MacElhone’s take, because he helpfully describes his drink of choice as “one-third Cointreau, one-third lemon juice, one-third gin” (Alfred Campbell, “Oppenheim’s Pet Cocktail”, Boston Globe, 3 January 1937, p. 58). Both Oppenheim and the White Lady feature in that classic collection of post-Prohibition cocktails, So Red the Nose, in which prominent authors and journalists contribute their own recipes named after some of their recent works. Oppenheim’s is called “The Man Without Nerves” (the title of a 1934 novel) and is basically a martini: 2/3 Dry Gin (Gordon’s or Booth’s High and Dry) and 1/3 Noilly Prat (from a freshly opened bottle). “Use plenty of ice,” cautions Oppenheim, “shake like hell, and serve foaming in a fair sized glass. A small strip of lemon rind cut very thin might be allowed, but nothing else.” Interestingly, he adds: “No liqueur, syrup or Grenadine should ever find its way into an apéritif” – interesting because there is a cocktail called “Oppenheim”—whether it was invented on the Guernsey scribbler’s behalf I don’t know—which is basically a Manhattan jazzed up with Grenadine. Arthur Meeker, Jr. who had just published a novel with the title Vestal Virgin (1934), bestows that very name on a mixture consisting of 1/3 gin, 1/3 Cointreau and 1/3 lemon juice. “This prescription”, Meeker is quoted as saying, which he claims first saw the  world at the Place Bar in St. Moritz, Switzerland, “is commonly known as a White Lady; but what else can you call a Vestal Virgin?” (Sterling North and Carl Kroch, So Red the Nose, or Breath in the Afternoon [New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1935], no page numbers).

A testament of its emblematic status during the interwar years is the fact the white lady was selected as one the cocktails to be buried in a time capsule beneath a newly built bar in London’s West End:

Five cocktails, which may not be drunk for more than one hundred years, have been deposited in the foundation of a new cocktail bar under construction in Park lane [sic].

The five cocktails chosen as an example for posterity of the most popular form of mixed drink of this generation were a dry Martini, a Bronx, a Manhattan, a sidecar and a white lady.

Each cocktail was mixed and poured into a small phial, which was sealed. The phials were placed in a modern cocktail shaker and this, with a parchment giving the formulas of the cocktails, was placed in a cavity in the foundations.

— “Five Cocktails Mixed to Amaze Posterity”, Baltimore Sun, 24 April 1939, p. 3.

In the autumn of 1914 the American press became very excited about the “White Lady”, a ghost that had haunted the House of Hohenzollern for centuries. According to tradition, the spectre’s appearance presaged a death in the royal family—and with the country now at war there were, allegedly, some who feared she would soon return (“Will the White Ladies of the Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs Walk Again?”, New York Times, 18 October 1914; “Ghost Traditions of the Hohenzollerns, New York Times, 20 December 1914). In 1941, during the next European conflict, a “white lady” was again exciting consternation—this time in the pages of Das Schwarze Korps, the house magazine of the SS. With “pachydermous German humor”, as the Chicago Tribune phrased it, an editorial protested the continued use of English words by hotels, bars and other places of amusement. Why, its blowhard author wondered, did establishments have to be called the “Carlton” and the “Bristol” instead of something more stirringly Teutonic?

In gin mills and lobster palaces the writer noticed the same deplorable persistence of inappropriate snobbery. He found on a liquor list the words “brandy” and “German whisky”, as if their German equivalents were not good enough. Then there are mixed drinks which, tho [sic] no longer called by the English name, “cocktails”, still are listed under such names as “Sidecar, Ohio, Manhattan, and White Lady”.

But bartenders, the Kultur warrior cautioned, should not go too far in the other direction: cocktails (or gemischte Getränke, I suppose we ought to say) with appellations like Stuka or Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper) bordered on the sacrilegious! But where did der Mann aus dem Volke stand in all of this? What goes unsaid, an American observer reported, is that “the thirsty German today is lucky if he can get a drink—mixed or unmixed—at any price, fancy or not, and under any name—German, English, patriotic, or snobbish” (Alex Small, “Stuka Cocktails Pack a Punch—and Get one Back”, Chicago Daily Tribune, 26 November 1941, p. 10).


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