40. Trilby cocktail

6 Nov

Are you a “Trilbymaniac”? If we have many fads carried to the extent that “Trilbyism” has been, out scientists will have to find the “germ” by which we can be inoculated against “popular craze”.

The Folio, vol. 42:4 (April 1895), p. 88.

Why not turn the X-ray on the late lamented Trilby fad? It might be interesting to know what in the world there was in it.

— Philadelphia Record; repr. in Fibre and Fabric, vol. 23, no. 587 (30 May 1896), p. 801.

As mankind gets farther away from the old endless round of toil and the flower of life blooms more perfect, who shall say on that to-morrow that there is not an honourable place for the masseur, the manicure, the teacher of physical culture? With the rapid increase of the Trilby mania, the occupation of the chiropodist must soon be dignified as a profession.

— J.P. Gray, “Charge to the Graduating Class of the Dental Department of the University of Tennessee at the Seventeenth Annual Commencement”, Southern Practitioner, vol. 17 (1895), pp. 142-8 (p. 144).

George Du Maurier’s novel Trilby, which first appeared serially in Harper’s Monthly in 1894 and then in book form a year later, was a literary sensation without precedent in the English-speaking world. “It was a bestseller and something more,” wrote Alexander Woollcott in retrospect. “It was more than a favourite. It was a craze, an obsession. America was Trilby mad” (“Second Thoughts on First Nights”, New York Times, 28 March 1915).

Trilby is a modern retelling of the Pygmalion legend. The titular heroine, Trilby O’Ferrall, a tone-deaf figure model blessed with “astonishingly beautiful feet”, is hypnotized by the sinister Svengali, a pointy-eared, hooded-eyed anti-Semitic caricature, and transformed into a great diva, albeit one who can only perform in an amnesiac trance. Both a rags-to-riches story of the kind so beloved of the Victorians and something altogether darker, it’s no wonder that Trilby caught the public imagination. Du Maurier’s potboiler prepared the way for an even better-known novel published just a couple of years later, in 1897, and also featuring a broodingly sexual, mesmerizing villain of indeterminate East European heritage: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Trilby was an instant hit: Harper’s increased its sales by 100,000 during the three-month run of the serial. The book was on every table, Paul M. Potter’s dramatization, and burlesques of it (with titles such as Thrilby and Twilbe), on every stage from London to New York to Sydney. But that was only the beginning of what was being called the Trilby “boom” (a word that only began to be used in this sense in the 1890s). It was Trilby this and Trilby that. There were, most famously, Trilby hats, inspired by the headwear sported by one of the novel’s characters. There were also Trilby shoes (or rather slippers—Trilby never wore leather boots or shoes so as to preserve her pedal endowments), Trilby collars and, as the Chicago Daily Tribune reported, the Trilby apron (“now to be seen at many fashionable afternoon functions in the West End of London”) and the Trilby coat, a balloon-sleeved garment inspired by the infantryman’s overcoat worn by Dorothea Baird in the London production of the play—the British success of which, the Second City’s newspaper believed, could be credited to Baird, whose  “feet are remarkably good” (“New Trilby Fashions”, Chicago Daily Tribune [11 January 1896], p. 16).There were cash-in books like Alfred Welch’s Extracts from the Diary of Svengali (New York: Holt, 1897) or Trilbyana, a collection of weekly magazine columns devoted to the novel (New York: Critic Co., 1895). There were songs about Trilby (“My Missis Thinks She’s Trilby” by Albert E. Ellis). There were sermons on Trilby (“Trilby and T.C. Platt”, New York Times, 31 December, 1894). There was Trilby soap. There were Trilby-themed circus acts and there was Trilby-themed food. “This restaurant sold Trilby sausages,” recalled Woollcott, “and that confectioner served his ice-cream from a mold that aspired to the lines of Trilby’s left foot. Virginia Harned, the first actress to play the role anywhere, used to tell of finding on the menu one day no less a dish than pigs’-feet à la Trilby” (“Second Thoughts on First Nights”, New York Times, 28 March 1915). There was even Trilby cutlery to eat them with:

One of the newest variations of the Trilby fad is a Trilby spoon. So that the devotees at the shrine of Du Maurier’s heroine can eat their eggs with her in the morning, and stir their tea with her in the evening, and, when the weather gets warmer, they can discuss ice cream in the form of a Trilby foot with a Trilby spoon in the afternoons.  The craze about Svengali’s fair victim is now at its height, and the only wonder is where and when it will stop.

— House Furnishing Review, vol. 6: 5 (May 1895), p. 175.

The craze didn’t last long into 1896, in fact, but surely its peak was reached when Macon, a small settlement in Florida, was rechristened “Trilby”. Its founder, Henry B. Plant, a local rail baron, came up with the wheeze after reading the tale for the second time: here was a cheap, simple way of boosting the town. Appropriately, even the streets were named after the novel’s characters: “there is Svengali Square, with the network of railroad tracks in the centre, presenting the fanciful spider web which was the emblem of the book” (“Trilby a Future Metropolis”, New York Times, 23 May 1897, p. 22).

It was all too much for George Du Maurier. As his friend Henry James remembered, the “phenomenon grew and grew till it became, at any rate for this particular victim, a fountain of gloom and a portent of woe; it darkened all his sky with a hugeness of vulgarity. It became a mere immensity of sound, the senseless hum of a million of newspapers and the irresponsible chatter of ten millions of gossips” (Henry James, “George Du Maurier”, Literary Criticism, vol. 1 [New York: Library of America, 1984] 876-906 [p. 903]). Worn down by the demands of press and public, Du Maurier died in 1896.

Surely he would have been cheered up if he had known about the Trilby cocktail. Because of course Trilbymania gave birth to a cocktail.

A drink by that name is mentioned for the first time in 1895—humorously, to be sure, in an anecdote meant to demonstrate the resourcefulness of the a good mixologist:

The ability of a bartender in the big hotels to meet any demand is proverbial. Ask for what you will, from a toothpick to a $10 bill, and they will either furnish it or give such excuses as will send the patron away well satisfied.

Yesterday two young men of apparent dissipated habits walked to the bar of the Parker House.

“Give me a ‘Trilby’ cocktail,” said one. “I’ll have a ‘de Castellane’ frappe,” said the second.

Without moving a muscle of his face, the bartender proceeded to meet the demand. Scraping ice, dropping various cordials in a glass and vigorously shaking the two compounds, he soon placed on the bar two glasses of fluid of attractive hue, which the customers swallowed with evident satisfaction.

“Do you mean to say that they have concoctions of those names already?” asked his interviewer.

“Certainly not,” replied the mixer of drinks with a chuckle, “those fellows thought they would be smart and ask for something new. I made up a mess from the first things on which I laid my hands. They were satisfied, and I—well, I’m not kickin’.”

The Standard; repr. in Fibre and Fabric, vol. 21: 534 (25 May 1895), p. 168.

Doubtless real Trilby cocktails were already available in the most enterprising bars, but the earliest recipe I have turned up—and, incidentally, the recipe that I followed here—dates from 1900, by which time the Trilby craze was long extinct:

2 dashes orange bitters.

2/3 wine glass Old Tom gin.

1/3 wine glass Vermouth (Italian).

Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass with fruit and drop in one teaspoonful of Eagle Crème de Violette.

— James C. Maloney, The 20th Century Guide for Mixing Fancy Drinks (Chicago, 1900), p. 49.

A variation on that formula turns up in Jack’s Manual ten years later, but is a little too heavy on the vermouth (the contrast between the golden-brown vermouth and the dark violet of the float is lost):

1 dash of orange bitters

1 dash Augostura [sic] bitters

50% Tom gin

50% Vermouth (Italian).

Stir well, strain into a cocktail glass, add cherry and float crème d’vyette [sic] on top.

— J.A. Grohusko, Jack’s Manual (New York: McCLunn,1910), p. 77.

A rather different, and less palatable, approach was taken by Tim Daly (although, interestingly, all three recipes have orange bitters in common):

2 dashes of orange bitters.

1 dash of absinthe.

2 dashes of parfait d’amour.

½ wine glass of Scotch whiskey.

½ wine glass of French vermouth.

Spoon well, strain into a cocktail glass, put in a cherry, twist a piece of orange peel on top, and serve.

— Tim Daly, Daly’s Bartenders’ Encyclopedia (Worcester, MA: Daly, 1903), p. 63.

Along with the Trilby hat and the name “Svengali”, which has become proverbial for the shadowy impresarios of the music business,¹ these cocktails were the only relics of the the Trilby boom to survive into the twentieth century: simplified versions of the Maloney and Daly recipes appear as Trilby No. 1 and No. 2 in the Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930 (although the creme de violette is omitted from No. 1). Clearly, the compound was popular enough at one time to be granted its own entry in the Prohibitionist Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem, where it is defined as a “mixed drink consisting of whisky, bitters, acid phosphate, and Bolivian bark” (Ernest Cherrington et al. (eds), Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem, 6 vols (Westerville, OH: American Issue, 1924-1930), vol. 6 (1930), p. 2671). Soon, though, the cocktail would go the way of the soap, the shoes and the sausages, and fade from cultural memory.

* * * * *

¹ In San Franciso in 1902 a Professor Leon Silvani announced that through hypnotic suggestion he had turned a tone-deaf girl called Viola West into a “singing nightingale”. He even had his pupil sing some of Trilby’s songs during her appearances. Things went wrong when, during one performance, Miss West awoke from her trance, stopped singing and cried out, “My God! Where am I?” Many years later the 70s sex symbol Bo Derek  formed a production company with her director-husband John called “Svengali, Inc.”

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