52. Leap year cocktail

29 Feb

In a paper setting an examination in general knowledge, British schoolboys were asked to explain the origin or meaning of the word “bissextile”. One hasty youth in the Fourth Form, with a genius for improvisation, gave as his answer: “Leap-year is called a bisexual year because women are obliged to propose to men on the extra day in February.”

— “Topics of the Times”, New York Times, 14 March 1932.

2012 is a leap year. And so to celebrate the spuriously venerable tradition of “ladies’ privilege”, according to which women may during the intercalary year propose marriage without waiting for a man to make the first move for fear of being branded a harlot, a tradition supposedly enshrined in English common law, but not really, and now hopefully obsolete (except as the lazy premise of flop romantic comedies), let’s sip a cocktail designed by Harry Craddock.

The Leap Year Cocktail, which was created, Mr Craddock informs us, “for the Leap Year celebrations at the Savoy Hotel, London, on February 29th, 1928”, was allegedly responsible “for more proposals than any other cocktail that has ever been mixed”. Whether it was meant to stiffen feminine resolve or cause a chap to go weak at the knees is uncertain; probably both, as was claimed of a clutch of identically named cocktails a generation later:

Arthur Flynn, tap-room proprietor, is featuring two “Leap Year” cocktails which he says are unbeatable for getting the job done.

A gin-and-orange juice concoction is advertised as making a girl “irresistible”. A Scotch and vermouth on ice, says Flynn, will render a fellow “immovable”.

Thus far, no fellow and girl have come in at the same time to try their respectively recommended cocktails.

— “‘Leap Year’ Cocktails to Help Out Cupid”, Hartford Courant, 30 July 1956, p. 6.

Here’s how to prepare Craddock’s drink, which today celebrates its 21st birthday:

1 Dash Lemon Juice.

2/3 Gin.

1/6 Grand Marnier.

1/6 Italian Vermouth.

Shake well and serve in cocktail glass. Squeeze lemon peel on top.

Now, it’s clear from a new item printed in the New York Times in December 1928 that some men who entered into a bissextile marriage had an altogether erroneous idea of what such a union entailed:

The one redeeming feature of being a “leap year husband” has been dissipated for Herman Matten. Sued for non-support, Matten told Judge Edgar Jones in Domestic Relations Court that following his marriage last April he quit his job because he was a “leap year husband”. Judge Jonas [sic] was not impressed. He told Matten, who is 45 years old, to pay his wife, Ida, $10 a week.

— “Leap Year Husband Must Support Wife”, New York Times, 30 December 1928.

That fellow’s dickishness, it turns out, is far from unusual. The same paper’s earlier editorial assertion that leap year was a “humbug”, that all it had to boast about was 29 February, a day that usually came and went without anyone noticing, and that the “inferiority of the male sex on that day is not accounted more conspicuous than on the other days” (“Leap Year”, New York Times, 2 January 1912), is generally correct. Leap year seems with depressing regularity—quadrennially, in fact—to have been used as an excuse for ungentlemanly behaviour. How about a few more examples?

In 1884 a “charming young widow of 33”, Elizabeth Wittmer, received a visit from a John Coch, who “placed her wedding ring on his finger and took it away with him, under the pretense that he could not get it off.” His defence? “Mr Coch told Justice Murray that Mrs Wittmer took advantage of leap year and gave him the ring as a token of their engagement. He was held” (“Taking Advantage of Leap Year”, New York Times, 3 April, 1884). A similar story was rehearsed some years later by Walter Hettrick, the “candy kid” of West Brighton, Staten Island, after his arraignment on a charge of grand larceny: “The whole trouble was that she wanted me to marry her,” he explained. “Just because it is a leap year she thought she could make me do it, I guess. But I didn’t want to marry her, so I came home.” The supposed seductress was fifteen-year-old Bella Clark, whom Hettrick, older by two years, accused of having eloped with him. “Bella shook her pretty head in indignation when it was suggested that she had taken advantage of the prerogative of leap year,” but otherwise there was no dispute as to what had happened. After falling for “the dapper Walter” three weeks earlier, and her head full of romantic notions, Bella snatched $95 from her father’s pocket and bought tickets to Buffalo. But by the time they reached Albany, the pair got cold feet and turned back. Meanwhile, though, “Bella’s father, failing to see the romance in the affair, had sworn out a warrant for the arrest of the youngsters, and when they returned they were locked up. Walter is held in $1000 bail for examination, and Bella was left with the Children’s Society to mourn her shattered romance” (“Says Girl Made Him Elope”, Chicago Tribune, 2 March 1908, p. 5).

But this last tale, despite its ostensibly “happy” ending, is the pick of the bunch:

Declaring in an affidavit filed yesterday morning that he is a leap-year husband and was forced to marry at the point of a gun in the lady’s hands, Robert G. Arthur . . .  sued to have his marriage of Thursday afternoon to Miss Mary P. Reese of Hutchinson, Kas., annulled on the ground of duress.

Last night as he folded his pretty bride in his arms in the garage where he is employed . . . Mr McArthur [sic] declared the filing of the suit was all a mistake and stated the action had been taken at the behest of friends who wished to meddle in the affair. He says he will have the annulment suit stopped at once and will do all he can to make up for the suffering he has caused his bride. […]

In the suit which Mr Arthur filed yesterday, he alleged that Miss Reese called him up Wednesday night about 10 o’clock and demanded that he call at her apartments at No. 225 West Twenty-Fifth Street immediately.

He went, wondering. Immediately after he greeted Miss Reese, he said, she closed and locked the door and kept him imprisoned for fourteen hours. What occurred in that room is not stated, but briefly the complaint states that Miss Reese threatened Mr Arthur with a weapon. He says he was menaced that night, and in the morning, under the influence of the weapon, he accompanied her to the marriage license bureau and took out a license. Still under the fear of disaster if he backed out, they were married, he said.

The story that developed last night, however, at the time of the reconciliation varies considerably from this. […] The two had known each other more than a year and had frequently discussed matrimony. […] Prior to their wedding, at the Alhambra apartments, Mr Arthur went alone to purchase a ring and later left his bride-to-be at a picture show while he had the ring made smaller. According to witnesses Mr Arthur’s ardor did not cool until Friday morning when he left his bride without telling her of his change of heart. Mrs Arthur says she is willing to let bygones be bygones and has taken her husband, who towers right inches above her, and weighs almost 200 pounds, back to her heart.

Mr Arthur states he is 24. His bride is 29.

— “Leap Year is Over-Blamed”, Los Angeles Times, 9 January 1916, p. 12.

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