History Lesson: The Bloody Mary

bloody mary

Fernand “Pete” Petiot is said to have invented the famous brunch drink.

The Bloody Mary boasts a history packed with fascinating characters and potentially plausible events, including an internationally famed bartender, a beloved—if hungover—comedian, a murderous queen and a ruined dress. In his new book, The Bloody Mary, bartender Brian Bartels attempts to offer clarification (and some mouthwatering recipes) on the complicated cocktail. “The good news is, the Bloody Mary was invented,” writes Bartels. “The answer to the question of how it originated, however, is a murky one.”

Popular theory often pinpoints Fernand “Pete” Petiot as the original creator of the drink. In the 1920s while working at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, Petiot would mix Russian vodka with tomato juice for American expats. However, a cocktail book published by the bar’s owner, Harry McElhone, in 1927 included no such recipe. “If he was muddling tomatoes and mixing it with vodka, that certainly was an early version of it,” says Bartels. “But he didn’t apply the spices and the seasonings until he was at the St. Regis and it really snowballed from there.”

Petiot took up the helm at the King Cole Bar of the St. Regis Hotel in New York in 1934, where he introduced the Red Snapper—which included vodka, tomato juice, citrus and spices—on his post-Prohibition menu. Supposedly, Petiot had wanted to call the drink the Bloody Mary, but the hotel’s owner, Vincent Astor (who, coincidentally, was married to a woman named Mary) objected. The drink became a smash and was published in Crosby Gaige’s Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion in 1941.

However, it’s not quite as simple as all that, as this was not the first record of the drink in print. Comedian George Jessel mentioned the drink in Lucius Beebe’s column in the New York Herald Tribune in 1939, calling it the latest “pick-me-up.” In fact, Jessel claimed creation of the Bloody Mary altogether in his autobiography The World I Live In, recalling a particularly long night at Palm Beach restaurant La Maze in 1927. By 8 a.m., still awake and nursing a hangover, Jessel mixed up potato vodka with tomato juice and spices for himself and his friends. As the tale goes, in walked socialite Mary Brown Warburton still in a white gown from the night before. Once handed a glass of Jessel’s concoction, she promptly spilled it down the front of her dress, exclaiming, “Now you can call me Bloody Mary, George!”

“I view it with some skepticism,” says Bartels. “There is no other bystander who claims that he was with Jessel at 8 a.m. after this all-night drinking binge when he came up with this cocktail by just grabbing stuff from behind the bar during Prohibition, in Florida, and in walks Mary Warburton! It is so epic and so grandiose that I just can’t give it 100-percent validity.”

Jessel also appeared in a Smirnoff Vodka ad in Collier’s magazine in March of 1956, claiming “I think I invented the Bloody Mary…” But what can be given validity is the widely cited New Yorker article from July 18, 1964, in which Petiot himself is quoted saying, “I initiated the Bloody Mary of today. George Jessel said he created it, but it was really nothing but vodka and tomato juice when I took it over.” Petiot then goes on to detail his recipe which included salt and pepper, Worchestshire, cayenne and lemon. “I just don’t feel like there is enough evidence to could give Jessel credit, even though Petiot kind of admits in the article ‘Jessel started it and I finished it,'” says Bartels. “In my opinion, Petiot was the one who took the keys and drove the Cadillac out onto the highway, so to speak.”

Even the name of the drink itself spawned multiple theories. A long-popular, though unsupported, belief was that the cocktail took its moniker from Queen Mary Tudor who executed hundreds of Protestants during her reign. Others claim the drink to be named after a waitress, Mary, from Chicago’s infamous Bucket of Blood Saloon. Bartels holds an affinity for the sorrowful, if unlikely, tale that Petiot named the drink for a woman who frequently sat at his bar waiting for a suitor who never showed. And then, of course, is Jessel’s account of Warburton and her ruined dress. “Mary Brown Warburton has the most three-dimensional story surrounding her,” says Bartels. “But the skeptic in me still goes back to the fact that no one else has come forward with a confirmation that it happened. But history can be pretty muddy if you keep digging.”

Perhaps we should simply be content with the fact that, as Bartels points out, at least the Bloody Mary was invented.


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