In 1946, about a dozen years after Repeal, Life magazine ran a long, colorfully illustrated report on the state of booze—its production, its culture, its consumption. Amid the coverage was a piece headlined: “What these five bars do is pure genius—and you won’t believe what they serve at the fifth!”
Actually, I made up that headline. The real headline was, “Here are famous U.S. bars,” which conveys about as much journalistic excitement as a hoop skirt.
But Life redeemed itself by running the photo shown here. It depicts that fifth bar, the Zebra Room at the Town House Hotel in Los Angeles. This photograph, I humbly submit, is the most remarkable photo in the history of cocktail photos, putting to shame all the over-doctored Instagram shots that clot the internet today.
At the time, the Zebra Room was among the swankest bars in Los Angeles, during an era when swank bars and dinner clubs were ascendant. It occupied the ground floor of the Town House Hotel (now an apartment building), at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Commonwealth, and quickly became, according to one news account, “a spot favored by the smart young set from Hancock Park.” Bands like the Rhythm Rascals played what Billboard called a “bouncy type of music.” Exotic drinks were served.
The Zebra Room was actually one of two Los Angeles bars tagged in the Life feature—the Cock N’ Bull in Hollywood (“an imitation English tavern”) also got the nod. (The others were in Chicago, Denver and Virginia City, Nevada.) With Prohibition fading into history, drink culture was manifesting its destiny, and doing so with a bit of swagger.
Every picture tells a story, of course. But this Life photo is positively Homeric.
Start with the white-jacketed bar staff. The bartender closest to us has a pocket-watch chain signaling that he’s got one foot in the past, but his sculpted and Brylcreemed hair is from the mid-’40s present. And in 1946, Hollywood was hot—it was the year of sultry onscreen couples, including Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, Lana Turner and John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep. All featured male stars paired with younger women.
Which leads you to wonder about that natty, Errol Flynn–esque man with a pencil mustache and pocket square in the foreground. We don’t know who he is, but everything you need to know can be gleaned from his drink: it looks to be an Old Fashioned. Also, he displays a supreme indifference to dangerous flames nearby.
And who is the attractive young woman looking admiringly at him? We know nothing of her, either, save that she’s perfected the “come-hither-but-not-too-hither” look. Is he a producer and she a starlet? Yes—let us imagine that. She has a naked napkin before her, and one can assume the flaming drink has been commissioned for her.
Everybody in this picture is gazing at something. The near bartender is apparently gazing at a drink he’s about to serve. The woman in yellow is gazing at the man with the pocket square. The man with the pocket square is gazing at… well, we have to surmise here, but I’m thinking he’s admiring himself in the mirror behind the bar. Then there’s the couple further down, who, remarkably, are the only ones who have seemed to notice something: A foot-tall flaming drink is sitting on the bar.
That drink was called the Vesuvius, and it cost $5. That would be more than $50 today if adjusted for inflation. (Note that the hotel was also advertising rooms for $5 at about the same time.)
You can actually make this drink yourself, per Life magazine’s instructions. Put shaved ice in a pilsner glass, then add a half-ounce of grenadine. Add more shaved ice and then an ounce each of crème de menthe, Cointreau and Southern Comfort. Take a lemon rind and soak it in high-proof rum, dip it in sugar, and place it atop the glass. Ignite.
I have made this drink. It is rather unpleasant. But to report that is to miss the point entirely. The point is that in midcentury Los Angeles, you could go to a bar, order a towering cocktail producing enough BTUs to roast a feral pig, and nobody—save the likely out-of-towners seated nearby—would pay the least attention to it.
It’s Los Angeles, circa 1946, with all of its gloss and glamour contained beautifully within a single frame—and, in this case, a single glass.
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