The Curious Case of Successful Drunks

Ulysses S. Grant, a great drunk

I want to write a history of great drunks.

The drunk who inspired this idea is Ulysses S. Grant. In her excellent multi-biography Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin briefly mentions Grant and portrays him as the Union’s most successful General. He remains renowned for his dogged military strategy as well as his laconic no-nonsense communication style — oh, and his drinking. He’s also known for his aggressive drinking. Indeed, it seemed as if he had plenty of detractors who suggested he was too drunk to command an army. And yet he had more military success than his sober peers. After someone complained to Lincoln that the man was almost always inebriated, the President reportedly quipped: “Well, I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whisky Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to all my other generals.”

The reason why Grant’s drunkenness fascinates me is that I would assume out-of-control drinking — what we call a disease today (alcoholism) — would seriously impair his ability to perform his job. I guess I’m curious about the extent to which he was successful not in spite of his drinking, but because of it.

I want to argue that there are times when predominantly negative behaviors or attitudes, like Lincoln’s melancholy disposition or Grant’s blackout drinking, somehow manifest themselves in such a way that they lead to positive outcomes. It’s entirely possible that alcohol instilled Grant with a certain brazenness in his determination to succeed that made it easier to go to battle day after day, week after week, month after month, and even year after year. I think it’s worthwhile to draw a contrast between General Grant and the prim General McClelland, who was castigated for his slowness to act and ultimately dismissed from service because he was pompous and inactive in his military strategy. It is worth noting, however, that drunk General Grant was far more successful than drunk President Grant. Drinking is complex.

Reading about the drunken military success of Grant made me think of Winston Churchill. Though not a General himself, he led Britain through World War II as Prime Minister. The bulldog was renowned for a grueling daily liquor regimen. Churchill was basically wasted from morning to sundown and regularly drunk while discharging his duties. Famously, a female MP once exclaimed during a session of parliament: “You, Mr. Churchill, are drunk!” Whereupon he replied, “My dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.” Despite such rudeness, the old determined drunk somehow still managed to defeat the Nazis and preserve liberty as we know it. He never, never, never, never stopped drinking. Perhaps all this boozing gave the man a special sort of calm or cold courage that made it easier for him to act in a decisive manner when executing difficult and possibly ethically dubious war plans. Take his word for it — he alledgely once said, “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”

(To offer a little balance, here is a lecture from an actual historian detailing the potentially maniacal nature of Churchill’s drinking.)

Churchill, a Drunk Maniac?

There are of course many examples of great drunk writers: William Faulkner reportedly would work sober and then go on extended drunken binges; James Joyce seemed to be drunk as often as his characters were; Raymond Chandler, too, has liquor drenched all over his dark and thoughtful short stories; Hemingway was often wasted; Orwell must have drank gin on a daily basis; Kerouac needed to be drunk and high on speed when he wrote; Hunter S. Thomson had a notorious daily drinking and drug ritual; and the list goes on and on. Most of these writers sent themselves to an early grave though drinking (Chandler, Orwell, Kerouac) or they killed themselves outright (Hemingway and Thomson).

I don’t want to romanticize such unhealthy drinking, since it’s entirely possible their alcoholism was a symptom of something totally independent of what made them genius writers, but if you are a drinker and you understand the kind of thoughts hard drinking can inspire/induce, I have no doubt that only the despairing mentality of a serious alcoholic could lead to such works as As I Lay Dying, or The Dead, or What I Talk About When I Talk About Love, or The Sun Also Rises, or 1984, or On The Road, or The Rum Diary.

Another subset of drunks I would like to explore in my history are Greek philosophers. I find immense joy in reading about Socrates and what surely must have been drunken ramblings in the Lyceum. There is a certain freedom and candor in the way he articulates himself that must be a product of a tongue loosened by liquor. I like to imagine that the Apology was delivered in a slight slur. He probably drank the hemlock along with some wine as a chaser.

Jacques Louis Davids’ “The Death of Socrates” — what else is in that drink?

One of my favorite fictional drunks is Sydney Carton from Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities. The line he utters before being placed in the guillotine and the redemption he achieves at the end of that novel is unparalleled in fiction.

There is also of course the case of Henry the Fifth, a drunken bon vivant in his youth but a great conqueror in his reign as King. If Shakespeare’s plays are in any way accurate, then the man spent too much time with drunks like Fallstaff and began as a disappointment to his father. Nonetheless, if we trust the Duke of Canterbury, he eventually achieved a sort of redemption upon taking the throne. Once more into the breach dear friends, once more — a former drunkard’s call!

I would like to find more examples of great drunks.

Mozart is presented as a drunk in the film Amadeus.

Christopher Hitchens loved to drink, which is well documented here:

Murakami ran a bar before he became Murakami the famous novelist and marathon runner.

Didn’t Noah, the Old Testament hero who built an arc to save all the species of the world, plant a vineyard and get drunk quite a bit after the flood?

Giovanni Bellini’s “The Drunkeness of Noah” —

I know I’ve only mentioned great drunk men. Can anybody please list some great drunk women?

If possible, I would also like to hear more about: drunk artists, drunk musicians, drunk religious leaders, drunk inventors, etc. If anybody has more information on drunks from Eastern history, or Russia, or Africa, etc. that would be extremely helpful in finding a more diverse collection of drunk greats.

As a final note, I want to be clear that there are of course many — perhaps many many more — examples of pathetic drunks. One only needs to wander down the road to the nearest pub to spot them. I also imagine that all of these greats were reduced to some sad drunken spectacle at one point or another. A drinker will never be perfect.

Finally, I don’t want to suggest that drinking is going to produce military courage, literary talent, musical genius, or anything really — I also don’t encourage you to drink. I myself have decided that I am not a greater man or writer when I am drunk. I tend to agree with the statement attributed to Grant’s foe, Robert E. Lee: “I love whiskey, that’s why I never drink it.” Besides, doctors say it’s a medical fact that excessive drinking will eventually destroy your liver, your brain, and your heart. Too much drinking is also an effective way to destroy relationships.

In some cases, however, where genius is already present, a lot of drinking seems to have had a little bit of a positive impact, whether it was in virtue of drinking, or an accidental consequence of it.

Writer-at-Large. Canadian, but I contain multitudes. Twitter : @christwebs

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