Before Prohibition, men and women almost never drank together. Most consumed alcoholic beverages–even those who didn’t think they were drinking were downing copious amounts of patent medicine which was largely made of alcohol–but they didn’t drink together. Men left the dining room table and congregated for drinks and smokes in another room, rejoining the ladies when they were through. It was universal pretense that women didn’t drink.
But with the advent of the speakeasy and the beginning of women’s liberation in the Roaring Twenties, men and women started sharing the same space at parties. The saloon, once an all-male bastion, was declared illegal. It’s replacement, the illegal speakeasy, was open to all. Private gatherings, which had previously meant dinner parties, morphed into stand-up drinking occasions called cocktail parties that often didn’t include any food beyond nibbles. Men and women, married and single, gathered outside their home to drink cocktails, dance to the phonograph, and flirt. “Nobody stays home anymore,” said novelist Willa Cather in 1924.
So I make sure that, in my Roaring Twenties mysteries, Jessie (my main character) visits speakeasies and mingles with men. It doesn’t always turn out well. Like when she is looking for information about a certain suspect and gets attacked by a drunken lout. Here’s an excerpt:
Henry scanned the room, his eyes passing over me without a flicker of recognition, and when he saw that none of the larger tables was empty, he approached the center one and emptied it with a scram motion of his thumb. Henry and his associates called to the bartender for drinks. The guy knew what to bring without being told. Ah, the advantages of regular patronage.
They were loud, but not loud enough for me to make out more than the stray word or two. Curious, I nursed my drink and watched from the wings. Henry sat facing me from the far side of the table, tipping back on his chair legs, smoking one cigarette after another as he tossed off snide remarks that were received with raucous laughter by his minions. David was the only one not laughing. I had a profile view of him as he leaned forward from the edge of his seat, his hands clasped around a mug of ale, staring glumly at the foam.
As I watched, he said something to Henry, who frowned, took out his wallet, and handed him several bills. David pocketed the money and stood up, made a curt farewell, and disappeared up the stairs.
Which, now that I’d gotten what I came for, was exactly what I needed to do. I motioned to the bartender that I was leaving, and fished through my purse for a dollar. Suddenly there was a tough standing over me.
Markie’s was obviously not the first bar he’d seen this evening. He swayed a little, and his words were slurred, but he was not yet blotto. I realized with dismay that he was one of Henry’s party.
“Ev’ning, dollface. What’s a looker like you sitting all alone for? Come join us and I’ll buy you a glass of bubbly.” His friends were watching, all of them, to see what luck he would have. I wasn’t overly concerned. The light was dim and my costume, wig, and makeup were good enough that I would feel comfortable speaking directly to Henry without fear he would recognize me. Still, Shakespeare had it right, discretion is the better part of valor.
“Thank you, but I need to meet my husband at the theater in a few minutes.” I folded the dollar under my glass and stood.
“Husband, eh? Well, now, that’s one lucky man, that husband,” he sneered, grabbing my arm with his rough fingers. “I think he should spread his luck around a little, eh dollface?” I twisted away from his grasp as I threw what was left of my drink in his face. He sputtered with rage.
I crossed the room toward the stairs, weaving through several patrons. The boozehound shoved them aside as he followed. Suddenly he crashed to the floor, tripped by an outstretched foot that a gentleman at another table had kindly extended on my behalf. He sprawled messily, and I made my escape into the night.
Markie’s was two blocks from the main strip, and the street was quiet. The cold air tasted fresh and clean after the thick smoke in the bar. The corners were dark—no streetlights in this part of town. No place for a girl alone, I thought, heading toward an intersection where a gaslight beckoned. Behind me, the door to Markie’s slammed shut. A glance over my shoulder told me my suitor had been down but not out.
Anger at his humiliation trumped inebriation. I bolted for the gaslight but my ridiculous shoes slowed me down, and before I could put any distance between us, he was on me. He snatched at me and got a handful of rabbit stole which I immediately released, but not soon enough to avoid being slung into the gutter, tearing a hole in my dress with my knee. I swung backward hard with my elbow, hoping to hit something vulnerable. I heard him scream, but oddly enough, my arm hit only air.
Someone had lifted the goon off me and a familiar voice drawled, “This man bothering you, lady?”