How the Martini Went From Simple Cocktail to American Icon

Frank Sinatra, David Wayne, and a few martinis in The Tender Trap. Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images

Nobody argues that, among cocktails, the Martini is king. It achieved preeminence in the cocktail canon some decades ago and has never been seriously challenged since. But when exactly did it become the ne plus ultra of mixed drinks, the standard by which all cocktails would forever be judged? And how did it become a totem of American culture, alongside apple pie, hot dogs, blue jeans, baseball and a two-car garage?

Prohibition certainly gave the drink a boost. There was a lot of gin drunk during those dry years. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an ardent amateur mixologist, helped. Legend has it that the first cocktail mixed up at The White House following the passage of the twenty-first amendment was a Martini.

But more people eating apple pie and attending baseball games didn’t push those things over the line from popular to sacred. That’s achieved by outside forces. When poets, journalists, politicians, novelists and artists began taking up baseball as a subject, that’s when baseball became an American icon. So it was with the Martini. Americans were drinking plenty of Manhattans, too, but cultural beacons weren’t chiseling the Manhattan onto the side of Mount Rushmore, so it remained just a drink. The Martini, however — oh, how strongly serious artists felt the need to have an opinion on the Martini.

This lionization began in earnest in the 1920s, when footloose expatriate members of America’s Lost Generation latched onto the Martini as a symbol of sophistication, rebellion, American-ness or whatever characteristics they cared to project upon the drink.

The prescient father of the literary Martini was Jack London, who made the cocktail the fuel that propelled Burning Daylight, the capitalistic antihero of his 1910 novel of the same name. Burning Daylight is the nickname of Elam Harnish, who strikes it rich in the Yukon gold rush, then moves to San Francisco to establish himself as a respectable robber baron. The regular intake of Martinis is part of his new persona. Wrote London, “Nobody seemed to notice the unusualness of the Martini at midnight, thought Daylight looked sharply for that very thing; for he had long since learned that Martinis had their strictly appointed times and places.” One of those times — as it is still today — is at the close of business, when “his ever-lasting call went out for a Martini, and for a double-Martini at that.” London can safely be credited with creating the idea of the businessman who regards the Martini as his due at the end of a long day.

Few novels mention the Martini as many times as Burning Daylight. But future mentions would acquire more fame. Ernest Hemingway, as big a drinker as London, slipped cocktail cameos into almost all his works. The Martini appeared in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), where, in the final pages of the book, the central figures, Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley, order Martinis in a Madrid bar. But Hemingway’s most quoted Martini line came in A Farewell to Arms (1929), where, again, the protagonist, Frederic Henry, meets with his romantic interest at a hotel bar and orders Martinis: “The sandwiches came and I ate three and drank a couple more martinis. I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.” Hemingway undoubtedly spoke for many when he penned that last line.

In 1950, Hemingway was still throwing Martinis down his characters’ throats, this time in Across the River and Into the Trees. At Harry’s Bar in Venice, Colonel Cantwell orders two “Montgomerys. Fifteen to one,” for himself and his young Italian love, Renata.

A lot of the seriousness that people, particularly men, attach to the Martini can arguably to traced to Hemingway’s lionization of the drink. There is no American author more slavishly adored by his fans, who are prone to aspire to the sort of manly, high-adventure life they imagine the novelist lived. If Hemingway tended to weight the Martini with meaning, his contemporary and literary rival, F. Scott Fitzgerald, saw the fun in the cocktail. “We walked into the bar with that defiant feeling that characterizes the day of departure and order four Martinis,” he wrote in his 1926 story “The Rich Boy.” “After one cocktail change came over him — he suddenly reached across and slapped my knee with the first joviality I had seen him exhibit for months.”

The now-forgotten novelist John Allen Miner Thomas did Hemingway and Fitzgerald one better by naming his sole work of fiction after the cocktail. Dry Martini: A Gentleman Turns to Love, published in 1926, told of an old libertine named Willoughby Quimby, whose life of pleasant dissipation and debauchery is interrupted when his long-ignored, now-grown daughter comes to visit him in Paris. Quimby’s favorite haunt is a bar referred to as Dan’s Place. Thomas — a graduate of Browning, Hotchkiss and Yale, and a member of Skull and Bones — appears to have enjoyed all the advantages of his class. He spent the summer of 1923 studying at the Sorbonne, and writes knowingly of Paris’ drinking culture:

Right left over the fair city by the Seine they sowed the hardy Martini, the fruitful Bronx, the sturdy Manhattan, the rugged highball. And Paris proved fertile ground. From the broad plateau of the Place de la Concorde to the pleasant slopes of Montmartre flourished the fruit of the sowing. Bar after bar sprang like alcoholic mushrooms among the drab cafes…

The final scene of the very slight and whimsical story has Quimby, back at Dan’s and free of all familial encumbrances, ordering the title drink. (Thomas, one can surmise, inhaled a few Dry Martinis in his time. He died in 1932 at the age of 32.)

Noel Coward, unsurprisingly, saw the Martini as an extension of urbanity, not too different from proper evening clothes or a cigarette holder. The sophisticated, quipping protagonist in his 1941 farce, Blithe Spirit, doesn’t allow the sudden appearance of late wife as a ghost to get in the way of cocktail hour. Fellow Britain, poet W.H. Auden, took a fiercer view of the drink, writing, within his poem “Symmetries and Asymmetries,” the haiku,

Could any tiger

Drink martinis, smoke cigars,

And last as we do?

No doubt, this is how many ardent Martini devotees think of themselves as they drain their third glass. Auden loves his Martinis deeply, and, to show that love, drank them often. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, in 2007, hundreds gathered at his birthplace of York, England, to toast him with a Martini.

For postwar American writers, the Martini seemed to transition from cultured accessory — a switch by which you turned on jollity and humanity — to security blanket, a depended-upon weapon against the encroachment of barbarism, melancholy and change. The WASP-ish characters in Edward Albee’s plays and John Cheever’s stories retreated into the knowable comfort of their Martinis. E.B. White saw the drink not as a party starter, but as “the elixir of quietude.” The food writer M.F.K Fisher, in a 1949 article, wrote, “A well-made Martini or Gibson, correctly chilled and nicely served, has been more often my true friend than any two-legged creature.” It’s a sentiment I well understand, but a bleak one nonetheless. More optimistic was Elaine Dundy, who wrote, in her picaresque coming-of-age, 1958 novel The Dud Avocado, “We had dry Martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air.”

Simultaneously, movies did more than their share to plump the Martini’s position in society. The most renowned cinematic appearance of the Martini is still, after all these years, The Thin Man, the breezy adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel about debonair husband-and-wife sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. The year the film came out is important: 1934. Prohibition was over and the filmmakers seemed intent upon driving the point home. The Charleses never stop drinking, and much of what they consume is gin and vermouth. Nick is first scene instructing bartenders how to properly shake certain cocktails (“A dry Martini you always shake to waltz time”). When Nora finds him at the bar, she asked for six Martinis, in order to catch up with Nick’s intake. At a party in their well-appointed flat, trays of Martinis are perpetually passed around. The next morning, a hungover Nora asks “What hit me?” Nick answers, “The last Martini.” The characters even drink cocktails in the movie’s poster. (Martinis do not figure in Hammett’s book, but then Hollywood seldom honors its sources.) “The Thin Man” was a tremendous hit. If some Americans had forgotten what a Martini was during the dry years, they remembered now.

Martinis never left the cinema after that. The films in which they’re provided support are legion, but a few stand out. In Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) Bette Davis’s actress uses Martinis to feed her jealousy and insecurity over the scheming Eve; it is the cocktail which feeds the famous “bumpy night.” The Tender Trap (1955) finds Frank Sinatra in full swinger mode as a womanizing New York theatrical agent. His mod bachelor pad is equipped with a bar where drinks are frequently mixed. In Teacher’s Pet, a Doris Day romantic comedy, the hard-boiled newspaper editor played by Clark Gable shows himself to be quite resourceful in an unfamiliar kitchen. He robs an ice pack of ice cubes to mix a Martini. As for vermouth, he merely shakes a bottle of Noilly Prat and rubs the wet cork along the rim of the mixing glass. He then strains the drink through his fingers.

But did any filmmaker know and love the Martini more than Billy Wilder? In his very first film as director, The Major and the Minor (1942), he and co-screenwriter Charles Brackett had supporting player Robert Benchley utter a version of what became the humorist’s most famous line, “Let’s get you out of that wet coat and into a dry Martini.” Tom Ewell makes Marilyn Monroe Martinis in The Seven Year Itch. In the romantic comedy “Sabrina,” elderly millionaire Oliver Larrabee displays the ingenuity that made him rich, pouring his already mixed Martini into an olive jar when the last remaining olive therein refuses to be dislodged. But the prize for most Martinis consumed in a Wilder film goes to The Apartment. In one scene alone, lovelorn junior executive Jack Lemmon dulls his heartbreak with at least a dozen Christmas Eve Martinis, lining up the toothpick-speared olives on the bartop in the shape of a star.

Luis Buñuel didn’t feature the drink in as many movies as Wilder, but he may have worshiped the Martini even more. In his surrealistic masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, he devotes one scene to a character’s pontificating on how to properly prepare and drink a Martini. Buñuel wasn’t spoofing such pretentions entirely. He was as serious about Martinis in real life.

The Martini was so in sync with the Hollywood mentality that it gave the industry an enduring piece of work jargon. The “Martini Shot” is shorthand for the last shot of a filming day.

The Martini’s place in music is harder to place, but it’s there, primarily, as one might expect, in jazz. Paul Desmond, the saxophonist with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and composer of the outfit’s immortal song “Take Five,” once described his sound as being “like a dry Martini.” In “Scotch and Soda,” the Kingston Trio’s mellow folk hit form 1958, the singer compares love to being intoxicated, saying, “Dry Martini/jigger of gin/of what a spell you’ve got me in, oh my.”

It found a footing in musical theater as well. Frank Loesser, composer of the Madison Avenue satire How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, had ladder-climbing hero J. Pierrepont Finch serenade his reflection with, “there’s that slam bang tang reminiscent of gin and vermouth.” What greater compliment could an up-and-coming young man pay himself than to compare himself to a Martini?

Reprinted from THE MARTINI COCKTAIL: A Meditation on the World’s Greatest Drink, with Recipes. Copyright © 2019 by Robert Simonson. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

How the Martini Went From Simple Cocktail to American Icon