NPC in History: Prohibition at the National Press Club
May 14, 2019 | By Gil Klein | firstname.lastname@example.org
The beginning of Prohibition in America must have been a slap in the face of a National Press Club founded on a bar and a poker table. And to make matters worse, Prohibition began in the District of Columbia six months before the rest of the nation –- June 30, 1919.
The question was: Would the Club use its private status as well as its influence with politicians and law enforcement to satisfy the members’ thirst for adult beverages? The answer, to the chagrin of many, was absolutely not.
“Well aware of what had been expected, the club drew fanatically away from danger of imputation and became for a dreary time probably the driest club, press or otherwise, in America!” wrote Club historian Homer Dodge in the 1948 Club history.
The Club in 1917 was at the top of the Riggs Building at G and 15th streets NW, across the street from the Treasury Department. During World War I, the Club had a brisk business of journalists from around the world congregating in Washington. “It was not an unusual experience to have the little bar –- two tables with embracing high-backed benches facing the two- or three-yard-long mahogany itself –- well populated.”
Dodge described what happened at the Club on June 30 -- what he called The Day of Judgement -- this way:
“The club placed on sale its cellar, which was not mean. At first, case goods moved at cost; as the hours passed it became apparent that the club would be left in illegal possession of ardent and spirituous liquors. Quite early, beer was free on tap. With supply and deadline converging, prices of champagnes and fine brandies, old wines and proud whiskies dwindled steadily toward midnight, when on the dirging stroke all that was left was set out on tables of the main dining room, the Flemish Room, and the lounge for the having of anyone with desire and strength to grasp them. Thus, wartime Prohibition came to the National Press Club.”
Was the Club totally dry? Well ….
All around the Club were newspaper offices where somehow, some way, illegal hooch mysteriously appeared. Did it find its way into the Club? As Dodge wrote, “Against the lapping of this ever-present tide from outside its peculiar walls the club could not indefinitely stand firm. Liquor crept into the precincts, either borne by members or floating them in on its own ardent flooding seepage, disturbing, comforting!”
The arrival later that year of Edward, the Prince of Wales, offers one story. Edward, who would go on to the King Edward VIII and give it all up to marry Wallis Simpson, was partial to Scotch, as was well known. As Dodge recounted, the Club employed a steward, who had his own pipeline to the good stuff. He was dispatched to procure a case of the finest Scotch to be found. He accomplished his mission, and just to be sure that the Scotch was good, he sampled it liberally. By the time of the Prince’s reception, the steward’s mood was “lightsome, unwearied and enthusiastic.” As time passed, he felt like “the Prince was his own particular guest.” He waited impatiently through the introduction by President Earl Godwin of The Washington Times, and as members of the Club moved through the receiving line to shake hands and exchange a few words with the Prince.
“At length, he could bear it no longer,” Dodge wrote. “Slipping between the president and Edward, he delivered what he intended to be a sly nudge, but which actually was a tremendous jolt of the elbow into His Royal Highnesses’ ribs which nearly bore him down, while he invited in a hissing whisper, ‘Have a little drink, Prince?’”
After the Club visit, Edward was quoted in the London Press as saying he was sorry he had not been a newspaperman.
Moving to its new quarters in the National Press Building at the end of 1927 gave Club members a little more room in which to imbibe. A few members commandeered a small room on the 14th floor, and created what they called “The Turf Club.”
The room had been intended to be a one-chair barbershop, so it had water that made it convenient for providing ice. No more than 10 people could occupy this room without crowding, although it was known to have as many as 30 crammed in. Metal lockers were provided for stashing booze that appeared in a medley of Mason jars, of Dykeman-orange juice gallon jugs and an assortment of other bottles that bore labels having nothing to do with the actual contents.
The room was dubbed either the Turf Room or the Paddock. Meals could be served there. Not only were the most distinguished journalists found there, but also high government officials, legislators and jurists. “Many a man whose name meant much to the world was known to point a wee finger at the ceiling!” Dodge wrote, indicating the position of the hand as liquor was drained from a glass.
Finally, Prohibition ended in 1933.
On March 25 the Washington Star reported on the front page that 111 establishments had filed for the first licenses to sell beer, 47 on just that morning. Among the applicants, the story said, was the National Press Club, which filed an official petition that it be granted license No. 1. Daniel Garges, secretary to the District Commissioners, reportedly responded to Club Secretary Frederick Perkins that the Club’s request for license No. 1 “would be given due consideration.”
That’s how the Club still holds District liquor license No. 1.
On April 7, The Washington Post reported crowds reveling around the White House as the first beer was delivered at 12:05 a.m. President Franklin Roosevelt was asleep. Then the truck proceeded to 14th and F streets NW, as burly men delivered “a dozen cases and six halves” to the Club’s bar.
“John Boyle, veteran newspaperman and the oldest charter member of the newspaperman’s club, lifted up the first stein of real beer. As the fluid gurgled into the bumper and the foam brimmed its edges, a ripple of long-repressed delight came from the crowded taproom.”
This is another in a series provided by Club historian Gil Klein. Dig down anywhere in the Club’s 111-year history, and you will find some kind of significant event in the history of the world, the nation, Washington, society, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.