The bloody history of the Bloody Mary: Part 1

Bartender Jack McGarry, formerly of The Merchant Hotel in Belfast and Milk & Honey in London, currently working with Sean Muldoon on The Dead Rabbit in New York, first promised us this article on his latest obsession in November 2010 - in fact, it turned into something of a labour of love. In the first part of a four-part feature, he recalls two of the most commonly accepted stories behind the drink's creation. Next week, he traces the evolution - and precursors - of the drink.

I'm not the type of person to endorse dogma. My whole raison d'etre as a bartender is to find out as much about my passion as is humanly possible: I'm fuelled by inquisitiveness and if ever I get the merest sniff of something that could overturn a previously-held belief, I will stop at nothing until I consider my opinion well-versed. The genius of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, once stated: "Doubt Grows with Knowledge." I wholeheartedly agree.

This journey begins in Paris, which you might call the home of the modern conspiracy. It is the epicentre of uncertainty: the birthplace of a multitude of falsified or misrepresented stories - from the Da Vinci code to the death of Princess Diana, that Thierry Henry handball and, most importantly, the Bloody Mary. Thankfully, there are people who aren't completely satisfied with populist or conspiracy theories just because they are spoon-fed to the masses. I can't comment on Diana's last minutes at the Pont de l'Alma, nor the idea that Jesus was a married man - and don't get me started on the 2010 World Cup. But I am determined to find out the true origins of the Bloody Mary, to identify who the key players really were and to unravel the chain of events which propelled it to international notoriety.

Before I started all this, I was content, like so many others, with the conclusion - no, the convention - that Fernand "Pete" Petiot created the Bloody Mary during the early 1920s whilst in Harry's New York Bar Paris, and that the drink was popularised with his arrival in New York and his initiation in the St. Regis Hotel. But when I immersed myself in bar guides and other literature of the early 20th century I noticed a lack of correlating evidence and I became increasingly suspicious as to its accuracy (I also became exasperated with the accepted 'fact' that the Red Snapper is made with gin).

The Story of Fernand "Pete" Petiot

Fernand Petiot was born in Paris on the 18th February 1900. From a very early age young Petiot got his fingers dirty in the hospitality industry, helping his parents run a 60-room mansion, in particular helping his mum in the kitchen. He started in the New York Bar (not yet called 'Harry's') in Paris aged 16: his previous experience with his mother helped him secure a job there as a kitchen porter. It is believed that only two years later he married Ruth, although death records show Ruth had two children to other men so I'm not sure when they did get married. (The 1930 U.S. Federal Population Census shows that Petiot was in the same household as Ruth Petiot but the kids have different surnames - Victor Miller and Charles Oliver.)

It is claimed he created the famous drink while he was behind the stick of Harry's New York, Paris during the early 1920s, with 1921 most frequently cited as the key date - which would have meant it was created when it was still under the ownership of Ted Sloan. The former American jockey Ted Sloan had procured a site situated on 5 Rue Daunou in 1911. He changed what was a bistro into an American bar and called it The New York Bar.

It was Sloan who appointed Harry MacElhone - a Scottish bartender with a terrific résumé. Harry used to tend bar in Manhattan's New York Plaza Hotel and also in London's swanky Ciro's Club. Sloan's bar was beginning to capitalize on the number of US servicemen in Europe and members of the American Field Service Ambulance Corps in particular called Harry's home for a large portion of World War One and many other expats also frequented it.

Sloan's gambling problems and lavish lifestyle eventually took its toll. He was forced to sell the business to MacElhone in 1923 and retire back to the US. MacElhone simply added "Harry" in front of the name and "Harry's New York Bar" was born. Harry's had by this time become a frequent hangout for Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart and many other famous international and American icons.

Asking how the name of the Bloody Mary originated is a bit like asking Hugh Hefner the name of his girlfriend. There's not one - there are plenty. The most popular story is that Petiot named it after Queen Mary Tudor of England. She had taken the throne after a short battle against her dying brother Edward VI's wishes and the machinations of John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland. Queen Mary was fanatical supporter of the Catholic religion and it's well documented how much she detested the exploits of her father's divorce and schism that saw the creation of The Church of England.

Mary's 'Bloody' moniker is related to some of her first acts as Queen: first came the execution of Dudley and then the reinstitution of the Heresy Acts in 1554. Under the Acts many, many protestants were killed under the Marian Persecutions, the main method of execution being death by fire. It's believed many of the 283 killed under the Heresy Act died this way and gave Mary the unofficial title Queen "Bloody" Mary.

Another source of inspiration Petiot is accused of tapping into is that of The Bucket of Blood Saloon from Chicago, Illinois. One of the first and only appearances in print referencing the saloon occurs on the 25th February 1916 in an article published in the Chicago Tribune, under the title of "Five Cabarets Violate Law, Aldermen Hear", relating to selling booze after-hours. It said the Bucket of Blood was "a small, dark, sordid, dismal place and we couldn't stand it very long". It was owned by George B. Dulgate, whose wife was indicted for the death of Marie Benzing, resulting from a botched abortion. However, it wasn't until Prohibition that the Bucket of Blood saloon received its knockout punch.

The actual name for Bucket of Blood is believed to stem from the way bar owners would throw the dirty, blood-stained water mopped from the floor after brawls and fatal stabbings into the street. The theory goes that a patron of Ted Sloan's New York Bar called Roy Barton, an American entertainer, recommended Petiot should name his drink the Bloody Mary after a waitress called Mary that worked in the Bucket of Blood. Petiot recalled this himself in an interview he gave to the Cleveland Press in January 1972.

Petiot and the Bloody Mary made a swift jaunt across the English Channel during the year of 1925. According to an interview he gave The New Yorker in July 1965, he claimed to have worked at the Savoy Hotel and that it was here that Mary Duke Biddle, then owner of the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, discovered his talents, though it wasn't until 1934, after Prohibition's repeal the previous December, that Petiot took up his place as head bartender of the St. Regis. One of Petiot's famous customers during this period was renowned gangster Frank Costello, who once stated that Petiot had served every US president from 1934 to 1972 except Lyndon B. Johnson.

Petiot became one of New York's most popular bartenders until his retirement in 1966. Whilst at the St. Regis Hotel he presided over the King Cole Bar, introducing New Yorkers to his creation - with a helping hand believed to have provided by the Russian Prince Serge Obolensky who ordered a Bloody Mary from Petiot but he wanted it with extra spice. Petiot added Tabasco and the formula was seemingly complete.

Around 1935, the Bloody Mary became known as the Red Snapper. As one story has it, it was Vincent Astor, who took ownership of the hotel in 1935, who objected to the Bloody Mary name and insisted it be changed due to its vulgarity. Also, it is believed at this point that the base spirit of the Bloody Mary changed from vodka to gin - vodka was a rare commodity in America until the Heublein Company began promoting its domestically distilled Smirnoff vodka in the late 1940s, but it took years of promotion before the clear spirit found its way into home liquor cabinets in the 'white whiskey' boom.

Upon his retirement in 1966, Petiot moved to Canton, Ohio, where he bartended occasionally at Mergus Restaurant. He would die in the city in early January 1975, aged 74.

The Story of George Jessel

Another name which came up during my research was that of George Jessel, known as the "Toastmaster General of the United States" for his frequent role of master of ceremonies at major gatherings. In his autobiography, The World I lived In!, he claimed to have created the drink during 1927 in Palm Beach, providing another narrative to its birth but arguably clouding the issue even further.

George Jessel was born into a poor Jewish family in the Harlem area of Manhattan, New York on the 3rd of April 1898. His father died in 1909. George soon had to find paying work to sustain the family's existence, and he started his working life on Broadway appearing firstly in Vaudeville acts. One famed act of his was The Jazz Singer which became the first talking motion picture in 1927 starring Al Jolson (Jessel himself would have starred in the picture had it not been for a feud he was having with Warner Brothers).

He did, however, go on to star in films in the 1920s, notably Private Izzy Murphy in 1926. As Vaudeville became passé, George turned to Broadway. He starred in The War Song (1928), and Joseph and Sweet and Low, both in 1930. He also produced six other Broadway shows, the majority being musicals, from 1943-1953. Unlike many Jewish entertainers of the time, Jessel didn't try to hide his ethnicity. In fact, he embraced it, incorporating many Yiddishisms into his comedy

Despite a colourful personal life that encompassed three marriages, affairs and a notorious shooting incident, in 1969 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honoured him for his charity work, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Jessel died of a heart attack in 1981 at the age of 83 in Los Angeles.

So that's his story, but what about his relationship with the Bloody Mary? This is the key evidence, from his own words in his autobiography The World I Lived In! published in 1975:

"In 1927, I was living in Palm Beach, or on a short visit, I don't remember which, where nearly every year I captained a softball team for a game against the elite of Palm Beach such as the Woolworth Donohues, the Al Vanderbilts, the Reeves, and their ilk. My team was made up of rag-tag New York cafe society. Because I had been around Broadway and baseball characters, I managed to slip in a ringer now and again. We generally won.

"Following the game myself, and a guy named Elliott Sperver, a Philadelphia playboy, went to La Maze's and started swilling champagne. We were still going strong at 8:00am the next morning. I had a 9:30 volleyball date with Al Vanderbilt. I was feeling no pain at all. We tried everything to kill our hangovers and sober up. Then Charlie, the bartender, enjoying our plight, reached behind the bar.

"'Here, Georgie, try this,' he said, holding up a dusty bottle I had never seen before. 'They call it vodkee. We've had it for six years and nobody has ever asked for it....'

"I looked at it, sniffed it. It was pretty pungent and smelled like rotten potatoes. 'Hell, what have we got to lose? Get me some Worcestershire sauce, some tomato juice, and lemon; that ought to kill the smell,' I commanded Charlie. I also remembered that Constance Talmadge, destined to be my future sister-in-law, always used to drink something with tomatoes in it to clear her head the next morning and it always worked - at least for her.

"'We've tried everything else, boys, we might as well try this,' I said as I started mixing the ingredients in a large glass. After we had taken a few quaffs, we all started to feel a little better. The mixture seemed to knock out the butterflies.

"Just at that moment, Mary Brown Warburton walked in. A member of the Philadelphia branch of the Wanamaker department store family, she liked to be around show business people and later had a fling with Ted Healey, the comic. She had obviously been out all night because she was still dressed in a beautiful white evening dress. 'Here, Mary, take a taste of this and see what you think of it.' Just as she did, she spilled some down the front of her white evening gown, took one look at the mess, and laughed, 'Now, you can call me Bloody Mary, George!'

"From that day to this, the concoction I put together at La Maze's has remained a Bloody Mary with very few variations. Charlie pushed it every morning when "the gang" was under the weather. Now, about a year later, the benefit for Joe E. Lewis was to be held at the Oriental Theater and I was sitting in my hotel room with Ted Healey before leaving for the theater. Ted, as usual, was slightly inebriated. He happened to pick up a copy of a Chicago paper and read an item in Winchell's column. It said that I had named the Bloody Mary after Ted's then steady girl, Mary Brown Warburton.

"Ted turned white. 'What the hell are you doing making a pass at my girl, you son of a bitch,' he yelled. And just as he did, he pulled out a pistol and tried to shoot me. I ducked and the shot missed, but as the pistol went off within a foot of my right ear, I was completely deaf for a week. I had a hell of a job doing the benefit that night."

Continues here

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