Jack London

profile image




San Francisco


Sonoma County, California

Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe

100 years after his alcoholic memoir-cum-temperance tract, John Barleycorn, was published, we profile an all-round alpha male who helped tip America towards Prohibition.

So who was Jack London?
Gold prospector, oyster poacher, rancher, amateur boxer, political activist and, most of all, writer, Jack London made his name with rugged tales of life on the American frontier.

His alcoholic memoir, John Barleycorn, prompted sermons in pulpits, denunciations from liquor companies and eulogies from the temperance movement, and helped tip America towards Prohibition. Today it reads, at least in part, like a love letter to the old-time saloon.

Where did he drink?
London spent his teens in Oakland saloons, among them the legendary Johnny Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon, the St. Louis House, Joe Vigy's, Overland House, Haywards, San Leandro, Niles and the National Saloon, drinking with characters like Whisky Bob and French Frank.

But London drank everywhere -- "a cabaret in the Latin Quarter, a cafe in some obscure Italian village, a boozing ken in sailor-town..." Reporting on the Russo-Japanese war, he hung out at the Imperial Hotel Bar in Tokyo and Martin's Bar and the White Horse bar in Seoul; in Des Moines, Iowa, a dry town, he sniffed out every blind pig in town.

What did he drink?
As a hobo, he drank watered-down chemist's alcohol with alki-stiffs; in the Bonin islands he coped with the local firewater; he itemises Bourbon, rye, Scotch, raw whisky, trade rum, absinthe, muscat, beer and wine in his book.

As the best-selling author of his day, London's tastes changed. He enjoyed cocktails, from Horse's Necks to Hot Toddies, and had his favourite cocktails premade for him in Oakland and shipped to his California ranch.

Any famous drinking buddies?
London befriended the escape artist, Harry Houdini, who spent Thanksgiving at his ranch, and would go on to have an affair with his widow. Probably his best-known drinking acquaintance, though, was Wyatt Earp, of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral fame: London drank in the Dexter Saloon, a bar Earp owned in Nome, Alaska.

How did drink change his life?
London always hated the taste of alcohol, and binge-drinking left him struggling for breath, but drink became a part of his life in his hard-scrabble youth. By the time he died, aged only 40, London was a full-blown alcoholic. It was, most likely, kidney failure that killed him.

Any drinking stories?
London first got drunk on beer at five, then on red wine at seven, displaying a capacity for alcohol phenomenal in one so young. He almost died as a teenager after falling into the water of San Francisco Bay by accident, deciding that suicide was the way forward, and deliberately sending himself out to sea.

After a bender that saw him misbehaving with chorus girls on Broadway and ended with him shaving his head in Baltimore, he wrote John Barleycorn at least in part as an apology to his long-suffering second wife.

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