Having a Drink with Hemingway

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Last night I went to Shaker’s Cigar Bar in Milwaukee. The bar, once a speakeasy and brothel, built over the site of a cemetery, is said to be haunted. They have discovered quite a few spirits. There is eleven year old Elizabeth, thought to be pictured below, who broke her neck in a fall from a tree when it was a cemetery in the 1800’s  (ladies, be careful – she’s known to haunt the woman’s restroom).

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There are two ghosts of unnamed women who worked the brothel and committed suicide on the property, and one of Molly Brennan, a woman of the night who was murdered by her lover. With two murder victims buried in the basement, and an unknown number of bodies that were not moved when the building was constructed over the cemetery, there are plenty of restless spirits roaming the property.

The building was also once owned by Al Capone. He even left behind a safe. The current owner has elected not to break into said safe. Probably a good idea, just ask Geraldo Rivera.

 

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Any of you who know me, know this is right up my alley. Just check out my other blog posts “Spiritual Journey” and “Life Imitates Art, Art Imitates Life, Life After Death“. I am not a skeptic when it comes to ghosts and the spirit world. Despite my desire to meet someone from the other side, we did not have any supernatural experiences while on the tour. As the tour guide will tell you, ghosts don’t perform on command. The history and architecture alone were interesting and worth the ticket price.

Another attraction of the bar are their cocktails featuring, the once illegal, absinthe.  For those of you who don’t know what absinthe is, it’s a liquor made from anise, fennel, and wormwood. Once called the “Green Fairy,” it was first produced in Switzerland in the late 18th century.  It became very popular in Switzerland, France and the United States, especially in the early 1900’s. Unfortunately for absinthe, it got a bad rap. There is a chemical in wormwood called thujone, that is not only poisonous, but thought (at the time) to be a hallucinogen. It’s no wonder that J.K. Rowling made one of the main ingredients in her Draught of the Living Death potion.

Of course, serving hallucinogenic alcohol to the customers, has nothing to do with anyone possibly seeing ghosts on the tour!

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During it’s heyday, absinthe became the drink of the creative crowd; the writers and the artists. French poets Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud were absinthe drinkers. So were artists  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani, and Vincent Van Gogh. The authors that favored the licorice flavored beverage included Oscar Wilde, Alfred Jarry, and Ernest Hemingway. These are just a few of the artistic minded that preferred to partake in absinthe.

Hemingway loved absinthe and even created his own cocktail. He mixed absinthe with champagne and called it “Death in the Afternoon” after his book of the same name.

I have to admit, I have yet to  read Hemingway. I know…  his books are Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning classics, but I was initially turned off by the idea of over 100 pages of an old man sitting in a boat. That being said, his books are on my list of books to read, but I have a lot on that list, and I’m still in the midst of the entire works of Charles Dickens. Sometimes I feel like Henry Bemis in the Twilight Episode Time Enough at Last.”

“Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock”

I can understand Mr. Bemis – so many books, so little time! So Hemingway, along with many other greats, are on the ever increasing, impossible to complete, “to read” list.

Regardless of the fact that I cannot call myself a fan of Hemingway, as an author, the man is an icon. So I raised a silent toast to his creativity and success (and secretly hoped his spirit would bestow just a bit of it on me) as I sipped on a glass of the cocktail he created. I do hope I enjoy his books more than I did his cocktail.  Just a note, I did try a sip of absinthe served the more traditional way, with water and a sugar cube. I found that to be much more palatable than Hemingway’s drink.

Unfortunately Hemingway, along with absinthe, met a tragic demise. Hemingway committed suicide, and absinthe was made illegal. It was blamed for crimes, immoral behavior, and murder.

Here is a quote from Oscar Wilde on the effects of absinthe.

“After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world. I mean disassociated. Take a top hat. You think you see it as it really is. But you don’t because you associate it with other things and ideas.If you had never heard of one before, and suddenly saw it alone, you’d be frightened, or you’d laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad. Three nights I sat up all night drinking absinthe, and thinking that I was singularly clear-headed and sane. The waiter came in and began watering the sawdust.The most wonderful flowers, tulips, lilies and roses, sprang up, and made a garden in the cafe. “Don’t you see them?” I said to him. “Mais non, monsieur, il n’y a rien.”

Now absinthe is back. Yes, thujone is poisonous, but you cannot consume enough absinthe to reach toxic levels without first dying of alcohol poisoning and the new liquor contains less thujone than the early versions. As to it’s hallucinogenic properties –  despite Van Gogh and Hemingway’s known mental instability, and regardless of Oscar Wilde’s tulips, it is not proven that it has any hallucinogenic effects at all.  I certainly didn’t see any ghosts after imbibing  my “Death in the Afternoon” cocktail.

Absinthe is not all innocent though. It has a very high alcohol content (110 to 144 proof) which may have enhanced  the genius and creativity of those who used it , but also, most certainly, aided in their eventual deaths.  Besides Hemingway and Van Gogh’s suicides; Wilde, Lautrec, and the other artists I listed, (with the exception of  Rimbaud who died fairly young of bone cancer) all suffered from poor health that was attributed at least in part, if not completely, on drug and alcohol addiction. So although absinthe is  not the creator of visions that drove men to kill, it still had the ability to kill. To be honest it still does, but only as much as any other alcoholic beverage. One only needs to practice moderation, as with anything else to avoid it’s curse. At Shaker’s there is a three absinthe drink limit for any customer on any given evening.

As for me, I’m glad I tried it, but I think I’ll just have to find my creativity on my own. I may not win a Pulitzer, or recreate the magic of a starry night, but I may live long enough to enjoy the things I do create.

Besides, I want to remember, in vivid detail, any ghost sightings I may have, and not wonder if it was just a hallucination! And if the ghost of Hemingway himself ever visits me? I will thank him for a pleasant evening, sharing his drink, even if it wasn’t to my taste.

 

 

 

 

 

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