Why I quit drinking


Former LA-based Variety mugg, Morrie Gelman, has kindly submitted the following droll piece about his bout with the bottle. We think all of our readers will get a chuckle out of it.

This isn’t an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I’m not going to recite my name and say, “I’m a drunk.” What is it the Hollywood Ten had to swear to during the 40s? “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” I’ll take a similar oath. I am not now nor have I ever been a drunk.

I know that’s like an inmate at San Quentin claiming he’s innocent. Maybe I protest too much. The truth is it could be I was a “problem” drinker yet who retained the ability to stop or moderate my drinking.

During my time at Variety I frequently had two drinks at lunch and one when I got home before dinner. This was a time when drinking hard liquor was cool.

Thanks to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and any number of movies, I grew up thinking all two-fisted, macho men, especially newspapermen, drank almost to oblivion. I also remember the humorist Robert Benchley in several film appearances playing the lovable drunk. One of my editors at the New York Post kept a poorly hidden bottle of Scotch in his bottom left hand desk drawer. The publisher of one of the magazines I worked for had some of his favorite reporters in for a drink or two every afternoon once work for the day was done.

The first time I visited NBC Burbank, former newspaperman Casey Shawhan, head of publicity, welcomed me by tucking a bottle of Chivas Regal under my arm. It was a different time. Drugs were not visible. If you didn’t drink you couldn’t be trusted. A shot or two or three of hard spirits was as natural to me as drinking coffee.

I don’t think drinking interfered with my work performance. I know it relaxed me. Deadlines didn’t seem daunting after a couple of drinks.

When I worked in New York and Washington my drink of choice was J&B on the rocks. Moving to the West Coast somehow changed my taste. I switched to Jack Daniels Tennessee sour mash whiskey.

I doubt that anyone at work saw me drunk or even tipsy. The last time I was seriously drunk was at a Christmas party. It ended at midnight. In the dark of a late December night, on a freeway crowded with onrushing cars, I drove from Hollywood to Calabasas, a distance of maybe 30 miles, without turning on my lights. I wasn’t stopped. If somebody blew a horn at me, I didn’t hear it. I arrived home safe without getting a traffic ticket.

Soon afterwards I was called for jury duty. Naturally it was a drunk driving case. I was examined about my qualifications for serving. A smart young assistant DA, after inquiring about what publications I read and TV shows I watched, asked, “Mr. Gelman, did you ever drink and drive?” When I confessed and told of my experience, she congratulated me for honesty and allowed me as a punishment to become a member of the jury.

I got drunk at my brother’s wedding. I was staggering out of it after my East Coast to West Coast going-away party. That’s it. Those were the total number of times I was, as the current saying has it, “wasted”.

But two Jack Daniels on the rocks was my standard procedure every time I went out to lunch while working for Variety until the late 1980s. Then I stopped, never to drink again, not even wine or beer. I mean I stopped cold.

What did it? Was it the result of some traumatic event? Did I get in trouble with the law? Was I threatened with loss of job, family, and home?

It was none of the above. Instead, it was the adjective “irresponsible,” spoken by a sort of uppity lady I just met.

The occasion was a luncheon business meeting in Century City arranged by Jeff Pryor, then with Lorimar Television. I was interviewing Susan Winston, former executive producer of “Good Morning America.” She was preparing a home shopping show called “Value Television” for Lorimar-Telepictures and Fox Television Stations with Horn & Hardart Co. having a sizeable interest.

Admittedly I was in a bitchy mood. I didn’t like the way the interview was going. It was obvious to me the lady, while highly professional and extremely able, was accentuating her news background and downplaying the crass nature of a shopping show.

“Ms. Winston,” I asked, “how do you reconcile being a news person with doing a show about buying things?”

Her reply was not long in coming. “The same way you reconcile having two Jack Daniels on the rocks, getting behind the steering wheel of your car and driving from Century City to Hollywood back to your office,” she shot back at me. “Don’t you think that’s irresponsible?”

My initial impulse was to remind her what she said there was no relationship to what I asked and what she answered.

But the lady knew what she was doing. Suddenly I was on the defensive. “Yes,” I agreed, “irresponsible is the proper way to describe my behavior.”

My answer disarmed her and also put an end to my line of questioning. I drove back to the Variety office very responsibly. At home that night, there was no winding down with a shot of Jack Daniels or any drinking from that day to now close to 20 years later.

Within months of quitting dividends were paid. I was covering a convention in Salt Lake City. One of the evening events was a lavish presentation and cocktail party on top of a mountaintop. There was drinking galore. At the conclusion of the evening I drove my rental car down a winding road to find state troopers conducting a sobriety check. There were many citations handed out that night. I had no concern. My strongest drink was Mr. & Mrs. Tom’s Bloody Mary Mix or, as sometime known, a Virgin Mary.

There’s another side to this story. It’s the George Bailey lesson from Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Sometimes the subtlest action can change a life.

Jimmy Durante had a great closing line: “Good night Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”

My reminder line every time I’m tempted to have a drink: Good night Ms. Winston, thanks for the non sequitur.