Who’s the greatest boozer of all time?
We’re close to finding out. The first round of the semifinals was settled last month, with a young and rakish incarnation of Ernest Hemingway charming his way past an emotionally vulnerable Dorothy Parker, and an on-the-ropes Jackie Gleason employing brilliant trickery to upset powerhouse W.C. Fields.
This month we pit Richard Burton, confident after a victorious sit-down, drag-out clash with Winston Churchill, pitted against wino warrior Charles Bukowski, and a battle of wits and whiskey between southern gentleman William Faulkner and the hardboiled and hard-pounding Humphrey Bogart.
Table Side Announcers: Howard Cosell and Sir Laurence Olivier
Ref: Bill “The Fox” Foster
Quarter Finals #1
“The Battlin’ Barfly”
(Odds: 3 to 2 in favor of Burton)
Tale of the Tab
Known to drink up to four bottles of vodka a day, this accomplished boozer can take the hard stuff in waves. Kept in fine drinking shape by his wife Liz Taylor, Burton can drink a pub full of coal miners under the table, then recite Hamlet word for word. Doubts about whether he can keep his infamous temper at bay were roundly dismissed in his antagonistic clash with Churchill.
His is a Cinderella story—late in life he fought his way up from the the tough skid row bars of L.A. to seize international recognition as one of the finest hooch hounds of his generation. He couldn’t afford the best drinks to train with, but he did well with what he could beg, borrow and steal. There isn’t a hungrier or thirstier fighter in the tournament. His only weakness is his glass stomach: while he can hold his own with anyone in the tournament, he has the proclivity to vomit at any particular moment.
The Build Up
Howard Cosell: This match is certainly a classic clash of opposites. The urbane Brit versus the skid-row iconoclast.
Laurence Olivier: The only thing they seem to have in common is their love of alcohol and licentious women.
HC: They arrived at the semifinals by different paths as well: Burton beat Churchill with sheer physical ability, while Bukowski undermined Thomas Dylan by preying upon the Welshman’s famous temper. Can Buk repeat the feat with Burton, another hot-blooded Welshman?
LO: I wonder. Burton staved off Churchill’s mental barrage with surprising finesse. What’s more, Burton’s camp has been promoting this contest as a vengeance match, saying they will pay the upstart American back for dispatching their countryman.
(Bukowski wins the coin toss.)
Bukowski orders Veuve Clicquot Gold Vintage Liebfraumilch Reserve 1987.
LO: That’s precisely the same opening move Bukowski made against Dylan.
HC: Like many racetrack enthusiasts, I suspect Bukowski is a superstitious man.
LO: He’s going to need some luck. After overpowering Churchill, Burton is definitely the boozer to beat in the tournament.
HC: Without a word or even an exchange of looks, the men simultaneously pick up their glasses and drain them.
LO: If Bukowski plans on inciting Burton’s temper, he’s not exactly leaping to the attack.
Burton orders Cristall Vodka and tonics
HC: That’s Richard’s standard order. If Bukowski isn’t going for Burton’s goat, Richard is neither attacking Bukowski’s weak stomach.
LO: Their previous matches started the same way. Neither took the strategic initiative until they were prodded into it.
Rounds Three Through Ten
Bukowski orders four rounds of Veuve Clicquot Gold Vintage Liebfraumilch, Burton orders four rounds of Cristall Vodka and tonics
HC: I don’t get it. We have two vicious pit bulls in the same pit, yet both seem content to sit in their corners and scratch themselves. Neither has so much as breathed a word to the other. It’s as if they’re drinking alone.
LO: I think the sin of pride is to blame. To attack the other’s known weakness could be construed as a lack of confidence in their own drinking ability. They both seem eager to give the impression they don’t require any tricks or subterfuge to advance.
HC: A tactic which I think is going to lean ever so slightly in Burton’s favor. I mean, he outdrank Winston Churchill, for crissakes.
LO: I lean toward the barfly. Hold on, Bukowski’s clearing his throat. Will he speak?
HC: “I’m warmed up,” Bukowski flatly states, tossing down his vodka tonic. “How about you?”
LO: “Safe we have wandered,” Burton sighs, paraphrasing Shakespeare. “Let us seek out danger and make it our throne.”
Bukowski orders double well bourbons on the rocks.
LO: The Sitzkrieg finally gives way to Bukowski’s Bourbon Blitzkrieg. Rotgut may prove an effective jab against the refined tastes of Burton.
HC: Bukowski downs half of his and Burton follows, without so much as a blink.
LO: “Shakespeare was a jackass,” Bukowski says, apropos of nothing.
HC: He is as direct as his prose. Burton, one of the Bard’s greatest fans, absorbs the statement, then replies, “A writer may find fame from braying great prose, others through merely farting bad poems.”
HC: Bukowski responds by leaning to his left and passing a wall of gas! “How’d you like that poem?” he asks Burton.
LO: How perfectly ribald! Burton pours down the rest of his drink and says, “In a Welsh pub that wouldn’t pass for a scrawl on a loo’s wall.” Take that, Yank!
HC: “Who’s Lou?” wonders Bukowski, then downs his.
Burton orders Cristall Vodka martinis, very wet
LO: That stemware looks utterly incongruous in Buk’s paw. It’s like Frankenstein holding a daisy.
HC: “A banquet fit for a bum,” Burton says, offering his olives to Bukowski.
LO: “No, thanks,” Buk responds, “I had some whiskey earlier.” He downs his martini and makes a face. It can’t be the vodka, it must be the the vermouth that insults his palate.
HC: “The patient is made bitter by his medicine,” Burton remarks, taking note of Bukowski’s expression. That is very valuable knowledge.
LO: I should say. Did Buk tip his cards on purpose, is the question.
Bukowski orders water glasses of Night Train fortified wine
HC: We knew this locomotive would be pulling into the station sooner or later.
LO: I’ll wager Burton has never boarded this shabby train.
HC: Bukowski watches and waits until Burton has a taste.
LO: Burton doesn’t like it. That’s obvious. I thought he was going to spit up for a moment.
HC: Bukowski smiles, as does Burton. They have both exposed their Achilles heels and this seems to amuse them.
LO: Well, this is interesting. They seemed averse to attacking weakness early in the match. Will they back away and reach an unspoken detente, or will they aim their thrusts toward their exposed underbellies?
HC: Buk downs his glass in a single motion and settles back to watch. Burton breathes deep and drains his on the eight count. I think Charlie just answered your question.
Rounds Fourteen Through Twenty-One
Burton orders four rounds of Cristall Vodka martinis, extremely wet, Bukowski orders four rounds of Night Train
LO: Diabolical! What a cruel contest this has become. Each has found the other’s button and they stab at it mercilessly! It’s akin to two street-fighters taking turns punching each other in the kidneys.
HC: A brutality matched only by their vicious verbal exchange.
LO: Have you noticed that Bukowski isn’t knocking back his glasses of Night Train as aggressively as Burton attacks his martinis? With his sensitive stomach, the sweet wine might prove to be a double-edged sword for Bukowski.
Burton orders water glasses of Night Train fortified wine
LO: “I’m growing fond of this evil bastard of the vine,” Burton says, gazing into his glass of fortified wine.
HC: One of three things just happened. One, Burton actually has acquired a taste for wino wine. Two, he believes the drink is a double-edged sword that is more likely to hurt Buk more than himself. Or three, he despises the stuff and is feigning favor to trick Bukowski into ordering something else.
LO: Burton drains his glass and this time it is Bukowski who crosses the wine finish line second. Instead of putting in his order immediately, Bukowski hesitates. He stares at Burton, trying to peer past the actor’s inscrutable facade.
Bukowski orders water glasses of Pagan Pink Ripple
LO: Bukowski calls Burton’s bluff and raises him with ripple, an even sweeter tipple!
HC: It’s the Fred Sanford variation of his famous Wino Style Attack.
LO: “What is this creature called Bukowski?” wonders Burton. “Is he beast or man, writer or wino, a man of jokes, or a joke of a man?
HC: Bukowski chuckles and picks up his glass. He looks into the ripple’s sugary depths and says, “We’re like two assholes hanging onto the same hand grenade. Who’s gonna let go first?”
LO: With that, he slowly tips down his ripple. He sets the glass on the table and does a bad job of forging a grin. He’s as sick of the sweet as Burton.
HC: Burton picks up his and it takes him one, two, three tries to get it down by the nine count. He was bluffing.
Burton orders double shots of Martini and Rossi French Vermouth
LO: Bukowski is laughing again.
HC: He exposed Burton’s gambit as the swindle it was.
LO: He certainly seems to be in charge now. Still, he has to get through that wall of vermouth.
HC: Burton knocks his back and slams the glass on the table.
LO: He doesn’t look well.
HC: He’s the picture of health compared to Bukowski. Buk’s laugh fades as he picks up the glass and — look at him!
LO: Buk pinches his nose and downs the shot like evil medicine! He holds the double shot in his mouth, his cheeks bulging, his eyes watering. He’s convinced his mouth but his stomach doesn’t want any. It could go either direction, in or out!
HC: He attempts to swallow and—
LO: Down it goes. But will it stay?
HC: Buk shakes his shaggy mane, grimaces, trying to make it stay in his stomach. What intestinal turmoil he must be experiencing. And—
LO: He lights a cigarette and smiles, but it is a bitter smile indeed. Burton’s smile, however, is radiant. He now knows he holds a loaded gun to his opponent’s head.
Bukowski orders carafes of Pagan Pink Ripple
HC: But first he must surf a tidal wave of ripple. The carafe smacks of desperation on Buk’s part.
LO: I believe it’s Bukowski’s way of stalling the next double punch of vermouth.
HC: “I’ll bet you go through a box a day,” Burton says.
LO: “Ripple?” Bukowski asks.
HC: “Crayons,” Burton replies. “That is what you write with, isn’t it, boy?” Burton is not going quietly into the ripple night.
LO: “Let me draw you a picture then,” Bukowski says, standing up with his carafe of wine. He puts it to his lips and sinks half of it!
HC: “Blast you!” Burton shouts. “Blast you and your filthy grape!”
LO: Bukowski laughs cruelly and Burton rises to his feet with his carafe. “This is how a man kills a bottle. Not with two stabs, but one!”
HC: It’s all or nothing. If Burton can back his words, Bukowski is finished in the next round.
LO: He seems to realize that, because he has set his unfinished carafe on the table to watch Burton tip the ripple to his lips. Look at that Welshman guzzle!
HC: And not spilling a drop. Down it goes and Burton’s face drains of color as he drains the carafe.
LO: He stops suddenly, white as a ghost.
HC: There can’t be more than a mouthful left in the carafe. He turns his head slightly, regrouping and —
LO: Great God! With a terrible roar the great Burton power vomits directly into the crowd! It’s over!
Bukowski wins by VO.
Post Fight Interview
Burton: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some brutes seem to find it in a cheap bottle of filthy wine.”
Bukowski: “I’m going outside to heave my greatness into the gutter.”
Quarter Finals #2
“Three Drinks Ahead”
“The Souse From The South”
(Odds: 2 to 1 in favor of Faulkner)
Tale of the Tab
The actor’s hard-drinking, tough-as-nails screen persona was no facade, if anything it’s a pale reflection of the real man. Though a scotch drinker by choice, he can take anything you can dish out — and give it back in spades. The founder of the Rat Pack, he’s capable of drinking til dawn, turning in a professional day of work, then doing an encore at a dozen bars. His iron will, caustic — some say cruel — wit and indefatigable thirst make him a formidable opponent.
Though slight in build, the southern scribe’s capacity for hooch is the stuff of legend. An accomplished master of the month-long bender, his genteel appearance belies his taste for corn liquor and high proof moonshine. The descendant of a very long and illustrious line of drunkards, he is born and bred to the art like a bird dog.
The Build Up
HC: Though they drank to prominence in the same country and era, these two might as well be from different planets.
LO: I agree. Faulkner’s droll — some say affected — Southern Gentleman persona will certainly grate on Bogart’s straight-shooting temperament.
HC: And visa-versa. In his last bout Bogart beat up rather badly on Dean Martin and he liked Martin. Faulkner, on the other hand, barely unsheathed his sharp wit in his triumph over Babe Ruth. Let’s find out if he’s mentally prepared for Bogart’s shark-like repartee.
(Bogart wins the coin toss.)
Bogart orders Gordon’s Gin martinis, dry
HC: Bogart seems to have rescinded his deathbed remorse about switching from Scotch to martinis.
LO: Though he used his Cutty Sark Attack to great effect against Dean Martin, he’s well aware of Faulkner’s great love of the brown liquors. Aside from moonshine, Faulkner always thought the clear liquors to be the stuff of sissies.
HC: “Here’s to Hollywood,” Bogart says, with a wicked smile, downing his martini.
LO: “A toast to that dreaded place would turn my stomach,” Faulkner says, then tips his down on the six count.
HC: “That was the idea,” Bogart jokes.
LO: Despite the speed in which they downed their first drink, which some pundits of the sport consider an unfriendly gesture, they seem to be getting along.
Faulkner orders fruit jars of moonshine
HC: William comes right out with his Mississippi Molotov. I wonder if Bogart has ever had the pleasure of drinking a jar of 160-proof white lightning.
LO: He drank more than his share during prohibition. Bathtub gin isn’t to far removed from that southern fire.
HC: “Would you look at this dingus,” Bogart says, turning the fruit jar in his hands. “You Rebs are a little behind in the glassware department, aren’t you?”
LO: “It is not the clothes that makes the man,” Faulkner dryly retorts. “It’s the man that makes the clothes.”
HC: “Oh, you’re a tailor now, are you? Because I have a shirt back in my room that needs a button.”
LO: “The first button I’d sew would be the one on your lip,” Faulkner says, then drains his jar.
HC: “This kid plays rough,” Bogart says, grinning like a wolf. He downs his jar on the eight count.
Bogart orders double shots of soju
LO: What the blazes?
HC: One of Bogie’s greatest strengths is his unpredictability.
LO: And what could be more unpredictable than soju? The earthy Korean potato liquor is a challenge for the most fortified of Western palates.
HC: “Here’s to new experiences,” Bogart toasts, then downs his glass.
LO: Faulkner calmly tips his down, then touches his lips with a handkerchief.
HC: Grinning wickedly, Bogart asks, “You like that, Willy?”
LO: “Tastes like raw kerosene sifted through grass clippings and Mississippi mud,” Faulkner drawls.
HC: “That bad? Bogart asks.
LO: “That good,” Faulkner corrects. Bogart laughs while Faulkner immediately places his next order.
Faulkner orders fruit jars of moonshine.
HC: “Is it alright to smoke around this stuff?” Bogart asks, waving an unlit Lucky Strike at Faulkner.
LO: “Of course,” Faulkner replies. “Just so long as you don’t mind third-degree burns.”
HC: Bogie lights his cigarette anyway.
LO: Both men pause for a smoke, then finish their jars almost simultaneously.
Bogart orders Tequila Mint Juleps
HC: “I protest!” Faulkner says. “This is blasphemy.”
LO: “No, it’s good,” Bogart says. “It’ll make that Mississippi mud cocktail taste like sipping whiskey.”
HC: “A man of your palate,” Faulkner says, “drinks gutter water and thinks it’s champagne.”
LO: “You’re putting words in my mouth,” Bogart replies. “You were always good at that.”
HC: I think Humphrey is referring to the fact that Faulkner wrote the screenplay for several of his films, notably To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep.
LO: “This genius,” Bogart tells the audience, “once wrote a detective movie that had me saying, “Hark! Is that the unkind night creep-creep-creeping in?”
HC: The crowd laughs and Faulkner reddens. “I don’t know why I wrote any words at all,” he fires back. “I could have just written 90 pages of lisps and grunts and the film would have came out exactly the same.”
LO: With that, Faulkner swallows his blasphemous cocktail. With an odd smile, Bogart follows suit, and Faulkner is already ordering, his beady eyes gleaming with vengeance.
Rounds Six Through Thirteen
Faulkner orders five rounds of double Old Crow Bourbon, neat; Bogart orders four rounds of Guinness Stout.
HC: Faulkner is on the offensive, attacking with a brutal bourbon bombardment, while Bogart has fallen into a classic Guinness Defense.
LO: The thick stout will well dilute that southern volley. Bogart seems content to wait out the scribe’s furious assault, all the while sniping over the sandbags with wisecracks.
HC: “You hanging in there, Willy?” Bogart asks.
LO: “I shall not merely endure; I will prevail,” Faulkner assures.
HC: “Oh, yeah?” Bogart snarls back. “Prevail over this.”
Bogart orders tequila/vodka/brandy cocktails
LO: I’ll wager there isn’t even a name for that abomination.
HC: It’s a punishment cocktail. Bogart is trying to assault Faulkner’s palette. The tone of the match is shifting rather quickly. Bogart’s easy grin has twisted into a drunken snarl.
LO: Faulkner, however, appears as calm as the Dead Sea.
HC: “Have a drink,” Bogart demands. “Go on, have one.”
LO: Faulkner smiles kindly, as if dealing with a mentally deficient child, then downs the cruel cocktail as if drinking lemonade on a hot day. “That’s very nice, young Humphrey,” he drawls, smiling condescendingly. “Did your sweet mammy teach you that one?”
Faulkner orders fruit jars of moonshine.
LO: Bogart is livid. I don’t know if it’s the mammy joke or the moonshine.
HC: “Between grief and moonshine, I choose moonshine,” Faulkner drawls, gazing through the clear liquor.
LO: “How about between shutting up or a knuckle sandwich?” Bogart snaps.
HC: “I believe the hound has the scent of a possum,” Faulkner tells the audience. “Why, just listen to him yap.”
LO: “Shut up, do you hear me?” Bogart snarls, jumping to his feet. “Shut up or I’ll shut you up for good!”
HC: The ref stands ready to leap between them. Bogart will be disqualified if he lays a hand on his opponent.
LO: “Calm down, sir,” Faulkner says, his face rather pale. “That is no way for a gentleman to act.”
HC: Bogart looks as if he’s going to pounce and —
LO: He starts laughing. What the devil?
HC: “Unless,” Bogart says, sitting down, his wolf grin back in place, “he’s acting.”
LO: Faulkner looks astonished. “Not bad for a man who can only lisp and grunt, eh?” Bogart says, and downs his moonshine.
HC: A lightning-struck Faulkner scrambles to catch up, finishing on the eight count.
Bogart orders double shots of Patron Tequila
LO: Now it’s Faulkner who seems shaken, and I don’t think it’s just the tequila.
HC: Bogart played one hell of a mind trick on him. And here comes another one. Ernest Hemingway has joined Bogart’s corner.
LO: Hem and Bogie were friends.
HC: And Hemingway and Faulkner were enemies. Hem merely stands there, arms folded, staring at Faulkner.
LO: “Are you here to make sure your crony wins?” Faulkner slurs.
HC: “I’m here to make sure he loses,” Hemingway says.
LO: Bogart smiles, a little nervously, and downs his double. Faulkner, fumbling a bit, follows.
Faulkner orders Mint Juleps
LO: I wonder if Hemingway was serious.
HC: Impossible to tell. As much as he would like to meet Faulkner in the finals, he has a certain loyalty to his friend Bogart. What is telling is the Southern Souse’s choice of cocktails. A Julep at this stage of the match can only be construed as a defensive drink, a foxhole for Faulkner to recoup in.
LO: If Faulkner needs a foxhole, Bogart needs a bunker. It appears as if the moonshine has pushed the Guinness aside and is starting to extract a terrible toll.
HC: “I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth,” Faulkner mumbles while chewing on a mint sprig.
LO: Hemingway bends down to whisper in Bogart’s ear and Bogart smiles. “And what a seed needs,” Bogart says, “is a little sunshine.”
Bogart orders Sunshine Cocktails
LO: I believe that’s a gin martini variation with sweet vermouth, bitters and an orange peel.
HC: I’ve had one. It’s not that rough of a drink. What does Hemingway know?
LO: Faulkner reaches into the glass, takes out the orange peel, then peers strangely at Hemingway. Something is going on. Could Faulkner be allergic to orange peels?
HC: Instead of tossing it aside, Faulkner puts the peel in his mouth and starts chewing.
LO: Bogart frowns and looks to Hemingway. Hemingway continues to stare impassively at Faulkner.
HC: Still chewing, Faulkner downs his drink in a single gulp.
LO: Bogart scrambles to catch up, nearly fumbling his glass. He takes it down on the eight count.
Faulkner orders double Sunshine Cocktails
LO: Faulkner immediately starts eating the orange peel. I don’t understand what’s —
HC: I’ve got it! I remember reading that Faulkner, while in his youth, would chew orange rinds to keep him alert while writing in the midst of a bender.
LO: Seemingly rejuvenated, Faulkner makes quick work of his cocktail. Bogart fumbles with his, tips half of it down, fumbles again and — he’s tipping —
HC: Tipping too far back in his chair! Fortunately, Hemingway is right behind him to —
LO: Hemingway steps out of the way! Bogart falls back in his chair and rolls onto the floor, passed out cold!
HC: Hemingway trades one last stare with Faulkner then walks away without looking back.
LO: Could Hemingway’s lust for personal vengeance be so terrible he’d sacrifice a friend?
HC: I would say yes.
Faulkner wins by P.O.
Post Fight Interview
Bogart: “That Hemingway is a great guy to have in your corner, especially if you happen to be betting against yourself.”
Faulkner: “If an angel gets it in his mind to dig a pit to Hell, you can bet the Devil will provide him with a very sharp spade. The Devil’s mistake, however, is not asking why the angel is digging a pit to Hell.”