Essay

In Search of the Auden Martini

How to make a cocktail beautiful, humanizing, and good.

by Rosie Schaap
Auden Martini by Paul KillebrewOriginal illustration by Paul Killebrew

So strong is W.H. Auden's association with the martini that his home city of York, England marked the 2007 centenary of his birth with tributes not only in words but also in booze. York's newspaper, the Press, reported in advance of the event: “On the stroke of 6pm, the assembled guests will all enjoy a Martini—as Auden himself used to do at that time every day.” In a somewhat less celebratory spirit, the poet J.D. McClatchy, when asked if he was influenced by Auden's public persona, answered: “I hope not. I mean, I like a good martini, but I was never for a moment attracted to the slovenly, drug-addled, tyrannical, distracted Auden of popular legend—except as a legend, rather like his iconic, Navajo-elder face.”

Just as it's tricky to untangle this Auden of legend—dissolute, disheveled, living in squalor that some accounts suggest could rival that of the Collyer brothers—from Auden the masterful poet (and librettist, playwright, and teacher), it's tricky to confirm exactly what Auden's martini preferences were. We know that the martini was sufficiently present in Auden's consciousness to inspire him to write, in taut haiku, this passage of his poem “Symmetries and Asymmetries”:

Could any tiger

Drink martinis, smoke cigars,

And last as we do?

Never mind war, disease, poverty, or the passion that could reduce Auden himself to despair. Here, the measures of our toughness and endurance as a species are the cigar and the martini. Our ability to partake of these pleasures “as we do”—which I take to mean: a great deal—and live longer than so many of our fellow creatures, seems, at least to the speaker of the poem, a miracle.

Wystan Hugh Auden took the martini seriously. Richard Wilbur, in a 1993 interview conducted by Lorraine Pearsall, recounts one of his few conversations with the elder poet. “Auden had ordered a martini and I had ordered a martini, and we talked about martinis, and we discussed the fact that if you are devoted to martinis, it's very hard to get a good one away from home,” Wilbur recalled. “I think that was the essence of our deep conversation, but it was heartfelt.”

I can envision Wilbur and Auden commiserating over the matter, though I puzzle over Wilbur's sarcasm. Why should such a discussion not have been deep and heartfelt? It's true that even in the most venerable venues, it's not easy to get a good martini, and, had Auden lived a couple of decades longer, he would have witnessed abominations like the cherry-chocolate martini, the ginger-chile-lime martini, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. I can't conceive of Auden, who, despite his aspect of dishabille Bohemianism, was also bound by tradition—he who loved the Latin Mass, he who disdained “progressive” education, he who, according to Lincoln Kirstein, “solemnly rose, martini in hand, and stood at salute as the national anthem was played” when listening to a broadcast of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, and was “entirely serious” about it—having approved of such liberties.

But what sort of martini did Auden prepare at home? If Tarquin Winot, the epicurean protagonist of John Lanchester's novel The Debt to Pleasure, is to be believed, he made them like so: “I borrowed W.H. Auden's technique of mixing the vermouth and gin at lunchtime (though the great poet himself used vodka) and leaving the mixture in the freezer to attain that wonderful jellified texture of alcohol chilled to below the point at which water freezes. The absence of ice means that the Auden martini is not diluted in any way, and thus truly earns the drink its sobriquet 'the silver bullet.'”

It's charming—sort of—to imagine W.H. Auden, with his lined, noble countenance, inventing the progenitor of the jello shot, but Winot, a perverse and unreliable narrator, is not to be believed, and it seems questionable that an Englishman of Auden's generation would abide, much less favor, a martini made with vodka instead of gin. (I'll also take issue with the absence of ice: ice, in its way, is a martini ingredient; the water to which it shifts shape, and which it imparts even as the cocktail is strained, does not so much dilute the drink as gently soften its edges.)

Maybe what I'm trying to say is: I don't want to believe it. I don't want to lump Auden in with the cocktail consumers I've seen belly up to bars at innumerable happy hours, lean their elbows on the polished wood or marble or zinc, and, with an air of sophisticated authority, order an extra-dry vodka martini with extra olives. I want to pry away their drinks and replace them with real martinis—made with gin and considerably more than a rumor of vermouth, and garnished, if garnished they must be, with clean, curly twists of lemon peel. It's much the way I feel when, riding the subway some evenings, I catch sight of someone reading Atlas Shrugged, and want to tear the book from his or her hands and replace it with Paradise Lost or The Prelude. Life is too short for Ayn Rand, when one's time could be spent with Milton or Wordsworth—that is, with something beautiful and humanizing and good. And life is too short for a 10-ounce glass of chilled vodka masquerading as a cocktail, too short to forgo the pleasure of the real martini, a drink that at its best, too, is beautiful, and humanizing, and very, very good.

The notion of Auden's preferred martini being made with vodka and nearly frozen may have come from an essay by one of his brothers. But John Auden, distinguished geologist and explorer, is ambiguous with respect to his brother Wystan's martinis. “Seen unawares in an armchair, with the Times crossword puzzle on his knee, a vodka martini by his side, and cigarette-ends covering large dishes, there was an isolation and sadness which arose from his uprooted and solitary existence,” he wrote of his brother's last years in New York City. A bit further on, John says of Wystan's habits: “Although strictly disciplined in regard to work every morning, and with only a beer or a plain martini at lunch, the evenings brought stiff vodkas and martinis from the freezer, which we would drink measure for measure.” By “plain martini” does John mean one made with gin? Were the martinis Wystan withdrew from the freezer along with the “stiff vodkas” based on the same spirit? I was recently told a story about a young magazine writer and editor in New York in the 1950s, who was invited to a party chez Auden. He got so “sick-drunk on Auden's martinis,” it was said, “that he swore off gin from then until the day he died.” Anecdotal, sure, but it suggests that Auden could go both ways with the martini, sometimes deploying gin, sometimes vodka.

I asked Michael Andre, poet and publisher of the little magazine Unmuzzled Ox, who interviewed Auden as the great Modernist was packing to leave New York City for the final time, if he knew of an “Auden martini” made with vodka and popped in the freezer. Andre had never heard of it, but helpfully added: “The Andre cocktail consists of Valium, Thorazine, Jack Daniels and a Bud. Works every time.” I don't doubt it. But I suspect that Andre had forgotten Auden's aphoristic late poem, “Contra Blake”:

The Road of Excess

leads, more often than not, to

The Slough of Despond

Originally Published: September 9, 2009

COMMENTS (16)

On September 9, 2009 at 9:28pm Elena Alexander wrote:
Gin or vodka, the piece is as wonderfully wrought, and bracing, as an Auden martini. Cheers!

On September 10, 2009 at 9:23am Charles Yoder wrote:
Makes me want to try every variation mentioned to find my own personal preference. Vodka frozen. Gin frozen. With ice. No ice. A trace of vermouth or a honking splash. Lemon peels or no. The research possibilities are Siren like. Want to start now and it's only 10 in the morning.

Oh well, any thing for Art's sake.

On September 10, 2009 at 11:27am Joe Mueller wrote:
Oh, Rosie! Now you've made me thirsty and I have one remaining class to teach today.

Love the piece, the erudition, and your less-gelid and more sparkling prose. (For those who love Champagne more than frozen liquor!)

On September 10, 2009 at 12:07pm Michelle Kerns wrote:
I'm a fan of the Winston Churchill martini myself: 1. Pour gin into a glass. 2. Nod at the vermouth bottle across the room. 3. Drain. 4. Repeat.

On September 10, 2009 at 1:49pm Richard Lott wrote:
Cheers, Rosie Schaap and poetryfoundation.org! A sparkling article!

But I must say there is more mystery: J.D. McClatchy may not have been attracted to the legend of Auden, but he clearly embodies the taut haiku Schaap cites. What a cigar-smoking tiger he man is!

http://jdmcclatchy.com/images/site/jdmcclatchy.jpg

On September 10, 2009 at 4:09pm Geneva Lorraine wrote:
Not being a fan of the martini, I probably learned more about it than I wanted to know especially regarding W.H. Auden. I must be the only one who did not associate this poet with the drink, but then I don't associate any poet with any drink. Besides honestly enjoying reading this admiration of the martini, I felt envy for being left out. The only time I tasted one, I thought it tasted like gasoline with a olive in it. I was more of a beer fan myself and I can't drink that anymore because of the gluten in it.

Still, it is fun to see different sides of poets and to read what they were up to and what others saw in them even if it was made of vodka or gin.

On September 10, 2009 at 6:50pm John Paul wrote:
Hail fellow well met. Mine is Beefeater, and Judy as well when with quinine. I don't buy the vodka story either. A red herring. Know the martini was on your mind when we last met at the White Slab Palace. The poser behind the bar told you they were out of vermouth
when you ordered a gin martini. FYI

and just ust for silly
I taught a term of state school in England, (while courting Judy) at Raynes Park, Morden, Surrey. A place where Auden had once taught! He stood the morning prayers as well as anyone, but needed the dose of a good Martini for a long time after.

On September 11, 2009 at 12:01pm Wyn Cooper wrote:
As your former bartender at the Villager in North Bennington, Vermont, I'm glad to see you hanging tough on what a martini should be. Way to go, Rosie!

As Richard Hugo wrote in "Letter to Logan from Milltown," "give Mother Cabrini another Martini."

On September 13, 2009 at 6:25pm Terreson wrote:
Myself also a one time bartender who loved orchestrating a Friday night happy hour high, especially during a state legislative session, this is some good reporting.

Terreson

On September 16, 2009 at 5:39am Doug Tanoury wrote:
Bravo Ms. Schaap, and I will drink to that.

On September 19, 2009 at 2:48pm Jason Schneiderman wrote:
I must stand up for the Appletini!

I will be trying out the freezer recipe shortly.

On September 25, 2009 at 9:21am Robert Wachal wrote:
I find that a glass of good vodka over ice wakens my poetic muse.

I write my best poems shortly after five o'clock and a few sips.

On September 28, 2009 at 3:26pm Scott wrote:
Ah, the obligatory Ayn Rand denigration.
What fiery passion you must have, to want
to rip her novel out of a passerby's hand
and give them more "beautiful" reading!

Ayn Rand IS "beautiful and humanizing and
good".

On October 13, 2009 at 11:20pm John Farrell wrote:
Try this, ghost of Wystan. Take a
bottle of excellent gin (or vodka).
Unscrew the cap. Pour out a capful.
Drink it. Better yet, sprinkle it on the
earth as tribute to the unseen, largely
benevolent gods who rule. Pour dry
vermouth into the cap, to the brim.
Pour the capful of vermouth into the
bottle of gin (or vodka). Shake
vigorously. Stick this audacious
concoction into the freezer for a good,
long time. Some fine evening, as
Helios descends, pour the contents
gently into a funnel-shaped, long-
stemmed glass extracted from the
same freezer. Garnish with a twist of
lemon, an onion, an olive, anchovy-
stuffed olive, bleu cheese-stuffed olive,
garlic-stuffed olive. You get the idea.
For zealots, no garnish at all. Now
drink to your heart's content. Or
maybe not quite so much. This libation
proved especially efficacious when
imbibed in the suffocating heat of the
West African grasslands, circa 1970. It
still does the trick today.

On November 23, 2009 at 2:31pm John Stewart wrote:

From Simon Hoggart in the Guardian on 21 November 2009 On Monday we went to the National Theatre to see Alan Bennett's new play, The Habit of Art, about a fictional meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. It was the performance before press night, so there had been no notices in the papers, although the word of mouth was not particularly good and the amateurs on the internet had given it a panning. "Self-indulgent", "rambling", and "it seemed to go on so long, I couldn't believe it was only 10 when it ended" were not untypical. So we were pleasantly surprised. It is, at times, rather diffuse and, since it takes the form of a play within a play, you have to watch a superb actor, Richard Griffiths, play a not so good actor, playing Auden in a play which Bennett has written but wouldn't have written, if you see what I mean. Then, just when you're praying for things to get a move on, there comes a great Bennett line, like a scud from the skies. "I'm not a rent boy! I went to Keble," for instance. The printed reviews have varied from doubtful to out-and-out raves. One thing he got exactly right was Auden's drinking, specifically dry martinis. I've described before the time he came to stay at our house (my Dad had written a book about his work and had nominated him for an honorary degree) and Bennett has caught perfectly his almost lustful affection for his favourite cocktail. Here is the recipe as the poet demonstrated it to me, then an undergraduate: you take a very large jug and pour in an entire bottle of gin. Then you throw in a whole tray of ice cubes, with a lemon, sliced. Add a single capful of dry vermouth and stir. My parents had invited some friends and colleagues round to meet Auden, so he sat down, placed the jug on a table in front of him and it lasted exactly the length of the party, about two hours. Then he started on the wine.

On October 6, 2012 at 11:28pm Arlene Herring wrote:
In "Wystan and Chester" (Columbia University Press,
1995), Thekla Clark remembers Auden in Kirchstetten (p.
41-49) "With the arrival of the deep-freeze the Martinis
took on a new dimension and for some reason the gin was
replaced by vodka, the olives by pickled onions. The
glasses were chilled there, the vermouth was kept there,
so was the vodka: as no ice was necessary there was no
dilution." (p. 49)

This is 1959, upon moving from Ischia and its "lack of
proper refrigeration" (p. 16) to the house Auden bought
in Kirchstetten in 1957.

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Biography

Rosie Schaap has been a bartender, a fortuneteller, a librarian at a paranormal society, an English teacher, an editor, a preacher, a community organizer, a manager of homeless shelters, and a ghostwriter for an inspirational magazine. Her work has been broadcast on the public radio show This American Life, and her book, Drinking With Men, a collection of true stories set in bars she's known and loved, will be published next . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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