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