Who is the greatest boozer of all time?
We’ve posed that question before. In 2002 we resurrected 16 of the history’s hardest-pounding hoochers and squared them off in a ferocious, tournament-style, single-elimination, winner-walks-out-on-the-tab bottle-royale.
Legendary lushes like Winston Churchill and Babe Ruth crashed their vast appetites for booze into the cast-iron livers of monster inebriates Ernest Hemingway and W.C. Fields, and when the bar tabs cleared, a resurgent Jackie Gleason seized the crown from a stunned Charles Bukowski.
Controversy ensued: a great indignant yawp went up from our readers, demanding to know why so many of history’s finest boozers were left out of the contest, a roster that includes renowned soaks Andre the Giant, Oliver Reed, Jack Kerouac and Blackbeard the Pirate.
The exquisitely logical answer that there simply wasn’t enough room for the whole bloody lot of them was met with more yawps, so here we begin again with 16 fresh contenders, each eager to seize the crown of top toper. Then, once the winner emerges triumphant, we’ll pit him or her in a king-hell showdown with the original Clash champion, the aforementioned Jackie Gleason.
First off, living drinkers were excluded because their story is not fully told; for all we know they’ll join the Anti-Saloon League and start bad-mouthing sweet mother booze.
The Exhaustive Selection Process Explained
Backsliders such as Jack London, who did turn against the booze in his latter years, were also disqualified because winners never quit and quitters never win.
Lesser-known hard-pounders were also excused because everyone has an uncle who should be in the fight and we only have room for 16 contenders and we’d have to take you and your aunt’s word for it and we personally don’t trust either of you.
Personality was a deciding factor, because who wants to watch two stoic behemoths trade pitchers of Miller Lite for 12 hours?
Finally, since this is the second of the series, if you don’t see your personal drinking hero in the fight, odds are he or she participated in the first Clash.
One final note: this is a drinking contest, and like any contest, there are psychological elements involved. Having a superior capacity for alcohol will not always win the day.
So place your bets, pour yourself a strong one, and let’s get ready to stumble!
Tale of the Tab
Blackbeard (Edward Teach)
As crafty as he’s physically imposing, you won’t find a more feared Clash opponent than this turbulent and brutal 18th-century buccaneer. His weakness is one: He only knows the boozes available in his time and place, namely the locally-sourced raw Caribbean rum and the European wine, ale, brandy and port he appropriated from inbound ships.
Ducking in at 5 foot 3, Capote can’t depend on a large, robust physique to ride out the tall waves of alcohol heading his way. He’ll have to rely upon his broad repertoire of cocktails, wily social skills, and quick wit to thwart his larger opponents. A noted provocateur, his best chance for success is needling his drunken opponents into physical violence, which would result in their disqualification and his advancement.
The Build Up
Howard Cosell: Capote arrived 20 minutes early, accompanied by an entourage of socialites, hangers-on, and what appears to be a German documentary crew.
Laurence Olivier: Am I the only one surprised to see an older, heavier Truman show up instead of the svelte 20-year-old?
HC: Common sense plainly held sway over vanity. The latter-day Capote was able to absorb much more booze than—and in jumps Blackbeard!
LO: Great God! Fire and black smoke billow from this hair and beard, his eyes glow like a demon’s from a face painted red and black—
HC: Look out! Blackbeard has a cutlass! What idiot gave the pirate a cutlass?
LO: Alas, it’s only a cardboard prop. He was thoroughly searched for weaponry.
Blackbeard: Say hello to the Devil!
Truman Capote: Hello.
HC: Blackbeard was able to capture many a ship without firing a shot with this wild routine.
LO: Capote looks away and yawns into his handkerchief.
TC: I didn’t realize there’d be a floor show.
HC: Capote doesn’t seem the least bit fazed by Blackbeard’s antics.
TC: I’ve seen drag queens at Studio 54 that make Mr. Teach look like a Des Moines housewife.
HC: Capote had a reputation for smart-mouthing killers.
LO: He’s trying to provoke the pirate into assaulting him. It’s his only chance to win.
HC: Blackbeard remains standing, not sure of what to do next.
LO: Finally, he rolls out a booming laugh. If you spend most of your life among armed, foul-mouthed pirates, you’re going to grow a thick skin.
HC: Blackbeard was considered a giant in his time, but today an inch over six feet merely makes him tallish.
LO: He’s still a giant standing next to Truman.
TC: Please put away your toy sword, and let’s have a cocktail.
BB: Aye, but first we’ll find the witch that done this evil deed and put her to the pyre.
TC: Which witch, Mr. Teach?
BB: The one that turned you into a toad.
TC: Oh, Mr. Teach. You are a rascal. It wasn’t a witch. It was a conspiracy of half the chefs on Manhattan Island.
BB: Speak truly all of you—this creature is my foe? This peculiar toad?
TC: I’m afraid so. I’ll try to keep you entertained as long as I can.
LO: And with that, Blackbeard removes the sputtering cannon fuses from his beard and hair and has a seat. He seems confident.
HC: For good reason. In the history of the Clash, have you ever seen a more stark contrast?
LO: Never. They couldn’t be more different: The macho, booming pirate and the diminutive, bloodless man of letters with the Droopy Dog voice.
TC: I predate Droopy. He has my voice, not the other way around.
HC: Regardless, the bettors have made up their minds—a last-minute flurry of betting has locked in the final odds at an unequivocal 30-to-1 in favor of the buccaneer.
Blackbeard wins the coin toss.
Blackbeard orders triple kill-devils.
HC: The pirate captain opens up with a full broadside.
LO: Indeed. Kill-devil is what they called the raw Caribbean rum of his day.
HC: Blackbeard takes down half his glass with gusto.
TC: T’aint no style there.
LO: Capote has a sip, and immediately takes off his glasses, pulls a handkerchief from his sleeve and sneezes.
TC: Good heavens. I may be allergic to whatever this is. It’s giving me a severe reaction.
TC: By the way, Mr. Teach, I didn’t hate your little show. I just think it needs more pizazz.
TC: Yes. You’re a natural showman, you just need to hone your deck presence. I know some choreographers who—
BB: How’s this for style?
HC: And with that, Blackbeard lifts high his glass and very stylishly pours a fast stream of rum into his open throat.
LO: We haven’t had a first-round knockout before, but this might be it.
TC: Oh dear. Hold on now, please, let me try this again.
BB: Was that the pizazz you were looking for?
TC: Here goes.
HC: Holy mackerel. Truman sank that triple rum like it was spring water.
TC: I just had to get adjusted to the, uh, strangeness of it.
LO: Blackbeard can’t be happy with the way that volley landed.
BB: No toad is he. Here’s a barnacle if I ever laid eyes on one.
Capote orders Orange Drinks.
HC: This is what Capote called Screwdrivers.
LO: Why don’t we just call them Screwdrivers, then? Do celebrities get to rename standard cocktails on a whim? Waiter! Bring me two Flaming Arseholes.
LO: Flaming Arseholes. It’s what I call large, very dry gin Martinis. I’m a celebrity. Chop-chop.
HC: You promised you wouldn’t drink during matches.
LO: Hush up, Howard. Just hush up and let a man breathe.
HC: Blackbeard slumps deep into his chair and stares at Capote. He’s trying to figure him out.
LO: He probably didn’t have the chance to meet anyone like him.
BB: I did. He reminds me of the pirate Stede Bonnet after I took command of his ship. Queer fellow, given to books and walking about the deck in his bedclothes.
TC: I went to Studio 54 in my pajamas.
BB: He was a mighty poor pirate. Hung him in Charleston, they did.
TC: Well, there are worst things that can happen to you in Charleston. Like living there.
LO: Blackbeard was known to hold long bull sessions at his captain’s table, slashing down rum and playing mind games with his officers. Probing for mutiny. Always probing for mutiny.
TC: Well, he can relax around me because I pose absolutely no threat to him physically. And I promise not to engage in any mutinous behavior.
BB: ‘Tis true. I’ve seen cabin boys with more threat than this . . . this . . . what is it are you, creature?
TC: Well, I’m what you would probably call a scribe.
BB: Ah, a scribbler. A clark. Have you scribbled anything true, clark?
TC: (giggling) Heavens, I’m in a panic. I don’t know what my line should be. What should I say?
LO: You’ve already said enough. Why is Blackbeard sipping his Orange . . . his Screwdriver? Drink up! It’s good for scurvy!
HC: The crowd is getting restless. They bet heavily on the favorite and he’s stalled in the gate.
Blackbeard orders quadruple kill-devils.
HC: Another broadside, only with more cannon.
BB: I’ll pry you loose yet, barnacle. Here’s to swimmin’ with—
TC: May I ask you a question, my captain?
BB: ‘Tis a free ship.
TC: When did you decide you wanted to be famous?
LO: A long silence. This canny pirate isn’t going to fall for—
BB: It was always on me, like a birthmark. As long as I could remember, my mother said I was born under a bad sign. She told me the world would come to fear my name.
BB: She gave me over to a ship of the East India Company when I was still a lad. I wept as the ship left her moorings and she threw a stone at me and told me to shut it.
TC: Oh heavens. Do you think that’s why you married eight times, mostly to prostitutes?
LO: Have you noticed that every time Blackbeard reaches for his glass, Capote poses a question?
TC: I have. I’ve also noticed he takes a fast sip after every question.
HC: The ref has started counting! Capote’s glass empty and Blackbeard hasn’t even tasted his drink.
BB: What deviltry is this?
HC: Four! Five!
LO: Teach tips it up and down it goes in one massive belt.
HC: Sly tactics on Truman’s part, but it’s like blindsiding a gorilla with a silk pillow.
Capote orders Blackbeard’s Ghost Cocktails
TC: Well, I thought this might be fun. It’s three different kinds of rum with orange, grapefruit, mango and molasses. Give it a try. It’s named after you.
BB: ‘Tis a sweet thing.
TC: I used to drink these at Don the Beachcomber’s. I’ve decided to write a book about you, Edward.
BB: ‘Tis true?
LO: Don’t fall for it, Teach! He tells everyone that. He’s told me that twice!
HC: Well, that explains your—
TC: These days I only try to write about truly interesting people. Otherwise, I get bored with their tedious lives and can’t finish. I’ve read everything about you, Edward. I don’t think history has treated you fairly. May I call you Edward?
BB: What did the villains say about me?
TC: Well, they say your were a psychopath and a coward. They say you were stingy with treasure, a poor sailor and given to wearing women’s clothing during battle so no one would shoot you.
TC: Don’t worry, Eddie. My book, I’m thinking of calling it Blackbeard, the Boldest Pirate and Greatest Sailor Who Ever Lived, will reveal your true nature.
LO: Oh boy.
Blackbeard orders Blackbeard’s Ghost cocktails.
LO: Capote told him to order these! He’s being hoodwinked.
HC: Now, now. Wouldn’t you order a cocktail named after yourself?
TC: He’s already had two.
LO: Aren’t you a clever boy.
TC: Eddie, is it true Lt. Maynard, your murderer, cut off your head and tied it to the bowsprit of your own ship?
BB: I wasn’t aware, occupied as I was with being dead.
TC: Legend says your headless ghost haunts a beach in North Carolina. They say you seek your missing head.
BB: ‘Tis true?
TC: ‘Tis legend. But couldn’t it be said that you’re also searching for your lost dignity and reputation? And perhaps your mother’s approval?
BB: Aye, aye, could be true.
Capote orders mimosas.
LO: Look at them, huddled together over Capote’s notepad. This contest has turned into a cocktail brunch.
HC: They’re still drinking. Someone will eventually have to fall. Let’s listen in.
BB: ‘Tis true that I’ve often felt my hurtful behavior was just me “acting out my pain,” as you say, because I wanted my crew to have a high opinion of their captain.
LO: Oh. My. God! He’s turned Blackbeard the Blood-Thirsty Pirate into Eddie the Codependent Jellyfish.
TC: Legend says your skull was plated with silver and fashioned into a drinking chalice.
BB: Ha! That’s a fine—
TC: Doesn’t that make you feel vulnerable and unfairly exploited?
BB: Well . . . I guess you could say that it does, when you think about it, it being done without my permission and all.
HC: Okay, I get that Truman’s slowing down the action and turning Teach into a bowl of jelly. But all that means is Capote sticks around a little longer. What’s Capote’s endgame? Teach will outlast him, no matter what or how slow they drink. It’s simple mathematics.
LO: Nothing’s simple with that devious bastard. He’s got something besides a perfumed handkerchief stuck up his sleeve.
Blackbeard orders Blackbeard’s Ghost Cocktails.
LO: The German film crew is interviewing Capote while Blackbeard relaxes with a big stupid grin on his face.
HC: Why not? He’s already gotten a book and a signature cocktail out of the deal. His reputation gets a makeover and he can stop stumbling around that beach in North Carolina.
TC: (to interviewer) I’ll say this about, Eddie. He’s the most extroverted man I ever met, and I’ve met Mick Jagger. It’s a rare, delicate and strange thing. Just to put yourself out there and wham! There he is!
BB: Extrovert? What’s that?
TC: It means you’re fabulous, Eddie. (Turns back to interviewer) But he has to be because he can’t do anything else. He can barely speak, he smells like an old trunk of clothes and dances like a drag queen with two sprained ankles. So he just puts himself out there and hopes the audience is in a good mood.
BB: What’s this you say?
TC: I’m in no way trying to discredit him as a pirate. It’s just that he can’t do anything else, so how do we praise a man who is just doing the only thing he can? Dressing up like a marionette and waving a sword around—that’s his whole act.
HC: Well. Truman didn’t wait long to start dishing the dirt.
TC: Edward has a reputation as dangerous, bad man, but he’s always been respectful in my presence. I don’t know why he’s so completely afraid of me, but he is. Perhaps I remind him of his mother.
LO: Or maybe he foolishly believes you’re going to write a book about him.
TC: It’s nearly finished.
HC: Wait, you’re already writing the book?
TC: It’s nearly finished.
LO: Writing it in your mind, I suppose.
TC: The Blackbeard book will be in stores in about two weeks.
LO: What utter poppycock!
HC: Jesus! Look at Blackbeard. He’s trembling like a boiler with a jammed release valve.
Capote orders mimosas.
TC: (to interviewer) I’ve always said I can see every monster as they come in the room. When Blackbeard came in I didn’t see a monster. I saw a sad little man who wanted to be a ballerina.
HC: Uh . . .
LO: That diabolical son of a—watch it, Blackbeard! He’s trying to bait you into—
HC: Blackbeard lunges out of his seat, then restrains himself. He tries to laugh it off, but it comes out like a . . . like a weird barking sound. He’s all twisted up.
LO: Truman is doing this deliberately, expertly. Blackbeard can’t just laugh it off now. He’s been sucked in. It’s too personal now. He told that damned scribbler too much.
Blackbeard orders tankards of kill-devil.
LO: Atta-boy, Blackbeard. Drown that toad in rum.
HC: He insisted they be served in large pewter flagons. Standard equipment in his day. He’s trying to find his way back. Return to what he was before Capote sank his fangs into him.
LO: He’s snapped out of it, I tell you. He’s going to crush this toad, just watch. Why aren’t you taking notes, Truman?
TC: Oh, I’ve decided not to write the book. It was too mundane a subject for me.
BB: No book?
TC: It was just too mundane a subject for me. I could barely stay awake during the interview.
BB: No book.
TC: More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. You should feel lucky, Eddie Belle.
BB: Eddie Belle?
TC: It’s my nickname for you. Because you remind me of Ellie Belle, a little girl I knew as a boy.
LO: For an instance I thought Teach was going to—
HC: Instead, he calmly stands up, downs his rum in a three massive gulps and holds his tankard high.
BB: Damnation seize my soul if I give you quarters, or take any from you.
LO: Hell yes, Teach, no quarters for that—!
HC: The ref is counting, and a grinning Truman doesn’t make a move toward his tankard. He’s surrendered the ship.
LO: No, Teach, no!
HC: Blackbeard brings the tankard with massive force onto Capote’s skull, cracking it wide open!
LO: You had it in the bag, Teach!
HC: The ref signals that the Blackbeard has disqualified himself. Capote wins! And now, smiling and humming as he does so, Blackbeard is looting Capote’s inert body. Is that legal?
LO: There’s no Clash rule against it. I don’t think he cares.
Capote wins by DQ.
The Wrap Up
HC: In retrospect, I’d say Truman expertly orchestrated this stunning upset from the moment he sat down.
LO: Absolutely, he did. The man has a diabolical talent for twisting emotions. It’s no wonder the literati and glitterati of his day were so terrified of him. Heaven help his next opponent.
Blackbeard: ‘Twas worth it. I only wish they would have let me take his head. I had plans for that skull.
Capote: (quoting Coleridge) Weave a circle round him thrice and close your eyes with holy dread, for he on honey-dew hath fed and drunk the milk of Paradise. So let’s not feel too badly about old Mr. Blackbeard.