Last Call: Prohibition and the Speakeasies of New York in 1933
The Prohibition era in America, which lasted for well over a decade and — inconceivable as it might be today — effectively banned the sale and production of booze in the United States, ended with the ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933. The dozen or so years during which Prohibition imperfectly reigned, meanwhile, have endured in the national consciousness and the pop-culture pantheon as a period of unparalleled gangster violence, Jazz Age excess and levels of corruption that might make even the leaders of Syria, Libya, Sudan or North Korea gape in admiration.
Here, on the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, LIFE.com offers up photos made in a number of New York speakeasies by Margaret Bourke-White. Most famous for her work as a LIFE photographer — along with Peter Stackpole, Thomas McAvoy and Alfred Eisnestaedt, she was one of the weekly’s original four staff photographers — Bourke-White was for years an editor and photographer at FORTUNE; the pictures in this gallery were shot for that storied Time Inc. monthly, three years before LIFE began publishing.
Bourke-White’s photos ran in the June 1933 issue of FORTUNE, under the simple and evocative title, “Speakeasies of New York.”
The speakeasy [FORTUNE told its readers, betraying a fair bit of patrician hauteur] has flowered successfully only in New York. In San Francisco it is dull and obscure; in Chicago, tough and noisy; in the South almost nonexistent. In most cities, drinking, like eating, is done at home or in the country club. In New York alone has the speakeasy become the instrument of a civilized social life, something between a pre-prohibition restaurant and a coeducational club. There are, therfore, in New York, speakeasies for every taste and purse. . . . The pictures on these pages present a fair cross-section of the reputable ones. They are probably the first pictures ever taken of speakeasies in action. They may be the last: no one can prophesy the future of these curious by-prodcuts of the post-War age if and when prohibition is repealed. If they survive it will be as restaurants with bars; locked doors will no longer spice the drinks. It is for a future that will want to know how New Yorkers of the ’20s lived that FORTUNE presents this portfolio of Margarte Bourke-White’s pictures.
Duly acknowledging the prescience of that unknown writer’s words, we’ll just end here by noting that Bourke-White’s pictures do, in fact, provide a sense of how New Yorkers of the ’20s and ’30s lived. Judging by the photos, some of them lived pretty well, indeed.
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