Liberated SPIRITS: Excerpts

The Dawning of a New Era – Excerpts from Liberated Spirits

Mrs. Charles Sabin stepped lightly through the gilded reception hall of the Hotel Astor, greeting national political figures, renowned business leaders, and members of New York’s highest society, each a prospect to be cultivated in a few brief moments, a daunting task as the rush of top hats and fur coats swept in. She was too polished not to look composed, at home, despite being required to balance different constituencies as on a knife’s sharp edge. The guests, including Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III and Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., recognized Mrs. Sabin as one of their own by virtue of the political and business successes of her grandfather, father, uncle, and husband.

Along with her fellow members of the recently created Republican Women of New York State, Mrs. Sabin welcomed as many guests as she could, directing them to the bar or the cloakroom, or helping them find their seats. The women’s club had produced the event, in early December 1919, to raise money for the party’s campaign war chest and to inaugurate their organization with a grand splash at the hottest spot in Manhattan, in the French Renaissance Beaux Arts–style hotel built just for them: the wealthy, the powerful, and the famous.

The absence of the senior U.S. senator from New York, the powerful Republican James W. Wadsworth Jr., generated talk. Senator Wadsworth had sent a telegram, to be read from the podium, explaining why he could not attend, a cover story fooling no one. The antagonism between Wadsworth and club women was years old and well-known. The leaders of the Republican Women of New York State had declared war on Senator Wadsworth because of his opposition to women’s suffrage, even as the proposed Nineteenth Amendment neared full authorization by the requisite thirty-six states. Wadsworth further damaged his appeal by his opposition to the Eighteenth Amendment, weeks away from implementation, which had been carried to fruition by many of the same women supporting passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Passage of the two amendments inspired “club” women to envision the next set of changes needed in government to improve society. Ousting Senator James Wadsworth seemed to many a logical step.

She was introduced formally as Mrs. Arthur F. Willebrandt at the many political clubs and civic organizations she joined, although she would push past the necessary formalities as quickly as politeness would admit and establish herself as Mabel Walker Willebrandt. The day she walked into the Hotel Stowell, headquarters of the Republican Party in Los Angeles, and announced her intention to volunteer, the party hacks sat behind their desks, smoke rising from the ashtrays, typewriters clacking, and sized her up. Ignoring her credentials as a lawyer, they noted her dark suit, white blouse opened at the collar, and short hair, sure signs of a politically active woman. They calculated their response not by her dress, however, but by the fact that her husband was a political unknown and therefore she could be ignored. Mrs. Willebrandt knew how to acknowledge their hostility, delivering every word with a charming insouciance, while any man who addressed her received a leveled stare, her mind intently drinking in the words as if committing them to memory, an unnerving and ultimately unforgettable quality.

The indifference of the party men to female activists, however, ran deep. Since women had won the vote in California in 1911, they had joined with progressives to push the City of Los Angeles to crack down on brothels and prostitution and outlaw saloons, and, at the state legislature, they had overcome two failed attempts at passing statewide prohibition. Yet their political demands had only grown, a trend many men found irksome. Worse, Mrs. Mabel Walker Willebrandt’s request to get involved in the party’s organization, especially at the start of a presidential-election year, took a level of self-assertion most Americans of both genders found offensive. A lady was not supposed to work in offices alongside strange men, although exceptions were made for young women employed as teachers or stenographers. Political campaigns inhabited the rough-and-tumble world of men: cutting deals, attacking opponents, sacrificing principles for political or personal gain; in politics, immorality abounded. The Republican Party headquarters, housed in the twelve-story Hotel Stowell, in Los Angeles’ downtown, was no place for a lady. The rebuff expected, Willebrandt could afford them a gracious smile, one carrying a silent message: if you think my attempt to volunteer here is audacious, you haven’t seen anything yet.

The small fine assessed against Olmstead after his arrest convinced him the risks he had taken were well worth any penalty, and that he could gamble more. He gathered investors, retained an attorney, hired an office staff, and instituted a simple code of ethics: forbid employees from carrying firearms, never water down the product, and never deceive suppliers or customers. Behind his easy smile and glad hand was the trustworthiness that had always drawn people to him, that ability to know what he could accomplish at the moment and never overpromise. Olmstead aimed to be the most honest rumrunner and bootlegger in America, and he was confident that profits would ensue.

Roy Olmstead and Tom Clark operated primarily through a company called Western Freighters, though they also worked with a larger company called Consolidated Exporters. These entities, both duly licensed Canadian liquor exporting houses, provided the financing and created the contracts for shipping tons of spirits to Vancouver, British Columbia, from around the world. At the docks, stevedores loaded as many as thirty thousand cases at a time into the holds of their steamships, the Prince Albert, the Tuskawa, and the Coal Harbour. As the ships made their way to the twelve-mile limit, cases were broken and bottles placed in more manageable gunnysacks before being unloaded to midsized boats, which then proceeded along the coasts of Oregon and California to make other rendezvous. The midsized boats brought their loads lumbering into the Strait of Juan de Fuca at night, meeting up with the faster gas launches at various points, most often one of the coves along the coast of Discovery Island, in Canadian waters. The fast boats then made the run down the Puget Sound.