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Not so long ago I commented on a column by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, in which this well-known toper addressed himself to the theme of How To Make Drink one’s Slave and Not One’s Master. Having already had rich sport with Hitchens’s bizarre excursus on this theme I’ll confine myself here to a sentence in that same column that was widely quoted as an example of Hitchens’ trenchant wit.
It dealt with the matter of how many dry martinis should a prudent drinker confront at cocktail time.
Here’s what Hitchens wrote: “On the whole, observe the same rule about gin martinis–and all gin drinks–that you would in judging female breasts: one is far too few and three is one too many When you get the shudders, even slightly, it’s definitely time to seek help.”
Discussing this passage back in February of this year, just after his Vanity Fair column was published, I decided to pass lightly over the issue of the shakes. but his math about the gins was definitely off. As far as dry martinis go, there’s been sound evidence in the past to take Hitchens as at least a six-breast guy, with the Artemis of Kybele as his beau ideal.
The first time I read the sentence about martinis and breasts it struck as creepy. After all, these days there are a fair amount of women out there, some of them readers of Vanity Fair, who have had a mastectomy. Shouldn’t his editor at Vanity Fair have suggested to Hitchens that maybe he might want to reconsider the line?
Then, after a nudge from an interested reader, I began to look around, to see whether Hitchens had simply collared the line. These days possible borrowings aren’t that hard to check, at least at an elementary level. I went to the Google search engine on my computer and typed in “breasts; martinis; Hitchens.”
Up came three citations on my original column plus two news stories, one of them in the Washington Post, crediting Hitchens with the breasts/martinis quip. At this rate he’ll be in Bartlett’s with it in a year or two.
But it’s not his line. I slightly refined my search and in five minutes came across the same basic edict in food and drink columns from the 1990s. For example a piece by Kathleen Sloan, June 8 1995, in the Eye WEEKLY, Toronto’s arts newspaper had her offering advice to children taking their fathers out to dinner, “If he tries to order a third, remind him that martinis are like a women’s breasts: two are perfect, three is just too many”.
Christopher Pyne, a cartoonist, used the line in his “Slappy Says” strip in early 2001. On his BK Lounge website, dated 2002, Bryan Knox ran the line. I emailed him and he answered that “I heard that quote for the first time around 1990ish and really am not sure who originally said it. It sounds a lot like a Johnny Carson quote to me.”
Then, on another website, Bestman.com, devoted to the ever-popular theme of cocktails, I found the quote, attributed to the late great San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, who died in 1997. It was crisper than Hitchens’ version: “Martinis are like breasts, one isn’t enough, and three is too many.” It was next to another joke from the golden age of dry martinis, by Alexander Woollcott, “I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”
Caen often wrote about the therapeutic powers of “Vitamin V”, aka the vodka martini, and he seems a likelier candidate than Carson. The line sounds a little too edgy for the latter. I feel sure Caen used the line in one of his columns, though whether he claimed to have made it up, I don’t yet know. The San Francisco Chronicle’s electronic data base doesn’t go back beyond the mid-90s.
Why didn’t the Vanity Fair checking department google the line, just to be on the safe side? Well, that’s the problem with checking departments. They never see the wood for the trees.
Where did Hitchens get it from? Maybe from Caen. He has, or he used to have, a very good memory for this kind of thing. Why didn’t he throw in one of those cover-your-ass phrases, like “as the old tag goes.” Too many six-breast martini evenings and your memory rots. Next thing you know, Hitchens will be claiming he captured Baghdad single handed. The only question the checker will think to ask him is whether he’d had two or three martinis under his belt at the time.