Hemingway, Fitzgerald: Did alcohol help or hinder the great writers?

Does boozing help or hinder artistic endeavor?

In my last pair of entries, I looked at artists’ coffee-drinking habits and highlighted a swath of 20th-century writers who used amphetamines to boost their output. But what about alcohol? Weren’t many of history’s great artists also great boozers?

Yes and no. In researching Daily Rituals, I found that while many artists did drink a great deal, very few mixed alcohol with their working hours. Even the alcoholics recognized that drinking made their creative output a little too effortless and their appraisal of the results a little too charitable. Sobriety is a requirement of most artistic work. As George Sand wrote in her autobiography:

“Honestly, I do not believe in a drunk Byron writing beautiful verses. Inspiration can pass through the soul just as easily in the midst of an orgy as in the silence of the woods, but when it is a question of giving form to your thoughts, whether you are secluded in your study or performing on the planks of a stage, you must be in total possession of yourself.”

Of course, plenty of artists figured out ways to be in total possession of their faculties for a few hours a day and be wasted for much of the remainder. The painter Francis Bacon is a good example. He drank tremendous quantities of alcohol during his long nights out on the town, but he always woke at the first light of day and painted for several hours, usually finishing around noon. Even the occasional hangover was, in Bacon’s mind, a boon. “I often like working with a hangover,” he said, “because my mind is crackling with energy and I can think very clearly.”

Hemingway was similarly adept at balancing late-night drinking with early-morning work. His son Gregory recalled that the author seemed immune to hangovers: “My father would always look great, as if he’d slept a baby’s sleep in a soundproof room with his eyes covered by black patches.”

One of the problems for Bacon, Hemingway, and numerous other artists was that they could really only work for a few hours a day; after that, they needed to do something to get away from the work and out of their own heads. Alcohol was a reliable escape, and many artists claimed that it inspired them. As Hemingway wrote: “When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?” A few decades later, William Styron expressed much the same sentiment:

“I’ve never written a line in my life while I’d had a drink, but in terms of its ability to relax you and to allow you certain visionary moments when you’re thinking about your work, I think it’s very valuable. Let’s say a day is finished and you’ve put in some good hours of writing and you’re still perplexed about the next day. Just to be able to have a few drinks and to think in this released mode often gives you very new insights.”

For this to work, of course, you have to be capable of having just a few drinks. When he was writing Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald tried to reserve a portion of each day for sober composition. But he went on regular binges and later admitted to his editor that alcohol had interfered with the novel. “It has become increasingly plain to me that the very excellent organization of a long book or the finest perceptions and judgment in time of revision do not go well with liquor,” he wrote.

The great comedic actor W.C. Fields had a similar realization. Fields initially started drinking onstage and on set because he thought it loosened him up and improved his comic timing. But since he had a naturally high tolerance for alcohol, it took increasingly large quantities to keep him loose. (Fields once estimated that he imbibed “eight or ten cocktails, possibly a bottle of champagne, and a half dozen or more bottles of beer and ale per day.”) He insisted that drinking had never interfered with his work—until shortly before his death, when he told a friend from his hospital bed, “I’ve often wondered how far I could have gone had I laid off the booze.”