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Alcoholics Synonymous

Famous drunks of Santa Clara Valley


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SAN JOSE is the oldest city in California and the state's first capital. Most folks know that. But no one really pays attention to the fact that our valley's history is soaked in the Demon Rum. Some famous imbibers have called this neck of the woods home, and we must give them their due respect. It's not only the Valley of Heart's Delight, it was sometimes the Valley of Drunk's Delight.

San Jose was only the state capital for a year or so, but the importance of drink was established from day one. In fact, the state's very first legislature became known as the Legislature of a Thousand Drinks. Every legislative session in 1850 ended with state Sen. Thomas Jefferson Green's now-infamous declaration: "Let's have a drink! Let's have a thousand drinks!" Then they would migrate to nearby taverns and strive toward that admirable goal. If you go to the San Jose Museum of Art, Green's quote is engraved in the state seal in the circle of palms out in front of the place. People walk across it on a daily basis and never even read what it says.

Historians have endlessly pondered the relevance of it all, but the thousand drinks moniker nevertheless remains etched in San Jose's character. South Bay history is—pardon the pun—loaded with alcohol-related history. Those 19th-century legislative drunks were only the beginning. The Women's Christian Temperance Union tried to put a stop to it all, but the teetotalers had no chance in the end--our lust for Demon Rum was just too much for 'em.

Who can count the number of famous imbibers who've wonderfully littered this part of the Bay Area with their intemperate presence? There have been many, but a certain few continue to pop up in various alcohol-fired conversations. Now that the Thomas Fallon statue is immortalized in Pellier Park, folks will continue to argue whether he was a drunk or a wife beater—or whether or not he ever passed out in St. James Park. Most of the inflammatory gossip about the former mayor came from his divorce trial, so it's definitely not a slam dunk either way.

But author Jack London, a notorious drunk, did periodically make it down to San Jose from his haunts along the San Francisco Bay waterfront. His brutal 1913 autobiography, John Barleycorn, or Alcoholic Memoirs—by far his finest manuscript—was the first and best-documented account of the alcoholic life, including his first hangover at the age of 5. And it includes scenes in the South Bay. In the end, he actually supported the efforts of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Also, in his famous novel Call of the Wild, what's now the Santa Clara Caltrain Station is mentioned.

Beat generation icon Neal Cassady also lived in the area. He spent quite a while residing in Monte Sereno at 18231 Bancroft Ave. Drunk experts agree that he was the real genius behind the Beat generation, although he never published a book and never reaped any of the profits. Immortalized in both Kerouac's On the Road and Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Cassady had a penchant for driving in reverse through Los Gatos, often with no brakes. His son John still lives in the area.

It would be wholly unfair to deem Cassady a "drunk," but there are stories circulating even today about infamous beer and pizza sessions at Mountain Mike's in Los Gatos. Cassady, Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and company imbibed at that locale in the 1950s. And no one can argue that Kerouac wasn't a drunk.

In fact, there's so much ignored alcohol-related history in this valley, it's hard to sort it all out. Wineries and breweries aside, the list of local legends and their potent potables lives on.

Astley (A.D.M.) Cooper, the most famous San Jose-based painter, loved the good life and imbibed heavily back in the early days of the 20th century. Cooper was Bohemian with a capital "B," and the good life loved him back. He built his own studio at the corner of 21st and San Antonio to resemble an Egyptian temple. He reportedly sold paintings of naked women to pay off his bar tabs. Saloons up and down the coast displayed his works on their walls.

Like every creative genius, he was also multifaceted, being an accomplished violinist. According to Clyde Arbuckle's History of San Jose, Cooper often invited touring operas and vaudeville troupes over to his house for after-hours boozing. But in his life, Cooper was never a starving artist. He cranked out more than 1,000 paintings and repeatedly sold them for quite a few bucks. Once in a while, you'll still spot one at an antique shop. He remains a legendary Bohemian part of San Jose history. If only we had more of those guys.

And then there's John Steinbeck. Of all the American alcoholics who won the Nobel Prize for literature, Steinbeck was the only one who set up shop in the South Bay. Hemmingway, Faulkner and Sinclair Lewis never lived here. Steinbeck completed Of Mice and Men and wrote The Grapes of Wrath while living on Greenwood Lane in what was then Los Gatos (now it's Monte Sereno). Celebrities who showed up to get hammered at that house included Burgess Meredith and Charlie Chaplin.

Obviously, all these chaps contributed immensely to society, much more than most of us will ever contribute. And no one except maybe the Women's Christian Temperance Union would ever write them off as "drunks," but their lives and escapades constituted an often ignored part of South Bay history. It just makes you want to whip out a flask of cheap whiskey and a copy of Tortilla Flat just to celebrate.

But it's nowhere near over. With such current brotherhoods as S.J. Drunks and the Beautiful Men's Club, the boozin' tradition is bound to continue.

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From the June 16-22, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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