MAHOPAC, N.Y.-Austin Road Elementary School kindergarten teacher Diane Lapis and Yorktown resident Anne Peck-Davis have been friends for more than 25 years. Neither one of them was more surprised that their love of the hobby of vintage postcard collecting would lead them to write a book.
This spring, the duo will release “Cocktails Across America: A Postcard View of Mid-Century Cocktail Culture,” a tome that takes the reader on a journey across America, from Prohibition through the ’50s, via the linen postcards that advertised hotels, cocktail lounges and supper clubs from that era. It will be published by Countryman Press, a division of W.W. Norton.
“I lived in Yorktown and that is how we met,” Lapis said of her relationship with Peck-Davis. “We have had a deep friendship for over 25 years and our children know each other.”
They discovered that not only did they both collect postcards, they collected them from that one special niche of bars, cocktail lounges and supper clubs. They joined the Taconic Postcard Club and regularly attended shows together.
“[Lapis] was a member [of the Taconic Postcard Club] and she told me about it and I would attend the meetings,” Peck-Davis said. “Eventually, we developed an idea to research places such as the supper clubs, restaurants and the bars we saw depicted on these postcards. These cards are called linen postcards—they have a linen texture and are brightly colored and manufactured between 1931 and 1955.”
Lapis explained that when the Prohibition era ended, bars used these postcards as a marketing tool to attract customers.
“The more fantastically designed the postcard was, the more people would want to go to the supper club,” she said. “It was like an early form of Photoshop. There were bright colors with these fantastic borders.”
Peck-Davis, who worked as an occupational therapist, including a stint with preschoolers in the Mahopac Falls school building, said that her and Lapis’ love for all things vintage made them wonder what it would be like to go back in time and visit these old venues and explore what they were like during their halcyon days. That became the focus of their book.
“We thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could go to these places? That’s what we wanted to capture,” Peck-Davis said. “Who performed there? What did the people drink? What was the music like? What were the cultural trends? Hopefully, we could transport the reader back to these places in American history.”
Actually, as Lapis and Peck-Davis point out, many of these places still exist.
“There are about 35 places that you can still visit,” Lapis said. “There’s the DuPont Hotel in Wilmington, Del., the Breakers in West Palm Beach, Fla.”
“It goes completely across the county,” Peck-Davis added. “There is the La Fonda in Santa Fe (N.M.) and the Biltmore in Phoenix.”
Lapis said the best part about putting the book together was doing the research. That meant learning as much about each venue as they possibly could.
“We had to look deeper behind the picture [on the postcard] and what the time period was,” she said. “We called libraries throughout the country and we also visited some of the facilities.”
Peck-Davis said one valuable research resource turned out to be the library at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park.
“That turned out to be a wonderful source for us,” she said. “The person who wrote the forward for us—Douglass Miller— is a former professor at CIA. He’s now at Cornell and we worked with him extensively.”
The authors said their research uncovered some astonishing facts about these places—particularly with regard to the entertainment their patrons experienced.
“The thing that was most amazing was that they had ice skating shows that took place in these supper clubs,” Lapis said. “They had these frozen stages that would come out from under the orchestra and they would do skits and little shows. They would travel around from the St. Regis in New York to the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco.”
Some venues even boasted rotating bars, also know as carousel bars, where the bar—such as the one at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans—would slowly turn. The book features chapters dedicated to the ice skating rinks in the supper clubs and the carousel bars.
“The bars were just trying to bring in customers,” Lapis said. “They would decorate in ways that were unique and fun. Sometimes the food would be inexpensively price and they would [emphasize] the cocktails. They would also provide very strong customer service.”
The authors traveled the country visiting many of the venues featured in the book and spoke with bartenders and mixologists, collecting cocktail recipes.
“We found a lot of mixologists who were extremely helpful [with the research] and that was a nice surprise,” Lapis said. “We had a lot of great support from the industry.”
Peck-Davis said they included recipes in the book that have a variety of ingredients, ingredients that they knew are still available.
“We got them from vintage cocktail books—recipes from the time period we were focused on,” she said.
Some of the mixologists the authors interviewed even created new recipes just for the book.
“I never really drank much before, but Anne said I couldn’t write about them without tasting,” Lapis said with a laugh. “So, I did and each one was uniquely flavored. I had a good time enjoying the fruits of our labor. We tasted each one. We went to the Waldorf to have a Triple ‘C’ invented by Xavier Cugat.”
“We tried them at the place where they were actually created,” Peck-Davis added.
The duo spent five years researching the book and found themselves lucky that they were able to find a publisher relatively quickly. They had collected an array of cocktail books for their research and looked at who some of the publishers were. The publishers’ websites featured a page where would-be authors could pitch proposals.
“That’s how we discovered Countryman Press,” Lapis said. “We sent them a proposal and it was a done deal. It was the right place at the right time. We are very fortunate to work with them.”
The book is now available for pre-order through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and all independent bookstores and will hit the shelves in May.
“We had a chance to see the layout and it’s gorgeous,” Lapis said. “It has been a lot of fun.”
“We were so lucky to take something that we loved and turn it into a book,” added Peck-Davis.