“The two bartenders on duty looked as if their fathers might have poured for Lincoln’s last law partner, William Herndon, who was a whiskey man and survived his senior partner by twenty-six years. I do not mean that it was the whiskey that made Herndon live longer. It was the brandy John Wilkes Booth drank that killed Lincoln.”
The anecdote begins like the set-up for a joke: “There were these two bartenders…” Note the casual learning – Herndon not only studied law in the Logan and Lincoln law practice in Springfield, Ill., he became the future president’s partner and biographer. Herndon’s fondness for whiskey is well-documented, as is Booth’s for brandy. The writer, A.J. Liebling, starts with a saloon in Springfield in 1950 and in three sentences distills nineteenth-century American history.
This is passable but not top-shelf Liebling. It's taken from “Abraham Lincoln in Springfield,” published in the June 24, 1950 issue of The New Yorker, and not collected in any of Liebling’s books. I found it in The Prairie State: A Documentary History of Illinois, Civil War to the Present (ed. Robert P. Sutton, 1976). Liebling wrote memorably about food, France, boxing, combat, the press and what his editor at The New Yorker, Harold Ross, dismissively called “low life,” though seasoned readers suspect he could have produced interesting copy about subjects as unpromising as wind farms and Al Gore. Liebling wrote “Abraham Lincoln in Springfield” after leaving The New Yorker in 1949, for complicated marital and monetary reasons, to live in Chicago. He returned to the magazine and his home town the following summer. The other product of his Midwestern diaspora was Chicago: The Second City (1952). Though worth reading, the volume ranks as minor Liebling, compromised by his Manhattan-centric Weltanschauung. In the Lincoln piece, Liebling is mostly treading water, though he talks to a remarkable number of Springfield residents for so brief a story. (Note to reporters: Liebling prided himself on reporting with his feet – that is, leaving the newsroom and talking to people.) Here is Liebling's introduction to Springfield in the company of a loquacious cab driver:
“When the driver mentioned the Abe, he meant the Abraham Lincoln, Springfield’s largest and newest hotel. After I reached my room there, I picked up the telephone directory to look for my friend’s number and right in the front of the book found the A. Lincoln Tourist Court, the Abe Lincoln Baggage Transfer, the Abraham Lincoln Association, the Ann Rutledge Apartment Hotel, and the Ann Rutledge Beauty Salon. After that, instead of looking up my man’s name, I made my initial concession to curiosity about Lincoln. I turned to the L’s and found listings for the Lincoln Advertising Agency, Lincoln Air Lines, Lincoln Automotive Mechanics School, Lincoln Baggage Transfer Company, Lincoln Cab Company, Lincoln Cafe, Lincoln Candy Company, Lincoln Cash Market, Lincoln College of Law, Lincoln Dental Laboratories, Lincoln Library, Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, Lincoln Park Fieldhouse and Pavilion, Lincoln Radiator and Auto Parts Company, Lincoln School, Lincoln’s Home, and Lincoln’s Monument. Nothing, apparently, had been named for Mrs. Lincoln. Nor, I found, on turning to the D’s, was there anything named after Stephen A. Douglas, although in 1860 Springfield’s vote was almost evenly divided between the two Illinois Presidential candidates. Cults form around defeated generals and unhappy lovers, but the stature of wives and losing politicians evidently diminishes.”
Liebling was born on this day, Oct. 18, in 1904, and died Dec. 28, 1963. His best books, according to this reader’s tastes, are The Sweet Science (1956), Normandy Revisited (1958) and Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962), though Liebling seldom wrote a dull sentence.