Illustrations by Dave van Patten

Real-Life Drunk History

It’s much more terrifying than funny

North Korea. A joyous place, filled with merriment and mirth, the clinking of glassware and the imbibing of life, wine and song on a national scale.

Wait, no. It’s pretty much the opposite. Take just last week. Word hit on December 15th that North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim-Jong-un, had fallen under the hammer and sickle of drinking with a collection of generals and other honchos in the armed forces. As per the International Business Times:

Kim reportedly consumed excessive alcohol and summoned his military leaders in a drunken stupor, stating “…that none of you were able to produce not even one military satellite is a misconduct that is commensurate to treason.” The dictator then made them stay up all night writing out letters of confession, but appeared confused as to why they were there the following morning. According to an unconfirmed report, Kim told them: “Be careful about your health because you are all old.” When some of the generals started to cry, he allowed them to leave.

The following morning, there were reports of a, “Wait, what did I say?” type of response from the Supreme Leader. (He blamed the generals for it all.)

This leads us to the topic of drunk history. Or rather, selections of world history that have been directly or indirectly shaped by way of a powerful person and the bottle (or pills or other smack or any other mind-altering substance you can think of). There’s plenty to choose from. For example, observe the following chapters…

The boozy might of antiquity’s boy-king

Alexander the Great’s taste for the sauce has been mulled over by historians for years. A 2003 study was even undertaken to ascertain whether or not he was a true-blue alcoholic in the manner we understand it today. In fairness, Macedonians did see the ability to hold one’s alcohol as a sign of manliness (a big character trait in the 4th Century). And Alexander’s mentor Aristotle didn’t disappoint in that regard. He had a penchant for guzzling strong wine in place of water — by choice as well as when the marching hordes of his armies found themselves in locales lacking in clean drinkable water — and he got so drunk he killed his comrade Cleitus with a spear while smashed.

Dan Carlin, host of the postcast Hardcore History, brought up the topic of the influence of Alexander’s drinking in a 2009 interview while discussing a book by John Maxwell O’Brien, in which the author posts that Alexander was less a god among men than a narcissistic, erratic drunken military leader:

“I think what made O’Brien’s book so interesting was that he actually linked Alexander’s known historical behavior to the booze. He basically accused him of operating a powerful empire under the influence of alcohol. The reason this is compelling is because it’s a theory that, if true, would answer so many questions about the contradictory nature of Alexander that historians have posed for ages. Was he the wunderkind, military genius, classically tutored philosopher-king? Or was he a drunken, genocidal, bisexual, power-crazed overachiever who thought he was a god? O’Brien suggests it may have depended on whether you ran into him before or after the daily wine-drinking contests got underway.”

The framers of the Declaration of Independence kicked off America with a killer party

Besides the boozy side hustles of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence — basically a lot of breweries and distilleries pumping out the white lightning of the day — a running bar tab from the days leading up to its signature provides a pretty good idea of what inspired the most holy of American scrolls. Think: 60 bottles of claret, 54 bottles of Madeira, 22 bottles of port, eight bottles of hard cider, eight bottles of whisky, a dozen ales and several bowls of alcohol punch. Or you know: Democracy.

That time Andrew Johnson became the original “Uncle Joe Biden”

By mistake. The future 17th president of the United States was being sworn in as vice president to our 16th, Abraham Lincoln, when he whipped up one of the OG examples of overdoing it the night before anything you shouldn’t. Before his tenure as VP, Johnson basically took a whiskey brain-bath for the evening before his inauguration (he was suffering from typhoid fever), a proper bender that lasted until the next day. His most notorious line offered during the proceedings — “I kiss this book in the face of my nation, the United States,” followed by a Bible smooch — led to talks of impeachment from Radical Republicans aghast at his behavior. “I was never so mortified in my life, had I been able to find a hole I would have dropped through it out of sight,” wrote Michigan Republican Senator Zachariah Chandler to his wife back home about the chaos. But more importantly, to Lincoln’s Obama-esque handling of his counterpart: “It has been a severe lesson for Andy,” said Lincoln about his longtime friend Johnson. “I do not think he will do it again.” Bros before political rows.

The Kennedy Family, with respect to both booze and weed

There is no shortage of stories out of the Kennedy clan regarding a fondness for drink, or what that fondness may or may not have brought about in their public and private lives (see: Chappaquiddick). But the hard-partying ways of American Royalty wasn’t limited to the hooch, as JFK himself has been said to be a fan of cannabis, using it to treat his well-documented back pain issues while in office.

In the 2005 book John F. Kennedy: A Biography, there’s this choice passage: “On the evening of July 16, 1962, according to [Washington Post executive] Jim Truitt, Kennedy and [painter and alleged JFK mistress] Mary Meyer smoked marijuana together. … The president smoked three of the six joints Mary brought to him. At first he felt no effects. Then he closed his eyes and refused a fourth joint. ‘Suppose the Russians did something now,’ he said.”

Speaking of the Russians…

Confidant and influencer of the weak-willed final Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his wife the Tsarina Alexandra, Grigori Rasputin was a lot of things to a lot of people of his time. Sure, he sported the cloth of a monk, but he traversed Siberia and the Russian terra firma under the banner of hedonism and worship that involved copious drinking, and “driving out sin with sin” thanks to healthy boozy orgies. Religion!

Rasputin had a predilection for falling into deep, dark drunks and proclaiming his influence over the Tsar. He eventually suggested he basically had control of the ruler (and thus, Russia), and given his regular bouts of drunkenness and womanizing, rumors eventually abounded about Rasputin having sexual involvement with the Tsarina and her daughters. It’s no wonder that in 1919 a group of aristocrats tried to kill him by poisoning his wine and food, and when that didn’t work, they shot and stabbed him repeatedly, before drowning him once and for all. Three months later, the Tsarian Revolution was upon St. Petersburg and the rest of the country.

Drinking Buddies: Stalin and Churchill

On their own, both Stalin and Churchill, both towering and controversial figureheads of 20th-century geopolitics, could fill voluminous tomes chronicling their boozy exploits. A microcosm of that is demonstrated by a night of revelry in August 1942, during a meeting between the men to discuss North African troop strategy and a possible “Second Front” in Europe during World War II. As the relations grew strained after Churchill suggested the additional war front wasn’t to be, a tete-e-tete between the two became awash in alcohol. A diplomat present during the occasion later commented thusly on the summit (which lasted until 3 a.m.), released in 2003 with a trove of records via the British National Archives:

“There I found Winston and Stalin… sitting with a heavily-laden board between them: food of all kinds crowned by a sucking [sic] pig, and innumerable bottles. What Stalin made me drink seemed pretty savage: Winston, who by that time was complaining of a slight headache, seemed wisely to be confining himself to a comparatively innocuous effervescent Caucasian red wine. Everyone seemed to be as merry as a marriage bell.”

Then there’s Hitler and the Original Heisenberg

Pretty sure the global fascination with Hitler and Nazis since the end of World War II means little is new information when it comes to the degeneracy of the Führer. But it’s worth noting that not only were Nazi soldiers hopped up on Pervatin — basically crystal meth in today’s eyes, as noted in this 2013 piece from The Atlantic — but between April and July 1940, more than 35 million three-milligram doses of Pervitin were manufactured for the German Army and Air Force. Hitler himself was given intravenous injections of methamphetamine by his primary care doctor, but the pill form was the method de jour for the stormtroopers looking to get high while committing unspeakable acts of violence and aggressions toward the human race.

Of course, the electorate isn’t exactly the most sober bunch either

Bob Hawke, Australia’s Prime Minister from 1983–1991, was essentially elected by the beer-drinking masses. Hawke himself mentioned in the early part of his own memoirs that his much-celebrated college demonstration of Aussie beer guzzling, which set a new world record at the time as he polished off 1.4 liters (or a yard of ale) in 11 seconds, was appealing enough to voters to be the key that gave him the win. It’s worth noting that the record was set in the same hotel where former U.S. President Bill Clinton smoked an un-inhaled joint. In any case, Hawke’s ability to get drunk with his constituents didn’t waver over time — i.e., just four years ago he destroyed a cup of beer at a cricket match between Australia and India.

Win the people, win their vote.