R.D. Blumenfeld on Drinking Ways. Part I.

Countering the American Sumptuary, 1930

A concise biography of American-born Ralph David Blumenfeld appears in Encyclopdia.com.

Fairly long-lived, 1864-1948, serious illness ended his active career ended in 1936. Much of his adult life was spent in the U.K. where he was naturalized. He became an influential Fleet Street editor, rising to editor-in-chief of the Daily Express, a post he held until 1932.

His father was a German-Jewish immigrant in the American Midwest who founded a German-language newspaper. R.D.B., as he became known, worked as a compositor for his father. He later worked as a telegrapher, and in journalism in Chicago and New York. He was already an editor in New York before 30.

He settled in the U.K. in 1894, initially to pursue a venture selling linotype equipment to British newspapers.* This proved most successful but he could not resist journalism’s embrace. In 1900 he departed business to re-join the press, this time in his adopted country (he was naturalized in 1907).

The association of R.D.B., as he became known, with Canadian-born Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) and another Canadian, Beverly Baxter, helped introduce an “American” element to British journalism. The Daily Express was partly refashioned on American lines via its large type and human interest stories.

I discussed Baxter, without knowing this further background, in an earlier post, “When the Americans Arrived”. Baxter’s smooth interviews and Yankee-style journalism now make more sense to me. In fact R.D.B. was mentor to him, according to other biographical accounts I consulted.

In 1930, towards the end of his active career, R.D.B. wrote a portrait of wine and drinking at this time of year, “Seeing old Year out in wet England”.

Printed in a Washington, D.C. newspaper, it offered a tantalizing view of foreign drinking habits to a society sapped by years of bluenose-inspired National Prohibition. Reading the opening paragraphs, I was reminded of Jack Kerouac’s portrait of a well-stocked cafeteria in wintry New York in his novel Visions of Cody.

Kerouac described luscious foods as perceived by a straightened Beat wanderer of the streets. The misty showcase disclosed technicolor delights of glazed cakes and pastries, all beyond the means of the artist forever estranged from society’s regular ranks.

America surely reacted in a similar way to R.D.B.’s rich portrait of the U.K. wine business and what he claimed was a continual but non-abusive relationship to alcohol among the people.

Beer is not discussed per se although one photo portrays a server drawing beer in a pub. Another, more telling, shows savants kitted out à la City judging beer at a competition. I discussed such a tasting in this post“The Bitter Test”.

A snippet from R.D.B.’s article gives the flavour, describing a merchant’s glittering bazaar:

His window is a blaze of electric lamps, shining on imitation snow and ice. Lying on the snow are sledges piled high with every drink you can imagine. There are bottles of very old brandy which you may buy for the price of a bottle of inferior bootleg gin, graceful Hock bottles with their long stems, jolly, fat Hollands [a gin], clarets, Burgundys, Bordeaux, bottles of Scotch and bottles of Irish, and in a sledge all to themselves the succulent, insidious French liqueurs so dear to women and so cheap to buy.

On and on went R.D.B., readers’ eyes opening apace:

… at one end of the display Santa Claus is loaded to the white and bushy eyebrows with kummel, white port, Gordon’s gin—the real, not the synthetic—Rhine wine, vodka, and a sack over his shoulder from the neck of which peep the golden tops of bottles of champagne by such firms as Heidsick, Pol Roger, Pommeroy, Lemoine …

R.D.B.’s outline of the wine vaults at London Docks, built by the great engineer Rennie in the early 1800s, evokes an era that endured for much of the last two centuries but is now passed.

An invitation to taste wines in the cellars was a mark of social distinction. Such connoisseurship is now more broadly disseminated, in wine or almost any drink you can think of. Democracy and capitalism have made it so.

R.D.B. foresaw modern beer appreciation via the photo of London ale experts in 1930. Still, he might be surprised how a drink then viewed as commonplace has acquired trappings of tomes, critics, and “taste notes”.

Or maybe not. As a son of the Midwest and, indirectly, Mitteleuropa, capped by his New York experience, he likely was schooled on fine beer before making acquaintance with the ales of England.

Such a background probably explains that extra flourish of beer-judging savants.

The good journalists, writers in general, are like that, heralds whose vision needs passing of a generation, or two, for validation.

The National Portrait Gallery harbours today a painting of R.D. Blumenfeld. He looks like a man of discernment, and judgement.

For Part II, see here.


*On this point see this death notice printed in Australia.

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