Charting the Connection Between Booze and News

In "Depression, Drink and Dissipation," Doug Underwood has produced an extensive new review of the psycho-sexual hang-ups of 187 famous "journalist-literary figures."

If you believe the apothegm “It takes one to know one,” then Doug Underwood has revealed himself to be a lusty drunk driven to professional ruin and early death by cigarettes, drugs, and psychic pain. This, after all, is the collective picture he draws of other journalists and writers in an extensive new review of the psycho-sexual hang-ups of 187 famous “journalist-literary figures.”


Published in the winter 2007 volume of Journalism History, “Depression, Drink and Dissipation” finds that almost half of the best people to ever push a noun against a verb in newsprint were debilitated by depression, serious anxiety, or bipolar disorder; over a third were titanic drunks, pill-poppers, or opium-addicts; nearly a third were serial philanderers, and a sizable bunch were misogynists, man-eaters, or violent bullies. In almost every case, the tendency to booze, carouse, or otherwise self-annihilate developed or seriously deepened during their days in journalism. All this is enough to make Underwood, who left a career covering politics for the Seattle Times to teach at the University of Washington, wonder whether “these behaviors and the choice of journalism and writing as a career are perhaps not unrelated.” Well, yeah.


Underwood is vague about the exact nature of that relationship. But the sheer breadth of his evidence supports what pop culture portrays and many of us know: journalists are a hard-living lot. Some of the country’s best-known drinking quotes come from the likes of Ben Franklin (“Wine is constant proof that God loves us”), H.L. Mencken (“I’ve made it a rule to never drink by daylight and never refuse a drink after dark”), and Ambrose Bierce, who rebuffed the pious abstainer as “a weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.” Many journalists publicize their sad, soused careers in memoirs and thinly veiled fictions. Ernest Hemingway, arguably the most afflicted war correspondent there ever was, wrote himself into his novel The Sun Also Rises as the shell-shocked lush, Jake Barnes. More recently, Pete Hamill’s memoir, A Drinking Life, recalls that when an editor asked columnist Murray Kempton, “How much more?” the Pulitzer Prize winner “lifted his almost-completed bottle of Dewar’s and said, ‘Oh, about an inch.’”


Despite such anecdotal glitter, one can still quibble with Underwood’s research decisions. His journalism definition is so broad it includes novelists, poets, and playwrights who merely dabbled in the news business, and his list of the famous and the blighted depends on a debatable consideration of their original work and biographies. Several sources, for instance, can confirm that James Agee tested his mettle for suicide by hanging calmly out the 52nd-floor window of the Chrysler Building, but it’s impossible to fact-check the theory that Fortune magazine caused this black despair. Underwood’s big picture is solid, however. His research spans over 300 years — from Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) to Rick Bragg (1959-) — and benefits from a survey of more than 900 staffers at the fifty largest-circulation daily newspapers, asking which writers have influenced their work. Any writer named twice or more was added to the big list. The remaining names were added based on Underwood’s judgment.


One interesting question that remains is whether the findings, besides holding a wealth of amusing details, hold deeper significance for the news. Should we care about a reporter’s personal problems?


Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin answer with a burped, “Hell, yes.” For over a decade, the two ex-hard drinkers and legendary newsmen have been saying that print owes its readership woes to a dead corporate air in the newsroom. “Everything’s more restrained and we’ve lost a certain edge,” Hamill told the Denver Post in 1995. Meanwhile, Breslin knows what’s missing: “It’s the drinking.” They grouse that today’s reporters forgo drinking clubs and bawdy pals in favor of health clubs and quiet homes.


Their remarks call up a romantic image of crapulous newsmen throwing cigarette butts on the floor and writing with wet towels wrapped around their throbbing heads. But let’s not forget the consequences. Underwood lists nineteen literary journalists, including Agee, Ring Lardner, and Robert Benchley, who died from drinking. Seven others, among them George Orwell and Mark Twain, killed themselves smoking. William Dean Howells and A.J. Liebling were two of thirteen who ate their way to an early grave. Then there are the suicides: goodbye Gloria Emerson, Ernest Hemingway, and Hunter S. Thompson.


For the pure quality of the product, however, Breslin and Hamill might be onto something. Psychologists have shown that neurotics can make good journalists when they project their inner doubts and dissatisfactions onto the world. This is the energy behind investigative reporting and the source of journalism’s vaunted distrust of power, the argument goes. “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers,” Breslin says.


For good or ill, journalism and neurosis may be inextricably caught up together, tangled in the timeless conundrum of what comes first. Does the profession break talented people with steady pressure, severe constraints, and public censure for missteps? Or does it attract broken talent who seek unstable schedules, extreme experiences, and the megalomaniacal pleasure of their name in print? At a glance, today’s journalists may appear to be clean and industrious. After all, it’s no longer acceptable, let alone glorious, to self-destruct quite so publicly. But that doesn’t mean the dissipated journalist is on the road to extinction. More likely, he’s simply taken a private path, the whiskey bottle in the top drawer replaced by a pill bottle behind the family photo.

Tony Dokoupil co-authors the Research Report column for CJR. He’s a Ph.D. candidate in communications at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.