Skip directly to content

Castle, Prohibition and New York City

on Mon, 02/13/2012 - 00:00

Castle Last Call
New York City serves as the backdrop for the ABC drama Castle and many episodes of the series explore the diverse culture of this de facto economic and social capital of the United States. Central Park is featured prominently in a number of installments, for instance, while such cosmopolitan staples as fashion week, art galleries, trendy restaurants and socialites are highlighted alongside corrupt politicians, dirty cops and working class neighborhoods.

Castle even personifies the vast array of its setting with its two main characters, the wealthy mystery writer Richard Castle—whose status grants him access to the city’s mayor and the ability to obtain reservations at the most select dining establishments—and NYPD homicide detective Kate Beckett, a public servant trying to keep the streets safe for the rich, middle class and poor alike.

During the third season of the crime drama, meanwhile, the colorful history of the city’s past plays a prominent role when the present day murder of a bar owner becomes linked to the 1920s. “Take a trip with me to a simple yet dangerous time,” Richard Castle tells Kate Beckett. “A dangerous time when Prohibition was law and bootleggers the lawless.” The episode “Last Call” thus offers an exploration of that earlier age to go along with its “mystery of the week” murder investigation. In many ways the bygone era serves as the bridge between old and contemporary New York, as well as an exemplary means for Castle to delve into the omnipresent setting of the series.

The character of Richard Castle often evokes fascination with the various sub-cultures of New York City that the investigations on the ABC drama inevitably lead, and his subsequent nostalgia for the era of Prohibition stems from a tavern he once frequented known as the Old Haunt. “It’s loaded with history,” he explains. “First as a blacksmith, then as a bordello. It only became a bar during Prohibition as a speakeasy, and it was one of the best. I swear you can still feel the vibration of every notorious episode of glamour and debauchery in its walls.”

The Eighteenth Amendment, which established Prohibition as the law of the land from 1920 through 1933, had a direct effect on the culture and development of New York City more than anywhere else in the country. “As the nation’s cultural capital, financial center, media headquarters, and largest city, it was the foremost battleground in the war against demon rum,” Michael Lerner writes in Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City (Harvard University Press, 2007). “New York was notorious in the 1920s for its defiance of the dry laws and its more than thirty thousand speakeasies and nightclubs. Taken as a whole, the resistance to Prohibition in New York City, which extended from the bottom of the city’s social ladder to the more ‘respectable’ types at the upper levels of society, confirmed New York’s place as the center of opposition to the dry laws, and the most serious challenge to the viability of the dry movement’s agenda.”

According to Lerner, the term speakeasy is a deviation on “speak-softly shops”—English taverns that served illegally obtained alcohol at a cheap price—but incorporated a wide-variety of establishments in New York City during the era of Prohibition. “New York’s speakeasies were as remarkable in their mood, tone, and decor as they were in their location,” he explains. “Unlike old-fashioned saloons, which had always been comforting in their familiarity, speakeasies were full of surprises. The Park Avenue Club, one of the city’s grandest nightclubs, boasted an interior by the famed Viennese designer Joseph Urban and featured an octagonal bar and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The Country Club featured a miniature golf course. The Marlborough House, described by some as the ‘crème de la crème’ of New York’s speakeasies, sported a pearl entry buzzer, silver leather banquettes, and a hammered brass ceiling in its upstairs cabaret room.”

During the “Last Call” episode of Castle, the overseer of an auction house asks if Richard Castle and Kate Beckett have ever heard of Jimmy Walker, and adds that he is not referring to the actor who portrayed J.J. on Good Times. Castle immediately answers in the affirmative. “Everybody knows Jimmy Walker,” he casually replies. “The former mayor of New York. Took office in 1926, went by the nickname Beau James. Famous for being a corrupt politician, renowned womanizer and openly defiant of Prohibition.”

In Dry Manhattan, Michael Lerner offers a more detailed biography of the legendary mayor. “An energetic, boyish-looking, and impeccably dressed dandy, Walker embodied the cosmopolitan ideal of 1920s New York,” he writes. “In contrast to his staid predecessor, he designed his own flashy suits, was said to change his clothes three times a day, and loved to frequent New York’s nightclubs and speakeasies with his mistress while his wife stayed at home on St. Luke’s Place.”

Jimmy Walker was more of a symbol during his reign as mayor than actual administrator, however, as he tended to embark on long vacations and confined his daily reading to the sports pages of local newspapers. Corruption and scandal likewise defined his term in office but his numerous transgressions failed to affect his popularity within the city. “His cosmopolitan style, his taste for nightclubs and champagne, his personal flair, and his dapper appearance were as seductive to New Yorkers in the 1920s as was the city nightlife itself,” Lerner explains.

In the world of Castle, Jimmy Walker utilized underground tunnels to make his way through that city nightlife—as well as hide a secret bounty of 1875 Miriam Scotch Whiskey that serves as the centerpiece of “Last Call”—and it is just one example of how New Yorkers of the time period were, in the words of Richard Castle, “often going to extreme measure to protect their liquid treasure.”

According to Dry Manhattan, bootleggers and speakeasies continually developed new methods to keep their activities hidden from the authorities. “In addition to the membership cards, passwords, peepholes, and hidden entrances that disguised speakeasies from the street, proprietors began to buy neighboring buildings in which to conceal their liquor supplies,” Michael Lerner offers. “Speakeasies also engineered elaborate systems of chutes and slides that could empty a bar of evidence at the push of a button by dropping bottles to a hard basement floor below, breaking them to let the liquor drain harmlessly into the sewer.”

The nostalgia conjured by the ghosts of Prohibition on Castle inevitably has a notable effect on the mystery writer turned NYPD consultant. “The Old Haunt just reminded me of how vital tavern culture is in this town,” Richard Castle tells Kate Beckett. “I thought, why not open up a little tavern of my own.”

While Castle does indeed purchase the Old Haunt by the end of “Last Call,” his remark regarding the importance of bars within the city is also once again on the mark. As the dominant destination for European immigrants throughout the majority of the nation’s history, New York City evolved into the most ethnically diverse community in the United States. According to Michael Lerner, neighborhood bars, saloons and taverns functioned as a social setting that went beyond the mere offering of alcohol.

“Rather, they served as bridges between the old world and the new, places where newly arrived immigrants could learn from their predecessors and begin the often painful process of adapting to a new homeland,” he explains in Dry Manhattan. “The saloon allowed them to assimilate into American culture and the hectic pace of New York life on their own terms, by introducing them to American language and culture in bits and pieces, without forcing them to give up their heritage altogether.”

During “Last Call,” Richard Castle refers to the Old Haunt as “a proud institution standing up to ruthless gentrification.” In reality, however, it was New York City as a whole that played that role during the era of Prohibition.

“As the cultural rebellion against Prohibition expanded to encompass an ever-widening cross-section of the city’s populace, it not only drew away the middle-class New Yorkers whom the dry movement had counted on as stalwart supporters, but also gave the rebellion against the dry laws an air of ‘smartness’ and sophistication rather than criminality,” Michael Lerner maintains in Dry Manhattan. “For middle-class New Yorkers especially, refusing to comply with the federal Prohibition laws became a form of self-liberation and a way to reinvent oneself within the context of the urban culture of the 1920s. By opposing the dry ideal, the inhabitants of the city were now giving notice that they refused to live under any vision of America other than their own.”

Prohibition may have ended in 1933 but the culture it cultivated in New York City still lives on—a unique amalgamation of working class and high society that is capable of bringing together polar opposites like Richard Castle and Kate Beckett, as well as serve as the perfect backdrop to the ABC drama Castle.

Anthony Letizia

Follow Geek Pittsburgh: Facebook - Twitter - RSS Feed