"The women in my family have
a Christmastime tradition," my friend Jessie told me. "We
sit around a tea table at my moms house, and spend an afternoon
eating finger sandwiches and drinking Mrs. Harrimans."
Theres nothing curious about
four women socializing in a Washington, D.C. townhouse, but my interest
was piqued when I asked Jessie for the story behind the drink and
got this answer: "I dont have a clue." "Ask
your mom and aunt," I said, but she told me, "They dont
know either. Nobody knows." Nobody?! And suddenly Im
very interested. That the origins of this traditional drink are
unknowable -- its a little hard to swallow.
I strike out with "Mr. Bostons"
and "The Bartenders Bible," but hit pay dirt by simply
flipping through the indices of a few Americana volumes on my bookshelf.
Though not explained in detail, the drink does merit a mention in
several books documenting Washington social and political life at
its highest levels. "The Jackie I Knew" by Missy Graves,
former personal assistant to the First Lady, contains this startling
account from Christmas Eve, 1962:
"The evening was turning into
a repeat of the previous year, when Mrs. Kennedy pulled down the
tree and hurt herself by running into the Hepplewhite sideboard,
and I suggested to her that we retire to the family quarters. I
tried to lead her down the hallway, but she resisted, spilling her
drink as she went.
At the portrait of Woodrow Wilson, she
placed a sticky palm against the canvas and spat. Please,
Mrs. Kennedy, I pleaded.
She pressed her shoulder against
the wall and slid down the hallway, scraping the wallpaper with
In her bedroom finally, seated at her vanity,
Mrs. Kennedy dialed slowly, with one eye closed, pushing her finger
in each number hole, and dragging it around the dial. I said, Mrs.
Kennedy, would you like me to talk to Miss Monroe for you? Why dont
I? But she raised her palm to me, and held it there, and then
her eyes widened for a moment and she yelled Homewrecker!
and slammed the receiver down. Her eyes drooped. I patted her shoulder
and said, Time for bed, Mrs. Kennedy, but she shook
her head and lifted her empty glass. No, Mizzy, she
said. Time for Mississ Harrimans.
The same drink appears to have had
a palliative effect on another member of the Washington ruling class.
Consider this passage from "The Journals of Harry S. Truman,"
dated December 24, 1947:
"Alone on Christmas Eve again
in the Oval Office, radiators hissing and Im breaking
Bess in Independence with her sisters, and Margaret
as well. I begged Bess to spend the holiday with me, but she wouldnt
hear of it. She hates it here. My stupid job, as she
says, its been hard on her.
At Union Station, when
she shook my hand, my heart swelled, and I told her, My darling,
I wish you the merriest of Christmases. And I love you so.
And her reply, Okay Harry, have a nice Christmas, it
meant so much coming from her, my one and only.
I took the
photo of Bess down from the mantle and looked into her eyes. I kissed
the glass, and it tasted faintly of ammonia.
Just now I asked
the switchboard to ring through to Independence, then thought better
of it, and hung up before the call went through
arrived with a drink on ice, a libation he called, a traditional
holiday drink, Mrs. Harrimans. Never whiskey neat, they cant
but I took a long drink, then another. It was
frosty and cold, then harsh and burning in my throat. I thought
of Bess. I told him, Another one of these.
Other citations are less clear, but
worth noting. Though the meaning is somewhat questionable, this
line from "Life with T.R.: A Sons Recollection"
by Kermit Roosevelt almost certainly refers to the traditional holiday
beverage: "So, with our boots muddied and our coats damp from
the rigorous hike, we waited in the foyer, myself, Archie, Adeline,
Lee Lee, cousin Clara and cousin Grover, while Poppa had Mrs. Harriman
in the parlor."
And likewise this tidbit from the
New York Tribune (cited in C.L. Whitneys "The Federalists")
dated December 17, 1835: "If Dolly Madison attends the
dinner, I dont give a fig, President Jackson says. But
if Mrs. Madison is next to me, Id better have Mrs. Harriman
in front of me."
And at the end of the trail, I presume,
is this account, dated December 23, 1798 and excerpted from "The
Diaries of Grace Maypoole":
"My goode frend Mary Harriman
had cum to vist, and so it was a happy Christmastyme. Twas cheerfil
in the cook house that night. We sat close by a tabell and she made
a speshal potation that warmed us. We were merry.
general Washington beseeched us lowdly from the big house, Wench,
bring more mead, and saith Mary, Ill fics his wagon. She brakes
icicles off the roof and fills a flagon, then makes her speshal
drink. I bring it to the house.
We resume our merry tyme.
Soon the general is in the doorway. Prepare my horse, saith he,
and Mary saith, shall we prepare your trousers too as hes
not waring any, and thars snoe. I thought better to hold my peace.
The general rides into the vallee to the house of Mrs. Sally
Fairfax, his true love concealed, and she marryed. The naybors saw
him bang on the door and then he hastily mountd his horse and rode
By now you may be wondering just
what is this concoction, and having read this far, you deserve to
know. Ill give the authentic recipe here exactly as Jessie
told it to me: "Take a twelve-ounce glass and fill it with
ice cubes. Then fill it to the rim with scotch. Thats a Mrs.
Harriman. Okay? End of story."