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Drinking the Mrs.: A Capital Tradition
Here's to you, Mrs. Harriman's.
By Ken DuBois

 

"The women in my family have a Christmastime tradition," my friend Jessie told me. "We sit around a tea table at my mom’s house, and spend an afternoon eating finger sandwiches and drinking Mrs. Harrimans."

There’s 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 don’t have a clue." "Ask your mom and aunt," I said, but she told me, "They don’t know either. Nobody knows." Nobody?! And suddenly I’m very interested. That the origins of this traditional drink are unknowable -- it’s a little hard to swallow.

I strike out with "Mr. Boston’s" 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 her bracelets. … 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 don’t 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 I’m breaking a sweat … Bess in Independence with her sisters, and Margaret as well. I begged Bess to spend the holiday with me, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She hates it here. My ‘stupid job,’ as she says, it’s 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 … the houseman arrived with a drink on ice, a libation he called, ‘a traditional holiday drink, Mrs. Harrimans.’ Never whiskey neat, they can’t remember that … 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 Son’s 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. Whitney’s "The Federalists") dated December 17, 1835: "‘If Dolly Madison attends the dinner, I don’t give a fig,’ President Jackson says. ‘But if Mrs. Madison is next to me, I’d 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. … Yet again general Washington beseeched us lowdly from the big house, Wench, bring more mead, and saith Mary, I’ll 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 he’s 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 off…"

By now you may be wondering just what is this concoction, and having read this far, you deserve to know. I’ll 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. That’s a Mrs. Harriman. Okay? End of story."

 
 
Ken DuBois is a media flack employed, for the moment, in Portland, Oregon. He is not working on a novel.