After putting a pile of fried oysters into my body at Mother’s, I was back at the Monteleone, aiming for the Carousel bar. It was about that time. I spotted Jeff Berry sitting at a squat table next to the bookstore, signing copies of his Beach Bum Berry Remixed. There was a potato of a man in a button-down shirt sitting next to him.
I said hello to Berry and thanked him for the Schumann lead.
“Oh, no problem,” he said. “I’m sorry I don’t know more about the Periodista. I don’t know anything about it, really, other than it’s a really good drink.”
I told him he wasn’t the only one. We chatted for a moment about California, then Berry gestured at the man beside him.
“This is Brian Rea,” he said. “You were talking about mid-century Los Angeles—Brian was there, man! You know the Host Lounges?”
“In the airport!” Rea blurted.
“The Host International Lounges,” said Berry. “Brian put tiki bars into those! It was like an executive version.”
I shook Rea’s hand and told him I’d heard of him.
“Who spoke of me? Who mentioned my name? My ex-wife?”
Rea is like a cartoon of an old man from a bygone era. Bald head, elastic expression, wrinkles with wrinkles. He’s been in the business since the ‘40s. He isn’t part of the craft avant-garde, but he has all the stories.
I asked him about the Periodista.
“What was it called?”
I told him.
“What was in it?”
I told him that, too.
“Where the hell have I seen that?” He scratched his pate. “In Muckensturm? Was it in Muckensturm’s book?”
I told him I wasn’t sure. I don’t have all the books.
“See, I have all the books,” Rea said. “That’s what I’m known for, my collection. It may have been in Louis’ Mixed Drinks. Or it may be in Jack’s manual. I know I’ve seen that combination, because it’s a great combination. Drop me an email, give me what you have on it, and let me figure it out. Everyone else does it. David Wondrich, you know—Dale DeGroff lives in my library, Lowell Edmunds did Martini, you know? I don’t remember it all—I’m lucky I remember my name—but I still have a lot of goodies in there, you know? A lot of history.”
At the risk of gathering evidence to support a theory, I mentioned the possibility of a Hemingway connection.
“Hemingway will drink anything,” Rea said. “You know, Hemingway was a lot of work being a bartender for. We were all probably calling him boss at the time, which made him feel good, but ‘boss’ spelled backwards is ‘double s.o.b.’”
He said it like he’d been there, but the Abbott and Costello line made me doubt it.
“It was probably named for one of the broads he was hangin’ out with, all right? It happens!”
That struck a chord. I thought about something I’d read in Wayne Curtis’s book. Hemingway’s third wife had been Martha Gellhorn. A journalist—one of the 20th century’s most celebrated war correspondents. They frequented El Floridita together in the early ‘40s.
I saw the two of them there at the bar. Hemingway slurps his usual Papa Doble. Gellhorn complains that they always order the same thing. Constante the bartender indulges her with a new creation, a spin on the daiquiri, with triple sec and apricot brandy. For the occasion, he names it for her. La Periodista.
A nice story. Too nice to be true. Rea was still talking.
“What we used to do,” he said, “our worst customer in the world, yeah? Real asshole customer—we’d tell ‘em, ‘Look, we’re gonna create a special drink for you, and we’re gonna buy it for you.’ We’d take a double old-fashioned glass, fill it with ice cubes, put a garnish in it, and then take the bar mat, and dump everything in. Hey! Coulda been a great recipe! Everything is in there, you know! That’s what we used to do for those special customers.”
He pointed at Jeff Berry.
“Who is this, by the way?”
Berry laughed. “Some old rummy,” he said.
“I love it,” said Rea. “He puts on a hat and he collects money. My kinda guy!”
“Don’t organ grinder monkeys do that too?”
I left before they could ask me who was on first.