12 Famous People Who Made History While Being Totally Hammered
There have been a lot of famous drunks throughout history, but who were the biggest drunks in history? The legendary, world-famous alcoholics that took things to another level? It’s not just about the quantity of booze they imbibed, either - the most famous drunks from history were famous because of what drinking (allegedly) allowed them to do, or what they did despite being slightly buzzed - or totally hammered - most of their waking hours.
Famous drunks have won wars, ruled nations, written masterpieces, and yeah, they’ve also totally embarrassed themselves and everyone that loves them. These people aren’t necessarily worth emulating, true, but there are some lessons to be learned here. Read on to learn about some of the most famous drunks from throughout history.
- Photo: Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / No known copyright restrictions
Union General and later President Ulysses S. Grant might just be history’s most highly-functioning high-functioning alcoholic. It wasn’t always so: during the Mexican War in 1854, Grant resigned from the Army before he could be tried for being “too much under the influence of liquor to properly perform his duties.”
But Professor Lyle Dorsett of Wheaton College argues that his continued alcoholism - his “escape hatch from his troubles” - when he re-enlisted in 1861 actually made him “the great military leader President Lincoln so desperately needed” to win the Civil War. Grant’s alcoholism, Dorsett argues, allowed him to “brush aside caution” because “he had absolutely nothing to lose.”
That said, Grant wasn’t wildly irresponsible - one historian says his benders were “a release, but a controlled one, like the ignition of a gas flare above a high-pressure oil well.”
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Author and world-class drinker Ernest Hemingway was least productive when he was drinking the most. In the summer of 1953, eight years before his suicide and one year after Old Man and the Sea, his final novel published in his lifetime - Hemingway was drinking “two or three bottles of liquor a day, as well as wine with meals” while living in East Africa. A ranger with the Kenya Game Department, Denis Zaphiro, says that drinking made Hemingway “merrier, more lovable, more bull-sh*tty. Without drink he was morose, silent and depressed.”
Unsurprisingly, liver problems haunted Hemingway; fellow author George Plimpton said throughout the '50s, you could “see the bulge of [Hemingway’s kidney] stand out from his body like a long fat leech.”
As early as 1935, the man whose legendary drinking helped make the mojito famous in America - despite there being no proof he ever drank them - wrote to his friend Ivan Kashkin about alcohol’s allure:
I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure. When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?
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Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin is definitely the most publicly drunk world leader of the modern era, with stories of his benders making headlines worldwide. In 1994, he “snapped” and snatched a baton out of the hand of a conductor of a military orchestra in Berlin and began “conducting” them himself. He later wrote that “the weight would lift after a few shot glasses” and “in that sense of lightness, I felt as if I could conduct an orchestra.” (We’ve all been there, right?)
In 1995, Bill Clinton says Yeltsin, staying in DC at the Blair House, was discovered drunk, in his underwear, hailing a cab on Pennsylvania Ave. Clinton said he told Secret Service agents we just wanted a pizza. (We’ve all been there, right?)
The stories go on and on, including a Champagne-inspired rant at an event in Stockholm in 1997 about how Swedish meatballs reminded him of tennis star Bjorn Borg’s face. (You’re on your own on that one, Boris.)
- Photo: Vincent van Gogh / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Famous penniless and earless painter Vincent van Gogh was not only a heavy drinker, he was a heavy drinker of absinthe, “the Cocaine of the Nineteenth Century.” We know this because Vincent wrote copious letters to his brother Theo about his alcoholism and his absinthism, a condition brought on by imbibing too much of absinthe’s toxic thujone that can cause severe stomach problems and a “marked deterioration of the nervous system.”
To make matters worse, van Gogh’s friend Anton Kerssemakers says that the artist ate very little, but always drank while he was painting. Another friend and artist, Paul Signac, said that what “[van Gogh] drank was always too much... after spending all day in the sun [painting]... the absinthes and the brandies would follow each other in quick succession.”
Signac even once had to stop van Gogh from drinking turpentine, a bizarre compulsion that might have been a side effect of his absinthism.
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You’ve probably seen the clip of actor, writer, and director Orson Welles drunkenly slurring his way through the filming of a wine commercial late in the late '70s, and unfortunately that wasn’t a fluke. Toward the end of his life, for Welles, “a typical meal often involved two rare steaks and a pint of Scotch.”
Even as a young man, pre-Citizen Kane, his appetite for food and booze was legendary: “He'd eat supper at his dressing table - two steaks, each with a baked potato; an entire pineapple; triple pistachio ice cream; and a bottle of Scotch.”
How did he maintain his figure in the early years? "Crash diets, drugs, and corsets had slimmed him for his early film roles," according to biographer Barton Whaley. "Then always back to gargantuan consumption of high-caloric food and booze.”
- Photo: United Press / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Communist-hunter Joseph McCarthy went from national hero to national disgrace in near-record time, a downfall that likely contributed to the increasing severity of the alcoholism that ultimately killed him. During the infamous McCarthy hearings, he was drinking a quart of liquor a day.
His biographer, however, warns against characterizing McCarthy as living out his final days in an alcoholic stupor. He would frequently go “on the wagon (for him, this meant beer in place of whiskey) for days and weeks at a time.” This was for the best: “He went to pieces on the second or third drink. And he did not snap back quickly.”