'The Martini,' by Barnaby Conrad III. 132 pages. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. $24.95
Some people say the tree at the center of the Garden of Eden was a lemon tree. It was probably an olive tree, but the lemon is still ancient enough to perform the same alchemy as an olive when added to modern day's dry gin and dry vermouth. And the combination is a cocktail which, after you have made and sipped a perfect one, can make you think you are on the verge of transmuting base metals into gold and discovering a universal cure for all disease.
Barnaby Conrad understands that about the martini, and has produced, with the appropriate publication date of Father's Day, the handsomest tribute ever to the martini. His book can furnish a room just by lying unopened on a coffee table. It is also one of the most useful of the martini books. That's saying a lot, for there have been many martini or martini-related books. The martini has produced more literature and lore than champagne, brandy or Coca-Cola.
Why? Because it produces those perfecting visions, without actually fooling you into believing you really are an alchemist. Or, as historian Bernard De Voto put it about his early evening cocktail ritual: 'This is the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow again and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen magically along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, we see the unicorn. But it would not be a martini if we should see him.'
Mr. Conrad quotes that and all the best of the other martini trivia and bartenders' arcana that have appeared mainly in novels, biographies, social histories and such magazines as Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Gourmet, Harper's and the New Yorker. Much of it is familiar - the silly shaken vs. stirred argument, for example - but plenty of it is not. I'll bet even former Johns Hopkins prof Lowell Edmunds, the author of the scholarly and authoritative history of the martini, 'The Silver Bullet,' will find something new in here.
For in addition to the usual sources, Mr. Conrad has also mined the moving picture archives, newspaper photo morgues, advertising histories and art galleries for martini history, facts and figures. He includes many striking illustrations, including, naturally, a multitude of New Yorker martini cartoons.
Can anyone imagine a multitude of New Yorker cartoons about, say, the whiskey sour or vodka and tonic? Substitute any drink in this H. Martin cartoon and see how wrong it would be: Customer to bartender: 'It was a bleak period in my life, Louis. martinis didn't help. Religion didn't help. Psychiatry didn't help. Transcendental meditation didn't help. Yoga didn't help. But martinis helped a little."
I said Father's Day is an appropriate pub date for this book because the martini is a man's drink. Some women drink them, but not well. Myrna Loy as Nora Charles guzzled six in the movie 'The Thin Man.' She's pictured in this book, out like a light, ice bag on head. Dorothy Parker is pictured, too, above her famous ode: 'I like to have a martini/Two at the very most -/After three I'm under the table,/After four I'm under my host."
Two Baltimoreans contribute equally enduring lines. Ogden Nash: 'There is something about a martini,/A tingle remarkably pleasant;/A yellow, a mellow martini;/I wish I had one at present. . .' And H.L. Mencken helps introduce the book with the declaration on the inside cover of the dust jacket that the martini is 'the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet."
By the way, when Mencken was 'translated into an angel' (his phrase for death), it was with the remarkable tingle of gin and vermouth on his palate. On the evening of Jan. 28, 1956, he had two martinis, according to his most recent biographer, then went to bed and died.
Theo Lippman Jr. is an editorial writer and columnist for The Sun. His books,'The Squire of Warm Spring,' is on the relaxations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the most theatrical martini shaker ever to grace the White House.