How to Drink Like a Mad Man

Perhaps it is surprising that the revelation we are about to make should occur to us so late in our career. And perhaps downright shocking that it occurs to us here. But it does and the revelation is this: companies have always employed people whose only aim at the company was to stay employed. They had neither intention nor expectation of doing any actual work, of leaving any meaningful mark, of making the company profitable, of making their clients successful. Quite the contrary. To get paid, to do what it takes to keep getting paid while doing the least amount of work possible, was the game, was their “work”, and like a gambler in a casino, the longer they were simply playing, the longer they felt they were winning.

That we should realize this so late is almost as surprising as that we realize it reading Ralph Maloney’s remarkable little book. Originally published in 1962 as The 24 Hour Drink Book: A Guide to Executive Survival it is here updated fifty years later with a spiffy new title that leveraged the wildly successful AMC television program, and with some new photography to buttress the original illustrations.

The book is, ostensibly, a guide to help executives who cannot make it through the day without a drink, to, well, make it through their days. The root causes of their great thirst are not addressed and do not interest Maloney. Nor is there any room for concern about being an alcoholic. For as Maloney says in the book’s earliest pages “Realize you are a Working Lush… It is a simple statement of fact. Once this difficult bit of self-knowledge has been digested, you are on your way to success in modern business life.” And then he shows you how to succeed in business without really drying out, while referring to you (or rather, your avatar in the book) as “W.L” which is short for, well, you know…

But the book fits into the Mad Men universe not merely because of how boldly it embraces the lubricated lifestyle of that television show. It fits because of the way Maloney has written it. For somehow, despite it appearing decades before Matt Weiner invented the show, the pages of How to Drink Like a Mad Man drip with the sarcasm and elan of Roger Sterling. Like this:

To discuss politics, it is not necessary to know anything. It is only necessary to have prejudices.

Or this:

One of the truly absurd myths of our time is that food cooked out-of-doors is fit to eat. It is, as anyone who has ever experienced it knows, not fit for anything.

And certainly, this:

Never, never, never, drink martinis in the dark. They are all the trouble you need in broad daylight.

For these alone, the book would be worth reading. But there is more. It is, as its earlier title explained, a guide for executive survival. Maloney tells you what to eat and when (generally protein, never starches), what to wear and why (“W.L. shuns tweeds because when he gets lumpy in a saloon, tweeds make him look lumpier. His trousers are crisply pressed always, so that he will seem quite upright when, indeed, his knees are buckling…”) and where to go and where to not – this last anchoring the book, like the show for which it was reprinted, firmly in midcentury Manhattan (“Our man has never seen the Bowery – and never will. He knows only by hearsay that the Third Avenue El is down, or that the West Side is there at all.”)

The book shares one more quality with Mad Men; it is terrifically lonely. The world Maloney describes is utterly devoid of connection, relationship, amity. His children are shadows, his coworkers merely obstacles to navigate around, his spouse, something to endure and be endured by. Maloney jokes early in the book “Success has its price. The Working Lush, like other artists, is a lonely man” though the price of that success raises its ugly head in the extraordinary final chapter “L’envoi,  leading one to believe that Maloney’s tongue was not planted as firmly in his cheek as he would like us to believe (indeed, he died at the reasonably early age of 46 of, wait for it, “a liver ailment”).

But then, how could the life not be lonely? For as any junkie will tell you, when you’re using, your whole life is about the junk: getting, using, getting money for more, finding more. The difference here is driven by the difference in the drug. Maloney’s executive doesn’t have to worry about finding or paying for his drug – he’s wealthy and surrounded by businesses happy to hand it to him as quickly as he can consume it. Instead, “W.L” is concerned with maintaining order in the midst of his using – something that other addicts generally don’t worry about.

Maintaining that order is W.L.’s job. It takes all his time, all his focus, all his will and wile and guile. Which is why he has no time for whatever his employer is paying him for. Indeed, it even defines the very employers he can “work” for at all (“Only Very Large Firms can afford him and are big enough for him to hide in”).

And no, we are not turning a cold eye to the struggles of the addicted (with that in mind, if you need advice or know someone who does, you can find some terrific resources here). Instead, we are focusing on something else underlying Maloney’s book. That faith unwavering in the legitimacy of the casino game we described above. Which exists in the non-addicted even more than in the addicted. That some people think just being employed is enough. That even in what many would call the golden age of American business, this idea flourished. Because it could. Because it was expected. Because it was allowed.

Think about that the next time someone complains to you about the current work ethic.


How To Drink Like a Mad Man by Ralph Maloney was published by Dover Publications on 09/24/2012 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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Sterling’s Gold by Roger Sterling
The Book of Drugs by Mike Doughty