Bitter Spirits, Indeed: A Speakeasy Tour with Jenn Bennett

We’ll be honest. Living in New York, we’ve boozed in a few establishments you needed a password and a willingness to walk through a basement or a dark alley to get to. But what’s fun and games now was deadly serious during Prohibition. To school us on how San Francisco revelers got their moonshine access in the 20s, today we’ve got Jenn Bennett, author of the RT Top Pick!, Prohibition-set Bitter Spirits, to give us the scoop. Take it away, Jenn!

The Prohibition-era speakeasy has enjoyed a resurgence over the last few years, with bars remodeled after the iconic underground 1920s watering holes popping up in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Most of these nighttime hot spots require a not-so-secret password to get in (uncovered by a quick online search). Some, like the reservation-only Bourbon and Branch bar in San Francisco, maintain hidden entrances — its only identification being an “Anti-Saloon League” sign hanging from the side of the building.

Bitter Spirits, the first book in my new Roaring Twenties series takes place in 1927 San Francisco. And because my hero is a bootlegger and my heroine works in a speakeasy, I did some poking into the original speakeasy scene in the Bay Area.

A flapper's garter flask

Back in the day, one of the most notorious underground joints in San Francisco was a place called Coffee Dan’s, where patrons would access the basement bar by riding down a 15-foot slide. Now that’s a heck of a way to make an entrance! The slide was even featured in a scene of the first “talkie” picture, The Jazz Singer. And if you liked the musical entertainment at Coffee Dan’s, you hammered the table with one of the small wooden mallets provided for applause. Much easier than clapping.

The Café du Nord — a nightclub and music venue inside the Swedish American Hall on Market Street — was originally a speakeasy with a hidden escape exit, should they be raided by the Prohis.

If you found yourself staying in Nob Hill’s upscale Palace Hotel in 1927, you could order alcohol to your room by calling up the front desk and asking for “a birthday present.” (Which is exactly what my hero tells my heroine when he is trying to sex her up in one of the Palace’s rooms.) But if you wanted to get out and drink with other people, you might consider taking the underground tunnel that stretched below the busy street and connected the hotel to a secret bar called House of Shields. Rumor was, when President Harding was found dead in his hotel room at the Palace Hotel in 1923, he was actually getting wasted with some prostitutes across the street at the House of Shields. His staff dragged his corpse back through the speakeasy tunnel and dumped him in his hotel bed (sans prostitutes) to spare his family the shame.

House of Shields in San Francisco

By the way, the speakeasy in Bitter Spirits where my hero and heroine meet is called the Gris-Gris Club. It’s modeled after “black and tan” cabarets from that era, in which interracial dancing and socializing were accepted. But in my world, Gris-Gris offers its patrons a little something extra with their sidecars and champagne by featuring unique on-stage entertainment … like spirit medium Aida Palmer. Get drunk and find out where your Aunt Darlene buried her diamond ring? Now that’s entertainment.

Bitter Spirits is available in stores and online now! And for more paranormal stories to waste away the time til happy hour, visit our Everything Paranormal page!