History’s 10 Most Accomplished Drunks

Frank Sinatra performing live in 1975 with drink in hand.

Source David Redfern/Getty

Why you should care

Because for some, being three sheets to the wind is just as good as having the wind at your back.

While many of us have put back a few on occasion, it takes a special man or woman to hold a drink while holding down a hugely demanding job. OZY takes a look back at history’s 10 most functional boozehounds.

10. The Queen Mother

The late mother of Queen Elizabeth II is rumored to have consumed a bottle of gin a day, but that did not stop her from performing public duties until the ripe old age of 101. Once, while growing impatient for a gin and tonic, she is reported to have asked the members of her largely gay personal staff, “When one of you old queens has finished, can you bring this old queen a drink?”

9. William Faulkner

The great American writer was fond of saying that “civilization begins with distillation,” a motto he adhered to closely. He was also fond of hot toddies and whiskey. “I usually write at night,” he once said. “I always keep my whiskey within reach.”

8. Bette Davis

One of Hollywood’s greatest leading ladies, Davis enjoyed a career that spanned seven decades. The actress was known for her wit, strong personality and affection for a good drink. And as she got older, the cocktail hour got younger, eventually settling into a comfortable spot right after lunch.

7. W.C. Fields

The legendary comedian and film star of the 1930s was also a legendary drunk. Fields kept a martini-filled flask on hand whenever he was on a film set; he referred to it as his “lemonade.” One story goes that someone once poured actual lemonade into the actor’s flask, prompting Fields to holler, “Who put lemonade in my lemonade?”


6. Alexander the Great

Alexander of Macedon managed to conquer most of the known world — either in spite or because of a prodigious appetite for the hard stuff — by his death at age 32 in 323 B.C. Alexander is rumored to have killed one of his own men in a drunken rage, and historians still debate whether he presided over a drunken orgy that ultimately led to the arson of the magnificent Persian palace in Persepolis in 330 B.C.

5. Dorothy Parker

The wisecracking and prolific American writer and poet once remarked that “one more drink and I’d have been under the host.” Parker could famously outdrink her male compatriots in New York’s Algonquin Round Table during the 1920s.

4. Frank Sinatra

Ol’ Blue Eyes enjoyed one of the most productive singing and performing careers of the 20th century, and did so with a tumbler of whiskey in hand at almost all times. “The Bourbon Baritone” was even buried by his children with a bottle of Jack Daniels in his coat pocket.

3. Ernest Hemingway

Like his fellow writer Faulkner, Papa stuck to a motto. His version: “A man does not exist until he is drunk.” After he was ordered by doctors to curb his drinking in 1939, Hemingway tried to limit himself to three Scotches before dinner. He couldn’t pull it off. Nor could he cut out his breakfast tea and gin, or his midday snack of absinthe, vodka and wine.

2. Winston Churchill

The legendary British prime minister was known for imbibing large quantities of alcohol and he openly admitted to relying on it, once observing that “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” He typically had a glass of whiskey at his desk, and he often drank brandy or Champagne at lunch and dinner.

1. Boris Yeltsin

While it might be unusual to find a Russian leader who wasn’t a heavy drinker, Yeltsin put his predecessors to shame. He often appeared drunk in public, including at high-profile diplomatic events. The late president’s epic drinking is memorialized in a Simpsons episode, in which the highest reading of a Breathalyzer registers as “Yeltsin.”

Honorable Mentions

Mickey Mantle

Christopher Hitchens

Ulysses S. Grant

F. Scott Fitzgerald

These were different times — different eras, even — and, today, high-functioning alcoholics have ways to seek help and can even look to well-known public figures who’ve come forward to share their own battles with alcohol and their roads to recovery. To these 10 who somehow made it by the skin of their teeth, we raise a glass to say salud, and we ask you all to please drink responsibly.

This OZY encore was originally published in November 2013.


OZYTrue Stories

The intimate, the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising — the human.