Finding Old Hollywood in a Bottle of Banana Cordial

Celia Sack, the owner of San Francisco’s Omnivore Books digs into her collection of 1930s mini bottles to find out what Errol Flynn, Cuba and the producer of Casablanca have in common.

A foil-wrapped bottle of Sloppy Joe’s Banana Cordial, embellished with the portrait of an uncomfortable-looking Cuban, has been sitting on my shelf for nearly 30 years. It’s part of a collection of 40 miniature bottles I inherited from Hal B. Wallis, a big-time Hollywood producer whose credits include Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, True Grit and all the Elvis movies. His son, Brent, was a close friend of my father’s, and we were on vacation in L.A. when Hal died, in 1986. I was 16.

We visited his house during that trip and Brent asked if we wanted any trinkets. Realizing that the Best Picture Oscar for Casablanca probably wasn’t up for grabs, I piped up and claimed the miniature liquor bottle collection. Aside from containing their original liquor, many of the bottles still retain their tax stamps, crudely taped over each cork, with dates that range from the beginning of 1938 through 1939. Miraculously, I made it through my teenage years without opening any of them.

The banana cordial originated from Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Havana, which was arguably the city’s most famous bar until Castro’s government dimmed the lights in 1965. Founded in 1918 by José (Joe) Otero, the bar served sandwiches as well as cocktails, and its 60-foot mahogany bar was purportedly the longest in all of Latin America. Joe’s affable-but-messy tomato, olive and ground meat sandwich is said to be the original Sloppy Joe, though a handful of others claim to be its inventor.

However, the patrons were stylish, good-looking and, for the most part, very famous. Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable and Ernest Hemingway were all regulars. So was Errol Flynn, who was enough of a regular, and brawler, that he earned a cocktail on the list in his name.

During Prohibition, it became exceedingly popular with Americans, to the exclusion of actual Cubans. The English writer, literary critic and tireless traveler Graham Greene wrote in his novel Our Man in Havana that, “No Havana resident ever went to Sloppy Joe’s because it was the rendezvous of tourists.” However, the patrons were stylish, good-looking and, for the most part, very famous. Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable and Ernest Hemingway were all regulars. So was Errol Flynn, who was enough of a regular, and brawler, that he earned a cocktail on the list in his name. I often wonder whether my grandmother, who lived in Havana during the 1920s, may have rubbed shoulders with Flynn.

Curious about how this bottled banana cordial might’ve made its way to Hollywood, I asked collectors John Sullivan and Mike Olson to shed some light on the early-20th-century “mini” trade. What began as an industry based around miniature “whiskers” (small ceramic containers) in the 1880s turned to miniature glass bottles around 1900. These were purchased by distilleries to fill with their liquor and give away as promotional items. While Canada and Europe continued making them through the 1920s, Prohibition halted production in the United States. After repeal many states never allowed the sale of minis again.

Most of Wallis’s came from Maryland (one of the largest suppliers of minis on the East Coast post-Prohibition) and California. Because his were fancier than the generic brands used on trains or planes, he probably purchased them from liquor stores, or received them as presents.

To address how a mini bottle from Havana, Cuba, might have landed on Hal’s shelf is another matter. Between 1938 and 1940, Flynn and Wallis made six movies together, the same span of time that Wallis seemed to be avidly collecting minis. Hal once said of Flynn, “He wasn’t an admirable character, but he was a magnificent male animal and his sex appeal was obvious. It seemed not to matter whether he could act. He leaped from the screen into the projection room with the impact of a bullet.”

I can’t help but daydream about the moment in Hollywood history that Flynn and Wallis represent every time I glance at my mini metallic bottle of 75-year-old banana liqueur. I think of Hal Wallis on the set of Casablanca and Errol Flynn and Ava Gardner sipping daiquiris in the blazing Cuban sun. And I think of my grandmother setting foot in Sloppy Joe’s during the happiest years of her life.

Celia Sack was born and raised in San Francisco. During her seven-year tenure at Pacific Book Auction, Celia channeled her passion for rare books into a private antiquarian cookbook collection. In 2008, she opened Omnivore Books on Food, San Francisco’s only culinary bookshop. Featuring new and antiquarian titles, her store has become the destination for internationally-known food writers touring their new books, and for collectors expanding their shelves.

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