The Rise & Fall of Oscar Haimo & the General MacArthur Cocktail

By B.E. Mintz |

Like Ozymandias, the works of startenders are often destined for burial in the sands of time. Take the curious case of the General MacArthur Cocktail, a drink so popular that it was basically the Benton’s Old Fashioned of the 1940’s. Upon introduction, the beverage and it’s creator Oscar Haimo were the focus of dozens of newspaper articles, but by the 70’s the libation had all but vanished. The backstory illustrates the fickle nature of fame behind the sticks.

First and foremost, the General MacArthur Cocktail is a delicious rum based, egg white sour. Haimo’s recipe calls for Cuban Rum, Jamaican Rum, Triple Sec (or Cointreau), lime juice, and egg white, shaken. The result is a near-perfect balance of citric acid, booze, and just enough sweetness.

In Lucius Beebe’s 1946 recount of the Stork Club’s glory years, he writes that the MacArthur, the Cuba Libre, and the Frozen Daiquiri were the the three best selling rum drinks at the famed supper club. Given the Stork Club Bar Book’s impressive legacy, the few drinkers who still know of the MacArthur often associate the drink with the Stork. However, the beverage was actually created at the Hotel Pierre by Oscar Haimo.

Oscar Haimo was a star in his time. His CV includes tenures as maitre de at the Ritz-Carlton in Paris, the Casino in Monte Carlo, and the Pierre in NYC. He also served as President of both the International Barmen’s Association and the International Bar Managers’ Association. His 1943 book, Cocktail Digest even earned him an induction into the Mark Twain Society (no doubt aided by the fact that many of his ex customers sat on the board of said organization: FDR, Winston Churchill, and Chang Kai Shek, to name a few.)

Haimo also spoke no less than six languages. No doubt he acquired his laudatory lingual skills during youthful trek traversing “Marseilles and Algiers, through the desert wastes of Africa into Jerusalem, to Monte Carlo and finally America.” Haimo was also a renaissance man; late editions of his cocktail book included poems and illustrations his own composition. However, the Pierre was the zenith of his career. His name and the storied hotel became synonymous, and their fame increased in lockstep.

During the golden years at the Pierre, Haimo created the General MacArthur Cocktail. According to the New York Post, the drink was the hotel’s best seller by 1942. The libation was celebrated in the gossip pages of the time. In her “The Voice of Broadway” column, journalist Dorothy Kilgallen described the concoction as “famous.” In Walter Winchell’s legendary “On Broadway” column, he stated that the drink is “as zingy as its name.”

That name is clearly a reference to U.S. General Douglas C. MacArthur. The drink was created right about the time that MacArthur was fleeing his command in the Philippines. Contemporary politicians and future historians slammed his failed defense of the islands as virtual incompetence. Yet, during the war, faith in MacArthur was considered paramount to national morale. To keep the American hopes high, Washington D.C. awarded him unearned medals, issued releases praising his heroism, and launched a propaganda campaign–all to portray MacArthur as a hero. Although no direct links are evident, logic would dictate that this drink was an offshoot of that effort.

Inadvertently, the national government created a marketing push for the cocktail. Within a year, not only was the drink a hit at the Stork, it was hit across the nation. The Sportsman Bar in Nebraska was soon advertising specials on the “Sensation of the Century, the Gen. MacArthur Cocktail” (limit two). While home in San Francisco, Joe DiMaggio reportedly paid homage to the General, his Gotham neighbor, by sampling the beverage at notorious La Rocca’s Corner.

Wartime Fame (Thanks Wayne Curtis)

The drink continued to grace cocktail menus until the 1960’s when the Fern Bar Era began. At that point,  cocktails as they were once known disappeared into the undercurrent amidst a wave of Harvey Wallbangers. The MacArthur, too, was a rarity by the dawn of the 70’s.

Haimo, himself, faded from the scene decades earlier. In 1945, he founded the International Bar Managers’ Association. As time progressed, it appears that Haimo spent more time building this organization than actually working behind the bar. Mind you, he did good work: teaching vets how to bartend, editing manuals, holding training programs, and pushing for workers’ rights. Sound familiar? It should. The IBMA laid the groundwork for organizations like the USBG and IBA which followed a few short years after.

Alas, the IBMA was inextricably linked to Haimo. As he focused his efforts within the industry, his public star faded. (Pulling less shifts behind the sticks did not help either.) At some point in the 50’s, Haimo dropped off the radar. The IBMA soon followed suit. Haimo is believed to have passed away in 1959, but details are fuzzy. Many of the newspapers that once hailed Haimo weekly no longer existed; those that remained in circulation did not run obituaries. What is known is that Haimo’s time in the spotlight was well spent; the bartender introduced a blitz of innovations to the industry before fading away just as quickly.

Ironically, Haimo, himself, advised others to pace themselves. “Beware of Satan’s temptation. Enjoy Life in moderation.” he liked to quip. On the other hand, his specs were often suspicous. Take his formula for moderation in drinking. “The average person can metabolize one ounce of whiskey or about a half ounce of alcohol per an hour. At that rate, they will not be drunk or become alcoholics.”

The recipe follows. Look on Haimo’s works, ye mighty, and despair!

Print Recipe
General MacArthur
  1. Combine ingredients in a tin with ice.
  2. Shake heartily until emulsified and chilled.
  3. Double strain into a coupe or cocktail glass.
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