Magazine Toasts Unabashed Alcoholism

Times Staff Writer

Every hour is happy hour at Modern Drunkard magazine.

It’s barely 3 p.m., and Frank Kelly Rich, who edits the bimonthly homage to getting soused, is draining his gin and tonic and eyeing a whiskey bottle on the top shelf. Moments later, he’s drinking that as well.

A huge bar dominates the office, the fridge is stocked with beer and the handful of employees is invited to drink. Smoking is OK too.

As the booze flows, Rich, 41, extols the virtues of alcohol, calling it a boon to mankind while claiming that drunks are an “oppressed minority.”


Nothing can knock him off message.

What about cirrhosis of the liver? “There’s a tidal wave of new evidence that drinking is actually good for you,” he insists.

What of alcohol’s effect on families? “I think drinking is conducive to a happy family life,” he counters.

Rich lights a cigarette and smiles as the ice melts in his cocktail. His downtown Denver office is decorated with posters of Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason and other famous tipplers of yesteryear.

“The most accomplished people have been drinkers. Hemingway was a great literary drunk, and I think a lot of teetotalers would trade their lives for his in a second,” he said. “Alcohol is the great socializer. Can you imagine a world without it? Well, I guess you can -- it’s called the Middle East.”

Modern Drunkard is an irreverent, 50,000-circulation glossy magazine full of pinup girls and macho men alongside articles on drinking, getting drunk and hiding a hangover from “the Man,” i.e., the boss. It also includes serious examinations of liquor, biographies of history’s great drunks and selected odes to the drinking life. The magazine sells for $4.50 in bookstores across the U.S. and Europe, and free copies are available in many bars.

A recent issue included the feature “You know you’re a drunkard when ... (you fall down a well and send Lassie to the liquor store)”; a dictionary of bar slang: “pal tax n. -- the act of covertly ordering a drink on a friend’s tab”; and a story titled “Booze is My Copilot,” on how drinking cured one man’s fear of flying.

Rich revels in the retrograde excess of his magazine. The way he sees it, reality is so awful, why not get drunk?

“People always say, ‘If you drink, your problems will still be there in the morning,’ ” he said. “That’s like telling a guy going to the Bahamas that in a week, he’ll be right back where he started. Well, for a week, he’ll be gone.”

Those in the business of battling alcohol abuse find such sentiments appalling.

“Drinking at the level they promote and saying it’s good for you is baloney,” said Sam Zakhari of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Md. “Some people benefit from moderate drinking -- one drink a day for a woman, two for a man -- but you can achieve the same result through good nutrition and exercise.”

Rich shrugs off the naysayers and routinely savages groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whom he sees as neo-prohibitionist killjoys secretly bent on banning alcohol.

“We don’t advocate drinking and driving; that’s a dumb thing to do,” he said. “But they have gone too far.”

MADD National President Wendy Hamilton says her group is anti-drunk driving, not anti-alcohol. She calls Modern Drunkard “just plain stupid.”

“We don’t preach abstinence from alcohol unless you are under 21,” said Hamilton, whose sister and nephew were killed by a drunk driver. “If our role in life is to make a better world, then I cannot figure out how this magazine makes the world a better place to live.”

Raised in Las Vegas, where his dad drove a cab, Rich says he started drinking while in the Army. After being discharged, he headed to Europe -- seeking a romantic life of writing and drinking. He spent four years in pub-friendly London. “If you want to learn about a new culture,” he advised, “don’t go to museums, go to the bars.”

Rich returned to the United States and wrote “Jake Strait Bogeyman.” He lived out of his Pinto in Los Angeles, trying to sell the futuristic action novel.

“When you’re homeless under foreign skies, you feel like Hemingway; when you’re homeless in your own country, you feel like a loser,” he said.

The book spawned a four-part series and eventually earned him $150,000. He took the money and drove around the country before ending up in Denver eight years ago.

“I immediately recognized it as a great drinking town,” he said.

In fact, Men’s Health magazine this year listed the city as the most “intoxicated” in the country -- based on numbers of alcohol-related accidents and deaths due to alcoholism. Denver Mayor John W. Hickenlooper owns seven bars, and Republican Pete Coors, whose beer factory sprawls just outside the city, made an unsuccessful run for the Senate in November.

Rich wanted to start a magazine, and he wanted it to be about the subject he knew best.

“The magazine was going to be about drinking and only about drinking -- and not just drinking, but heavy drinking,” he said, pouring another whiskey. “I was going to distill every bit of alcoholic knowledge in the world and put it in one magazine.”

He published his first edition in 1996 for about $500, inserting fake ads from beer companies to make it look professional. He paid alcoholics living on the streets $20 for boozing advice.

With the magazine now making money thanks to copious bar and club ads, he’s hired five staffers and 20 part-time contributors. Rich is also writing “The Modern Drunkard Manifesto” coming out in November, published by Riverhead Books. A Modern Drunkard convention is planned for Denver in May.

His wife Christa, 27, is a bartender who helps edit the magazine. They have no children.

“When you find your calling, you have to go with it,” she said of her husband’s career. “I get e-mails all the time from people in Alcoholics Anonymous who say they want a subscription because it lets them remember what life was like when they drank.”

Rich freely admits he’s an alcoholic and frequently blacks out. Regular exercise and vitamins, he said, keep him fit.

“I drink about eight drinks a day and maybe 30 on a heavy day,” he said cheerfully. “But as long as I remain healthy and happy, I have no intention of slowing down. I mean, when you have something good going, you stick with it, right?”