"Seeing pink elephants" is a euphemism for a drunken hallucination, but do you know why that is? Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation talks all about the famous Victorian elephant’s drinking habit and how Walt Disney’s “Pink Elephants on Parade” perpetuated to this saying.
‘I am an alcoholic.’ I’ve said it innumerable times at meetings and I hope to say it, sober, many times more. Was Jumbo a fellow alcoholic? I like to fancy he was. It’s one of the things which has given me a sense of intimacy with the great animal.
Jumbo was the only animal in Barnum’s circus (or, before that, the London Zoo) reported to have a love of the bottle. The great pachyderm – about to amaze and charm the children of the new world – had a bout of stage fright and steeled his nerves for disembarkation in New York harbour with an appropriate bottle of port, dextrously transported from trunk to mouth and glugged it down as fast as a yard of ale in a college fraternity drinking game. I used to do something similar in my early days as a university lecturer before taking the lectern.
Jumbo’s habitual boozing was entirely contrary to the wishes of Barnum, who was an evangelistic abstainer and the author of grandiloquent temperance tracts. He must have been the unjolliest of dinner guests, and probably the most garru- lous. It was his proud boast that abstention was the law of his animal kingdom. ‘Pure water,’ he proclaimed, ‘is the natural drink for man and beast. My lions, tigers, and even the great Jumbo himself drink nothing stronger than water.’
It was, of course, so much Barnum humbuggery. Just because alcohol doesn’t cross your lips doesn’t mean that fibs can’t traverse in the opposite direction. Jumbo, we are told, ‘according to several witnesses was in the habit of drinking daily a keg of beer’. On his trip over to New York, he was publicly given plentiful draughts of champagne by revelling fellow passengers, who were amazed by what he could do with a bottle.
Barnum, who could not but witness the drink-fuelled high jinks, sourly observed, without irony, apparently: ‘that animal’s growth has been stunted by beer’. (He was always uneasy that the paying public would, when they actually saw him in the 11-foot and 6-ton flesh, realise that Jumbo was magnitudes smaller than the advertising posters and would cry foul, as an embarrassing number of them had done about his Fejee Mermaid.) But, disapproving though he was, he did not put a stop to Jumbo’s ‘habit’. It kept him docile. And Barnum did not want any more of those musth shenanigans which had so alarmed the English.
The classic overindulgence of the ‘solitary drinker’ seems to have been Jumbo’s style. As is often the case with those who drink alone, one could easily suppose that he lapsed into alcoholism, or that, at the very least, the condition of an elephantine ‘problem drinker’. Solitary drinkers, of course, can drink with other solitary drinkers and still merit the term that identifies them. Matthew Scott had long been in the habit of taking a nightly bottle of whisky into Jumbo’s den at Regent’s Park for the two of them to get the wrinkles of the day out of their necks. They made merry and, Chambers records, ‘as the pair fell under the influence of alcohol Scott would break into song, to which his elephant would provide a very loud trumpeting accompaniment’. Apparently it caused Bartlett sleepless nights. I’m inclined to give credence to the view that Jumbo may well have been sozzled on the night he was killed. Why else would you run a hundred yards into the path of a thundering train, with everyone shouting at you to get off the tracks?
Speaking as an alcoholic, I can vouch for the fact one does not, legless, see pink elephants. DTs (alas, I can also vouch for those as well) are not amusing. It’s toads in my case. But LSD is something else. It’s long been folklore that the Disney operation (even Uncle Walt himself) were into psychedelic drugs. One commentator on the Web notes that the Disney team seem, knowingly, to have confused alcoholic dementia with ‘taking a shitload of acid’. In the LSD mania of the 1960s, trippers loved to watch Disney movies, elevating their highs to stratospheric levels, up there with Telstar. Sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and Disney. Many tabs of acid carried a pink Dumbo insignia. Walt himself was addicted to nothing worse than cigarettes, one is assured.
The ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ sequence has tradition- ally disturbed moralists in America. The ‘Christian Answers’ website, while approving generally of the film, has severe reservations about the parade. Its spokesman (one for whom the eighteenth amendment was never revoked) lays down the official Prohibition line:
Dumbo and Timothy accidentally get drunk because the clowns dropped a bottle of liquor into a watering bucket; we share the pair’s hallucinations through the song ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’, which may be the first ‘psychedelic’ music video ever made. When my daughter was younger, I skipped that scene entirely; now I let her watch the fancy animation, but mute the sound. The scene even makes me uncomfortable.
It made the high-ups in the Disney office uncomfortable as well. They protested that the sequence had been designed to discourage teenage drinking. It was unconvincing. Any kid with an ounce of spirit would want to dip their trunk into that bucket and ‘see the elephants’. The Dumbo ride at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, originally had pink elephants. A last- minute instruction from Walt himself, we are told, changed it to dull gray, to kill any overt allusion to the film’s ‘tipsy parade’. It may also be that they wanted to extirpate any suggestion that Dumbo and Tim were rather too buddy. Whatever one’s reaction to the drunk-as-a-skunk-with-a-trunk sequence, pink elephants have become proverbial.
Disney popularised it but he did not invent the pink elephant. It was Jack London, in his ‘alcoholic memoir’, John Barleycorn (1913), who is first recorded as putting it into print. One suspects it was saloon slang long before that. London uses the phrase as part of his acute anatomy of the different kinds of drunk:
There are, broadly speaking, two types of drinkers. There is the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is the type that gives rise to the jokes in the funny papers.
The other type of drinker has imagination, vision. Even when most pleasantly jingled, he walks straight and naturally, never staggers nor falls, and knows just where he is and what he is doing. It is not his body
Elephants’ love of drink has always been proverbially confirmed by the elephants themselves when they can get near the stuff. One of Old Bet’s tricks was, when on show at taverns, to uncork as many bottles of beer as were offered her and glug them down. But are elephants in the wild, who lack access to the amenities of civilisation, teetotal? Legend, and regular tabloid newspaper stories, would have it they are not.
One of the perennial myths about Loxodonta Africana, the tribe of Jumbo, is that they like to get themselves tiddly on the fruit of the marula tree. The mango-like, sugary fruit of the tree is used by natives in the manufacture of a liqueur, Amarula, which I have never tasted (and hope I never will) but am told is palatable. But how do elephants actually get their Amarula hooch? Drinkers, as I have observed, are careful to preserve their ‘stash’. Reputedly elephants get their booze by eating rotting, or rotten windfall on the ground – food which, did it not pack a kick, would be wholly distasteful. It’s further reputed that these highly intelligent beasts, who can put two and two together, are in the habit of rocking the trees, to bring down the fruit, which they then leave on the ground until it’s, so to speak, drinkable.
Alas, an article in the 2006 issue of the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology by the biologist Steve Morris pours cold water on this legend. It doesn’t happen, his research reveals. ‘People just want to believe in drunken elephants,’ he says. It’s true that elephants push over marula trees, but it’s to get the fresh fruit, not to stock their booze cabinet. And if fresh fruit does fall on the ground, it’s so delicious that every animal in the area, not just elephants, rushes to gobble it up. Elephants, testifies another expert, ‘regularly visit and revisit the same marula trees, checking the fruits and the bark for palatability and devour the fruits when they are ripe.’ Ripe, not rotten.
The elephant’s belly and intestines, of course, are as large as any metal ‘still’ and its pipework. Could the necessary fermen- tation of the fruit take place internally alongside the normal processes of digestion? Is the elephant a four-legged walking brewery – the slang-proverbial ‘piss tank’? Unfortunately for this theory the vast amounts of vegetable food the elephant eats pass through its system at astonishing speed. Don’t stand behind one, as the old joke says.
As regards the walking piss-tank thesis, science instructs that there simply isn’t time enough for the necessary internal fermen- tation to happen. Boa constrictors (which take up to a month in digestion, legend has it) perhaps could, although there are no records of boozed-up monsters of the Amazon. The internal fermentation thesis is further disproved by the same spoilsport Dr Morris’s calculation that it would require the fermented juice of some 1,400 marula fruits (around a quarter of a ton), properly prepared, to get an elephant enjoyably drunk. Since drunkenness has a relationship with body mass, the elephant probably has that enviable thing for alcoholics, ‘a good head’.
Despite the efforts of Dr Morris and his ilk, the public wants desperately to believe in the drunken elephant and wilfully insists on doing so. Newspapers regularly run stories of the ‘Trunk and disorderly’ kind. There have probably been several between my writing this and your reading it. The following kind of thing, for example, to choose one of many, turned up by an ‘elephant + drunken’ search. It’s from Metro, 6 November 2012, and is lifted, as many such stories are, from The Hindustan Times:
The trunk and disorderly mammals ransacked a shop, three houses and ruined crops in the eastern village of Dumurkota, India.
Police say the gang of over-the-limit tuskers downed more than 500 litres of moonshine alcohol, managing to drink the place dry in a matter of minutes.
The unruly mob demolished dozens of houses in their desperate hunt for more booze after hoovering up the hard stuff in record time.
Local police officer Asish Samanat said the drunken elephants were more ‘aggressive’ than usual after their mammoth drinking session.
‘Unfortunately these animals live in close proximity to man and they recognised the smell of the drink,’ he explained.
‘They were like any other drunk – aggressive and unreasonable but much, much bigger.’
Police and villagers eventually restored order by herding the elephants over a local river back to their normal migration route.
Officer Samanat added: ‘They’ll have one heck of a hangover.’
The drinks industry has, sensibly enough, exploited the traditional link between its product and the world’s favourite mammal, and Jumbo does for the beer can what he does for the airliner: he makes it cosy and ‘safe’. Carlsberg has a strong- selling line called ‘Elephant Beer’. It’s very potent, I’m told, and tasty. In 2009 the firm proudly described its tipple in press releases for the fiftieth anniversary of the beer’s arrival in the drinking holes of the world:
Elephant Beer was launched in a time where Danish design, architecture and crafts achieved great interna- tional success. Carlsberg has a long tradition of producing promotional posters reflected by the changing times, and as a result poster artist Kjeld Nielsen was asked to develop an icon that could be used in advertising. He came up with a small blue elephant that almost looked like some- thing out of a children’s book. To the international audience this may seem somewhat misleading, consid- ering that the beer definitely is not intended for children. But to fully grasp the geniality of Nielsen’s design, one needs to understand the Danish sense of humour and subtle irony. The blue elephant soon became a much- loved symbol and was used extensively for more than a decade. Today the Elephant Beer’s mascot is even consid- ered a design icon by many artists and graphic designers. Kjeld Nielsen’s work is regarded as some of the most original promotional materials in Carlsberg’s history. On the occasion of the 50-year anniversary new enamel signs with Nielsen’s blue elephant have been produced.
Tom Waits, the singer (composer of the immortal ditty, ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking’) appeared sloshed on Danish TV in 1976, knocking back bottles of Elephant Beer, to which he is, apparently, partial. Waits composed a song specially for the occasion: ‘Elephant Beer Blues’. He followed it up with an album.
Read more about the Victorian sensation in Jumbo