The Ice Buckets of the Stars

On the dual aristocratic-democratic nature of the ice bucket, an Object Lesson

Alexis Madrigal

Harrison Ford is thinking about the jungle. “If they saw an ice cube, they’d probably think it was a diamond… Ice is civilization,” he says as the messianic know-it-all in The Mosquito Coast. Diamonds are called ice in turn, but diamonds are forever. Ice melts and vanishes. Who could pay good money for something that goes so fast? In a hot season, ice is a luxury. Old kings would show off with it.

As the cocktail historian David Wondrich noted in his book Imbibe, Victorian bartenders were stingy with the ice. Nowadays we can really pile it on. Even by the late nineteenth century Mark Twain was able to write, “In Vicksburg and Natchez, in my time, ice was jewelry; none but the rich could wear it. But anybody and everybody can have it now.” Yet there is still no more luxurious sight than a silver ice bucket with a bottle of champagne chunked down inside, wisps of cold curling.

I went to an auction in Beverly Hills to buy one of Bob Hope’s many fancy ice buckets, a cunning red apple with an incomprehensible plaque affixed: “TO BOB HOPE WITH BOUNDLESS THANKS FOR MAKING LIGHTS ON THE BENEFIT IN THE BIG APPLE.” My wife Theresa was opposed to the apple-shaped ice bucket. Sending me off from Mississippi, she reemphasized that it looked “like something you’d see sitting in a dentist’s office.” I assessed it where it hunched in one of the glittering cabinets lining the auction house walls. It was a shabby apple. My wife was right again. In the catalog how it had shone and popped, a studio light glinting here and there on the red and polished plastic, bright among the yellowed caricatures and dull bronze statues that shared its page. Meanwhile, I wanted to bust out Dolores Hopes’s “Studio Del Campo Enameled Copper Dishes,” past which I had so impatiently flipped, and lick them like candy. Things that looked bad in the catalog looked good in real life, and vice versa.


Bob Hope had a pewter ice bucket. He had a Baccarat ice bucket. One with a silver-plated polar bear on top came with a Tiffany decanter. His Sevres crystal ice bucket was a beauty. It looked like real ice, hollowed out and fringed with gold. But it was small as a baby’s beach toy, and I wondered if I were really as coarse as I seemed, judging worth by size. Maybe it was sour grapes. I didn’t win any of them.

Many weeks later I attended a buffet at the home of the great food writer John T. Edge, who lives up the street from me in Oxford, and discovered that his ice bucket looks exactly like Bob Hope’s crystal ice bucket, the one I had coveted, just as preciously small, but holding a supply more than adequate for the cocktails of a large gathering. There is some scientific fact about volume I am not understanding.

It was in those same weeks that I happened to be enlightened by a made-for-TV movie about the poignant later relationship of the twice-divorced Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. They are appearing in a Noel Coward play together, and Taylor, played by Helena Bonham Carter, has invited her ex to “run lines,” ha ha, at the swank pad she has borrowed from Rock Hudson. She removes the lid from a snug, coppery ice bucket and picks out a cube with her fingers—such a picture of privilege and decadence, daintiness and greed.

See, when Elizabeth Taylor (or Bob Hope) and I are talking about ice buckets, we are talking about two different things. The ice buckets of the stars seem smaller because my main acquaintance with them has been in motels (the ice buckets, not the stars), where they promise kingly convenience for the weary. Ice was amenity, granted by a huge machine, and the size of your bucket was the measure of generosity and value. In a 1963 interview, the president of the TraveLodge chain explained that the way to tell a hotel from a motel was whether “the guest is obligated to pay something more than the actual price of his room.” The scholarly authors of The Motel in America extrapolate: “If a guest had to pay for a garage or tip a bellboy for a bucket of ice, then he or she was not in a motel.”

At the very moment I was writing this, the critic James Wolcott tweeted rhapsodically of “carrying that little bucket to fill at the ice machine” as “one of life’s unsung pleasures.” In 140 characters or less he captured the democratic-aristocratic dual nature of the ice bucket.


In an email to me, David Wondrich distinguished nicely between the older version, “mostly for icing bottles of wine or punch,” and “the kind with a false bottom to drain the ice and tongs and a cover.” He said that people “didn’t begin mixing cocktails at home until the 1890s, and it didn’t really catch on until the 1910s, so there would have been no market or need” for the second kind before then. By 1920, you start seeing ads for “the colored glass ones with the chrome trim.”

The more basic kind has been around for ages, as I learned from Elizabeth David’s “social history of ice” Harvest of the Cold Seasons, which contains a mid-sixteenth-century illustration of a carafe being “agitated in a pail filled with snow.” By agitation, the author means grabbing it by its long neck and rotating the bottle in its frozen nest, a trick practiced with beer in Oxford, Mississippi, until just recently, when our antiquated blue laws against the sale of cold beer were lifted.

Our local chef and restaurateur John Currence explained the technique to Esquire: “You've got guys who will get beer and submerge it in ice and water and salt, and spin 'em. And if they do it right, you can really chill a beer in ice and water and salt in a matter of about four minutes. And when I spin it, you literally just hold the top and you spin it around and around and around, so the centrifugal force is throwing the inside liquid to the outside constantly and rubbing up against the cold glass.”

The Methodus Refrigerandi ex Vocato Salenitio Vinum, Aquamque recommended adding saltpeter, so our frat boys were participating in an honorable old experiment.

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But I went into the Bob Hope auction green and innocent, ignorant of history and tradition. I was hours early, for one thing. Only two of the folding chairs were occupied, to my surprise, by a man in a neon orange Harley-Davidson t-shirt and a woman wearing pajama pants and a surgical mask. For the first of many times, it was brought home to me with a heavy thud that I was not Cary Grant in North By Northwest.

The plaque on the apple should have tipped me off. There were plaques on everything, because everywhere Bob Hope went, people honored him with crap. They put his name on diamond-studded belt buckles. They emblazoned cufflinks and straps of leather with his face, gave him awards for doing nothing, plaques and bowls, melted-looking clay jugs, cheap trophies with detachable cowboys on top, frosted glass eagles and airplanes, Christmas ornaments and autographed moon globes, medallions and plaster busts. After a while it probably seemed more like a torture than an honor. We ate free sandwiches and wrestled each other for his trash. Things tumbled from the mouth of the man seated just in front of me: particles of bread, the pale, curled sliver of a sickly tomato, two confetti scraps of lettuce. He turned around to stare back at me, a deadpan mug, still chewing slowly as a cow. He had a funny mop of hair and irises so round and dark he looked like a benign cartoon character. Finally he shambled off and personnel in white gloves cleaned up most of the mess.

Bob Hope and Dolores Hope (Reuters).

All the ice in the world couldn’t preserve Bob Hope, whose early film performances are marvels of coolness and poise. What others found off-putting about him, I loved: that ice water in his veins. When his mistress the starlet Barbara Payton fell on hard times she came to him for financial help and he gave her “a couple of lousy jars of cheap jam!” The exclamation point is hers, and rightfully so. My admiration for the Hope chill does not extend that far. We cling to our stuff for a good long time and look where it gets us. Bob made it to a hundred, but then he was just as dead as Kurt Cobain and everything was up for grabs. I got some ashtrays.

In his fantasy novel about capitalism, The Propheteers, Max Apple imagines the inner lives of some household names like Clarence Birdseye, the frozen-food pioneer. In Apple’s version, Birdseye literally lives in a giant ice bucket, a shack filled with blocks of ice delivered by sleigh twice a day. “A sheet-metal trough carried the melting ice water under his door.” The blocks rest on logs, like Wondrich’s “false bottom.”

But Apple’s main focus is on two oppositional forces: Walt Disney as the lord of animation and the motelier Howard Johnson a god of repose, a victim of sleeping sickness in Apple’s telling, traveling the country in his limousine with his battery-powered ice-cream freezer, stoically indulging in one scoop of vanilla a day.

In the New York Times review of Beth Henley’s new play The Jacksonian, “a man tears into view, stage left, holding an ice bucket,” a “big blood stain on his crisp white shirt.” We are placed squarely in a territory between the nightmare motels of Charles Portis, where the “central crater in the mattress hadn't been wallowed out overnight, but rather by a long series of jumbo salesmen, snorting and thrashing about in troubled sleep” and Max Apple’s beatific space where “Headlights did not dazzle you on the foam mattress and percale sheets, your sanitized glasses and toilet products sparkled like the mirror behind them.” When a character in The Propheteers visits a cryonics vault, the “neon-lit room with bulletlike capsules” makes death feel not much different than staying at a Howard Johnson’s—pleasant and comforting. “She watched the cool breaths of the group gather like flowers on the steel and vanish without dimming the bright surface.”

Ice can be the exquisitely sculpted centerpiece of a celebration or a forbidding block of funereal stasis. Ice holds the moment suspended in eternity, and ice is what slips away. The buckets we put it in are functional and family-friendly or ornamental and delicately wrought—a bountiful sign of modern egalitarianism or a vestige of old-world presumption. The immortal rich, like the Disney of tabloid legend, can be stored for future resurrection in the ultimate ice bucket, a grandiose and pharaonic but weirdly practical container, the last status symbol of the space-age self-made man.

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