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The 20-Year Lost Weekend: Rip Van Winkle Was a Drunk

July 31, 1990 GMT

POUGHQUAG, N.Y. (AP) _ Rip Van Winkle did not sleep the sleep of the enchanted, snoozing 20 years away in the haunted Catskill Mountains.

The lovable rogue of Washington Irving’s story was a real man who abandoned his wife and children to become an 18th century barfly in New York City, claims literary detective Steven Press.

Real or not, Rip was not so lovable, says Press, a theater professor at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie. And Rip should be an example for today, when alcoholism is acknowledged as a disease, and the drunk’s loved ones are recognized as victims.

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It’s wrong ″that we have romanticized the drunk and castigated the woman who tries to hold the family together,″ Press says.

True or false, Press’ theory reflects society’s growing sympathy toward alcoholics, said David Musto, a professor at Yale University’s medical school. ″Even the fact that he’s writing about this and people are interested is a reflection of our times,″ Musto says.

In the early 1800s, heavy drinking was considered a sign of individuality rather than a disease, says Jeffrey Hon of the National Council on Alcoholism.

″In the early part of the 19th century, there was a lot more public drunkenness,″ Hon says. ″That’s what gave rise to the temperance movement.″

Alcohol consumption hit a peak in 1830, when average Americans drank three times as much as they do today, said Musto, who has studied drinking patterns of the time.

″When Washington Irving was writing, it was a time of enormous alcohol consumption, for almost any purpose and at any time,″ Musto said. Alcohol was considered a food or medicine, he said.

Alcoholism was widespread because the tavern was a community center in those days, a lure to men with unhappy home lives such as Rip’s, Press said in an interview at his home in Poughquaq, 50 miles north of New York City.

Press is writing two musicals based on his version of Rip’s story, passion plays sympathetic to the plight of Dame Van Winkle and other wives abandoned by drunken husbands. Press has written off-Broadway plays and hopes to get his musicals produced in New York.

Through files gathered from the Museum of the City of New York, local libraries and other sources, Press determined Rip was born in 1727 near the Ulster County town of Gardiner. Press says he’s not sure if the name Rip Van Winkle was real or if Washington Irving made it up. For convenience, Press uses Rip.

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At 16, Rip’s father died, leaving the boy a fortune in land and cash. The carousing Rip went on a 24-year binge and drank up his inheritance. In the meantime, he married Dame Van Winkle - the she-devil of Irving’s story - and fathered two children, Judith and Rip Jr.

Dame Van Winkle’s efforts to reform Rip failed. One day, Rip wandered off - and here’s where Press’ version differs with Irving’s story. Irving had Rip wander into the mystical Catskills, where the ghost of explorer Henry Hudson casts him into a 20-year sleep.

According to Press, Rip fled home in 1767 and headed south on the Hudson River to New York City. There, amid the Dutch taverns, Rip lived off bar owners and patrons who came to hear his tavern songs and stories. His long, lost weekend had begun.

″No one goes to sleep for 20 years,″ Press says. ″But we certainly consider alcoholic stupor a sleep we could survive for 20 years.″

After 20 years, Rip’s daughter found him performing in a stage show billed as ″The Old Dutcher.″ She took him home, and Rip concocted the story of his long sleep to conceal his 20-year drunk from neighbors.

″We paint an image of Rip as a wonderful guy, but that’s a terrible image,″ Press says. ″He abandoned his wife and kids. The ogre of the story is Dame Van Winkle, the shrew who died of a heart attack. Dame van Winkle was no ogre. She deserves to be pretty damn angry at this guy.″

While Rip inherited a fortune, Rip Jr. inherited his father’s drunken ways. Irving said Rip Jr. became a drunk, ″which is interesting because of recent findings about genetic inheritance of alcoholism,″ Press says.

Historians and Irving scholars doubt Press’ version.

″That’s a new one on me,″ says Dan Porter, director of the New York State Historical Association. ″He’s got to have some pretty strong evidence, because Irving dealt in fiction, not fact.″

″I’m sure there were people at the time who fit that pattern,″ said Robert Wells, an English professor who holds the Washington Irving chair at Union College in Schenectady. ″There may well have been people like Rip Van Winkle who were drunkards and were irresponsible like that. But that’s a long way from proving the man really existed.″

But if it was true, Irving - a regular at the Hudson River taverns himself - was bound to encounter the story. Like Rip, Irving was a sponge for both alcohol and the folk tales of the Catskills and the Hudson Valley. Irving may even have heard the story from Rip himself, Press says.

Press’ Rip died in 1818, when Irving was 35. Irving’s ″Sketch Book″ - which contained ″Rip Van Winkle″ - was published in 1819.

″My feeling is that Irving met him, they may have talked,″ Press says.

Press began his search for the real Rip in the 1950s, while studying theater at New York University. While Press was directing Dion Boucicault’s 19th century play ″Rip Van Winkle,″ a professor told him Rip really lived and showed him papers about the Old Dutcher.

Rip’s type - the irresponsible boozer - has a long tradition in American literature. Whether he really lived and ran off to hide in New York City’s taverns doesn’t matter, Press says. The fact is, alcoholic husbands have abandoned their families in all ages, and there were surely a few Rips among the 18th century Dutch settlers.

″Everybody knows that in Irving, there is always the germ of truth,″ Press says. ″But he would put layer upon layer of fantasy over it. We’ll never know the real truth.″