September 19, 2019
(+++) THE FASCINATION OF THE DESPICABLE
The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition’s Evil Genius. By Bob Batchelor. Diversion Books. $27.99.
It is safe to ask why an author would write an almost-400-page biography of a man dubbed a “little German hysteria-peddler” in a sentence written in such a way that the opinion seems to be that of the author himself, not just the view of one of the people he is writing about. The answer in the case of Bob Batchelor seems to be that George Remus, a “tenacious grappler” (among other things), is just so doggone fascinating that his story asks to be written and Batchelor cannot but oblige.
It is scarcely an obliging tale. From its title – an echoing, ironic reference to the powerful Bourbon kings of France, including “Sun King” Louis XIV – to its standard “what happened afterwards” conclusion, The Bourbon King proceeds at a headlong pace that at times goes beyond the cinematic into the realm of TV advertising (in which a 30-second ad may have more than 30 scenes). In other words, there is a lot going on in Batchelor’s book, and the breathlessness of the telling seems to reflect not only the Prohibition era in which most of the biography is set but also the overall life of Remus (1874-1952).
It is abundantly clear that Batchelor neither likes nor approves of Remus or much of anything that Remus did or stood for, but he tries to place his distaste in context by writing that “while Remus may have been singularly violent and dangerous, his utter disregard for Prohibition put him in accord with how much of American society felt about the dry laws.”
The name of Remus is far less often bandied about than those of Al Capone, John Dillinger and other Midwestern bad guys of the Prohibition era. After going through The Bourbon King, some readers are sure to wonder why – especially readers fond of The Great Gatsby, for whose title character Remus appears to have been a partial model. Remus was certainly colorful as well as, apparently, wholly amoral (which is not the same as immoral, a more arguable word where Prohibition mores are concerned). He was not always a bad guy: early on, Remus quit school to support his family as a pharmacist. Later, he became, of all things, a criminal defense attorney, representing bootleggers in Chicago and becoming infamous for over-the-top courtroom tactics that saved more than one criminal from the death penalty. Deciding to get in on the big-money action himself – Remus had noticed the wads of cash with which his clients paid their fines and bills – Remus moved to Cincinnati and used his pharmaceutical knowledge and standing to work his way to the top of the illegal Kentucky bourbon world. Even during Prohibition, as readers may not realize, alcoholic beverages were legal – if made and distributed for medical reasons.
Batchelor chronicles Remus’ various depredations with skill and ever-present antipathy for the man, whose undoubted business acumen gets short shrift while his criminal activities get extensive coverage. This is scarcely surprising in light of just how outrageous some of Remus’ doings were – not only the bribery and the rest of the deep-seated corruption of which he took advantage, but also the way he actually got away with murder in what would surely be a highlighted scene in any Public Enemy-style movie. Remus’ second wife, Imogene, was no angel herself. She deliberately set out to milk him for all he was worth and was willing to marry him if necessary – but when Remus was serving two years in prison after a conviction under the Volstead Act, she fell for a Prohibition agent and managed, with him, to run through most of Remus’ money. Once out of jail, Remus shot her dead – then used his criminal-defense background to stand up for himself in court, and was acquitted by reason of insanity. The prosecutor, Charles P. Taft, son of former President and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft, never fully recovered from a defeat that, as Batchelor describes it, sounds almost ridiculously like something from our current era of celebrity worship and courtroom antics: “Taft got stung by a strange convolution of sentimentality, cult of personality, duplicity, and flat-out wrongheadedness on the part of twelve jury members.”
Batchelor’s headlong writing style sometimes gets ahead of the accuracy of his word usage and sentence construction: “The years in prison, he secretly worried, had deteriorated his intellect.” “Polls showed the Mabel Willebrandt was personally popular…” And the author’s evaluation of Remus is not always clear, beyond the element of personal dislike: one page refers to Remus’ “history of violence” and “quick, sadistic temper,” while the next says that “the viciousness of gang warfare did not suit Remus” and that for him, “the bootleg empire was as much an intellectual game – for excitement – as anything else.” The near-juxtaposition of these statements makes Remus seem to have been a more-complicated figure than the narrative itself ever asserts directly. But perhaps that is inevitable in a story like this one: the details of the weighted, gold-tipped cane that Remus carried and often used, and the pearl-handled pistol with which he killed Imogene, loom far larger than any discussion of the intellect that made it possible for Remus to succeed so well in several different fields, no matter how smarmily he did so. The Bourbon King is by no means the first book about Remus: he has previously inspired both nonfiction (Karen Abbott’s The Ghosts of Eden Park, that being the place where Remus shot Imogene) and fiction (Craig Holden’s The Jazz Bird). But neither those books nor Batchelor’s seems as fitting a tribute – if “tribute” is the right word – as an alcoholic beverage that Queen City Whiskey started making in 2014. It is called George Remus Bourbon. Ironically, however, it is now made not in Cincinnati, the Queen City where Remus once flourished, or by an eponymous manufacturer, but by a company called MGP – across the border in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.