Interview — Lopate at Large, with Leonard Lopate
Love, murder, political intrigue, mountains of cash and rivers of bourbon—Bob Batchelor’s book The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition's Evil Genius is a journey into the dark heart of Prohibition and the man who made it work to his own advantage.
Yes, Congress gave teeth to Prohibition in October 1919, but the law didn't stop Remus from amassing a fortune that would be worth billions of dollars today.
As one Jazz Age journalist put it:
"Remus was to bootlegging what Rockefeller was to oil."
Join us for a discussion of George Remus with Bob Batchelor in this installment on Leonard Lopate at Large.
Celebrating the book launch of The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition’s Evil Genius, Bob joined Leonard Lopate on the Leonard Lopate at Large radio show on WBAI Radio in New York.
The Bourbon King, The Inside Story: The Real Ghost of Eden Park, Video
From Cincinnati, Historian Bob Batchelor discusses the real ghost of Eden Park and the human toll of Prohibition, in the 1920s and today.
The Bourbon King, The Inside Story: The Murder, Video
The Murder, Part II: From Cincinnati, Historian Bob Batchelor, author of The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition's Evil Genius (Diversion Books), discusses how George Remus chased down his wife Imogene and murdered her in Eden Park and then retraces their steps!
There is a great deal of conflicting opinion about exactly where Remus and his driver, George Klug, ran Imogene and Ruth’s taxi off the road, even among eyewitnesses! I recreate the murder from the information I pieced together from those accounts. In any case, the murder took place along a 10 to 20 yard strip near Mirror Lake.
Any truth to the idea that Remus inspired the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby?
F. Scott Fitzgerald was right about so many things about America in the 1920s. As he proclaimed, the decade truly stood as “the grandest, gaudiest spree in history.” George and Imogene Remus embodied this idea. Remus turned himself and Imogene into the King and Queen of the criminal underworld.
Yet, like the nation itself, that opulent world would come crumbling down around them.
Many features of The Great Gatsby sound as if they were ripped from the life of George Remus—the parties, the magnificent pool, a string of pharmacies that he opened, real books, bootlegging—but, and it’s an important point—these same traits were encompassed in several other prominent bootleg barons from the age, most notably Arnold Rothstein, the biggest player in the New York City underworld. [For more information about Rothstein, check out the masterful biography Rothstein by David Pietrusza, one of America’s finest historians.]
After 17 years of thinking about George Remus and writing a biography of The Great Gatsby, the idea that Fitzgerald used Remus as a guide was intriguing, but needed much deeper analysis. Too frequently, historians, reporters, and writers made the assertion without any real proof.
After sifting through thousands of pages of primary source material, traveling to Louisville to check into evidence at the Seelbach Hotel, and reading seemingly endless scholarly analyses about Gatsby, I surmise that Remus was most likely just one of a number of bootleg kings that Fitzgerald used to create the composite that later became Jay Gatsby.
Fitzgerald’s movements in and around New York City and attending the grand parties on Long Island certainly provide evidence that Remus—half a country away in Cincinnati—would have been a lesser influence than the gangsters in the Big Apple that he could more readily read about and even know personally. The Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, however, makes its way into the novel. Gossip and rumors about the “King of the Bootleggers” certainly may have made their way to Fitzgerald, but there is no direct evidence that he traveled to Louisville after Prohibition became law. His time in the city had been as an officer trainee during the waning days of World War I. His escapades, including being kicked out of the hotel’s famous Rathskeller bar for being too inebriated, happened years earlier.
Remus was in the public eye and the nation followed his exploits in the papers. Fitzgerald was a voracious reader and interpreter of the news.
Over the years, though, the fable that George Remus was THE model for Jay Gatsby has gained momentum. Many writers and scholars make the claim without clear evidence, because that evidence does not exist, or at least hasn’t been uncovered yet.
Until we have definitive proof, I think the best we can say is that Remus was A model, but not the sole model, for The Great Gatsby.
For a detailed analysis of the Fitzgerald/Gatsby/Remus connection, as well as information about other sources for Jay Gatsby, check out The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition’s Evil Genius (Diversion Books).
The Chase Leads to Murder!
From Cincinnati, Historian Bob Batchelor discusses how George Remus chased down his wife Imogene and murdered her in Eden Park while also retracing the route through the city!
What Surprised You the Most about Writing The Bourbon King?
When it comes to the 1920s, what I discovered is that people love the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age and The Great Gatsby, but they hate Prohibition with a passion. As a result, a lot of materials regarding bootlegging and Volstead Act enforcement were destroyed or went missing.
Combined with the basic fact that artifacts from 100 years ago simply don’t exist is the reality that in the intervening century, people threw away or destroyed things from the Prohibition era because of the general disgust with America’s failed social experiment. There are a handful of artifacts that I would grab if I could take a ride in the Tardis.
On a personal level, many descendants of bootleggers have a hard time rectifying what their ancestors did during that time. Some families swear that they were never involved, even when proof clearly exists.
Another surprising aspect was Franklin L. Dodge, Jr., the federal Prohibition Bureau secret agent who stole Imogene away and ran off with George’s riches. I had vague ideas about who he was and what he stood for.
Then I visited the Turner-Dodge House in Lansing, Michigan, where Dodge grew up and lived later after Remus killed Imogene, and got a whole new perspective. I stood in his boyhood bedroom and walked the upstairs ballroom where he and his family held celebrations and his mother—a classically-trained pianist—played for friends and family members.
Dodge became a real person as a result of walking in his steps. That humanity—with all the frailties that being human encompasses—went into my portrayal of him in The Bourbon King. Research reveals the complexity of historical figures, which enables a more contextual and critical examination.
Imogene Remus — Femme Fatale or Pawn in Remus’s Evil World?
Imogene Remus is one of the trickiest characters in The Bourbon King.
Imogene’s motivations and subsequent actions enabled her to easily transition to whatever a situation necessitated. Imogene could be browbeaten housewife or femme fatale at a moment’s notice. On one hand, her desires were base and gaudy, but she also masterminded a complex scheme to funnel much of her husband’s wealth to herself and family members.
Unlike other accounts of George and Imogene, my research revealed how devious she had been from the start of her relationship with her husband. Much of Imogene’s early life had never been uncovered, particularly the lengths she went to attract a modicum of fame.
Yet, at the same time, Imogene played a dangerous game, dancing on the edge of a cliff. She may have thought she understood George, but in the end, she had no clue to the depths of violence and anger Remus could unleash.
Imogene grew up in Milwaukee dreaming of a life bigger and more glamorous than her working class roots. What I found in researching her life is that she was constantly playing with her identity by using different names, from “Gussie” and “Gene” to “Susan” and others.
Trying these names and different identities on like masks, Imogene hoped to become wildly famous and rich, living out an aristocratic life that she saw around her. I also uncovered a number of crazy attempts Imogene made to get her name in the newspapers, which was one of the best ways to increase notoriety in the early twentieth century. She would send “news” to reporters, and for someone with no formal training, had several pieces picked up.
For example, around the time the story broke about her breaking up George’s first marriage, using the name “Gene Holmes,” she had a list of tips for a wife to follow to keep her husband from “becoming a wild man.” Reporters who ran the story did not miss the irony of the highly-publicized “love triangle” that had been in the papers for months.
Even more overtly, Imogene told a friend shortly after Remus moved in with her that she planned to “roll him for his roll” and that she “would marry him if I have to” to get his money. George was already famous, flashy, and probably looked like a great catch for Imogene. She won him over and eventually got all the riches in the world. However, she couldn’t have had any idea at that time what a depraved person he would become.
The Bourbon King offers a window into government corruption at the highest levels. Any lessons we can learn for understanding today’s political scene?
Presidential corruption is a delicate matter. Incredibly partisan, one side sees something that the other does not. History helps sort out details and brings new evidence to light, but then how do we deal with scandal as it takes place?
George Remus built a far-reaching bribery network that stretched from the suburban Cincinnati police to the Harding White House. He virtually taught Newport, Kentucky, about graft, which enabled the city to become a model for corruption and vice. Decades later, the mafia would move into Newport and see the city as a model for Las Vegas.
Much of the corruption Remus took advantage of came directly from the Prohibition Bureau, particularly as enforcement began. At every level, “Prohis" (the nickname given to agents tasked with enforcing Prohibition) fell to corruption and payoffs.
For example, many leaders at the state level issued whiskey certificates—paper documents that gave the holder the ability to sell liquor legally to pharmacies, hospitals, doctors, and others for “medicinal usage”—for a hefty fee.
“They received considerations,” Remus explained. “Otherwise those withdrawals would never have come to the respective distilleries that I was owner of.”
As a result of the permutations, trust evaporated and criminality ruled, particularly as officials in the Harding administration learned that they could be so dishonest.
Much of the underhanded maneuvers originated in Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty’s office and ran through Jess Smith, his bon vivant friend and confidante. Jess ran interference for Daugherty and his Ohio cronies linked to Harding’s White House. The money changed hands, which fit with Remus’s worldview of how men acted when they had a deal, but he had no guarantee that Smith could do what he said.
Amidst this setting, and with his own loose lips, could Remus possibly keep his central bribe secret? A journalist reported that he heard a rumor around town about George, explaining, “He was once heard to boast that he was immune from prosecution because he had the ear of the private secretary of a cabinet officer.”
The bribery network soon crumbled…
On May 30, 1923, Jess startled awake in the middle of the night. He drew a pistol from a bedside drawer, stumbled to the bathroom, and lay down on the floor. Positing his head on the side of a wastebasket, Jess put the revolver to his temple and pulled the trigger.
Smith killed himself a little more than two months before the shocking death of Warren G. Harding, who declined quickly on a trip out West and ultimately passed away on August 2, 1923, only 57 years old.
The Ohioan was wildly popular at the time and mourners lined the train route that brought the dead president back to the nation’s capital. Only after his death would the full weight of his scandal-ridden administration become unraveled by a series of congressional investigatory committees and reporters hot on the trail of his Cabinet members and their cronies, many who seemed to specialize in corruption. For George, the deaths of Smith and Harding left him with little hope. Worse, the tragedies severed his ties to Daugherty.
“Misfortune came fast, suddenly,” Remus said. “Jess Smith was found dead in his bathroom. President Harding died. The Senate called for the impeachment of Harry Daugherty. The game was over. I had no place to turn.”
Shortly after President Harding died in office, many scandals came to light that revealed the full extent of his administration’s corruption. However, Harding was given a kind of free pass.
Today, with President Donald Trump, the accusations regarding corruption are much more vocal and public. Events that transpired in Harding’s era demonstrated how bad actors could really line their own pockets by using their power in various schemes.
Modern presidents are not given the same benefit of the doubt. The amplification of outrage based on social media and a more pervasive news cycle means that cries of government corruption are going to be louder and shriller.
The challenge for us today is attempting to determine how much of the dishonesty is real and what might be condensed down to partisanship. Calvin Coolidge — Harding’s successor — watched a series of Congressional investigations into corruption by Harding Cabinet members. He constantly worried about how those spectacles would influence voters’ minds in the 1928 election.
As long as the economy boomed, observers gave Harding and Coolidge a free pass. At the time, the scandals did not topple their administrations.
Today, however, the notion of a free pass is laughable as a president’s every move is scrutinized by a highly-partisan citizenship.
The media—crippled by the financial crisis that has left the industry in shambles over the last two decades—responds by chasing every sensational detail, forced to feed the bile back to consumers, hoping that their anger will result in advertising dollars and measured in online “impressions.”
The corruption of the Harding administration—with George Remus at its center—provides a case study in corruption by White House subordinates who realized how swiftly they could fleece the system. Today, are we too distracted by the daily shouting to scrutinize the details as they unfold just below the surface?
Can we learn from Prohibition in thinking about issues regarding the legalization of marijuana?
My favorite history books provide deep insight the issues of the past and act as a kind of guide for addressing contemporary concerns. I had this idea in mind when writing The Bourbon King — how do we think about marijuana and other lifestyle choices regulated and legislated by the government?
We are still learning the lessons of Prohibition a century later. The most destructive aspect of the dry era was that it took a significant human toll on America.
Many lives were wasted, from people poisoned by tainted alcohol to those killed in enforcing the Volstead Act or attempting to circumvent the law. We have seen similar scenarios play out over the last several decades with marijuana legislation and enforcement.
During Prohibition and with weed over the last several decades, a significant air of lawlessness became commonplace. The nation still deals with these issues now. For instance, people travel between states that have legalized recreational and medical marijuana and those that still criminalize it.
We are still learning the lessons of Prohibition a century later…Many lives were wasted…a major human toll on America…We have seen similar scenarios play out over the last several decades with marijuana legislation and enforcement.