The Bourbon King, The Inside Story: Why Write about George Remus

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How did you discover the story of George Remus, and why did you decide to write a book about him?


Imagine having a topic in your head for 17 years!

I stumbled across George Remus about 17 years ago when Stanley Cutler, an esteemed American historian and scholar, asked me to write about bootlegging for the Dictionary of American History.

Remus’s story was so epic that I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The “Bootlegging” entry had to be concise, so I didn’t get much of an opportunity to expand on the Remus story, but I snuck him in, as well as mentions of Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Here’s that bit from the essay:

Given the pervasive lawlessness during Prohibition, bootlegging was omnipresent. The operations varied in size, from an intricate network of bootlegging middlemen and local suppliers, right up to America's bootlegging king, George Remus, who operated from Cincinnati, lived a lavish lifestyle, and amassed a $5 million fortune. To escape prosecution, men like Remus used bribery, heavily armed guards, and medicinal licenses to circumvent the law. More ruthless gangsters, such as Capone, did not stop at crime, intimidation, and murder.

— “Bootlegging” Dictionary of American History, 2003

Although researched and written so long ago, I still see bits of my personal writing style that persists. “Pervasive lawlessness” is a stylistic point, as well as the pacing of the sentence.

Later, in 2013, I published a biography of The Great Gatsby, which I had been researching and writing for years. Obviously, the work on the book forced me to continue thinking about this crazy bootleg king, particularly since so many people began writing that he was the inspiration for Jay Gatsby, rather than just one of several.

[Spoiler alert: the link between Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and George Remus is an important discussion in The Bourbon King and the beginning of one of America’s great literary mysteries that readers will really enjoy.]

The more I thought about the bootleg king, the more it seemed that no one had really fully captured Remus or put him within the context of American history. His epic tale illuminates and interrogates the early twentieth century, Prohibition, Constitutionality, and many other topics that continue to confound people today.

George Remus also fit neatly into my cultural historian and biographer wheelhouse: big topic, historically significant, and interesting links from that era to what we are experiencing today. I found that there were still many undiscovered aspects to Remus’s story and there were untapped archives, so I barreled ahead.

Starred Review in Publishers Weekly!

The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition’s Evil Genius received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, one of the essential publications in the publishing industry.

Larger-than-life characters take the reins of this story, a rip-roaring good time for any American history buff or true-crime fan.
Batchelor’s action-packed narrative both entertains and informs with its tales of the corruption of President Warren G. Harding’s attorney general, the bootlegging trade, and the public’s oscillating views of Remus and Prohibition in general.

You can find the complete review at this link!

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Stan Lee: A Life Well-Lived -- Excelsior!

“Lee became Marvel madman, mouthpiece, and all-around maestro – the face of comic books for six decades. The man who wanted to pen the Great American Novel did so much more. Without question, Lee became one of the most important creative icons in contemporary American history.”

Bob Batchelor, author, Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel

Read More

The Black Knight Debuts in 1955

“Strike, black blade! The Black Knight challenges Modred the Evil!”

The Black Knight, created by Stan Lee and Joe Maneely for Marvel Comics (then known as Atlas Comics)

The Black Knight, created by Stan Lee and Joe Maneely for Marvel Comics (then known as Atlas Comics)

Mixing the legendary tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table with elements from superhero lore, Stan Lee and his favorite artist Joe Maneely cocreated The Black Knight for Atlas Comics, debuting in May 1955.

Lee and Maneely took a risk in bringing out the new hero, despite the enduring popularity of King Arthur for centuries. Superhero comic books were basically out of favor in the 1950s, thanks to the ravings of lunatic psychiatrist Frederic Wertham and countless adults who believed his diatribes against the industry, particularly that reading comic books paved the path to juvenile delinquency.

Wertham’s backlash had sent the publishing industry reeling, forcing many companies into bankruptcy. If you didn’t work at a publisher named DC or have characters like Superman and Batman, then turning to other genres proved the only way to stay afloat.

The artistic duo’s creation featured a powerful, armored hero who hid behind a secret identity (the meek Sir Percy of Scandia) so that he could thwart wrongdoers. The Black Knight worked with famed magician Merlin to protect and defend King Arthur's Camelot from the schemes of Modred the Evil.

In the post-Wertham environment, publisher Martin Goodman and editor Lee fiddled with the comic book lineup, attempting to find the right mix that readers would buy. At that time, however, superheroes were out at Atlas. Even the mighty Sub-Mariner would be cancelled in October 1955 with Sub-Mariner #45.

Despite how much the artistic duo of Lee and Maneely loved the Black Knight character, the series only lasted five issues, folding with the April 1956 cover dated copy. Instead, the company moved to cowboy comics, suspense series, and Hollywood tie-ins in an attempt to wrangle the fickle marketplace. Atlas' place on the newspaper stands would feature titles like World Of Fantasy, World of Mystery, and old favorites like Millie The Model.

Spider-Man (2002) Film Sets Box Office Record!

Stan Lee worked in Hollywood for decades in hopes of seeing a Spider-Man film to fruition. Yet, various misfires, failed scripts, and skepticism on the part of film executives derailed the work time and time again.

Stan Lee posing with "Spider-Man" in 1994

Stan Lee posing with "Spider-Man" in 1994

Lee remained vigilant, believing that a well-crafted Spider-Man film would capture the hearts of moviegoers, just as it had comic book readers and people who snapped up the merchandise that featured the teen superhero. Spidey had starred in numerous animated series, in addition to the appearances on The Electric Company and in video games. Yet, despite the evidence of the character's enduring significance and popularity, Hollywood did not beat down Lee's door to make the film version.

Finally, under director Sam Raimi's watchful eye, Spider-Man started taking shape, which would star Tobey Maguire as the Web-Slinger and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson. The film concentrated on the Spider-Man origin story and feature Willem Defoe as the Green Goblin, one of Spidey's most sinister foes.

After a comprehensive marketing campaign leading up to the film's release, Spider-Man set a box office record for a weekend opening, taking in about $115 million, besting Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the previous number one at $90 million.

Lee, who appeared in the film as a bystander to a battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin in Times Square, had to feel vindicated after the tremendous financial success of the film, making about $820 million worldwide and at the time the most successful comic book movie ever made.