How did George Remus become “Bootleg King?” What drove him to criminality—Hubris? Greed? Love of alcohol?
George Remus moved decisively into bootlegging.
As Remus’s legal career flourished, he became celebrity in Chicago, then nationally. [I like to joke that he was kind of the Johnnie Cochran of early twentieth century Chicago.] The fame and money were not enough to satisfy his desires — he expected to become a larger than life figure. Remus thought of himself in almost presidential terms, as if he were anointed to greatness.
Remus began defending small-time Windy City bootleggers in his law practice. Like court employees, attorneys, and probably even the judges themselves, George looked on bemused when these hoodlums would pay fines by pulling large rolls of cash out of their pockets and quickly counting out huge sums of money. Rolls of hundreds…
Legend has it that Remus realized if the two-bit thugs could make thousands of dollars, then he could use his intelligence to make millions.
As a top defense attorney, George’s annual salary reached more than ten times the cost of the average home in America, but he wanted more…more fame, money, and the toys the good life made possible.
Remus had no moral position on bootlegging or breaking the law. He often claimed to be a teetotaler, but many witnesses could have testified to that standing as yet another Remus “little white lie.” He liked to share a stiff drink and a fat, black cigar with friends, despite the public histrionics about not drinking liquor.
George needed to play intellectual games to justify his positions on various issues. For example, he believed that acting outside the bounds of decorum in court battles was okay, because doing so enabled him to spare his clients the death sentence. The end goal made the means of attaining it justified in his mind.
Similarly, Remus didn’t think Prohibition was a just cause. His early attempts at bootlegging in Chicago proved that enforcement was difficult and that people would continue to demand liquor, regardless of the law.
George also knew that the money would give him power and influence. He set out to exploit the loopholes in the Volstead Act as a way to fulfill the flashy life he dreamed of…and his young paramour Imogene Holmes yearned for her entire life.
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.]