Friday, October 9, 2020

The Great George Remus: Bootleggers Go Hollywood

The general public, it seems, didn’t think much of Prohibition. During the years between 1920 and 1933, when the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made the manufacture, sale, and consumption of most alcoholic beverages illegal throughout the land, many Americans had a strong hankering for a stiff drink. The unintended consequences of Prohibition, which was introduced as a way to improve American social norms, have been chronicled by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in a lively video documentary that first appeared in 2011. In trademark Burns fashion, the three segments combine historic footage, commentary from experts, major actors (including John Lithgow, Samuel L. Jackson, and Tom Hanks) taking on the voices of essential Prohibition figures, and dramatic narration (by Peter Coyote). Music also plays a key role: both period recordings and an evocative jazz score by Wynton Marsalis. The first episode, A Nation of Drunkards, explains the evolution of the temperance movement in the U.S., with Patricia Clarkson featured as the indomitable Carrie Nation.  The second, A Nation of Scofflaws, focuses on the criminal element that thrived in the new “dry” environment. Finally, A Nation of Hypocrites charts the move toward repeal.

 Naturally it’s that second episode, with its cast of bootleggers and other gangster types, that proves the most exciting. Even back in the day, while thugs and federal agents were shooting it out in the streets of many American cities, moviegoers flocked to see flicks in which audacious law-breakers occupied the leading roles. First came 1931’s Little Caesar, with Edward G. Robinson as gangland boss Caesar “Rico” Bandello. Such was the film’s popularity that it was quickly followed by James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931) and then Paul Muni trying on the persona of Al Capone in Scarface (1932). None of these guys could be considered admirable—and the public loved them.

 In Burns and Novick’s series, Paul Giamatti lends his voice to the portrayal of millionaire bootlegger George Remus, known as the Bourbon King for his success in transporting Kentucky’s finest to thirsty patrons all over the U.S. I had never heard of Remus before watching this show, but he proved to be unforgettable. Starting as a pharmacist, Remus evolved into an attorney whose skill at getting off clients faced with murder raps was nothing short of remarkable. Once Remus had segued into bootlegging on a grand scale, he found himself rolling in riches. On December 31, 1921, he staged a spectacular -- and of course liquor-fueled -- New Year’s Eve party at his Cincinnati mansion. All the male guests received diamond stickpins as party favors, while women were given keys to new luxury sedans parked outside. But the star attraction was his spectacular marble swimming pool, into which his beautiful second wife Imogene swan-dived at the height of the festivities.  

 About six years later, Remus’ legal talents again came in handy. Discovering that while he’d been cooped up in prison, Imogene had squandered his hard-earned dough on a lover who was a federal prohibition agent, he gunned her down in cold blood. On trial for his life, he somehow got off scot-free. Bob Batchelor’s The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition’s Evil Genius tells the whole sordid story in much detail. Batchelor, a colleague of mine in the Biographers International Organization, ends his book with some fascinating theories. Remus, he feels, may have been F. Scott Fitzgerald’s model for the enigmatic central character in The Great Gatsby. I’m not wholly convinced, but Remus will always remain for me a Jazz Age figure of exhilarating complexity.




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