This one goes out to our history nerds. There’s certain legends behind our favorite TV shows and movies that seem too crazy even for fiction, such as that of George Remus, elements of whose life appeared as a minor character on Boardwalk Empire, and Bob Batchelor’s book The Bourbon King: The Life and Times of George Remus, Prohibition’s Evil Genius provides all the dirty details. Or at least, all those that can still be found. Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, Remus took advantage of unbelievable loopholes in the legal system of his day to become a lasting influence on pop culture of today.
For America, the 1920s is a mythical time of plenty that we all know happened just before the Great Depression. The 1919 Volstead Act made recreational alcohol consumption illegal here, and inadvertently created an opportunity for organized crime. Into this perfect storm stepped George Remus, a German immigrant who basically taught himself how to be a pharmacist in an uncle’s drugstore before he was twenty, and then got bored and decided he wanted to be a Chicago lawyer. George Remus operated with the same fashion sense and philosophy of law as Saul Goodman, but with a penchant for referring to himself in the third person. Remus also married glamorous socialite Imogene Holmes, who later ran off with an FBI agent when Remus was sent to prison. Once Prohibition started, Remus lived up to the “evil genius” section of the title and began an empire of illegal bootlegging, by buying bourbon that already existed and was for medicinal purposes (oh, medicine was a nightmare) and then selling it illegally. This surprisingly simple loophole turned out to among the least outrageous shenanigans that Remus pulled off before his death from natural causes in 1952.
Batchelor argues that Remus was perhaps the most wealthy of the criminals who became folk heroes of the 1920s, but these gangsters left a longer lasting reputation in the crime genres of film and literature. Films like the original Scarface came out in the height of Prohibition, and even feared gangsters like Al Capone seem heroic somehow. That reputation has led to classic movies like The Untouchables where Robert de Niro plays Capone, as well as laying the foundations for The Godfather franchise, the updated Scarface, Goodfellas, The Departed, The Irishman, and other Scorcese favorites. In addition to helping invent the “gangster” genre, Batchelor makes an argument that Remus inspired aspects of The Great Gatsby, even though Gatsby seems more like a patchwork quilt of sources than any one man. The most interesting pop character here, sadly receives far less cultural immortality than Remus: Mabel Willebrand, the U.S. Assistant Attorney General who worked tirelessly and put the gangster behind bars. Mabel, who led a far less flamboyant life than Remus, gets pushed to the edge of the story here as she always seems to. She was the inspiration for Boardwalk Empire’s Esther Randolph. In real life, Mabel became a prominent Justice Department employee at a time when few women had such positions of power, and she fought crime at a time when her Attorney General was more or less open about his corruption. There’s undoubtedly a fascinating book waiting to be written about her. Bob Batchelor’s The Bourbon King provides a biography of a legendary Prohibition figure but it also shows thats facts are sometimes stranger than fiction. George Remus lived an exciting and outrageous life that few fiction writers could ever dream up. In hopes of emulating the antics of him, and others like him, American fiction would soak up as much bullets and bravado as it could for decades to come.
Four stars out of five.
Page count: 400