Chapter 21

Afterlives, and the missing man


ON WAYNEB. WHEELER’S DEATH in 1927, the Washington Post didn’t hold back: “No other private citizen of the United States has left such an impress upon national history.” Six years later, after Prohibition crashed to earth in the storm of Repeal, his impress vanished with his creation. Wheeler’s name popped up in the New York Times a few times in the wake of the ASL’s final defeat, in references to “Wayne Wheeler tactics” and the like, and then, from 1935 until 1975, it appeared in the paper exactly twelve times. Four of those appearances were in obituaries of various dry associates, three others in reviews of books recalling Prohibition. Then, after 1975, nothing at all. American history texts tell the story of Prohibition, but they leave out the name of its author. Wheeler’s legacy may have been present in nearly every single-issue political movement that arose in the eight decades after his death, but the person was not. The very fact of Wayne Wheeler’s existence disappeared from the national memory.

In the years immediately after Prohibition, Wheeler’s allies and heirs followed a variety of paths. On the morning of December 6, 1933, James M. Doran, who had spent the previous six years as director of the Prohibition Bureau and then commissioner of Industrial Alcohol, leapt over the wall that divided the regulators from the regulated, becoming the top official of the liquor manufacturers’ trade organization. Seven years after he had lost his job, Izzy Einstein was still publicly defending Prohibition when he dedicated his 1932 autobiography “To the 4,932 persons I arrested, hoping they bear me no grudge for having done my duty.” But in 1935, celebrating his son’s wedding with 93-proof rye, California sauterne, and a claret-based punch, Einstein said, “If you want my opinion, the quality you get these days is not so hot. The bootleggers sold better stuff in Prohibition days than you can get now.” Mabel Willebrandt failed in her effort to obtain a federal judgeship, instead becoming one of the leading lawyers in the entertainment industry. Her client list ran from Clark Gable and Jean Harlow to Frank Capra, who said his “first meaningful action” as president of the Screen Directors Guild was “acquiring the wisdom, experience, and brilliant legal talents of that great lady of the law, Mabel Walker Willebrandt.” In 1954, sponsored by her old friend John Sirica, the woman Al Smith had blamed for bringing religion into the 1928 presidential campaign converted to Catholicism.

One who didn’t change much at all was Andrew J. Volstead. Three years after losing his reelection bid in 1922, the author of the era’s signature law went to work as a staff attorney in the Prohibition Bureau’s Northwest Region office in Minneapolis. After returning to his private practice in a small second-floor office in Granite Falls, Volstead spoke to a journalist just four weeks before Repeal. “Mr. Volstead said he wishes people would learn that Prohibition and all its developments are all in the past for Andrew Volstead, private citizen,” the reporter wrote. Volstead himself added, “Anything I might say could do nobody any good. All it would do would be just to bring ridicule upon me.” Late in life he expressed regret that he was remembered for the National Prohibition Act. He’d rather be known, he said, as coauthor of the Capper-Volstead Act, which exempted certain farmers from antitrust regulation so they could organize voluntary cooperatives. He did not get his wish.

Unlike the sponsor of the Volstead Act, the author of the Eighteenth Amendment was hardly remembered at all. Morris Sheppard of Texas, the courtly, Shakespeare-quoting progressive who may have been Prohibition’s most sincere political advocate, did not give up the fight after his failed filibuster of early 1933. That summer, as his state prepared to vote up or down on ratification, Sheppard got into a small Ford truck, loaded a speaker’s platform and sound equipment into the back, and traveled more than five thousand miles of Texas roads, speaking against Repeal in fifty cities and towns. But after a late August referendum, when a majority of Texans voted to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment, Time invoked Sheppard’s infamous prediction of just three years earlier. “Last week,” the editors wrote, “humming bird and Washington Monument were well on the way to Mars.” For the remaining eight years of his life Sheppard continued to address the evils of alcohol in his annual January 16 speech on the Senate floor. By 1935 he was calling for the repeal of Repeal. On his death in 1941 a Senate eulogist said the end of Prohibition had been “the one great disappointment and abiding sorrow” of his life.

Sheppard’s never-say-die dedication to the cause wasn’t shared by all of his fellow drys. Less than twenty-four hours after Utah’s ratification made Repeal official, waitresses at the Dearborn Inn outside Detroit were serving beer in the dining room. Since the hotel was one of Henry Ford’s pet projects, the new addition to the menu, said the New York Times, “caused many of those present to speculate on what Mr. Ford’s future policy would be.” It was a reasonable question, given that Ford had vowed only four years earlier to shut down his factories if drink ever came back. A definitive answer arrived less than three months later, when he began an advertising campaign touting the suitability of Ford trucks for the booming brewery business.

But reformist passions less influenced by commercial exigency did not abate. Instead, time altered them. By 1933 the WCTU had diminished to such an extent that its national convention had to concern itself with pennies, voting to allocate all of $300 to fighting Repeal in Missouri, $150 for an antibeer campaign in Oklahoma. Ella Boole, who in 1947 would step down as president in her ninetieth year, turned the WCTU’s attention to international activities and brought Frances Willard’s “Do Everything” doctrine (without, of course, Willard’s effectiveness) to such issues as disarmament and the status of women. In later years the organization veered right. In 1998, for instance, the Maryland chapter “continued our work against abortion [and] homosexuality . . . and praised women who are home raising their children.” In one respect the WCTU did not change: that same year, the organization “celebrated the 100th Anniversary of Frances Willard’s Heavenly Birthday”—that is, her death. It also maintained Willard’s Carpenter Gothic–style Rest Cottage in downtown Evanston as a memorial and a museum, but had the resources to keep it open only six hours a month.

The ASL fared no better. Within a year of Repeal the Michigan chapter, for one, went into receivership. Scott McBride blamed “repeal drinking” for riots, disorder, industrial strikes, and an increase in the number of deaths by sunstroke. Bishop Cannon “continued to write and speak,” a biographer wrote, “but found few interested in the message.” Part of Cannon’s message was his abiding anti-Catholicism; in 1939 he criticized Congress for adjourning in acknowledgment of the death of Pope Pius XI. One of his last public statements of any sort was a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch protesting the disappearance of Prince Valiant and the Phantom from the paper’s comics pages.

Eventually the ASL tried an identity change, reemerging first as the Temperance League and then as the American Temperance League. That didn’t stick, either, and in 1964 it was finally reincarnated as the American Council on Alcohol Problems, promoting “a philosophy of abstinence.” From its two-person headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama, the ACAP (né ASL) continued to publish the Union Signal. At its peak the ASL newspaper had been the mainstay of the league’s around-the-clock Westerville printing plant, a robust weekly published in a national edition and several different state editions. In 2008 it was a four-page newsletter, published quarterly.

NOT EVERYONE ON the other side fared better than the drys, but the people who made their living selling alcoholic beverages certainly did. For the big brewing families—the Pabsts and the Busches, the Millers and the Coorses—Prohibition cleared the field. Of the 1,345 American brewers who had been operating in 1915, a bare 31 were able to turn on their taps within three months of the return of legal beer—primarily the big companies that had kept their doors open producing ice cream or cheese or malt syrup during the dry era. Several hundred firms returned to the business in the ensuing years, but the head start seized by the big breweries triggered a consolidation of the market that would never end. (By 1935 five companies controlled 14 percent of the market; by 1958 their share had reached 31 percent; by 2009 the three survivors owned 80 percent.) The brewers didn’t just get richer; they also grew smarter. When war arrived in 1941, the men who controlled the dominant brewing families—still almost exclusively German-American—did not make the mistake their fathers and grandfathers had. Anheuser-Busch redrew its logo, putting an American bald eagle where a German version had earlier stretched its wings, and the family purchased the maximum legally authorized quantity of war bonds. Their loyalty was rewarded when the federal government authorized draft boards to grant deferments to brewery workers. Ten years earlier beer had been illegal; now the men who made it were considered essential to the war effort.

The wine industry reconstituted itself more haltingly. Beer could be made quickly, but the gestation time of even halfway decent wines meant that salable inventories were virtually nonexistent when Repeal arrived. In the Napa Valley, endless rows of now-worthless alicante grapes, planted during the homemade wine boom of the early 1920s, choked the valley for years. (As late as 1951 wine writer Frank Schoonmaker could say, “The sooner this variety is eliminated from superior California vineyards, the better.”) Worse yet, the fourteen-year cloud that had hovered over most of the California wine industry had erased winemaking knowledge accumulated in the pre-Prohibition years. It did not help that the University of California at Davis, the Oxford and Cambridge of American oenological science, had shut down all its wine work during the 1920s.

Consequently, recalled vintner Ernest A. Wente, one man was “right in the driver’s seat when Repeal came”: Georges de Latour. Thanks to his arrangement with the Catholic Church, de Latour and his Beaulieu Vineyards had floated through Prohibition on a river of sanctified wine. While potential competitors labored to build up their inventories in 1933, de Latour was sitting on a million gallons in barrels, which he began bottling in the months leading up to Repeal. “Mr. de Latour has expended a fortune this fall,” reported the St. Helena Star. “He has furnished many men with work, paid good wages and contributed to the well-being of many families in the valley.” Even more valuable was Beaulieu’s winemaking skill. While other wineries were trying to relearn their craft, the experienced vintners of Beaulieu were sweeping up the prizes at American wine competitions. When de Latour died in 1940, the means of his ascent did not go unnoticed: four archbishops presided at his funeral.

To some there was also a religious aspect to the post-Repeal distilling business. Fortune intimated the Jewish dominance of the liquor industry with a notable lack of grace. In November 1933 the magazine captioned a collection of head shots of industry leaders “Four Gentlemen of the Faith,” and eleven months later it elaborated: “For better or for worse, the industry today has hardly the ruling caste that a Hitler would be happy about.” The men who dominated the post-Repeal business either arose from the medicinal liquor racket, like Lewis Rosenstiel of Schenley, or they invaded from the north. Among the latter, Sam Bronfman was preeminent.

Repeal had not yet arrived when the Bronfmans purchased the Rossville Union Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, in 1933. Unlike the Greenbrier Distillery they had acquired in 1922, this one was not dismantled and moved to Montreal. On December 5, as dockworkers and cartage men on distant St. Pierre marked the last day of Prohibition with a funeral cortege led by French and American flags at half mast, Sam Bronfman was already sitting on the four hundred thousand gallons of whiskey in the Rossville warehouse that had been part of the deal. Working closely with his brother Allan, he bought out his Scottish partners, acquired the Calvert Distillery in Maryland, devised the slogan that Seagram’s would wear like a badge of civic responsibility (“Drink Moderately”), and introduced Five Crown and Seven Crown, the brands that would make his legal American fortune. Seagram’s sold a million cases of the Crown brands in 1935, their first full calendar year in the U.S. market.

But neither good citizenship nor good business could purge the Bronfman brothers of the reputation that had attached itself to them during the bootlegging years. Late in 1934 the Canadian government investigated several years of dubious commerce and brought a mammoth conspiracy suit against the four Bronfmans and fifty-seven others. They were charged with smuggling liquor out of Canada in violation of the Export Act and smuggling liquor back into Canada, via St. Pierre, without paying appropriate duties. Regarding the outbound smuggling, the Bronfman lawyers made the sensible argument that the Canadian government had been a virtual party to it. Regarding the inbound smuggling, they were more audacious: although Bronfman liquor had gone to St. Pierre and Bronfman liquor had returned from St. Pierre, and more than $3 million had been transferred from Bronfman accounts in St. Pierre to Bronfman accounts in Montreal, they persuaded the court that there was insufficient evidence establishing that the Bronfmans had in fact been responsible for the cross-border shuffle.

Still, American officials were not prepared to welcome Sam Bronfman with open arms. The consul general in Montreal tried to persuade U.S. authorities to bring smuggling charges against the Bronfmans, arguing that a conviction “would constitute a moral and psychological triumph, similar to the capture of Capone.” It would also, he suggested, “remove from active ‘hostilities’ the fertile brain and evil genius of Sam and Allan Bronfman.”

But instead of bringing a prosecution, the Treasury Department negotiated a settlement with the Canadian government, providing for payment of U.S. excise taxes on all the Canadian whiskey that had flowed across the border during the Prohibition years. After diplomatic exigencies led the Americans to settle for only $3 million of the $60 million they considered due, the Canadians collected from the various distillers their proportionate share of the back taxes. The Bronfmans, unashamed of their dominant role in the “export business,” agreed to pay a full 50 percent of it.

When Treasury Department officials came calling at the Seagram’s castle on Peel Street in Montreal, however, Bronfman maintained that the payment was going in the wrong direction. According to a witness, Bronfman told them that “the United States Government should be grateful to him for having smuggled rye and bourbon whiskies into the United States and having thus kept alive an appetite there for these types of whiskies.” Had he not, Bronfman pointed out, the United States would have become a nation of Scotch drinkers, and the American whiskey industry would have never gotten back on its feet.

For Charlie Berns and Jack Kriendler of “21,” the only thing they needed in order to become legitimate was the turn of the calendar on the night of Friday, December 5, 1933. The loyal and profitable clientele that the proprietors had built made Saturday’s business the same as Friday’s business, except that it was taxable. Good connections developed in the 1920s paid off in other ways. In 1941 Franklin D. Roosevelt pardoned Berns for his one Volstead conviction so the former speakeasy operator could get a gun license. The “21” Club of the speakeasy era, with its elaborately engineered system for destroying incriminating evidence in the depths of its subcellar, was best memorialized by a rumor originating in the 1950s, when the land directly behind 21 West Fifty-second Street was excavated for construction of a branch of the New York Public Library on Fifty-third Street. Workers laboring a couple of dozen feet below street level, it was said, were taken aback by the odor of alcohol that permeated the soil.

WITHOUT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT’S desperate need for new tax revenue, said Representative John J. O’Connor of New York early in 1934, “we would not have had Repeal for at least ten years.” Congress’s avid interest in the new liquor taxes suggests that he may have been right. It wasn’t just the mandarins of the AAPA who had seen the promise of government revenue in a bottle of booze or beer; a liquor tax bill passed the House in the first week of January, by a vote of 388–5.

Not that the economic conservatives who had pushed so hard for Repeal weren’t especially delighted. Ratification had already triggered a clause in the National Industrial Recovery Act, which had become law the previous June: Section 217 provided for the immediate revocation of emergency taxes on dividends and excess profits, effective upon the ratification of Repeal or the passage of a balanced budget, whichever arrived first. This was comparable to setting up a race between a rocket and a rock. In the very first post-Repeal year, even though many states remained dry or severely limited the sale of alcohol, the government collected $258,911,332 in alcohol taxes—instantly, nearly 9 percent of total federal revenue.

All this new money did facilitate a cut in income tax rates. The levy paid by workers earning $2,000 to $3,000 annually dropped by a full 20 percent in the years immediately following Repeal. But it didn’t go down for the wealthy. Much of the liquor revenue was treated as additive, and helped to pay for the new government initiatives that began to proliferate in the second half of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. To the economic conservatives who had sponsored Repeal, the combination of high taxes and new programs defined a perfect hell. They had defeated the drys, but in their own view they had ended up similarly vanquished. In the summer of 1934 a small group convened in Washington to discuss their displeasure. Among them were John J. Raskob, Irénée du Pont, James W. Wadsworth Jr., and Al Smith.* Out of this and subsequent discussions emerged the American Liberty League, whose meetings might as well have been AAPA reunions. As they had with the AAPA, the du Pont family took on financial responsibility for the largest chunk of the league’s operating costs. Smith and Wadsworth were among the group’s first five board members. Pierre du Pont soon joined them.

It did not take long for the Liberty League to become notorious in a nation that was growing increasingly loyal to Franklin Roosevelt. The members’ names drew attention, but not necessarily of the complimentary sort: J. Howard Pew of the Sun Oil Company. General Motors chairman Alfred P. Sloan Jr. Steel magnate Ernest T. Weir. And, of course, archmandarin James Montgomery Beck, who referred to New Dealers as “Washington Stalins.” Roosevelt could not have wished for a better foil than this alliance of multimillionaires profoundly out of touch with the agonies the Depression had imposed on most Americans. To Roosevelt—and through Roosevelt, to much of the nation—the Liberty Leaguers were “unscrupulous money changers” seeking to manipulate “political puppets” for their own benefit. He was proud, the president said, to have earned “the hatred of entrenched greed.”

In 1936 the Liberty League tried to summon the same political and financial power it had brought to defeating Prohibition, this time in an effort to deny Roosevelt a second term. It turned out to be a dreadful year for them. The first debacle was a gathering of two thousand members and supporters, described by a reporter as “jammed elbow to elbow, tailcoat to tailcoat, fluttery bouffant to sleek black velvet dress” as they listened to Al Smith deliver a viciously anti-Roosevelt address “under the gilt plaster ornaments and glittering crystal chandeliers” of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. At the time, 20 percent of the U.S. workforce was unemployed. National sympathy for the Liberty League sank even lower as the year unfolded. After throwing their full emotional and financial support behind Republican Alfred M. Landon, the league helped him achieve the most mortifying defeat in American presidential election history, losing the electoral vote 523 to 8.

Along the way Pierre du Pont, whose personal tax bill in some years was higher than any other American’s, had a revelation: his support for the AAPA, he suddenly concluded, had been misguided. “I acknowledge my mistake,” he wrote. “The effort should have been directed against the XVIth Amendment”—the income tax amendment—“which I believe could have been repealed with the expenditure of less time and trouble than was required for the abolition of its little brother,” the Eighteenth. Prohibition had been dead for three years, but the damnable taxes du Pont had expected to die with it lived on.

“THERE CAN ONLY be one capital, Washington or Moscow,” Al Smith had said at the Liberty League’s banquet at the Mayflower. “There can be only one atmosphere of government, the clear, pure, fresh air of free America, or the foul air of communistic Russia.” The audience ate it up. “The noise rose in waves,” said the Post. “Applause shook the ballroom.” At the speakers’ table, “in an evening jacket of solid white sequins over a black crepe gown,” sat one of the program’s other stars, a member of the six-member administrative committee that did most of the league’s work: Pauline Morton Sabin.

In Women and Repeal, an authorized history of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, author Grace Root attempted to define Pauline Sabin’s influence on American politics. Root (who was Elihu Root’s daughter-in-law) stated that the founder of WONPR had provoked America’s husbands to ask, “What have you done to my wife, Mrs. Sabin? She now insists upon reading the editorial page before she will pour my breakfast coffee!” A similar, if less cringe-inducing, way of putting it was offered decades later by one of Sabin’s granddaughters: she had taken at least one phylum of American women “out of their living rooms, away from their canasta packs,” Pauline Sabin Willis said, and into active and independent engagement in the nation’s political life. Women had won the vote in 1919, but by opposing the dominant position of the WCTU and its allies, Sabin and the WONPR proved that women were not a monolithic political bloc.

Sabin’s early affinity for the American Liberty League suggested that the women who had broken with the WCTU were moved by the same ideas that motivated so many of their husbands. Widowed in 1933, Sabin in 1936 married Dwight F. Davis, a former secretary of war (and the donor of tennis’s Davis Cup) who also embraced the Liberty League agenda. Clearly, though, Sabin was also impelled by what she later told a reporter was her favorite activity: “organizing.” The Liberty League was there at hand, and Sabin embraced it and helped pull it together.

But when the league crumbled, she did not travel with those fellow league members who migrated to the isolationist America First movement. During World War II Sabin was the extremely effective director of volunteer services for the American Red Cross, coordinating aid that reached some four million families. After the war she actively engaged in political life, chiefly with the Democratic Party, while simultaneously serving, according to columnist Joseph Alsop, as “the most admired hostess” in Washington. (Sabin sold Bayberry Land to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 1949.) In 1953, two years before her death at sixty-eight, she publicly condemned the “sickness of fear, of mutual suspicion, of unhealthy credulity” engendered by the McCarthyite Red hunts. But Sabin’s most telling post-Repeal political act—the one that demonstrated just how far she had traveled—occurred a few years earlier, when she urged her friend Harry Truman to veto a bill that had just passed Congress. Its central provision, which had provoked her to action, was a tax cut.

AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY, where the evidence of money is carved into the facade of nearly every building, the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, named for Sam Bronfman’s eldest child, resides within Adolphus Busch Hall. Neither the illegal foundation of the Bronfman riches nor the saloon culture that launched the Busch fortune (not to mention the political manipulations that protected it for so long) disqualified either family from a proper memorial. Alcohol-derived wealth acquired before Prohibition had long been suspect, but after Prohibition the possessors of the old wealth were rehabilitated, and even those who made their money by breaking the law could buy a free pass to respectability.

To a degree this curiously benign aura came to surround the reputations of the era’s homicidal gangsters, truly evil men who managed nonetheless to acquire a romantic glow over the decades. Foremost among these, of course, was Al Capone, who became the beneficiary not only of his own deft use of the press, but of decades of Hollywood mythmaking. Over the years Capone has been played by Rod Steiger, F. Murray Abraham, William Devane, Eric Roberts (Eric Roberts!), Robert De Niro, Ben Gazzara, and Jason Robards Jr. (not to mention Paul Muni as Tony Camonte, a fictionalized version of Capone, in the original Scarface, and Al Pacino in its remake). If Capone hasn’t exactly been portrayed as a hero, all that celluloid has enabled him to maintain a reputation that would delight any narcissistic mobster. More than sixty years after Capone’s death, a browser on eBay could make bids in a single day for Al Capone wristwatches, trading cards, bobblehead dolls, toy machine guns, wall clocks, “framed art prints,” cigarette lighters, belt buckles, and T-shirts. Other items included a two-sided Al Capone Dog Tag Necklace; a “tiny piece of hat owned and worn by Al Capone, with Certificate of Authenticity”; a photocopy of Capone’s death certificate; from the Franklin Mint, an Al Capone Collectors’ Knife; and a Hugo Boss “Al Capone–style” suit, available in 40, 42, or 42 long. Literary offerings included several biographies, as well as Black Hats: A Novel of Wyatt Earp and Al Capone; the Travel Guide to Al Capone’s Chicago; Al Capone Was a Golfer: Hundreds of Fascinating Facts from the World of Golf; and a much-honored children’s book entitled Al Capone Does My Shirts—also available in Spanish as Al Capone Me Lava La Ropa.

The rapper 50 Cent has said that Capone is his style icon. The Al Capone Memorial Jazz Band issued a CD in 1999. On St. Pierre, where economic life reverted to the hardship-ridden fishing industry in 1933, a small, sad museum in the Hotel Robert displays a straw hat said to have been left behind by Capone—even though there’s no reason to think Capone ever heard of St. Pierre, much less ever visited it. Even more bizarrely, the city of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, is home to Big Al’s Café, a motel called Capone’s Hideaway, and stores full of Capone schlock—coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, and so on. The town boosters who claim that Capone visited Moose Jaw, ran its prostitution and gambling dens, and had his tonsils removed by a local doctor are probably not aware of Capone’s colloquy with a Toronto reporter who was in Chicago to cover the mobster’s tax evasion trial in 1931. When the reporter asked him about his Canadian connections, Capone replied, “I don’t even know what street Canada is on.”

Although Capone’s immortality seems to reside in a fantasyland of wishes, error, and kitsch, the wider criminal world’s bequest to post-Prohibition America was palpable—primarily, of course, the transnational scourge of organized crime. The syndicate built and maintained by Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, and others was deeply rooted in Prohibition, when each of these men rose to prominence on a tide of illegal liquor. Once booze became legal, they developed a business that eventually produced profits even greater than those from bootlegging. It was an effort, wrote historian Mark H. Haller in 1976, that “involved the investment of tens of millions of dollars by ex-bootleggers from Boston, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Florida, Cleveland, Chicago, and Minneapolis.” Haller was writing under the auspices of a federal commission that had spent three years taking testimony from hundreds of people in law enforcement and other fields. The bootleggers had devised a money machine that proved to be “the culmination of their efforts,” Haller concluded—namely, Las Vegas.

Some, though, did decide to invest in the legal liquor industry, even if they did have to pay those damnable new taxes. Longy Zwillman and his old boss, Joseph Reinfeld, operated a distribution business under the name Browne Vintners. A few years after they sold it to Sam Bronfman in 1940, Reinfeld took his share of the payout and, with a new partner, bought the eminently respectable Somerset Importers from Joseph P. Kennedy. This was the same Joseph P. Kennedy who had at the onset of Prohibition taken physical control of much of the stock from his father’s legal liquor business; who in 1922 had provided the booze for his tenth Harvard reunion; who had later taken control of the RKO film studio; who was one of the most successful stock market speculators of the 1920s; and who, more than seven decades after the end of Prohibition, was the single individual, except perhaps for Capone, most identified in the public mind with the bootlegging industry. If you tell people you’re writing a history of Prohibition, virtually everyone asks the same question: “Do you have any good stuff on Joe Kennedy?”

Now, there’s a story. . .

ON SEPTEMBER 26, 1933, the same day Colorado became the twenty-fourth state to ratify the Repeal amendment, forty-five-year-old Joe Kennedy was aboard the S.S. Europa, bound for Europe with a younger friend and their wives. Their destination was England, where the seeds of Prohibition’s most enduring legend were about to be planted.

The younger man was an insurance agent named James Roosevelt. As he was also the eldest son of the new president, he was, said the Saturday Evening Post, “something like an American Prince of Wales.” Kennedy’s fondness for his twenty-five-year-old shipboard companion was such that he sometimes referred to himself as Roosevelt’s “foster father.” During their stay in London one or the other of them met with Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and two of his eventual successors, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. Together they had lunch with the managing director of the Distillers Company conglomerate. If Joe Kennedy wanted to open political doors or commercial ones, he could have done worse than travel with the son of a president.

By the time he returned from the UK—his wife had continued on to Cannes and then to Rome with the Roosevelts for an audience with the pope—Kennedy had concluded all-but-final agreements to become the sole American importer of Dewar’s, Haig & Haig, and Gordon’s Gin. These contracts were the crucial third leg of an enterprise that was also balanced on medicinal liquor permits Kennedy had obtained in Washington and the bonded warehouse space he had lined up. Shipments began arriving in November. Having heeded the advice of the president of Kentucky-based National Distillers, who had urged him to “get your skeleton organization in position” before sailing for Britain, Kennedy could anticipate December 6, 1933, as Opening Day for the next expansion of his already substantial fortune. On that morning, before the national hangover from the previous night’s revels had entirely subsided, Kennedy, wrote journalist Alva Johnston, “was on the market with one huge shipment of Haig & Haig medicine and another huge shipment of John Dewar medicine.” His Somerset Importers was in business, founded on an investment of $118,000. It apparently took its name from the Boston men’s club that barred its doors to Kennedy and other Irish Catholics, and it owed its creation to Kennedy’s friendship with Franklin Roosevelt’s son. Somerset emitted the scent that hovered around most marriages of politics and commerce, but it was in every respect perfectly legal.

That last part—“perfectly legal”—was something Walter Trohan, the longtime Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune, failed to include in an article published some twenty years later, when Kennedy’s son John was serving his first term as U.S. senator from Massachusetts. In that 1954 article on James Roosevelt’s impending divorce, Trohan also related the story of Joseph Kennedy’s Roosevelt-assisted entry into the liquor business. After a brief description of Kennedy’s deal with the British, Trohan added, “At the time prohibition had not been repealed.” This was true as far as it went, but it did not acknowledge that the pre-Repeal liquor Kennedy imported in November 1933 entered the country under legal medicinal permits, and was at first stored in legally bonded warehouse space. From such acorns, nourished by a lifetime’s accumulation of rumors, enemies, and vast sums of money, arose the widely accepted story of Joseph P. Kennedy, bootlegger.

Except there’s really no reason to believe that he was one. The most familiar legacy of Prohibition might be its own mythology, a body of lore and gossip and Hollywood-induced imagery that comes close enough to the truth to be believable but not close enough to be . . . well, true. The Kennedy myth is an outstanding example. The facts of Kennedy’s life (that he was rich, that he was in the liquor business, that he was deeply unpopular and widely distrusted) were rich loam for a rumor that did not begin to blossom until nearly thirty years after Repeal. Three times during the 1930s, Kennedy was appointed to federal positions requiring Senate confirmation (chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, chairman of the U.S. Maritime Commission, ambassador to Great Britain). At a time when the memory of Prohibition was vivid and the passions it inflamed still smoldered, no one seemed to think Joe Kennedy had been a bootlegger—not the Republicans, not the anti-Roosevelt Democrats, not remnant Klansmen or anti-Irish Boston Brahmins or cynical newsmen or resentful dry leaders still seething from their humiliation. Nothing in the Senate record suggests that anyone brought up the bootlegging charge; there’s nothing about it in the press coverage that appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, or the Boston Globe. There was nothing asserting, suggesting, or hinting at bootlegging in the Roosevelt-hating Chicago Tribune or in the long-dry Los Angeles Times. Around the time of his three Senate confirmations, the last of them concluding barely four years after Prohibition’s Repeal, there was some murmuring about Kennedy’s involvement in possible stock manipulation schemes and a possible conflict of interest. But about involvement in the illegal liquor trade, there was nothing at all. With Prohibition fresh in the national mind, when a hint of illegal behavior would have been dearly prized by the president’s enemies or Kennedy’s own, there wasn’t even a whisper.

In the 1950s another presidential appointment provoked another investigation of Kennedy’s past. This time Dwight Eisenhower intended to name him to the President’s Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Activities, an advisory group meant to provide oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency. The office of Sherman Adams, the White House chief of staff, asked the FBI to comb through Kennedy’s past associations and activities. The fat file that resulted touched on nearly every aspect of his life, including his business relations with James Roosevelt. Nowhere in the file is there any indication of bootlegging in the Kennedy past or even a suggestion of it from Kennedy’s detractors.

And so the record remained, apparently, until his son’s presidential campaign. That’s when the word “bootlegger” first attached itself to Kennedy’s name in prominent places—for instance, in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article dated October 15, 1960, in which Edward R. Woods wrote, “In certain ultra-dry sections of the country Joe Kennedy is now referred to as ‘a rich bootlegger’ by his candidate-son’s detractors.” A quiet period followed, and then the inference started showing up again after the 1964 publication of the Warren Commission report. Supporters of the theory that John F. Kennedy was murdered by the Mafia suggested that the assassination had something to do with the aged resentments of mobster Sam Giancana.

Then the mob stories began to pop up like spring blossoms. Meyer Lansky, who’d had plenty of chances to talk about it before, suddenly claimed a pre-Repeal Kennedy connection. In 1973 Frank Costello told a journalist (with whom he was collaborating on a book) that he had done business with Kennedy during Prohibition; the inconsiderate Costello proceeded to die a week and a half later. Another mobster, Joe Bonanno, repeated Costello’s assertion on 60 Minutes ten years after that—while promoting a book of his own. By 1991 a drama critic for the New York Times could refer to Kennedy in a theater review as a bootlegger without any elaboration. The same year a potential juror in the rape trial of one of Kennedy’s grandsons could assert without challenge, during voir dire testimony, that the family fortune had been founded on bootlegging. By then it had become nearly impossible to ask a reasonably informed individual to name a bootlegger without getting “Joe Kennedy” as a reply.

Some of the less reputable Joe-as-Bootlegger assertions are based on “evidence” as flimsy as one man’s recollection that he’d seen Kennedy on the docks near Gloucester, gazing out to sea, waiting for his next shipment to come in. Never mind that during the 1920s, when he was an extremely successful stock market trader and the hands-on owner of a major motion picture studio, Kennedy might have had more productive ways to pass his time. One writer, citing an interview with Al Capone’s ninety-three-year-old piano tuner, actually has Kennedy coming to Capone’s house for spaghetti dinner to discuss trading a shipment of his Irish whiskey for a load of Capone’s Canadian.

Looking backward, many find convincing evidence in the booze Kennedy provided for his Harvard tenth reunion—something any thirty-three-year-old sport could have done in 1922, especially one whose father had legitimately been in the liquor business before Prohibition and retained the right to own his remaining stock.

Others have chosen to leave shards of evidence insufficiently examined—for instance, the biographer who found a 1938 letter from Kennedy to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, in which the new ambassador mentions his twenty years of doing business with Great Britain. The investment industry and the movie industry could have provided Kennedy with plenty of opportunity for transatlantic commerce in those years. Additionally, had the biographer realized that Hull was a lifelong and active dry, he might have been less eager to conclude that Kennedy could have been referring to nothing but the bootlegging business. Others have uncovered the name of a Joseph Kennedy in the transcripts of hearings conducted by the Canadian Royal Commission on Customs in 1927, but do not mention that the “Joseph Kennedy Export House” was based in Vancouver; that its eponym was identified at the time as fictitious; and that the operation in fact belonged to Henry Reifel, a powerful British Columbia distiller who, according to Bronfman biographer Terence Robertson, had simply appropriated the name of a waiter in a Vancouver bar.

Even the most reputable investigators have been unconvincing. Trying to nail down Kennedy’s putative bootlegging career, one of the finest reporters of the last forty years tried assiduously to overcome what he called “the remarkable lack of documentation in government files.” In hundreds of pages of FBI reports, he found “no mention of any link” between “Kennedy, organized crime, and the boot-legging industry.” He then proceeded to retail a batch of second- and third-hand stories from people who had been suspiciously silent for generations. A noted scholar of the Scotch whiskey industry based his case for Kennedy’s illegal activity on the memory of a Scotsman he interviewed more than three decades after Repeal—a man who not only might have been remembering the liquor-importing Joe Kennedy of 1934, but who also, as it happened, asked his interviewer not to reveal his name, even after his death.

One can exonerate the old Scot of malicious intent. The Kennedy family’s rise to prominence, compounded by the increasing appearance of stray rumors in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, surely made dimly recalled encounters from the distant past suddenly seem more meaningful (or, as the aspiring litterateurs Costello and Bonanno may have hoped, more profitable). It’s harder to forgive writers who stretch logic and research standards as if they were Silly Putty—for instance, the author of a Kennedy family biography who, unable to find substantive evidence of bootlegging, reaches a conclusion that can only be described as mind-boggling: “The sheer magnitude of the recollections,” he writes, “is more important than the veracity of the individual stories.”

One cannot prove a negative. Perhaps there’s a document somewhere, or even a credible memory, that establishes a connection between Joseph P. Kennedy and the illegal liquor trade. But all we know for certain is that Joe Kennedy brought liquor into the country legally before the end of Prohibition and sold a great deal of it after. Along the way the “legally” somehow fell off the page, as it had in Walter Trohan’s 1954 article. Given nearly eight decades of journalism, history, and biography, three trips through the Senate confirmation process, and the ongoing efforts of legions of Kennedy haters and Kennedy doubters (and even Kennedy lovers who venerated the sons but despised the father), one would think that some sliver of evidence that he was indeed a bootlegger would have turned up by now.

But Joe Kennedy didn’t have to be a bootlegger. After all, nearly everyone else was.

* Smith was not as unlikely a member of the group as it might appear to those who knew him as the liberal, social-welfare-promoting governor of New York. As Raskob’s close friend, he had already embarked on a rightward move during the 1928 presidential campaign, when he became the first Democrat ever to run on a high-tariff platform. The association with Raskob further aligned him with the anti–New Deal right. A more unlikely member of the Liberty League was none other than Richmond Hobson, a dry afloat in a sea of wets.

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