Getting to Know George Remus

Surprisingly little has been written about George Remus, the “King of the Bootleggers.” That’s why I bought and read “Jazz Bird” a so-called historic-fiction novel a few months ago. The writing is mediocre, but more importantly it is not “historic-fiction,” at least not as I define it. It’s just irresponsible. To me, the best of that genre describes books that weave fictional characters into historically accurate events in order to convey the history in a more entertaining narrative. Although it starts to push the bounds of responsibility, these novels sometimes use known facts to infer emotions or motives of actual historic characters. “Jazz Bird” goes way beyond this, completely fabricating characters, personalities and significant historical events that never occurred. “Jazz Bird” is to historic-fiction what Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” is to WWII documentaries. The difference is that “Inglorious Basterds” is fun because essentially everybody alive today knows that WWII was not won by a beautiful woman in a movie theater. By contrast, the dearth of information on Remus makes “Jazz Bird” wildly irresponsible.

If you want to read really good fiction based on George Remus, read “The Great Gatsby.” F. Scott Fitzgerald is believed to have based the character of Jay Gatsby very loosely on Remus after a chance meeting between the two at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville. It’s a classic. Fitzgerald was a masterful writer who had the integrity to call his book fiction.

If you want to read a really well researched and well written non-fiction account of the man, buy a copy of “King of the Bootleggers” by William A. Cook. Aside from being chocked absolutely full of glaring typos that make you wonder exactly what publishers get paid for these days, it’s a great book. The narrative is well-constructed and placed very nicely into context of the surrounding events and circumstances. It’s a great read that makes you wonder why there are so many books and movies about far less interesting gangsters like Al Capone and so little about a man who remains an incredible mystery.

Option number three: If you have already made the mistake of reading “Jazz Bird” and it constitutes the totality of your knowledge about George and Imogene Remus, let me hit the highlights of misinformation. First, Imogene was a clerk in a deli in Chicago near where Remus practiced law, not the daughter of one of his Cincinnati attorneys. She was from Chicago and is buried there. All of the significant aspects of the plot to “Jazz Bird” that flow from Imogene’s fictional background – betraying her father, the relationship with her mother, her attempt to introduce Remus to Cincinnati high-society as a patron of that world, the suicide that comes out of all of this, the vision quest in the desert that follows (where an uncomfortable amount of time is spent concentrating on Imogene’s nipples in the moonlight), etc., etc. – is all fiction, and mostly bad fiction.

That’s not to say that “Jazz Bird” is completely without some accurate history. Reality is in there too, the problem is that there is no way to feel the difference between reality, speculation, fiction and fiction that completely changes the facts of history. What “Jazz Bird” does get right – and Cook gets even better – is the mystery of George Remus and what his mental state was when he murdered Imogene.

Imogene seems to have remained loyally by Remus’ side even after he was sentenced to serve several years in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. A federal agent named Franklin Dodge played a key investigative role in putting Remus away and was subsequently sent to the Atlanta prison to investigate corruption there. Remus asked Imogene to make contact with Dodge and try to hasten his release from prison. Instead, she apparently started sleeping with him. As this relationship blossomed, Imogene seems to have decided that keeping Remus in prison as long as possible was in her best interest, so she put her efforts into exacerbating his legal problems and trying to get him deported. Partly using the power of attorney that Remus had trustingly given her to run his bootleg business while he was in the can, she and Dodge stole the withdrawal permits that Remus had bought from the Harding administration, stole his liquor, and sold off his assets – sometimes for pennies on the dollar.

Remus owned ten distilleries in the Cincinnati region. The Fleishman Distillery was one of the first things she sold for a meager $18,000, and then taunted him by mailing him a $100 check in prison for his share of the profits from the sale. The extent or exact nature of the relationship between Imogene and Dodge is lost to private history. “Jazz Bird” fills in some of these gaps with speculation, which would be fun if so much unnecessary slaughter of reality were not also tossed into the plot. Whether Imogene was a gold-digging sociopath or just easily led is unknown, but Dodge stopped being a federal Prohibition agent and went into the bootlegging business with Remus’ assets, and Imogene filed for divorce while Remus was doing time.

Remus had to do more jail time in Ohio after he got out of prison in Atlanta. When he was finally free he arrived home to his Price Hill mansion to find that Imogene had cleaned it out. She sold almost everything: the Rookwood pottery in the opulent indoor pool, the statuary in the yard, the art, the furniture, even the chandeliers. She also had the place nailed shut so that Remus had to break a window to crawl into his own empty home. She did leave a few things in the house – a bunch of women’s shoes and, according to Remus, a revolver that was lying in the garage. It was that revolver that Remus claimed to have used to shoot her dead in Eden Park on October 6, 1927.

Remus’ entire life is fascinating, but it is the murder trial of Imogene that draws the most curiosity. Remus, along with co-counsel, defended himself in the murder trial using the defense of insanity. In Chicago Remus had become a very successful criminal defense attorney. Representing bootleggers inspired him to go into the business himself, transforming him from lawyer to criminal and from affluent to mega-rich. The most interesting thing about Remus’ legal career, however, is his representation of a Cincinnati socialite named William Cheney Ellis who murdered his wife while visiting Chicago in 1913. Police found him in a room full of blood, wearing a bathrobe and calmly smoking a cigar. Remus defended Ellis with what was, at the time, a very novel defense – “transitory insanity.” This trial, so many years and so many events before he murdered Imogene, along with one other interesting piece of information, will always leave questions about who Remus really was. He shot his wife on the day that their divorce trial was scheduled to start. Intriguingly, although he was an attorney and had hired a competent divorce lawyer, he seems to have done essentially no preparation for the trial.

It is possible that Remus failed to prepare for the divorce trial because he was emotionally unable to do so. There is ample evidence that he was in genuine emotional pain over the events that transpired between himself and Imogene. The other explanation is that he didn’t prepare because he was planning on eliminating the Plaintiff before the trial. If so, if the murder was planned, a guy with Remus’ connections could have arranged a much cleaner hit than a high-speed car chase ending in him personally shooting his wife in front of dozens of witnesses on their way to work. Again, maybe he was just overwrought, irrational, genuinely unhinged; but the other possibility is much darker. Is it possible that he planned to get by with murder by acting as his own counsel and using the defense of insanity? The logistics and the nerve that would have been necessary to execute that kind of twisted plan is almost unfathomable, but is it what happened?

The jury found Remus insane. He was sent to an asylum for a few months, until the doctors there declared him sane and issued his release. He eventually married his third wife, Blanche Watson, from Covington. Remus moved to New York for a while but moved back to Cincinnati where he owned stock in the Reds and sold real estate out of an office at 5th and Walnut. He spent the rest of his life trying to get back the money and assets that Imogene stole. He was mostly unsuccessful, although he did reclaim much of his furniture from where it was being stored in the Art Joinery building at the corner of Clay and 13th in OTR.

Remus was buried in his third wife’s family plot in Falmouth, Kentucky. I don’t know how I feel about Remus. I can read the history and see a brilliant, morally pliable man who is somewhat sympathetic for being betrayed by essentially everyone around him. He may also have been one of the steeliest nerved sociopaths to ever live – and the two things may not be mutually exclusive. After finishing Cook’s book I felt the need to go see Remus. His grave itself is part of the lore that surrounds him. Years ago, while people who knew Remus were still alive, somebody tore the wings off the angels.

This cemetery is in Falmouth immediately adjacent to Rte. 27. You can’t miss it and the photo will give you a pretty good sense of where to find the grave, on the northern, tobacco field side of the older, western part of the cemetery. Amy Morgan took the photo of the grave. Although Remus was a teetotaler – never drank a drop of alcohol – we toasted him with a nice German Riesling anyway, and sort of renewed our vows in a limited way. She promised not to steal my meager possessions or, should I ever be sent to prison, sleep with the cop who put me there. I, in turn, promised to never hunt her down and shoot her dead in Eden Park – or any of the city’s finer parks. It was romantic.

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One Response to Getting to Know George Remus

  1. leonard mushrush says:

    I also found a need to visit Mr. Remus. The gates of his home are all that’s left here in Cincinnati. You toasted him with wine-I went with a cigar. Leonard

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