The Jazz Bird
by Craig Holden
Published by Simon & Schuster
320 pages, 2002
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
On the pleasant morning of October 6, 1927, Imogene Remus -- the second wife of George Remus, one of the most successful bootleggers in Prohibition-era America -- stepped into a taxicab outside her hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio, and headed for a meeting with her attorney. She was preparing on that day to divorce her husband of six years. However, not long after leaving the hotel a black, chauffeur-driven Cadillac, with George Remus occupying its back seat, fell in behind the taxi and chased it as far as the city's spacious Eden Park, where it forced the cab off the road. Quickly, Imogene fled her car and ran out onto the carefully tended public grounds, but George was hot on her tail, shouting for her attention. When he finally caught up to his estranged spouse, he shot her dead with one round from a pistol.
Those are the bare facts in the murder of Imogene Remus. But they're only the starting point for author Craig Holden, who in The Jazz Bird takes the Remus homicide and the headline-grabbing trial that followed it, and molds them into the core of a haunting, vividly written and tragic tale of love gone horrendously wrong. Imagine an F. Scott Fitzgerald story as edited by James Ellroy and you get an inkling of The Jazz Bird's multifaceted allure.
"I had the idea, after I finished my last novel, Four Corners of Night , to write something set in history, and I'd always been fascinated with the 1920s," explains Holden, an Ohio-born wordsmith now living near Ann Arbor, Michigan. He had originally proposed basing a book on that period's rampant outlaw liquor trade along the Detroit River (which also inspired Loren D. Estleman's impressive 1990 standalone, Whiskey River). "But I began by reading several general histories of Prohibition, and in each of them there were some vignettes of colorful characters of the era, and inevitably these included Remus. It was a little while after I first read the history that it struck me as an amazing drama, and I began to look at it more closely."
The real-life George Remus was one of many Americans who saw profit potential in their country's hapless effort, beginning in 1920, to ban "the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors." A German immigrant, who arrived in Chicago at age 5, Remus had started out as a pharmacist, supporting his family after his father was incapacitated. In his mid 20s, he turned to the study and practice of law, making a name for himself as a criminal defense attorney, specializing in murder cases. But even before passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which declared an alcohol prohibition -- to be enforced by the Volstead Act -- Remus had decided to switch allegiances from one side of the law to the other. Taking advantage of loopholes that provided for the sale of whiskey for medicinal purposes, he bought pharmacies and distilleries and sold liquor to himself under government licenses, with most of that "hooch" disappearing into the black market long before it ever hit the public one. Remus eventually owned at least a dozen distilleries in Kentucky, Ohio and Missouri, and moved to Cincinnati just to be at the center of America's bonded whiskey production business.
Riches came rolling in, as expected. "Handling nothing but medicinal whiskey," wrote Herbert Asbury in his spirited 1950 Prohibition history, The Great Illusion, "Remus made more than five million dollars in less than five years; in one period of eleven months he deposited $2,800,000 in a single Cincinnati bank." To ensure that this money stream would keep flowing, Remus and his associates bribed judges, officers of the Internal Revenue Service, politicians and police. Harry M. Daugherty, the U.S. attorney general under Republican President Warren G. Harding, reportedly pocketed $500,000 from Remus, in exchange for ignoring the rum king's impenitent violations of the Volstead Act. Yet Remus still wasn't safe; he would serve several short jail sentences during his bootlegging career.
The Jazz Bird hits both the dizzying highs and the desperate lows of that career. We're offered an abridged version of the often shocking murder case against Remus and, in extensive flashbacks, the still more compelling backstory of the bootlegger's relationship with the woman whose life he was destined to take.
Any question of Remus' responsibility for his wife's demise is dispelled in the first chapter, as the rum king surrenders himself to police and confesses his crime. But he subsequently refuses to roll over and accept whatever punishment might be meted out by his contemporaries. Instead, Remus chooses to act as his own solicitor, claiming he was temporarily insane at the time he pulled the trigger.
An insanity defense has always been controversial and difficult to mount, as Remus' chief opposing counsel is well aware. He's 30-year-old Charles P. Taft II, the younger son of William Howard Taft, a former president of the United States who had gone on to become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Harboring his own political ambitions, Charlie Taft intends to prove that Remus' crime was premeditated. And he is determined not to let Remus or the bootlegger's co-counsel, one-time assistant prosecutor Carl Elston, show him up before the judge or the media. Having already chalked up one recent loss in prosecuting a bootlegger-murderer, Taft can't afford a repeat performance if he's to remain viable as a candidate for the U.S. Senate or even, someday, the White House.
This one had to be a win, however it turned. Maybe Remus would confess and look for some plea. Life instead of death. The public would buy that. Remus was a kind of hero to a lot of these people. As long as he went away, Charlie didn't care. But if Remus fought it, it could be ugly. Charlie had no doubt that Remus would fight. And he had no illusions that he could let this one slip away. The election wasn't for another three years, but they'd never forget.
As adversaries, Taft seems overmatched in these pages. The 42-year-old Remus, though he's frequently morose and occasionally loses his composure in court -- objecting at one point to his own co-counsel's defense strategies, and at other times looking devastated by the necessity to prove his own capacity for mental breakdown -- comes off as the more vital and engagingly impetuous figure. He's also better practiced at using the press to his advantage.
By contrast, Taft is earnest, artless and more than a bit intimidated at having to measure up to the reputations of his father as well as his elder brother, Robert (who in 1927 was the editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, but would go on to become a powerful U.S. senator and a pernicious thorn in the side of President Harry Truman). If one were casting The Jazz Bird as a feature film, the Taft role might best go to Kevin Costner, as he appeared -- efficient and ersatz -- at the start of The Untouchables, while Remus would ideally be portrayed by a maladroit and slightly short-circuited Gregory Peck. Charlie Taft's most interesting contribution to this yarn is his ripening interest in the late Imogene Remus. Although he gets to know her only through the dry leaves of her diary, Taft slowly falls more than a bit in love with Remus' wife, establishing a link between prosecutor and defendant that enriches the novel's plot, even as it exercises a jealous streak in Taft's own mate.
Given Holden's character portrayals, it's obvious why these two men -- or heck, most any man -- might be enchanted by the woman born into Cincinnati high society as Imogene Ring. Ten years Remus' junior, she's smart, rebellious, impetuous, ambitious and, as Taft puts it, "pretty, to be sure, but there was another quality, of guile, of mystery, or danger, especially in her eyes." First encountering Remus when he employs her lawyer-father to do some work on his behalf, Imogene is drawn to the unflashy bootlegger and he, more apprehensively, to her. Imogene's father objects fiercely to their involvement, but his daughter will have none of it. Especially since she knows -- and is all too willing to tell -- more about her sire's own racketeering connections than proves healthy for him in the long run.
Once won over, Remus is ardent and demonstrative in his affections. To convince Imogene to marry him, he buys an abandoned old mansion and then helps her restore it as a venue for splendiferous social functions. The 1920s was a glamorous and rather daring decade in the United States, highlighted by the burgeoning of Hollywood and the sprouting of criminal empires, and backgrounded by the stirring strains of jazz. Imogene reflects her times by throwing lavish parties, attended by members of the silver spoon set (though they voice dismay at her choice of mate) and society columnists (though they snub the Remuses by not mentioning anything of these soirées). Resolving that she and her husband will be noticed and talked about, in preparation for one party, Imogene hides $100 bills under every guest's dinner plate. On the morning after a still larger New Year's fête, with most of the 200 attendees having stayed the night, Imogene and Remus treat them all to a champagne breakfast:
[E]ach couple found before their place a small hinged box. Assuming they contained rings, the women eagerly opened them. They found jewelry, all right, but men's: a diamond tie tack or cuff links. Remus laughed at the disappointed looks aimed in his direction, but said nothing until the breakfast was concluded. He then led his guests toward the front door, and outside.
Not surprisingly, this profligate lifestyle doesn't last. In 1924, George Remus is sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, following an investigation of his activities by Frank Dodge, an allegedly incorruptible Bureau of Prohibition agent. While he's away, Remus expects Imogene to maintain their circumstances as much as possible -- and to do anything she can to spring him. In Holden's novel, as well as in reality, she instead liquidates her husband's assets, begins an affair with the handsome Dodge and sues Remus for divorce. When the bootlegger is finally released in 1927, he returns to Cincinnati to find that he's lost both his missus and his money.
But is this a simple case of a disloyal wife turning thief? Or were Imogene's perceived betrayals, and even a botched assassination attempt on Remus' life, all parts of some recondite scheme to help the beleaguered rum king, rather than hurt him? As Holden unrolls the concluding chapters of his novel, we witness a collision of passion and hatred, ebbing sanity and mounting misunderstandings that can only have fatal consequences.
The author readily admits that in order "to make the most dramatic story possible," he took some liberties with the essentials of the Remus murder and trial.
"I say in my notes at the end that I invented freely, especially with the character of Imogene," Holden continues. "I think the rest of the major characters pretty much follow the lines of what actually happened to them. The trial itself is directly based on several different accountings I had -- not complete transcripts, but very close to it -- though it has been simplified, because in real life it was just byzantine in its complexity.
"In real life, Imogene was Remus' secretary, in her 30s, a divorcee and mother of a teenage daughter, and Remus' lover. Remus (who was a bit older in real life than I have him in the book), when he decided to leave Chicago for a life of crime in Cincinnati, asked her to come with him, and she told him she would if he married her. So he got a divorce and did. She was not from the upper crust, let's say, and very badly wanted to be seen as a member of high society. So she spent a lot of his money trying to get there (and failed). And when, in real life, she ran off with Frank Dodge, it was apparently for no other reason than that she had fallen for him, and so she dumped Remus, took the money and ran. Not really much of a love story. And from the beginning, the one thing I felt about this novel was that for it to work, it had to be a real love story. So, for me to write a real love story, I had to change the real Imogene into my Imogene."
It's hard to fault a novelist for fictionalizing, especially when the results are so captivating. Holden, who has earned plaudits for his previous literary suspensers (The River Sorrow, The Last Sanctuary and the aforementioned Four Corners of Night), employs a pared-down and forceful prose style in The Jazz Bird that nicely abets his book's nimble plot. And though this isn't principally a legal thriller, some of Holden's courtroom scenes are as affecting as any you're likely to find in crime fiction. (Particularly gripping is a chapter called "Scenes from a Killing," in which a series of witnesses help piece together the puzzle of that final confrontation between Imogene and her husband.) However, it is the author's intricate crafting of his protagonists -- the ultimately remorseful Remus, the blindered Charlie Taft, the luminous Imogene (who's not content, even after death, to step completely away from the action) -- that makes this a book other historical fictionists will want to imitate. | January 2002
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.