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The King of Beer
by Gerald Holland
(originally published in The American Mercury, October, 1929).
Now his name was revered at home, and abroad he was received with the deference due to a merchant prince. At the Holland House in New York it was a tradition that he took more time to sign the register than any other guest, so busy was he with hand-shaking admirers. He had outguessed all his rivals; he was king of the brewers. In middle age he was an imposing figure. He was essentially great and grand; the commonplace stifled him. He wore flowing mustachios and a trim goatee, and was robust and erect. His deep voice, with its trace of accent, was such as to command attention anywhere. He liked the role of benevolent monarch and he played it well. But he never took himself too seriously. One day while driving through his brewery principality with a reporter for a St. Louis newspaper, he remarked the bowing and scraping of his employees as his buggy passed with, "See, just like der king!"
He was fond of the newspaper boys and they were fond of the frequent assignment to interview him. Before the interviewer asked his first question, he could be sure that Adolphus would ask this one, "Vell, vot to drink?" One young man sought to please him by calling for Budweiser. "Ach," said Adolphus, "dot schlop?"
Possessed of boundless energy and limitless good humor, he had the rare quality of adaptability. After a tedious day at the brewery, he was always ready for the less intricate problems that arose over the board at the restaurant of Tony Faust, his closest friend. It was his habit to spend a portion of every evening at Faust's. There he basked in the light of popular favor. He was always a welcome guest, if for no other reason than that he always paid for the drinks. One of his favorite diversions was to display his ability as a connoisseur of wines. He would called for bottles of ten brands and name the vintage of each after a sip. He covered every bet that disputed his judgment, and win or lose, he laughed loudly, paid for every bottle, and ordered drinks all 'round.
Tony Faust, a constant sufferer from the wit of Adolphus, was ever trying to turn a trick on him. One attempt turned out to be a miserable failure. Busch and Faust were standing talking at the bar. A beggar approached and asked for alms. "This is the proprietor," said Faust, indicating Busch. "Sure," said Busch -- and he went behind the bar and extracted $5 of Faust's money from the till for the applicant.
While Busch and Faust were in Paris another time, Busch, who knew several languages, was helping his friend to learn French. He dictated the order for the dinner to Faust, who repeated it to the waiter. At the end of the meal, Tony asked how he might order cigars. Busch told him in language that called for the check.
He was just as quick to appreciate the situation when he was caught. In New York, on one occasion, he called a meeting of managers of several of his varied interests. The time was set for ten o'clock. At the hour all but one of the members were there. Busch refused to proceed until the delinquent one -- Fred Sontag, manager of his Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago -- arrived.
"Where is Sontag?" he demanded, stalking up and down the lobby. No one knew. Adolphus stormed and fretted until eleven o'clock. Then Sontag appeared.
"Sontag," he said, "I call a meeting for ten o'clock and here you are at eleven. You are one hour late."
"Oh," replied Sontag, "I go by Chicago time. It is ten o'clock in Chicago."
"Dot Sontag!" exclaimed Adolphus with a gesture of resignation, "he always gets the best of me!"
A political group once approached him with a request for a donation to the campaign fund of their candidate.
"Ain't dot fellow a Knight of Father Matthew?" Busch asked.
"Yes, sir, he is."
"Vell, you couldn't expect me, a brewer, to help a temperance worker."
"But, Mr. Busch," said the leader, "our man is also a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians."
"Oh, dot makes it different," said Busch as he reached for his check book.
He was a free and easy spender. He maintained his family in a luxury that included estates in all parts of America and a castle on the Rhine. He was philanthropic, too, but he always made it clear that he gave because the notion appealed to him and not because he thought he owed the world anything. His gifts included handsome donations to Washington University in St. Louis and to Harvard. He sent tons of money to the Vaterland. Every Ground Hog Day he gave $5000 to a Catholic convent in St. Louis. He continued the practice until he had given more than $300,000
His workers, too, fared well at his generous hands. Every man in the brewery was entitled to a generous portion of free beer every day; not only that, but he was expected to drink it. The trips to the keg were considered a vital portion of the day's routine. One man was ejected from the brew-workers' union because of failing in that particular; he went to court about it and a decision was solemnly rendered to the effect that in the judgment of the court it was not necessary for a man to drink beer at any time during the day in order to do a normal day's work. The union scoffed at the doctrine, but it reinstated the man.
Adolphus was a political power in St. Louis because as he voted so did all of Carondelet. The first proof of his potency came when he backed Eddie Noonan for mayor in the late eighties. On the strength of his approval, Eddie walked into office. As a result his gratitude was boundless. No favor was too great for him to do for his benefactor. Noting the fact, job seekers descended upon Busch, asking his intercession. Disliking to refuse anyone outright, he gave every applicant a letter to the mayor, enumerating several imaginary but laudable qualities in the bearer. But he arranged with Noonan that if the eye of the eagle on the Busch letterhead had not been pricked with a pin, the statements therein were to be disregarded. Upon being presented with a note, Noonan would pretend to read it. Actually he held it up to the light for the pin-prick. If it was there, he assured the gentleman that a place would be made for him. If not: "Young man, you go back and tell Adolphus Busch that Eddie Noonan runs his administration as he damn well pleases and that no Dutch brewer can tell him who to hire!"
The abashed job seeker departed, confirmed in his conviction that Busch had a heart of gold and equally sure that Noonan was an egg of the worst sort. The method remained in use until the pin-prick sesame became known and applicants took to puncturing the eagle's eye for themselves.
Incidentally, the wand of Busch political power still retains its magic. Al Smith carried St. Louis by a great majority mainly because, just before the balloting, August A. Busch, son of old Adolphus, endorsed his candidacy. The present Senator Harry Hawes can also testify to the Busch power. Arthur Hyde, now sitting in the Cabinet as Secretary of Agriculture, remembers too. When Hyde, a former Governor of Missouri, was stumping for George Williams, who was opposing Hawes for the Senate seat, he let fall a rhetorical question that sewed up the campaign for the enemy. His question was this: "How much did Harry Hawes get for bring Lily Busch back from Germany when the war broke out?" The merest ward-healer spotted that as a faux pas of dire consequences. The election went on ice. Every Carondelet voter, although normally Republican, resented the slur on the Busches and switched to Hawes, who rode in without a bump.
In his day, Adolphus Busch was so well liked that if he caught a cold a dozen organizations and conventions would adopt resolutions of sympathy before he had time to sneeze. On the occasion of his fiftieth wedding anniversary, festivals were held throughout the land. He wasn't in St. Louis at the time, but the admiring natives threw a big party at the Coliseum and drank 40,000 bottles of free beer in honor of the event, after sending a solid gold card of congratulations to the prince and his wife in California. Adolphus very fittingly observed the day by crowning his consort with a diamond studded diadem.
Nevertheless, he encountered a certain social coolness in St. Louis. He didn't care. The town haut monde, in his day, was just a matter of the earliest worms, and if he did not fancy Busch the brewmaster, he gave it no more than an imperceptible damn. He gathered about him his own circle of friends and let it go at that. He wasn't interested in society if he could find good fellows to associate with. His progeny have likewise made no very strenuous effort to mix with the local bon ton. Not one of his lady descendants is in the Junior League, although two were invited to submit to inspection. One ignored the summons; the other replied with a note to this effect: "I am very sorry, but I cannot join your little club." That retort bowled over the swell gals completely.
No Busch has ever made the St. Louis Country Club, the acme of local social attainment. Without membership in that snooty set, one may just as well eat in the kitchen. The Busches stumped the gentry, however, by sponsoring the Bridle Spur Hunt Club, new and very high-toned. Some of the best people now ride dashingly to hounds. The Country Club set has turned a vivid green, for the Bridle Spur Hunt Club now has a waiting list.
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Part Three |