A new book by Denise Devine
The Bootlegger's Wife
May 15, 1925
I should have glowed with pride as co-owner of La Coquette, the newest speakeasy in St. Paul,
but I hated the place. From sparkling chandeliers and oriental carpets to white
linen tablecloths, fine china and crystal, the enormous success of our ritzy nightclub
should have exemplified a dream come true for Gus and me. Instead, it created a
false sense of happiness because it was a poor substitute for true riches.
Lately, I’d begun to regret how shallow and materialistic our lives had become and I desperately wanted to reclaim the things our money couldn’t buy. Peace of mind, security and the ability to get a good night’s sleep without the fear of Federal agents raiding my home made the top of my list. I yearned to be an ordinary citizen again, to live a quiet existence and give the new life developing within me the chance to grow up in a home that focused on family matters rather than the ruthless side of “the business.” I couldn’t bear the thought of subjecting my child to the dangerous profession my husband had chosen—the life of a bootlegger.
La Coquette drew a huge crowd every night. Everyone except invited guests paid at the door for a ticket to eat, drink and dance the Charleston in front of a twelve-piece orchestra until the early hours of the morning. On the weekends, we entertained our patrons with popular musicians and a twenty-five-member dance team that performed a new show every Friday. Tonight, the raucous, drunken crowd caroused as though they hadn’t a care in the world as they waited for the show to begin.
The guests at my private table made up an impressive list of St. Paul’s finest public servants, all on my husband’s payroll, of course. Gus and I had invited four couples to meet us for cocktails and dinner. To my dismay, Gus had stayed for one cocktail then excused himself for an appointment and never returned. His rudeness irritated me. If his meeting had detained him indefinitely, he could have at least dispatched Albert, his right-hand man to make his apologies to the group. I didn’t feel well and had hoped to take my leave early, but his disappearance put me behind the eight-ball. I didn’t want to leave our guests to entertain themselves for the evening, but neither did I have the strength or the energy to search for Gus and drag him back to the table.
On my right, the wife of a police sergeant stood and raised her glass for a toast. A buxom redhead with quick smile and a hearty laugh, Sally Wentworth looked like the cat’s meow in her aqua silk and cashmere dress with a gold “skirt sash” wrapped around her hips. A hairclip stuffed with peacock feathers clung to the thick finger waves above one ear.
“Come on everybody. Here’s to a generous hostess and a great gal to boot.” She gazed down at me and smiled. “You’re the bee’s knees, Charlotte LeDoux. You always put on one heck of a party.”
As everyone agreed and touched the rims of their glasses together, she bent low and whispered, “And if my instincts are correct, you’re expecting, too. Congratulations! I won’t say anything until you announce it yourself. Does Gus know?”
Shocked by her statement, I stared at her and slowly shook my head. I hadn’t told a soul yet, not even my husband. I’d had so many miscarriages in the past, I didn’t want to get Gus’ hopes up until I knew for sure I wouldn’t lose this one, too. “How did you know?”
Sally sat down and placed her hand over mine. “I’ve been in your place a few times.” She patted my hand. “Honey, you’re whiter than those beautiful gloves you’re wearing and you look so exhausted I’d say you’re about ready to fall off your chair. The first few months are always rough, but it’ll get better. You just need to go home and get some rest.”
“As a matter of fact, I—”
Before I could wave him away, our waiter appeared at my side, placing a whiskey glass in front of me. “Madame needs a drink. Shall I bring one for Mr. LeDoux?”
My stomach roiled as I looked down at the glass and the sharp aroma of “Minnesota 13,” reputedly the best corn whiskey in the country, wafted into my face. At this point, I didn’t care if it was the best whiskey in the universe, I couldn’t stand to look at it without getting sick. I closed my eyes and pushed it forward. “Please, Gerald, take it away. I don’t care for anything tonight.”
Or ever again if it continues to bother me this much...
Sally snatched the glass and held it to her lips. “I’ll take it. No sense wasting good hooch.” She tossed it back and handed the waiter the empty container. “Thank you, Gerald.”
Then she turned back to me. “Keep a bowl of soda crackers next to your bed. It helps with morning sickness. A glass of lemon-lime soda occasionally might settle your stomach, too.”
I thanked her and groped for my silvery blue shawl and matching mesh purse. The fringed bag, designed by Coco Chanel, contained a hundred dollars in small bills, a tube of red lipstick, my powder compact, and of course, a small, pearl-handled revolver. Gus insisted I carry it with me always, even though I detested guns. I would have traded it right now for a handful of crackers...
“I need to find Gus,” I said weakly and pushed back my chair. I needed to escape this place before I embarrassed myself by fainting or vomiting all over my beautiful, silvery blue gown. What little I managed to eat at dinner threatened to come back up.
“You look awfully pale,” Sally said, frowning with concern. “Perhaps I should come with you.”
Though I understood her concern, I didn’t want company. I didn’t feel like talking. I just wanted to find my husband and go home. I clutched the rope of pearls around my neck. “Thank you for asking, Sally, but I’ll be fine.”
“All right, but you go straight home now and take care of yourself.”
I promised her I would as she straightened my shawl and sent me off with a hug. Waving goodbye to my guests, I headed across the smoky room to find my husband. As I made my way through the crowd, the room began to spin and I immediately regretting not accepting Sally’s aid. Afraid of falling, I quickly clutched the back of the nearest chair to keep my knees from buckling. Though in my third month, my pregnancy had plagued me all along with bouts of fatigue, nausea and dizziness.
The man occupying the chair, an older gentleman with thinning hair and a narrow mustache, turned, surprised by my intrusion. My face must have showed my distress for he frowned and placed his hand on my elbow. “Are you all right, Miss?”
I wanted to collapse on the floor, but instead I mustered a faint smile. “Yes, I’ll be fine, thank you. It’s so warm in here...I just need to get some fresh air.”
I concentrated on staying upright as I slowly walked away, determined to find Gus and make him take me home. At the next table, I stopped one of our “cigarette” girls, a skinny, blonde with a chin-length bob wearing a short red dress and matching pillbox hat. She roamed from table to table, carrying a tray of cigars, cigarettes and novelties for sale.
“Irene,” I said evenly, attempting to mask my worsening condition by sounding merely curious, “have you seen Gus?”
“No, Mrs. LeDoux,” Irene replied innocently. “I haven’t seen him since Madame Deveraux arrived.”
Madame Adrienne Deveraux—our newest singer and the most evocative performer I’d ever witnessed. A raven-haired beauty, her smoky voice, hourglass curves and poisonously scarlet lips oozed with sensuality. From the moment she cast her dark, sultry eyes on Gus, I knew she’d set her sights him. I had a sinking feeling she had her red-lacquered claws into him at this very moment.
I scanned the cavernous room, searching for Gus among the crowd. Tuxedos, silk gowns and diamonds described the clientele at La Coquette; spending money and lots of it was the name of the game. We offered our patrons a casino in the basement, a supper club on the main floor and private rooms on the third level for business meetings and private card games. Gus handled the business end of the club, including the third-floor meeting spaces. My job was to welcome our invited guests and impress them with our hospitality.
Suspended two stories above the dance floor, the huge crystal chandelier reflected a rainbow of lights, creating a romantic glow. However, the thick smoke hovering in the air made my eyes blur. I had difficulty focusing on the person next to me, much less the sea of people hopping like chickens on the dance floor. Frustrated, I turned my back on the reverie and slowly made my way toward the stairway that led to Gus’ office on the upper floor.
As I neared the stairway, I bumped into a man crossing my path. “Excuse me,” I whispered to the handsome, dark-haired gentleman. He stepped out of my way, barely acknowledging me and walked swiftly toward the entrance.
I clung to the railing and pulled myself up the stairway, my head pounding in sync with every step I took. At the top of the stairs, I leaned against the wall for support as I stumbled down the hallway. At the end of the corridor, I turned the corner and encountered Albert Schmidt, Gus’ personal bodyguard. The short, dark-haired man, equipped with thick arms, a stocky build and the strength of an ox, stood guarding the door to Gus’ private office with a pistol in his right hand. My greatest fear turned out to be true. Gus had his paid watchdog stationed at the door so no one would interrupt him. Even an idiot could guess why.
By now, nausea and dizziness plagued me so heavily I could hardly stand, but I mustered all the energy I had to look the big German square in the eye. “I need to talk to Gus. Now.”
Albert tipped back his black Fedora with the tip of his gun. His deep voice held a trace of his native accent. “I got strict orders from da boss. No one is to disturb him. No one.”
A low, passionate moan seeped under the door of his office.
Under normal circumstances, I liked Albert, but I didn’t care for him very much right now. Mustering up the strength to stand up straight, I poked him square in the center of his starched white shirt. “Listen, you big goon—I mean what I say.” Placing both hands on his chest, I tried to push him away, but he didn’t budge. “Move away from the door, Mister, and that’s an order.”
His face blanched, but I knew it had more to do with his embarrassment of my hearing Gus’ lover in the throes of passion than the threat of my knee in his groin. “I cannot do that, Frau LeDoux.”
The guttural sounds coming from under the door angered me so much I temporarily ignored my condition. I had worse things to deal with now. Desperate, I started to pull the revolver from my handbag, hoping the sight of it in my palm would show this hired thug I meant business. “Step aside, Albert. This is between Gus and me!”
I probably looked as ridiculous as I sounded, but Albert didn’t laugh. With a stoic face, he calmly but firmly pulled the bag from my hand, removed the revolver and handed the bag back to me. Then he proceeded to empty five bullets from the chamber. “I’m sorry. I mean no disrespect, but I cannot allow you past me, with or without a loaded gun.”
Citizens of the underworld were fearful of my husband and called him “boss” or “sir.” When I seethed with anger, as I did now, I called him every swear word I knew. And after nine years of marriage to Gus, I knew them all in his native language of French as well as English.
“I know you’re in there, Michal!” I screamed in frustration, using his Christian name. “You and your French whore!” Since I couldn’t get past Albert, I resorted to the only thing a girl could do to disarm a man. I began to sob. Given my condition, the emotional outburst came easily. “Come out, you coward—right now—and face me! How dare you treat me like this!”
I figured calling my husband a coward in public would be enough to get his attention, but the door stayed shut. Holding my stomach, I glared at Albert and said in a shaking voice, “I want my bullets back.”
He pocketed the bullets in his navy suit coat and handed me the empty revolver. “Calm down, Frau LeDoux. Be a good wife and go back downstairs.” He put his hand on my shoulder and gave me a sympathetic look. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”
My eyes spilled over with tears of shame and humiliation. “I will never accept this—”
Suddenly a door at the far end of the hallway slammed open and one of the gun-carrying guards from the catwalk on the roof burst into the hallway. “It’s a raid!” he hollered as he tore past us to warn the patrons downstairs. “Get out fast! The Feds are coming!”
Hair stood on the back of my neck. My arms filled with goose bumps. My greatest fear had just begun to unfold.
The door to Gus’ office flew open and my husband stood in the doorway holding a pistol, his sandy hair as disheveled as his wrinkled white shirt, his suspenders hanging loosely at his sides. He showed no remorse at being caught literally with his pants down.
Behind him, Madame Deveraux eyed me with a sly smirk as she pulled up the straps of her olive silk gown.
I looked into Gus’ grayish-green eyes and deep in my soul, something irrevocably changed. My belief in true love and “happily ever after” with this man had shattered. I vowed never to trust him, or any man, ever again.
“Get her out of here!” Gus glared at me, but spoke to Albert. “You know what to do.”
“Yes, sir.” Albert jumped into action and grabbed me by the arm, pulling me down the hallway. “Come with me, Frau LeDoux.”
“You’re choosing to be with Adrienne over me?” I cried, looking back. “You traitor!”
“I’m a target. You’ll be safer with him.” Gus’ eyes blazed. “I said GO!”
Albert pulled me down the stairs and into the large coat closet, narrowly avoiding the screaming mob that thundered toward the exits to escape the coming wrath. Behind a movable rack of fur wraps, a dozen or so people were filing into a tunnel through a small, secret door.
“Coming through. Step aside!” Albert guided me to the head of the line and pressed my head down as he shoved me through the door and followed close behind. The men ahead of me in the tunnel carried lanterns to light our way.
The musty, dank passageway, filled with cobwebs and centipedes, gave me chills, but I knew I fared much better than the people upstairs and I wondered what had happened to the man who’d nearly collided with me. Had the Feds apprehended him on his way out? I gripped the long skirt of my evening dress and marched along the downward slope, keeping up with Albert. I had to escape for the sake of my baby. The thought of being arrested and taken to jail frightened me to the core, but it also strengthened my resolve to keep going, no matter how badly I wanted to stop and catch my breath.
The tunnel curved sharply and once we reached the bend, I saw people streaming through an open door into the twilight. As we approached the exit, I recognized Harv and Marv Katzenbaum just ahead of me. Marv, stiff from arthritis, hobbled along with a large ledger tucked under each arm. He’d worked as Gus’ chief bean counter since the beginning of Prohibition. Harv, Gus’s attorney, carried a sack of money in each hand.
The tunnel ended at the bottom of a hill, surrounded by a thick stand of oak trees. I took a deep breath, relieved to have fresh air, but the sound of rapid gunfire frightened me, spurring me on. Albert and I picked up the pace again.
“Where are we going?” I hollered at his back as we emerged from the trees to a city street. I saw the auto dealership directly across the street and knew we were headed there. Gus owned it.
We ran across the dealership lot, passing between used Chryslers, Chevrolets and Packards until we came to a new Nash Touring Car. It looked like a beauty in solid black, but I assumed that if Albert chose it as his getaway car, it had speed, too. We climbed into the front seat and raced away just as bullets whizzed past the vehicle.
Albert’s large, rough hand pressed on my shoulder. “Get down!”
I pulled off my beaded cloche hat and slumped to the floorboard as Albert gunned the gas pedal and drove like a maniac, dodging parked cars and speeding through intersections. Without warning, he made a quick turn and the car nearly slid out of control. I hung on for dear life.
After a few minutes, I poked my head above the seat, thinking I would be safe now that darkness had descended. “Where are we going?”
“Never mind, Frau LeDoux. Stay down!”
Albert drove through a dark tunnel at breakneck speed, down into a large ravine called Swede Hollow. The little hamlet of shanties, nestled along Phalen Creek was the place where I’d grown up and even though my family had moved to a better neighborhood, I still knew many of the families in the hollow.
Before Prohibition had shuttered its doors, my father had worked at the LeDoux Brewery, situated on the edge of the ravine. That’s where I met my husband, Michal Gustav LeDoux, the eldest son of the owner, Michal, Sr.
Gus must have told Albert to bring me here if he ever needed to whisk me away to a place of safety.
Just when I thought we’d escaped into the night, headlights reflected in the side mirror. Suddenly, a torrent of bullets showered the car. Albert slumped over the wheel and the car careened head-on into the creek. Still on the floor, I slammed my head against the seat. The impact of bouncing over rocks in the creek forced the door to pop open. For a few moments, I sat still, gasping for breath, aching badly. I slowly raised myself above the seat and realized my thigh hurt fiercely in one spot because I’d been sitting on my purse with my gun still in it. The long rope of pearls around my neck caught on the shift stick as I moved and broke. Dozens of Japanese pearls scattered across the seat and floorboard.
“Albert? Albert, are you all right?” I gripped my hand on his shoulder and shook it.
He didn’t answer.
The flash of headlights cut through the dark, moonless night as several cars sped into the ravine. Knowing I had to leave him and save myself, I pulled off my T-bar shoes, grabbed my handbag and slid out of the car, dropping my bare feet into the cold, shallow stream.
I shivered uncontrollably as I waded through the water, knowing I had to get away before the men on my trail caught up to me. I made it across the creek and hobbled into the brush, heading toward the back of a house just as a car slid to a stop behind the Nash and several men jumped out. My brain couldn’t think straight, I was so cold, but gut instinct warned me to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
“I’ve got to hurry,” I whispered to myself and forced my feet to move faster through the weeds, knowing the Feds would apprehend me unless I found a good place to hide—or a way out without getting caught. I made it to my former childhood home, a small shack without electricity or running water, and walked around the back of the place wishing I could rest a while. My left hip ached like crazy, but I knew I couldn’t stop until I’d reached the railroad tracks along the western slope. Relief flooded through me as soon as I spotted the tracks. Stepping as fast as I could, I followed them out of the hollow.
As I walked along through the darkness in bare feet and a wet dress, I gradually felt no discomfort, only a strange sense of calm in the chilly May air. Pulling my shawl tighter around my shoulders, I thought about what I’d do next. I had no idea where my husband was—in jail perhaps or...dead, but knowing Gus like I did, there was a good chance he was still alive. He’d earned the nickname “Lucky LeDoux” by twice surviving gunshots at the hands of rival bootleggers. To my astonishment, however, I didn’t care one way or the other. I only knew that I couldn’t live this life anymore—as a bootlegger’s wife.
I had to find a safe, stable place to raise my child.
Sadly, I knew better than to hope Gus would go back to the way we were before Prohibition when he worked in his father’s brewery. Once the eighteenth amendment passed—known as The Volstead Act—the LeDoux brewery had been forced to shutter its doors, destroying the family income and causing Gus’ father, Michal Sr., to die of a heart attack. Gus’ deep-seated anger at the government for devastating his family and the folks who’d depended upon the brewery for their livelihood fueled his decision to forge ahead despite the risks. Enlisting many of his former employees, he’d formed a new operation–bootlegging Minnesota whiskey.
Our peers looked upon us as a happy, successful couple who’d broken through the present economic barriers and entered the ranks of the wealthy elite. Maybe on the surface that’s the way it looked to others, but no matter how well we lived now, we couldn’t change our past. At the end of the day, I was still an immigrant’s daughter who’d grown up in a crude shanty and Gus was still a brewer’s son.
I loved Gus with all my heart, but it grieved me to see how deeply the times had changed him. Before Prohibition, we lived a simple life and we were happy together. Nowadays he preferred collecting barrels of money and the sinful pleasures it could buy more than he loved me. Even so, he’d never let me go if he discovered I’d planned to leave him. Not now, especially not in my present condition. This I knew without a doubt. I had two options—go back to my husband and take my chances with the Feds or start a new life for myself and my unborn child. It only took a moment to choose my path.
Charlotte LeDoux had ceased to exist.