The Bootlegger's Wife
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May 15, 1925
It was a typical Saturday night of drinking, dancing and defying the law at La Coquette, the newest and most luxurious venue in St. Paul, Minnesota. Tuxedos, silk gowns and diamonds described the dress code of our clientele; “anything goes” was the name of the game. From sparkling chandeliers and oriental carpets to white linen tablecloths and fine china, the enormous success of our ritzy nightclub exemplified a dream come true for Gus and me.
Gus handled the business end of La Coquette. My job was to welcome special guests and impress them with our hospitality. Some of our guests came from North Dakota or Chicago, clients who purchased liquor through our bootlegging operation. Others were corrupt city officials who accepted bribes to look the other way.
Patrons had their choice of a casino in the basement, a supper club on the main floor or private rooms on the upper level for business meetings and invitation-only card games. Except invited guests, everyone paid at the door for a ticket to eat, drink and be as merry as their hearts desired. As far as the drinking part went, we served the setups—a glass with ice and ginger ale—and our customers spiked the drinks with their own supplies of bootlegged liquor. The club employed several off-duty policemen to watch over the crowd, but as long as customers were discreet about their liquor consumption, the police left them alone.
The guests at my private table made up an impressive list of St. Paul’s finest public servants, all on my husband’s payroll. Tonight, 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. It was unlike him to be so rude and it irritated me. If his meeting had detained him indefinitely, he could have at least dispatched Albert, his right-hand man to let me know so I could make his apologies to the group. I didn’t feel well and hoped to take my leave early, but Gus’ disappearance put me behind the eight ball. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the strength or the energy to search for him and talk him into coming back to the party.
On my right, the wife of a police sergeant stood and raised her glass for a toast. A buxom redhead with a 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 turned to me and smiled. “You’re the bee’s knees, Charlotte LeDoux. You know how to 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? He hasn’t mentioned it.”
Shocked by her statement, I stared at her and 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’m worried you might collapse and fall off your chair. The first few months are always rough, but it’ll get better. You just make sure you get enough rest.”
“As a matter of fact, I—”
A waiter appeared at my side and before I could wave him away, he placed a glass in front of me filled with ice, ginger ale and a shot of whiskey from Gus’ private reserve. “Mrs. LeDoux, you need a refreshment. Shall I bring one for Mr. LeDoux as well?”
My stomach roiled as I looked down at the glass. 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 fighting off a wave of queasiness. I closed my eyes and pushed it forward. “Please, Gerard, 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, Gerard.”
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 a small, pearl-handled revolver. Gus insisted I carry the revolver 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 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 just wanted to find my husband and go home. Clutching the rope of pearls around my neck, I placed my other hand on the table for support and shakily rose to my feet. “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 in search of Gus. As I made my way through the crowd, the room began to spin and I immediately regretted not accepting Sally’s aid. Though in my third month, my pregnancy had plagued me all along with bouts of fatigue, nausea and dizziness. Afraid of falling, I quickly clutched the back of the nearest chair to keep my knees from buckling.
An older gentleman with thinning hair and a bushy mustache turned toward me, surprised by my intrusion. My face must have showed my distress for he frowned and placed his hand on my elbow. “Miss, are you all right?”
I wanted to collapse on the floor and bawl my eyes out, but instead I mustered a faint smile. “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 slim 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 desperation by sounding merely curious, “have you seen Gus?”
“No, Mrs. LeDoux.” Irene shrugged. “I haven’t seen him since Madame Deveraux arrived.”
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’d cast her dark, sultry eyes on Gus, I knew she’d set her sights on him. I had a sinking feeling she had her red-lacquered claws into him at this very moment.
Scanning the cavernous room, I searched for Gus, but I had difficulty focusing on the person next to me, much less the sea of people hopping like chickens on the dance floor. Every night, the revelers would dance the Charleston in front of our twelve-piece orchestra until the early hours of the morning. On the weekends, we entertained them 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.
Frustrated, I turned my back on the reverie and slowly made my way toward the stairway that led to Gus’ office on the upper level. I clung to the railing and pulled myself up the stairs, my head pounding in sync with every step I took.
At the top of the stairs, I paused to get my breath. After a few moments, I made my way down the hallway, leaning against the wall for support. At the end of the corridor, I turned the corner and encountered Albert Schmidt, Gus’ personal bodyguard. The short, dark-haired man looked formidable with thick arms, a stocky build and the strength of an ox. He stood guarding the door to Gus’ private office, a Colt 1911 automatic pistol gripped in his right hand. My greatest fear turned out to be true. Gus had stationed his paid watchdog 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 pushed 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 Gus’ 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. “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. He didn’t budge. “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. 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 revolver from my hand and proceeded to empty the bullets from the gun’s chamber. “I mean no disrespect, but I’ll keep these.”
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!” I screamed in frustration as I ripped off my gloves and threw them at the door. “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 the tears and 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 slipped the bullets into the pocket of his navy suit coat and handed me the empty revolver. “Calm down, Frau LeDoux. Be a good wife and go back to your guests.” He put his hand on my shoulder and gave me a sympathetic look. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Angry at Albert’s ridiculous and insulting suggestion, I pushed his hand away. “If Gus thinks I’ll simply go away and keep my mouth shut, he’s crazy. I will never accept this—”
Suddenly a door at the far end of the hallway slammed open and one of the machine gun-toting sentinels from the catwalk on the roof burst into the hallway. “It’s a raid!” he hollered as he tore past us to warn the people downstairs. “Get out fast! The Feds are coming!”
Hair stood on the back of my neck. My arms filled with goose bumps. The one thing every bootlegger feared had come upon us…
The door to Gus’ office flew open and my husband stood in the doorway holding his machine gun, his sandy hair as disheveled as his wrinkled white shirt. His suspenders hung loosely at his sides. He showed no inkling of remorse at being caught literally with his pants down.
Behind him, Madame Deveraux eyed me with a sly, triumphant smirk as she pulled up the straps of her ruby silk gown.
My emotions flared red-hot at her brazen gesture. I was tempted to scream insults at her, but when I looked into Gus’ cold, sage eyes, I realized she was a byproduct of our failing marriage rather than the cause. For months, the demands of managing La Coquette had left precious little time for Gus and me to share the intimacy we’d once had, and I’d hoped the news of my long-awaited pregnancy would begin to draw us closer again. Obviously, it was too late. Gus had become infatuated with Adrienne Devereaux.
I took in the scene before me and deep in my soul, something irrevocably changed. My belief in true love and “happily ever after” with this man had shattered. I knew I’d never trust him, or any man, with my heart ever again.
“Get her out of here!” Gus glared at me, but spoke to Albert. I knew Gus was deadly serious when he offered his new “Tommy Gun" to his bodyguard. “You know what to do.”
Albert slipped his handgun into his shoulder holster and took possession of the machine gun. “Yes, boss.” Jumping into action, he pulled me down the hallway. His vise-like fingers locked on my arm, the other hand gripped his ten-pound Tommy Gun. “Come with me, Frau LeDoux.”
“No!” I fought with all my might as Albert dragged me away. “Let go of me!”
“Take her down to the hollow, Al.” Gus glanced over his shoulder at Adrienne then back at me. “I’ll get there as soon as I can—”
The piercing of sirens arriving at the building cut him off. Everyone froze at the cracking of gunfire.
Gus’ eyes blazed. “I said GO!”
At the top of the stairs, Albert slipped his free arm protectively around my waist and hauled me down to the main floor, shielding me with his rock-hard body as he muscled his way through the screaming, thundering mob to the coat room. Behind a movable rack of fur wraps, a small group of employees were filing into a tunnel through a secret door in the paneling. “Coming through. Step aside!” Albert pulled me to the head of the line and pressed his broad palm against my shoulders as he guided me through the door. In the tunnel, the men who’d gone ahead of us carried flashlights to show us the way.
The musty, dank passageway, filled with cobwebs and centipedes gave me chills, but after what I’d just witnessed, I knew I fared much better than the people in the club. Gripping the edges of my fringed shawl, I marched along the downward slope, keeping up with the others. 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.
As we approached the end of the tunnel, I recognized the Katzenbaum brothers just ahead of me. Marv, stiff from arthritis, hobbled along with a large ledger tucked under each arm. He’d served as the chief bean counter for Gus’ father back when the family brewery was in operation, but now he worked for us. Harv, Gus’s attorney and also a long-time employee of the LeDoux family, 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 and shrubbery. Once we reached the exit, we passed through an open door into the twilight. Relieved to have fresh air, I stopped and inhaled deeply, but the frightened screams of a panicked mob and roaring sirens back at the club spurred me on. Albert and I picked up the pace again.
“Where are we going?” I hollered as we emerged from the trees to a city street. I saw the auto dealership directly across from us and knew we were headed there. Gus and I owned it.
Albert grabbed my hand, pulling me along as we ran across the street to the car lot. We passed between used Chryslers, Chevrolets and Packards until we came to a new Nash Touring Car. Its black exterior would make it harder for the Feds to see us, and if Albert chose it as his getaway car, it had speed, too.
Suddenly, a man in a dark suit jumped from behind one of the cars holding a gun. “Stop! You’re under arrest—”
Before the agent finished shouting, Albert shoved me away, raised his gun with both hands and shot the man multiple times.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. My head swam with terror. I bent at the waist and covered my ears to keep my head from ringing, but it didn’t help. Bullets discharging from Albert’s weapon created a blast so loud the force literally shook my body. When the bullets finally stopped, my legs buckled and I slowly collapsed to the ground. As I lay on my side, I saw the agent lying prone a few feet from me. I smelled the sickening, coppery odor of blood. My mouth began to fill with saliva…
Albert ripped open the car door and wrapped his arm around my waist, lifting me off the pavement. “No!” I struggled to get away as fear and revulsion overtook me. Seeing what he was capable of, I couldn’t stand the thought of his hands touching me now. “No! Get away from me!” I didn’t have anywhere near the strength I needed to match his. As a last resort, I began to cry. “Please, Albert, let me go!”
“Get moving!” He forced me into the front seat, slammed the door and cranked the car to start it. We were leaving by the back entrance of the lot as a torrent of bullets whizzed past us.
Bracing my shaking hands against the dash, the stench of burnt gunpower constricted my throat and made my eyes water. I hung my head, coughing. The scene back in the parking lot flashed through my mind again like a bad dream.
Oh, my God… I-I’ve just witnessed a murder…
Albert’s large, rough hand pressed on my shoulder. “Get down!”
Numbed by my thoughts, I 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. My tummy problems didn’t seem important any more.
Dear God, please get me out of this alive! I beg of you, spare my baby!
Still concentrating on the road, Albert flattened his palm on the empty seat. “Take these! Put them back in your gun.” On the seat lay the bullets he’d removed from my revolver. I really didn’t want them back, but the ugly growl of his voice frightened me into action. I obediently scooped them up and stuffed them into my handbag. After the horror I’d just witnessed, I could never shoot anyone.
A short time later, I poked my head above the dashboard, thinking I would be safe now that darkness had descended. “How much longer until we reach the hollow?”
“Never mind. Stay down!”
Albert drove through a dark tunnel at breakneck speed into the deep ravine called Swede Hollow, a little hamlet of shanties without electricity or running water. I’d grown up in the hollow and even though my family had long ago moved to a better neighborhood, I still knew some of the families living there. Before Prohibition had shuttered its doors, my father had worked at the LeDoux Brewery, situated on the edge of the ravine; the same place where I’d met my husband, Rene Gustav LeDoux, the eldest son of the owner.
Just when I thought we’d escaped the Feds a torrent of bullets showered the car. The back window shattered and Albert slumped over the wheel.
The car careened out of control. Still on the floor, I slammed my head against the seat as the car bounced over rocks along the marshy bank of Phalen creek and came to an abrupt stop. For a moment I sat hunched over, gasping for breath, aching badly. Slowly, I raised myself above the dashboard and realized my thigh hurt fiercely in one spot—where I’d been sitting on my purse with my gun still in it. I pulled my silvery beaded hat and dropped it on the seat. My necklace caught on the shift stick. Dozens of Japanese pearls scattered across the floorboard.
“Albert? Albert, what’s wrong?” I reached over and cautiously touched his arm.
His lifeless form suddenly slumped against the door. Gasping in horror, I scooted away.
A flash of headlights cut through the dark, moonless night as several cars sped out of the tunnel. I grabbed my handbag with one hand, clutched my shawl with the other and scrambled out of the car, dropping my feet into the cold stream.
Shivering uncontrollably, I waded through the ankle-deep water, slipping on rocks until I reached dry land and hurried toward a narrow footbridge that led past a row of outhouses built on stilts over the creek. Shielded from the oncoming headlights by the line of buildings, I stumbled across the bridge, desperate to get away before the men on my trail caught up to me. Once I’d made it safely across the creek, I hobbled into the brush and made my way behind a small, darkened house. My mind couldn’t think straight, but gut instinct warned me to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
The screech of brakes cut through the air, indicating cars had come to a stop somewhere along the creek. Several doors banged successively as the agents jumped out to investigate the scene.
“Don’t look back,” I whispered to myself and forced my feet to move faster, knowing the Feds would apprehend me unless I found a good place to hide—or slipped away into the night. Using the back of my hand, I brushed my hair from my face, leaving something sticky on my cheek. My fingers had suffered a long, horizontal cut, most likely from a piece of flying glass. Oddly enough, it didn’t hurt.
I quickly approached my former childhood home, a tiny, weathered shack, wishing I could stop there and rest a while. My right hip ached like crazy, but I knew I couldn’t stop until I’d reached the western slope and the tall wooden stairway that led to the sandy road above the railroad terraces.
A chorus of shouts indicated people were already coming out of their houses to see what all the ruckus was about. Though Gus was counting on it, I had decided not to ask anyone for shelter. Within minutes, the Feds would be all over this place, searching for me and I didn’t want to risk getting any of these good people in trouble for harboring a fugitive. Besides, with the Feds so close on my heels, I didn’t have time to find out if anyone would help me.
As I hurried through the inky darkness in sloshy T-strap shoes and a wet dress, I gradually felt no discomfort, only a strange sense of calm. 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. Knowing Gus, he was still alive. He hadn’t earned the nickname “Lucky LeDoux” for nothing. 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.
The thought of leaving Gus terrified me, but at the same time it gave me a sense of hope for my baby’s future. Sadly, I knew better than to believe things could go back to the way they were before Prohibition when Gus worked in his father’s brewery. Once the Volstead Act passed—the eighteenth amendment—the LeDoux Brewery had been forced to shutter its doors, destroying the family income and causing his father, Rene Sr., to suffer a fatal 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 had fueled his decision to forge ahead despite the risks. Enlisting many of his former employees, he’d formed a new operation bootlegging Minnesota whiskey and operating La Coquette.
Now, he was a criminal, wanted by the Feds…
Before Prohibition, Gus and I had lived a simple life as an ordinary couple and we were happy together. Nowadays he preferred collecting barrels of money and spending it on women and other sinful pleasures more than he loved me. Even so, he’d never let me go if he discovered I planned to leave him—especially in my present condition. This I knew without a doubt.
Albert’s lifeless form flashed through my mind and I shuddered, wondering if I would ever feel safe again. My eyes smarted with tears. I couldn’t bear the thought of subjecting my child to the perilous life my husband had chosen.
I had two choices—locate Gus and live in constant danger or start a new life for myself and my unborn child. Casting apprehension and excuses aside, I told myself I needed to follow my instincts and do what would be best for my baby. It didn’t take long to choose my path.
Charlotte LeDoux had ceased to exist.
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