William Knoedelseder's new book, Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer, opens with a foreboding scene. It's May 2008, and August Busch IV, the young CEO of the brewery that bears his family's name, is expected to speak in front of 1,200 beer wholesalers gathered for a conference in Washington, D.C.
The Fourth, though, is running late.
Finally, after a half-hour has passed, David Peacock, Anheuser-Busch's VP of marketing, takes the mic to explain that the company jet had trouble landing. August IV is "taking medication for a sinus infection," he adds.
Ten more minutes pass before August IV saunters to the podium and wades into his prepared remarks.
It doesn't go well. He trips over the text. He slurs his words. August IV is clearly on something, though few in the crowd believe it's cold medicine.
Again Peacock grabs the microphone. "Obviously, August is not feeling well," he tells those assembled, then quietly ushers August IV off the stage.
Six months later Belgian beer conglomerate InBev will announce that it has successfully completed its takeover of America's most storied brewery.
Newly revealed anecdotes like the one from the wholesalers' conference carbonate Knoedelseder's book, which — thanks to the cooperation of family members, their friends and former brewery employees — may be the most detailed rendering of the heady blend of power and peccadilloes that for a century and a half has made the Busch clan as intriguing as it is controversial.
Last week Riverfront Times interviewed the author, a St. Louis native and former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter, by phone from his home in Southern California as he prepared for a book tour to launch Bitter Brew.
Riverfront Times: How did this project come about? I've heard the Busch family sought you out.
William Knoedelseder: I was in St. Louis in 2009 promoting my book I'm Dying Up Here, and I met Adolphus Busch IV, and we got talking about books. He told me he wanted the real story of his family told. He asked if I'd be interested. I told him I was, but I don't do books for hire. I basically said, "You tell me everything, and you have no editorial control, and I own it all."
I've always wanted to do this story. When I was working for the LA Times in the early 1980s, I wrote up a big treatment for a television series about a rich brewing family that owned a baseball team. But no one was interested, so nothing came of it. Then I remember when [Terry] Ganey and [Peter] Hernon's book [Under the Influence] about the Busch family came out, and I was like, "Oh, shit. There goes my chance." And so I never thought about it again until Adolphus brought it up. By then the company had been acquired by InBev. I remember thinking, "Hmm. Now there's an ending to the story." And there's a great arc to the story: The history of Anheuser-Busch runs from the week Lincoln was inaugurated to the week Obama was elected. In between, you can tell a great story of America through this beer company.
Does the world need another book about the Busch family?
Does the world want another book about World War II? The answer is, if it's a good book, yes. Despite how it seems in St. Louis, the world doesn't really know the story of Anheuser-Busch and the Busch family. And I was given the potential of getting input from the people who lived in the house where Gussie lived. They may have been rich and colorful and controversial, but they were also a mom and dad and seven kids and 300 wild animals. That is interesting.
And really, this seemed like something I was always meant to do. The weekend I started doing research for the book — in spring of 2010 — I came back to St. Louis and went to a Cardinals game with some of my relatives. We had nice seats along first base. The second batter for the visiting team hit a pop fly right to me. This may sound weird or grandiose, but I took that as an omen. Another thing: The masses streaming into the ballpark made me wonder what this city would be like if Adolphus Busch hadn't stepped off a steamboat here in 1857. It's kind of like the theme to It's a Wonderful Life. What would Bedford Falls have been like without George Bailey? What if Adolphus had wound up in Cleveland? What if his son hadn't kept the business going though Prohibition? What if his son hadn't expanded the company and bought the Cardinals and so on and so forth?
Most of the book focuses on the Busch patriarchs who ran the brewery in modern times — Gussie, August III, August IV — and it is not always a flattering portrait. Gussie, as you tell it, turned into a sobbing shell of himself in his later years. His son, August III, comes off as a callous, emotionless man. And August IV? Where do we begin? The escorts, the coke, the megalomania? I've heard that he was trying to get a restraining order to keep this book from hitting store shelves.
I've heard that he said something to people about trying to stop the book. But I don't know what that is, and I know of no other incident where someone has stopped a book from being published. August III and August IV were offered the chance to be interviewed for the book, and they declined.
I didn't expect August IV to talk to me, because he's declined to talk to police [after girlfriend Adrienne Martin died of a drug overdose inside his home in 2010]. As for it being unflattering, that's not the intent. Everyone does unflattering things. And people who move mountains to accomplish goals step on all kinds of toes. It doesn't excuse it. But it's not unique to the Busch family. Scratch any family dynasty, and you're going to find some stuff.
As you document, the Busch family has a long history of being able to influence the media, most notably via the great PR flack Al Fleishman, who often served as Gussie's right-hand man. How difficult was it for you to separate fact from fiction?
One thing I was surprised about was how much people were willing to talk. That's especially true with former employees who, after the company was sold, felt a bit freer to speak without the threat — either real or perceived — of repercussions. The Busch family was less powerful. They were merely really wealthy people. With the Busches the media has always been a double-edged sword. Few things go unreported: When August III got a speeding ticket as a young man or got into fracas on Halloween night as a child, it's a headline in the paper. If it was anyone else, they'd never have been in the paper.
But if you look at the record, Gussie talked all the time. The only thing was that to get an interview, you had to go through Al Fleishman, and he was masterful at telling the story Gussie wanted to have told. By contrast, August III hated the media, and he talked only if he absolutely had something he had to get across for the company.
Speaking of fact and fiction, perhaps you can settle one of the greatest St. Louis rumors of all time: Did August III's wife, Susan, really have an affair with Cardinals broadcaster Harry Caray? Both are quoted third-hand in your book as saying it didn't happen. But does your research indicate otherwise?
The only person alive today who knows for sure is the ex-Mrs. Busch. She has consistently denied it. Harry Caray denied it, but less consistently and less adamantly.
But I have my own story on that. Before I moved away from St. Louis, I worked for eight or nine months at Tony's. I was not the main maître d', but I greeted people at the door in a tux. This was at the old location, where you had the downstairs dining room for those who wanted to be seen and the upstairs for those who wanted privacy. I was working the night when the two of them came in together and were seated downstairs. Everyone in the restaurant knew who Harry Caray was, and it quickly flashed around to the staff that the beautiful blond woman who was with him — and who he was getting along with very well — was Mrs. Busch. They were openly affectionate. The conclusion you would jump to is that there was something going on there. No one on the staff had heard any rumors prior to that, so it wasn't like we were making it up. It got to the point that the owner, Vince Bommarito, told people to stop staring.
So I don't know. Maybe they were trying to make a statement.
Infidelity is a common theme among Busch males throughout the book. So are guns. Between the two of them, Gussie Busch and August Busch IV could have armed a small militia. And one of Gussie's sons, Peter Busch, shot and killed his friend in a bizarre "accident" inside the Grant's Farm mansion. What is this family's obsession with firearms?
It goes back all the way to Germany. They were a well-to-do family. Deer parks and hunting were a big deal. Adolphus, the founder, hunted up to the day before he died. They'd go duck hunting and kill a thousand ducks. Grant's Farm was originally a hunting place, and they had enough animals that they had to cull the herds. Every young Busch was taught how to handle firearms.
August IV, though, is different. He's not a big hunter, but he liked guns, and his love of guns was tied to his sense of security. The fear of kidnapping was very real for Busch children. Gussie was informed numerous times that his children were potential targets. That wasn't made-up. Dolph Orthwein, a grandchild of August A. Busch, was kidnapped at gunpoint on his way to Grant's Farm in 1930.
Another familiar pattern is the combative relationship between Busch sons and their fathers. At one point August III and Gussie didn't talk for ten years, and Gussie allegedly threatened to shoot August III on sight. Now August III and his son, August IV, don't communicate. How does this dynamic shape the family and the company?
There were good things and bad things about it. They went by primogeniture — in a way the first-born child was sacrificed to the company. And each had to report to a very powerful figure who was turning over the company to him but not really wanting to let it go.
You describe this great scene in the book after August III orchestrates a palace coup in 1975 to seize control of the A-B board from Gussie. There's so much animosity toward August III that Gussie's male children from his third marriage can't even be in the same room with him. They arrange to meet and air their grievances at a fence separating August III's property from his father's estate. That animosity between the two factions pretty much continues to this day, no?
I don't really think so. It is a very big family. There are a lot of people. August III is a lot older than the Grant's Farm family. He didn't grow up there. He didn't live there. He didn't live with his father much after he was a little kid. So he was never close. He was almost like an uncle. So I don't know if I'd call it animosity. There are perhaps some resentments.
I think it's too simple to say there are just two sides to the family. There are many sides and a lot of different opinions. The six surviving Grant's Farm children [Adolphus IV, Beatrice, Peter, Gertrude, Billy, Andrew], for example, don't necessarily agree with what will happen with the farm. It's worth a lot of money, so there's disagreement.
Everyone wants to know the inside story of how InBev was able to acquire Anheuser-Busch and why the family couldn't block the sale. You present numerous reasons in the book. For starters, the Busch family only owned about 4 percent of the stock. Most St. Louisans probably lay the blame on August IV, who was in charge at the time of the merger and characterized as aloof and inexperienced. But you suggest August III is the one who made the company vulnerable.
Conventional wisdom is August III made a mistake in not expanding more aggressively internationally. He had his reasons for doing that. He had done a big diversification effort earlier in his career that didn't go well, and he wasn't confident about letting go of control. You can't control everything if you have all these partners all over the world. I think he probably wondered: What happens to the product quality and the tradition? He was really caught up in the tradition. He would pull out letters from his grandfather and read them for insight.
But to say it's any one person's fault for the acquisition is probably not correct. Had August IV been a stronger president — keep in mind, he was in there four or five years before becoming CEO — it may have been different. He was given a job that was beyond him, but it may have been beyond anyone to keep the company independent at that point. And he clearly took it really personally. He was devastated and felt he was going to be blamed: He was the one who had to turn over the keys.
Despite all the warning signs about August IV that you outline — the womanizing, the partying, the drug use — why did August III endorse his son's purported business and marketing acumen, setting the course for his succession to CEO? Why did the company perpetuate the myth that it was "The Fourth" who came up with Budweiser's famous frog commercials, even though an advertising agency dreamed up the concept?
I think it has a lot to do with history and the history of the family. This is nickel psychology on my part, but August III deposed his own father, Gussie. At the time, Gussie was the most powerful man in town. It took serious balls to do that. And as much of a problem as that caused the family, years later they all agreed it was the right thing to do. Gussie was having a breakdown. He had just lost his youngest daughter, Christina, in a car wreck. He was drinking. He was erratic.
August deposed him because he wanted the company to succeed. But do you think he didn't carry that throughout his life? So when it came time to judge whether his son was good enough, he kept doubling down on the bloodline. It's in the history of Busch men. Every one of them had a history of sowing their oats and being the playboy. But prior to August IV, they all — sometimes by dictate — eventually settled down and ran the living shit out of the company. I think he kept thinking August would pull it together. He had faith in him. But it didn't happen. Then I think he was faced with the decision: Do I do to my son what I did to my dad? What a tough decision to make. I cut him some slack for that.
The book includes an interview with Ron Benson, the sheriff's deputy who investigated the late-night, single-car accident in which Michele Frederick was ejected from the passenger's seat of August IV's Corvette while he was attending the University of Arizona. Was Benson surprised when another young woman — Adrienne Martin — died under mysterious circumstances in August IV's presence a quarter-century later?
Benson is now an FBI agent working in homeland security in Washington, D.C., so he's very careful about what he says. But no, he was not surprised.
August IV was never charged in the crash because his blood and urine samples were ruined during testing. That just seems so suspicious, no?
Benson will tell you that that never happened in any other investigation he conducted. And he dealt with the lab people all the time. Who knows? It could be circumstantial. But based on testimony [about August IV drinking heavily prior to the crash] from people with him that night, it certainly was fortunate for August IV.
You write that August IV's favorite movie, which he played over and over for visitors at his home — is Scarface. Given some of the anecdotes you relate — about him snorting epic-size lines of coke and smuggling the drug in Alka-Seltzer tablets, that film seems to mirror his life story somewhat. But would American Pyscho perhaps be a better fit?
I can't say I've read the book or seen that movie. But the thing about August IV is that the vast majority of American males live out their lives without having a young woman die in their presence with drugs in their systems. Much less two.
You give the St. Louis Post-Dispatch credit for breaking the story of Adrienne Martin's death, but you also ding the paper for participating in the "sympathy campaign" toward August IV. In particular, you note that columnist Deb Peterson's interview with August IV after Martin's death, in which he talks about his distant relationship with his dad, was "short on hard questioning." Is the St. Louis media soft on the Busch family?
At times probably yes, and times no. It's a moving thing. Sometimes things get played up too much, other times not enough. That interview, though, was somewhat bizarre. She told her version in another article I read. She let him talk, and she didn't feel she had any reason to ask if he was doing drugs with Adrienne — the theory being if you ask that question to a source, then you can't go back. I think she has been criticized over that. She doesn't need me to do it. But again, yeah, the story he told her is "woe is me" — as though all this stuff happened to him. I'd argue that more stuff happened to the dead girl.
Your book ends with some of Busch IV's friends telling you they wouldn't be surprised if he turned up dead tomorrow. Despite rehab and interventions from family and friends, he allegedly continues to abuse drugs and alcohol. Moreover, the man who once took such great pains with his physique and dress has let himself go, putting on weight and wearing pajamas in public. It's a pretty sad story, isn't it?
I heard that so many times: "He won't make it to his next birthday." But then the next birthday would come. It's funny. Some say the book is a pretty sympathetic portrait of August IV and that his father is unsympathetic. And some come back with exactly the opposite. It's hard to be sympathetic about a lot of things. A lot of people have overcome worse situations with their father and not gone where he did. But then every life has its own stuff. He was born into a life that was dictated to him: "You're going to be the CEO here, and this is what you have to do, and this is what 150 years of tradition is."
Maybe in another life he would have been an artist or run his own advertising company. But that wasn't a possibility. I don't see him as a monster or a bad human being. There are flaws, some of them glaring, and he's definitely a troubled guy. I had people who told me they were talking to me because they were hoping that if the book came out, it could be the thing to move him to deal with his issues, to take care of his problems and survive. Hopefully he will.
You grew up in St. Louis. What's your memory of the Busch family from your childhood?
I remember my first visit to Grant's Farm like yesterday. Standing next to a horse that was too big to fit inside my living room and taking the tram through Deer Park. It was indelible. I remember at one point in the tour, you could look off and see the big house, and one of my cousins said, "That's where Gussie lived." I always remembered that and wondered what it was like. Growing up, Gussie was larger than life.
Looking back, are you surprised at the staggering success the company enjoyed over its history?
I've always been interested in the story, so I was up on how successful they were. But I was surprised by some of the interfamily dynamics. When you examine the people involved, you see history repeat itself. These guys were amazing guys. They had all kinds of issues, but the people who built the company and kept it running for 150 years were not your normal people, or it wouldn't have happened. So there's a lot of heroic stuff in there, and there's a lot to be criticized.
Which Busch was the best CEO in your opinion, and why?
Hard to say which was best, although clearly not August IV. I focused on the five Busch guys who ran the company. Adolphus the First was a brilliant industrialist. His son somehow figured out how to keep the company running during Prohibition, when 99 percent of breweries went out of business.
Gussie comes along; he was a master at selling beer. He took it to the next level, big-time. Buying the Cardinals made a difference, too. The team never turned much of a profit, but how much beer sales did it provide, and what did it do for the brand and the story? And August III was the modern, steely, hard-charging executive that took it to a level Gussie probably never imagined. So it's hard to say.
Do you think Steven Busch [August III's other son, who was also being groomed as an A-B executive] might have saved A-B?
He was kind of young. August IV certainly had a lot more experience. But everyone you talk to about Steven says he's really bright. I had one person say that August IV's sister, Susan, should have been CEO. Had August III invested the time and effort training her as he did August IV, it could have been really interesting. But a person also told me that August III said the person who succeeded him had to have balls — and he wasn't speaking figuratively.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.