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Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer Part 19

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Long would hold his tongue for twenty-three years.

17

"HEY, PAL, YOU GOT A QUARTER?"

In October 1987, Gussie Busch got to see his Redbirds play in one more World Series.

Facing the Minnesota Twins, the Cardinals performed horribly in the opener at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, losing 101, and then suffered an 84 drubbing in game two.

Back home in the open air of Busch Memorial Stadium for game three, a crowd of 55,347 stood as Gussie threw out the ceremonial first ball. The eighty-eight-year-old "Big Eagle" had never appeared more frail or, judging by the thunderous applause, more beloved.

In a city with a population a fraction the size of New York and Los Angeles, the Cardinals had sold 3.07 million tickets in 1987, more than any other team. In the last twenty-three years under Gussie's "owners.h.i.+p," they had won six National League pennants and three World Champions.h.i.+ps. Great players had come and gone-Musial, Flood, Maris, Carlton, Gibson, Brock-but Gussie remained, wearing his goofy red Cowboy-Budweiser-Cardinal getup and waving happily to the crowd: the man who saved the Cardinals for St. Louis and gave the Clydesdales to the world. The fans in the stands cheered as if they suspected this might be their last chance to thank him.

The Cardinals won three straight games at home to take the lead in the series, but then lost the final two games in Minneapolis. They wouldn't appear in the World Series again for seventeen years.

Gussie's game-three appearance turned out to be one of his last. In the months that followed, his health deteriorated to the point that he was confined to a wheelchair and rarely left Grant's Farm except to travel to his beachfront winter home in St. Petersburg. No longer the king of beer, he remained the emperor of his St. Louis estate, however, with a household staff of seven and a round-the-clock team of nurses attending to his needs. His day usually began with a breakfast of two poached eggs and three pieces of low-sodium bacon and ended with two dry Beefeater gin martinis with three onions and three olives. He invariably pushed for a third martini, and the nurses often gave in, but no one acceded to his constant requests for a gun so he could shoot the sparrows that invaded his fifteen-foot-high faux castle pigeon roost. The prospect of a gin-fueled ninety-year-old blasting away at "those G.o.dd.a.m.n chippies" with a rifle was just too frightening.

Gussie spent most of his time in the gun room, where the weapons were kept under lock, and in the large pantry next to the kitchen, where he sat at the head of a big table and monitored the comings and goings through the informal entrance to the house. He installed a 25-cent slot machine in the pantry and played it contentedly for hours while the staff bustled around him. Whenever a visitor or delivery person pa.s.sed through, he'd call out, "Hey, pal, you got a quarter?" and motion him over to join him. Visitors could put money in, but not take any away. If they hit a jackpot, they had to turn over their winnings to Gussie before they left. Money was at the root of another amusing ritual. Each morning as his valet was getting him dressed, Gussie would ask, "Did you get my money off the dresser?"

"Yes, Mr. Busch," the valet always replied.

"Did you count it?"

"Yes, sir, I did."

"Is it all there?"

"Yes, sir. Fifteen dollars, the same as yesterday."

When he felt up to it, Gussie was taken on carriage rides around the property. Prior to setting out, he would flip a switch in his bedroom that set off a siren mounted on the house outside his bedroom window, announcing to all creatures on the estate that he was about to emerge. He had to be hoisted into the driver's seat, and no longer had the strength to control the team, but he insisted on holding the reins once they got going. As his carriage pa.s.sed them, workers would stop what they were doing and wave, salute, or bow their heads in tribute. They knew the old man loved the attention.

Gussie's two youngest sons, Billy and Andy, still lived in the big house with him, as did Billy's six-year-old daughter Scarlett. The little girl was at the center of a lurid, highly publicized custody battle between Billy and an ex-girlfriend named Angela Whitson, a troubled young woman with a taste for drugs and a rap sheet that included arrests for lewd and lascivious behavior and endangering the welfare of her seven-year-old son. After Scarlett's birth in 1983, Billy supported Whitson-providing an $80,000 condo, a car, and $3,500 a month-and made his daughter part of the life at Grant's Farm, where she was given her own room, her own horse, and riding lessons beginning at age two. But in September 1987, Whitson, by then a full-blown crystal methamphetamine addict, abruptly moved with her children to southern California, where she lived in five different places, including a motel, over the next eight months, and took up with a reputed drug dealer named Gino.

In July 1988, after receiving a call from Whitson's great-aunt saying the children were being neglected and physically abused, Billy flew to California, scooped them both up, and brought them back to Grant's Farm. A juvenile court awarded him temporary custody, but Whitson challenged the ruling in a case that went to the Missouri Supreme Court and produced some of the most salacious testimony that judicial body had ever heard. Billy's attorneys brought out the fact that Whitson had been "pregnant six times by three men to whom she was not married at the time of conception," including Gino, whose baby she brought to the April 1989 closed-door hearing. Whitson also admitted to once having a s.e.xual affair with an escapee from an Indiana prison.

Whitson's attorney in turn grilled Billy in uncomfortable detail about his numerous s.e.x partners, including a woman named Ginger:

"Do you recall her last name?" he was asked.

"No."

"Was Ginger one time, or more than one time?"

"More than once."

"About how many times?"

"Fifteen."

The court found that Whitson was "absolutely unfit to be the custodian of this child" (the reference was to Scarlett only because, in an odd twist, the county prosecuting attorney had ordered Billy to return Whitson's son to her, and he had complied), but the court's chief justice didn't disguise his distaste for Billy and his lifestyle. "I cannot say very much in Busch's favor," he said in his ruling. "He is the archetypal playboy.... He lives and 'works' at Grant's Farm helping to train elephants and dogs for the public shows and attending crops and gardens.... He is the beneficiary of a family trust to which he resorts when he needs money.... I doubt that he will allow his daughter to stand in the way of his transient pleasures."

Although Billy would prove him wrong on that last point,* the judge was accurately reflecting the public's perception of Billy at the time, based largely on an incident that occurred in 1981, when he was twenty-two.

Following an arm-wrestling contest in the bar where he later met Angela Whitson, Billy was challenged to a fight by the man he'd bested, and in the course of the subsequent rolling-around-on-the-ground melee-and supposedly at the urging of the chanting crowd-he bit off the top half of his opponent's ear. No charges were filed because Billy had not started the fight, and he paid the man $25,000 for his injury. But news reports of the b.l.o.o.d.y brawl became so embedded in the public consciousness that even today, after more than two decades as a model citizen and devoted father, Billy still is commonly differentiated from his brothers by the descriptor, "the one who bit off the guy's ear."

Not surprisingly, press coverage of the custody battle played up the sensational revelations and the Busch wealth rather than the story of a young single father trying to protect and provide for an out-of-wedlock child.

It wasn't clear how much Gussie grasped about the latest "scandal" swirling around his family because his health took a turn for the worse around the time of the custody hearing in April 1989, and thereafter he was bedridden most of the time. It's unlikely he would have judged Billy in any case. Of his five sons, Billy was the one who most resembled him physically and behaviorally, down to his love of Grant's Farm and devotion to the animals, particularly the elephants. (Billy would in fact be the last Busch to move from the estate.)

Gussie's relations.h.i.+p with August III warmed as his time grew short. Nothing brightened his mood more than the sound of August's helicopter setting down on the front lawn of the big house. Toward the end, August came at least once a week and sat with Gussie for an hour or so, always taking the time to inspect the antique wood-and-marble "beer box" in the pantry where the house supply of Budweiser was kept. "And if he found a bottle past its freshness date, then you were in trouble," said a former household staff member.

By all accounts, there was now genuine affection between father and son, and no trace of the anger and resentment that had characterized their relations.h.i.+p for more than three decades. On Gussie's part, the rapprochement was due as much to forgetfulness as forgiveness. He just didn't remember the unpleasant details anymore, and instead basked in the glow of August's constant praise: "All of this happened because of you, Dad; none of it would have been possible without you."

August seemed to go out of his way to pay tribute to Gussie at every opportunity. "The person who put us-the recent management team that is here today-in a position to be able to do the things that we've done, is my father," he told a Post-Dispatch reporter when a local nonprofit organization named him their "Man of the Year" in 1987. "He is the one who set the base for this corporation and set the standards for this corporation. We simply picked up the fundamentals and stretched them to more distant horizons." He added, "He's the one I try to model myself after."

According to family and friends, August's newfound appreciation for the father who once delighted in undermining and countermanding him sprang in part from guilt. Although time and events had proved him right in deciding to depose his dad, and even his half brothers now agreed he'd had no choice, he continued to feel badly about it. "As hard-nosed as he liked to present himself," said Adolphus IV, "he still had that [guilt] going on inside and it would slip out in comments from time to time."

Of course, August was still the steely-eyed executive who planned and calculated his every move, and some saw self-interest in his public displays of affection for the old man. The Post-Dispatch "Man of the Year" article that quoted him praising Gussie, for example, also quoted Gussie as saying of the firstborn son who'd engineered his overthrow, "He's a great kid. But more than that, he is doing a great job of keeping up the tradition of the family and the company. If my grandfather Adolphus were here, he would be proud as h.e.l.l. I know I am." Anyone familiar with the way the A-B public relations machine worked knew the statement most likely was written and dictated to the reporter by a Fleishman-Hillard rep and approved by August, quite possibly without the old man even knowing about it.

The Busch family began gathering at Grant's Farm during the last week of September 1989. Gussie was suffering from pneumonia and congestive heart failure, confined to bed, and breathing oxygen through a tube in his nose; they knew it wouldn't be long. On September 28, according to Billy, Gussie spoke on the phone to Trudy and asked her to forgive him. The next day, September 29, with nine of his surviving children at his bedside (Adolphus IV was driving back to St. Louis from Houston), he died in the same room where his father had shot himself to death fifty-five years before. According to an account written by a Post-Dispatch reporter, moments before Gussie pa.s.sed away, a bright red cardinal alighted on the bird feeder outside his bedroom window overlooking the deer park.

In its obituary the next morning, the New York Times described him definitively as "the master showman and irrepressible salesman who turned a small family operation into the world's largest brewing company." The Post-Dispatch dubbed him "Mr. St. Louis."

In addition to his ten children, Gussie was survived by twenty-seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. So the family filled the big house for the private funeral service, which began with a Catholic Ma.s.s in the great hall (living room). Afterward, a team of Clydesdales pulling a bright red Budweiser wagon with two drivers and a Dalmatian accompanied the funeral cortege down the long lane from the house to the iron front gates of the estate, and from there a procession of limousines carried the family a mile up the road to Sunset Cemetery, where Gussie's father was buried. As Gussie was lowered into the ground between his daughter Christina and his fourth wife, Margaret, a scarlet-coated groomsman blew Taps on a silver trumpet while one of Gussie's favorite coach-and-pony teams slowly circled the funeral party, and his favorite jumping horse, Stocking Stuffer, stood nearby. His grave was one of eleven that formed a semicircle facing a heavily symbolic artifact his father had acquired from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair-a statue of a young boy feeding a fawn.

Two days later, the city got its chance to say good-bye at a public memorial in the St. Louis Cathedral on Lindell Boulevard, just a few blocks from where Gussie had delivered his famous address to the nation the night beer went back on sale in April 1933. Among the 1,700 who filled the Basilica for the Catholic High Ma.s.s were Missouri governor John Ashcroft, Tonight Show sidekick Ed McMahon, New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio, five busloads of workers from the brewery (which shut down for the day at 2:00 p.m.), and twenty-four Catholic clerics, including Archbishop John May and Gussie's old friend Father Paul Reinert, the chancellor of St. Louis University. In his homily, Reinert said he'd seen Gussie grow spiritually over the years, from a "self-centered" individual into a socially conscious community leader who "gradually discovered the joy and thrill of giving."

"He had a very beautiful death," Reinert said. "He was resigned and well prepared."

Gussie died a very wealthy man, far richer than his grandfather Adolphus. As the company's largest stockholder, he controlled 35,452,142 shares, or about 12.5 percent of A-B common stock, worth about $1.3 billion. Upon his death, virtually all of it pa.s.sed to Busch family members and relatives, including Orthweins, von Gontards, Hermanns, Flannigans, and Reisingers.

In accordance with a will Gussie had signed in 1987, each of his ten children-including August III, whom he claimed to have disinherited-received 400,000 shares from a trust that was set up in 1932. With the stock then valued at approximately $37 a share, each child's portion was worth nearly $15 million.

In addition, each of Gussie's six surviving children by Trudy received 337,464 shares from another trust set up in 1936. There were restrictions on the proceeds of the 1936 trust, however. Half of the amount-1,012,392 shares, or 168,723 shares per child-had to be placed in trust for the next generation, though the heirs could continue to draw income from the shares. So the Grant's Farm children each inherited more than $21 million worth of stock, plus an income of more than $100,000 a year, with another $6 million worth of stock held in trust for their children.

Most of Gussie's personal property was divided among the Grant's Farm children as well. Adolphus IV and Billy inherited Belleau Farm, while Peter and Andy were given owners.h.i.+p of 140 acres of land that ab.u.t.ted Grant's Farm. The two girls, Beatrice and Trudy, each got $250,000 in cash. And in his most bedeviling bequest, Gussie left Grant's Farm itself to the six of them jointly, with the restriction that it could not be broken up or sold to anyone outside the immediate family. His expectation was that the four brothers would eventually buy out their sisters and then reach an agreement about owners.h.i.+p among themselves. (It has not worked out that way.)

Gussie's four older children by his first two wives didn't fare nearly as well their younger half siblings. From the large art collection at Grant's Farm, each of the sisters-Lilly, Lotsie, and Elizabeth-received a Western-themed watercolor by St. Louisborn artist Oscar E. Berninghaus. And August III got the golden telegram that brewery employees had presented to his great-grandfather Adolphus for his fiftieth wedding anniversary.

When all was divided, the only real losers were August's children-Susan, Virginia, Steven, and August IV-who received nothing from their grandfather's vast estate. It appeared that Gussie had disinherited them for the sins of their father.

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