Lawyer George Remus became the country's biggest bootlegger, grossing over $80 million until his arrest. Upon his release from prison, he learns that his beautiful wife, Imogene, has left him and that his bank accounts are empty. On the morning of their divorce, he runs her car off the road in the middle of rush hour in Eden Park and shoots her to death.
Shocked and fascinated by this horrible crime, the country gears up for a sensational trial pitting the man known as "the king of the bootleggers" against Chief Prosecutor Charlie Taft, the youngest son of the former president. The trial is a national spectacle, a lens focused on the fabulous rise and fall of the Remus empire and the tragic love story within it, and an attempt to answer some tantalizing questions: What actually happened to the fortune? What are the motives of the federal agent who brought Remus down? What complex emotions and desires, leading ultimately to the ruin of three men, really lie within the heart of the woman known as the Jazz Bird?
Based on a true story, The Jazz Bird is at once a love story, a crime novel, and the tale of the courtroom battle between two powerful men whose respective futures hang in the balance.
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Chapter One: Black for Mourning
Already, the telephone in the study was ringing. They had just come in the front door from a glorious month at the family cottage at Murray Bay, Quebec: the clear frigid water with its walleye and bass and muskie, the autumn trees, the brisk air, the children. Ten years they'd been married, Charlie and Eleanor Taft, but instead of a second honeymoon they'd chosen to take the children along, and it had so been the right thing.
Charlie carried a couple of bags, though the staff was unloading most of them. Now he dropped them in the doorway and raced to catch the call.
"Charlie," Eleanor said. "You're still on your holiday! How important -- " But he was gone.
"Taft," he said. It was one of his assistant prosecutors. As the man spoke, Charlie watched through the front window.
"Samuel!" Eleanor called.
Sam paused on the running board of the Pierce-Arrow as he reached up toward the canoe tied to the rooftop, his cuffs extending out from his coat sleeves. Charlie had always noticed how dark those white cuffs made Samuel's skin look, as dark, almost, as a Negro's. He was the darkest Asian Charlie had ever seen. He'd come to work for the family when they lived in Manila, in 1904, when Charlie's father was governor there, under Roosevelt, when Charlie was six and Samuel was seven and orphaned.
"Can you come move these, please?" Eleanor said. "Charlie's blocked the way."
"I see," Charlie said into the phone. "Give me half an hour."
When he came out, Eleanor said, "What is it, dear? You look pale."
"George Remus," he said. "You remember him?"
"I met his wife, once. Lovely lady. Imogene. She hosted a luncheon at the Sinton -- "
"He's just shot her to death. In Eden Park."
"Oh my God. Charlie."
"On the way to the divorce court."
Eleanor sat down on the sheet-covered Queen Anne sofa.
"They're taking him back up there, now," Charlie said. "To the park. I'm sorry, but I should go -- "
"Of course you should, dear," she said. Sweet, pretty Ellie.
"I'm sorry. All this -- " He waved around at the mess of the closed-up house.
"Never mind it," she said. "We'll get it taken care of. You go. Oh, that poor woman."
"Yes -- "
"Charlie, this will be very big, won't it?" She understood these things implicitly. She simply knew, and how she did he did not quite understand, for he told her little.
"Yes, dear, it will. If he chooses to fight it."
They were both silent a moment, contemplating this. Charles P. Taft II, third child, second son, of former governor, ambassador, judge, and U.S. president, now Supreme Court chief justice, William Howard Taft, had a straight road to the very top, wherever that was -- the Senate, the federal judiciary, even perhaps the presidency. His major competition was his own brother, Robert, editor-in-chief now of the Enquirer. But Charlie held his own, and his election, at only twenty-nine, to prosecuting attorney last year in this, their home city, proved it. Still, it was one step at a time, and now the next step was this. This, coming off the last step, which had been a stumble, a locked-up case of another bootlegger-murderer, "Fat" Wrassman, who had gunned a man down in a speakeasy. He'd been defended by a one-time assistant prosecutor named Carl Elston. Though the police pressed for aggravated homicide, Charlie wanted a conviction for first degree. He'd have won it, too, if the main witness to the shooting hadn't disappeared the day before he was to testify. In the end, Elston tied them up in knots, and Wrassman had walked.
So now it was to be Remus, the bootlegger lawyer. And who, Charlie knew, had become something of a publicity hound these past few years. This would be national news. Except for the finale of Lindbergh's cross-country publicity tour, this might be the biggest news. He'd have to call the chief justice and let him know before it hit the papers.
"It will," he said again to his wife.
"Then it's an opportunity," she said. "Isn't that what your father would say?"
"That's just right," he said. "A chance to shine."
"There's the thing," she said. "My Charlie." She stood up and placed her hand on the back of his neck and kissed him lightly on the lips.
"The end of the honeymoon," he said, and she smiled at him.
He had lost the Wrassman case, but the public gave him that. He was young and new and, though that didn't excuse anything, they'd give him one, anyway. But this, this was too big, and he had already played the grace card. This one had to be a win, however it turned. Maybe Remus would confess and look for some plea. Life instead of death. The public would buy that. Remus was a kind of hero to a lot of these people. As long as he went away, Charlie didn't care. But if Remus fought, it could be ugly. Charlie had no doubt that Remus would fight. And he had no illusions that he could let this one slip away. The election wasn't for another three years, but they'd never forget.
When he came downstairs after changing, Ellie said, "Your black suit."
It had become his custom since the election to wear black when visiting the dead. So Charlie didn't need to tell her that, in addition to going to the crime scene while the police questioned Remus there, he was also going to pay a visit to the morgue.
Eden Park Drive came south into the park from the crown of Mount Adams, then halfway down its descent curved nearly 180 degrees back to the north, to its intersection with Fulton at the reservoir, before leaving the park to the west. Here, just after the curve, the detectives watched as Remus planted his feet, formed his hand into a gun, and mimicked the recoiling of the weapon. Charlie spotted Frank Dodge hovering away from the group, beyond the gazebo, toward the edge of the reservoir, out of Remus's view. Dodge was the Justice Department agent who had hounded Remus clear to the federal penitentiary for whiskey violations. It was in the aftermath of this that Imogene Remus had come to him to plead for her husband's early release. Ultimately, she left Remus and became one of Dodge's star informants.
Later that afternoon, as Charlie fought his way through the crowd that had formed outside the doors on the south side of the courthouse that led most directly to the county morgue in the basement, he saw Dodge again, standing at the double doors, watching out over the crowd.
"Amazing, this," Charlie said.
"Everybody likes a freak show."
"Are you going in?"
Dodge nodded, but only moved to take a Lucky Strike pack from his pocket. He fingered the last one free and crumpled the packet and threw it on the ground. Charlie struck his lighter and held it out. Dodge leaned forward.
"They called me, you know. First," Dodge said.
He'd been lying on his bed, smoking a cigarette, when a cop he knew phoned. "The crazy bastard's done it. He just plugged her in Eden Park!"
"Remus. His wife. They took her to Bethesda."
At the hospital, he found her friend Laura sitting on a bench in the hallway, hands pressed between her knees. She just shook her head when she saw him. He tried to get back to Imogene, but they wouldn't let him. "It's too late, pal," a doctor finally told him. "I'm sorry."
Charlie said, "I heard someone came into the precinct house and started screaming at him. You hear about that?"
"Well, come on." Charlie knocked on the door.
Though the labs were downstairs, the smells of the business of that place seeped up to the landing. The men walked down in silence and then along the marbled length of the dim main corridor. It was only when they came to the double doors at the end, where the smells were strongest, that Dodge said, "You're going to go for the chair, aren't you?"
"We'll see, Frank. It's awfully early."
"I mean, if ever there was a case for it -- " A steady ticking came from somewhere deep within the great building. "They say she wore black. Did you hear that?"
"To a divorce." Dodge shook his head. "I assume I'll testify?"
"I imagine," Charlie said. "I mean, we're not there yet -- "
"No, I understand. What I mean is, even though I may testify, I want you to use me if you need some legwork."
"Good," Charlie said. "Yes. Thank you, Frank." He smiled. He had once thought Dodge looked very young, though he was ten years older than Charlie, nearly Remus's age. Now, though, Dodge looked to be in his fifties, with violet smudges beneath his eyes and a tightly drawn mouth. He had been handsome, and had held that for a longer time than many men, but it was gone now. It was not an easy job being an untouchable in a world where both sides, the law and the outlaws, despised you.
"Right now," Charlie said, "let us go in and see to this poor woman." Dodge held the door for him.
He picked up an Enquirer on the street. A copy waited at home, but he wanted to read during the ride. The story, of course, was front and center. A file photo of the thick-necked Remus, wearing a homburg, and one of Imogene. Charlie looked at her for some time before he began to read, comparing this vital image with the sad blue face, the opaque, half-opened eyes he had just observed. She was pretty, to be sure, but there was another quality, of guile, of mystery, or danger, especially in her eyes. The story described the sensational events of the morning, then filled in the background of the couple: Remus, forty-two, the one-time wealthiest bootlegger in the nation; Imogene, thirty-two, his young bride, his second wife, a war widow herself, and the daughter of a prominent local lawyer named Alfred Ring, who had also died tragically, seven years earlier.
Charlie read a few lines further then came back to this. He'd known Alfred Ring, or had at least met him. It was some years ago. And he remembered later hearing about the death from his father, but that would have been when he was back in New Haven, in law school, after his return from the war. Then, with a start, he sat forward and said, "Oh, God."
"Sir?" said Samuel, from the front.
"I met her."
"What?" Charlie said. "I'm sorry, Sam. Talking to myself."
He sat back. And as if through some conjuring trick, an image of that long distant afternoon came back to him as clearly as if he were seeing it now. He had been perhaps sixteen, a year from Yale, from meeting Eleanor, a few years from the horrors of France. It was at a reception in his aunt and uncle's downtown Cincinnati mansion, undoubtedly in honor of his father's presence in the city that the family considered its home, though Charlie had himself lived here only occasionally.
He remembered little of the affair, held as always in the great music room, except the image of this young woman on the porch beyond the series of portals in the east wall. He'd been watching her, staring really, since she had come in. Though she was older, and, he learned, engaged, he couldn't stop himself. As she leaned against the railing overlooking the gardens, her hair lifted in the breezes passing through the open house, and the sunlight seemed to gather itself around her head in a kind of golden bonnet. At that moment she looked up at him.
He remembered flushing and looking away, then chastising himself for acting this way. Later, she came over and introduced herself. She was simply pleasant, he remembered, and bright, and interested most in the myriad places he'd visited around the world. She told him how lucky he was, an adjective he'd grown sick of hearing by the age of six. When she said it, though, it hadn't sounded condescending or admonitory, but wistful, full of her own longing. She had been to London last year, she said, her first trip to Europe, and she couldn't wait to go back.
He tossed the paper aside and watched out the window. Ellie had mentioned meeting her once, at a luncheon. As Imogene Remus. She'd been nearly as well known as her husband, at the peak of their power. Charlie had heard of her, though he'd never paid much attention and certainly never made the connection to the girl he once met. How was it, he wondered, that he'd never put together these facts, that this woman was the daughter of a friend of his father's? But then he realized that that wasn't really the question. It was, How had this well-bred girl, this fortunate daughter, gone from the top of Cincinnati society to being the moll of a bootlegger, to end up being shot dead in the street? That was a journey Charlie could hardly begin to fathom.
As Sam pulled into the drive, Charlie picked up the paper, tore off the corner with her photo, and tucked it into his case.
He found Eleanor at the dining room table, her lips tight with disgust. She said, "They're saying she was pregnant."
He nodded and shrugged. He hadn't heard that.
"Was she, Charlie?"
"I don't have the report yet. I don't know."
"And he was drunk? It's disgusting."
"Where are you hearing this?"
She pointed at the stack of papers on the table. The tabloid on top screamed out "WHISKEY KILLER!" She said, "I was at Elder Street today, the Findlay Market. It's all anyone's talking about. Someone said he tried to kill himself in the jail but they stopped him. Maybe they shouldn't have."
Charlie put his hand on her shoulders. "That part," he said, "we'll take care of soon enough."
Copyright © 2002 by Craig Holden
Table of Contents
Prologue: Out of Eden
Black for Mourning
A Fine Bordeaux
A Lawyer's Lawyer
Hand to Hand
The Jazz Bird Sings
Scenes from a Killing
A Dry Heat
A Vision of a Lady
The Whiskey Monopoly
The End of Something
A Portrait of Madness
A Last and Only Hope
Epilogue: The Stone Room
Acknowledgments, Notes, and References