Louisville loves to read news about bourbon, and Louisville loves to throw prohibition-themed parties. And Wednesday at Carmichael’s Books, New York Times bestselling author Karen Abbott is bringing the city some of the hottest and juiciest bourbon news… from the prohibition era.
Abbott’s new book is “The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder that Shocked Jazz Age America.” It tells the tale of George Remus, a bootlegger with a story that involves love, betrayal, death, and more betrayal.
But before Abbott was the author of four works of narrative non-fiction, she wanted to be a lawyer. Then she had a summer internship at Philadelphia Magazine.
“The people were absolutely nuts, and I wanted to be around that brand of crazy. They were my people, and I decided to go into journalism instead. So I was in journalism for six years in Philly,” Abbott said in an interview with WFPL.
Her course change again when she became obsessed with a family mystery.
“My grandmother told me a story that really intrigued me. Her mother’s sister immigrated from Slovenia to the United States in 1905, and her sister went to Chicago, and was never heard from again,” she said. I was really intrigued, and sort of haunted by this, and began looking into what was going on in Chicago in 1905.”
What she discovered, among other things, was that a lot of women went missing. But she also found some women, as well as the subject of her first book.
“I found a clip about Marshall Field Junior — the scion of the department store — was shot in a world-famous, lavish brothel owned by two sisters who were sort of mysterious and enigmatic, and very ambitious. Suddenly I forgot all about my ancestor and was much more interested in these two sisters,” said Abbott.
Minna and Ada Everleigh became the main characters in “Sin in the Second City,” Abbot’s first novel, and first New York Times best seller.
Abbott has a track record of writing about historical women, but it isn’t a rule.
“I’m still really interested in resurrecting forgotten women’s stories, and highlighting their contributions. But of course it has to be a good story,” she said. “I’m going to first and foremost look for a good narrative, something that can read like a novel. With a beginning, middle and end, that sort of thing.”
Research and deep dives into history give Abbott most of her ideas, but “The Ghosts of Eden Park” had a much glitzier origin: the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.” That show was based in bootlegger history, although it took much greater liberties with the past than Abbott does, making up new characters and dramas to fill in the action between the more historic moments.
“This very minor character would come on the screen and he was pretty bizarre, clearly brilliant, spoke of himself in the third person… And I was like, is this guy a real person? And sure enough, George Remus was real, and did speak of himself in the third person,” said Abbott.
She had found her next subject, and the main character for a new book.
Abbott began research. Amidst other resources, she found a very detailed document, stashed safely away at the Yale School of Law’s library; a 5,500 page transcription of a trial in which Remus was embroiled. We’ll keep mum on what kind of trial, in case prospective readers want to stay spoiler free.
This transcript had every single piece of the story Abbott was trying to piece together. But it’s not just the plot and the action that’s important to Abbott: the devil is in the details.
“You have people on the stand talking about what they said, what they wore, what they did, what they were thinking about what their gestures were … The stuff that really make you able to craft cinematic scenes and really get all that stuff in. And it was invaluable,” she said.
Other details are perfect for creating characters that stick in the mind.
“It’s going to have such great little tidbits, like the fact that Remus never wore underwear. This was in [the transcript], and of course in the 1920’s this was cause for great alarm. It suggested ‘an unsound mind.’ There was something wrong with you if you didn’t like underwear,” Abbott said.
Find out more about Remus when Karen Abbott reads from “The Ghosts of Eden Park” on Wednesday, August 7. The reading begins at 7:00 p.m. at the Frankfort Ave. Carmichael’s Books location (2720 Frankfort Avenue).