Rumrunners on the Seas (and Great Lakes) Part II

The constant cat-and-mouse chase of rumrunners by the Coast Guard led to a sudden evolution of power boat technology. Speed was essential–for both sides! The Coast Guard tried to develop new, faster boats so they could outrun the smugglers, but there was one huge problem. When they did, federal law required them to make the specifications public so that any boatyard could bid on the construction contract . . . and, you guessed it, that let the smugglers in on the new design, which they then copied.

When Congress extended the three-mile limit (territorial waters) to twelve miles in an attempt to force party boats and smugglers out of business, they inadvertently made it even harder for the tiny Coast Guard, which now had to patrol a much larger expanse of sea.

Published in: on April 30, 2017 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rumrunners on the Seas (and Great Lakes)

During Prohibition, the federal government tried to prevent illegal booze coming into the country on boats by turning enforcement over to the Coast Guard. Sadly, the Coast Guard was very small and very ineffectual. Any boats they seized were then sold at public auction, almost always back to the original owner, who was usually the only bidder and who continued with his import business. One example, cited in Last Call, is that of the Underwriter, a ship seized in the Long Island Sound 4 times in one year and auctioned 4 times, returning to rumrunning each time.

Making matters worse, the Coast Guard seamen were paid $36 a month–even in the 1920s, this was lousy pay–which meant it was laughably easy to bribe them to look the other way, just as the smugglers did with policemen. During the early years of Prohibition, there were so few Coast Guard boats, and those that existed lacked the power of the faster, rumrunners’ boats, that any interference in the illegal importation of liquor was minimal. That’s why, in THE IMPERSONATOR, one of my characters can run liquor from Canada to Oregon in a yacht without any interference from the Coast Guard. 


Published in: on April 23, 2017 at 1:48 pm  Comments (1)  

A Pre-Order Deal on Book #4

For readers who want a hardcover copy of Book 4 in the Roaring Twenties series, I noticed that my publisher has posted it on for pre-orders at a discount. The regular hardcover retail is $29, but pre-orders are $22.68. (One wonders where they get these odd prices . . . last week it was $22.46) The book won’t be released until August 1, when it will  be available in ebook format as well. Paperbacks don’t appear until about 6 months after that. 

Published in: on April 15, 2017 at 5:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

You Can Quit Correcting Me Now, Mother

I teach writing at the Richmond Jail (volunteer job), and my inmates, like many other people, are surprised when I tell them that the rules of grammar aren’t written in stone. This coming Monday, at my next class, I’ll be showing them an example of that, now that rules have changed on an important point.

It’s official!! “Their” can be singular! 

I can’t wait to tell my mother that she can stop correcting me when I say things like, ‘Everybody has their own opinion.’ (I know the old rule: that a singular subject takes a singular pronoun–it should be ‘Everybody has his or her own opinion’ unless it’s clearly masculine or feminine, like ‘Every girl has her own opinion.’) But at a recent meeting of the American Copyeditors Society, experts okayed a change that the major styles (Chicago and AP) agree on: “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and or gender neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.” THANK YOU!!! No more “Each child has his or her toy,” or pretending that “his” is neutral.

This is a day for celebration! Hooray!

Published in: on April 9, 2017 at 2:10 pm  Comments (3)  

How much did it cost to bribe a cop during Prohibition?

Of course, there’s a wide range of correct answers to that question, but still, I needed to know what kind of money cops were generally paid to look the other way so I could depict this accurately in my books. I learned that U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mabel Willebrandt (pictured), the highest ranking female in government during her tenure, once estimated that each of the 32,000 illegal speakeasies in New York City probably paid a policeman five dollars a day to stay in business. She aimed too low.Other sources show that in Manhattan at least, “speaks” paid more like four times that much. It was probably a good deal less in small towns.

Published in: on April 2, 2017 at 2:06 pm  Comments (2)  

Plea Bargaining in the Roaring Twenties

Plea bargaining didn’t begin in the Roaring Twenties, but the practice certainly became entrenched, thanks to the huge number of arrests for violating the prohibition laws. In large cities, Volstead violators by the thousands were rounded up and delivered to the courts–the backlog was overwhelming. The vast majority of all federal cases were prohibition violations. Emory Buckner, a US Attorney in New York (shown here in 1917), developed something he called “Bargain Day,” where he promised to ask the judge for a small fine if the accused would plead guilty. This way, he could handle 500 cases at one whack and the accused paid a small fine and went home. Another way authorities winked at the law . . . and another factoid I can use in my writing. 

Published in: on March 26, 2017 at 10:50 am  Leave a Comment  

Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923)

Samuel Goldwyn (born Samuel Goldfish in Poland) began as a film producer in 1913. Nine years later, he wrote his first book, Behind the Screen. In it, he devotes chapters to many of the famous silent film actors and directors that he had come to know and work with. I found it a fascinating look at the silent movie world in its peak years. So many careers were taking off. Reading about the actors was kind of eerie, because I knew what happened to these people. And because my own mysteries are set in 1924 and 1925, Goldwyn’s account almost exactly gives the perspective of “my” characters. For example, the chapter on Rudolph Valentino (whose name Goldwyn spells Rodolph) predicts a great future for the young Italian actor, who died two years later at the age of 31. And the many pages about Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks contain no hint of their impending divorce. He shares his experiences with Charlie Chaplin, Norma Talmadge, Wallace Reid (who would soon be dead of a drug habit), Harold Lloyd, Mabel Normand, and many who were everyday names at that time. 

Because my Roaring Twenties mystery series features the real-life actors Pickford and Fairbanks and Chaplin, those were the parts I found most useful. He writes: “She never calls him ‘Doug’–indeed, I have an idea she doesn’t much like to hear his name thus shorn by other people–and somehow into her utterance of the ‘Douglas’ you find, no matter how casual the speech, the way she really feels about him.” Also, some of the details about money are priceless: “Eight years ago [1915] the twenty thousand dollars which the Lasky Company expended upon ‘Carmen’ was considered a vast sum. To-day the Goldwyn Company is investing nearly a million in its production of ‘BenHur.'” I can use facts like that in my novels.

However, I must say I don’t believe for a moment that Samuel Goldwyn wrote this book. The man was born in Poland. He didn’t come to American until he was 14 and he always spoke with an accent. He was also famous for malapropisms–that’s no criticism, it’s quite natural for a foreigner. But the man never spoke English like a native and certainly not like an educated native. He grew up poor, with virtually no schooling. I believe he dictated these stories to someone who wrote them up in a flowery way to flatter his vanity. (He was known to be very vain.)  The writing style is heavy, pompous, and unnatural, even for the 1920s. Words like therein, whereby, and ergo would not have made their way into the everyday speech of a rough man like Goldwyn. Phrases like “I quote this last as a testimony to the almost unerring acumen which Mary Pickford displays,” and “the figure with which I started falls short of conveying the full effect” don’t sound like they could come from his mouth. The ostentatious name-dropping is, I think, meant to show a familiarity to literature, opera, and other high culture that a poor orphan would never have experienced. “Many screen favorites heave in sight as slowly as Lohengrin’s swan.” “One can as easily imagine De Musset or Verlaine mowing the front lawn of his suburban home . . . ” as if he read the French poets in his spare time. 

So who wrote Behind the Screen? I believe it was Miss Corinne Lowe, the woman Goldwyn cites in his “Notes” as having helped him “prepare these articles.”So thank you, Miss Lowe. Your book gives me many contemporary details that I would not have discovered anywhere else.

An amusing exchange . . .

I came across this amusing exchange in Daniel Okrent’s Last Call.

Wayne Wheeler

Wayne Wheeler, the country’s leading prohibitionist and architect of the 18th amendment, characterized the president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler (diplomat, philosopher, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who opposed prohibition) as “soaked in avarice, lust and rum” and that he belonged “with the bootleggers, rum-runners, owners of speak-easy property, wet newspapers, underworld denizens, alcoholic slaves and personal liberty fanatics in his fight to bring back booze.” 

Nicholas Butler

To which Butler replied, “It sounds as if something had happened to trouble him.” 

Published in: on March 11, 2017 at 9:37 am  Comments (4)  
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The Twenties is Never Far Away

img_0917I went to a yacht club on the Chesapeake Bay for lunch last week and there in the bar was a wall of liquor lockers. Does anyone remember these? In places where alcohol was illegal, people could come to private clubs and bring their own liquor. They would keep it in a locker like these and whenever they came to the club, the bartender could take the liquor and make them a drink. Ridiculous, isn’t it?


Published in: on February 18, 2017 at 10:10 am  Comments (3)  

Roaring Twenties Furniture . . . in China?

Yep, the Roaring Twenties roared in urban China as well as in the Western world. I was browsing through a really nice antiques store in Williamsburg, VA, recently and came across these restored furniture pieces. For some reason, they screamed “Shanghai” to me, so I asked the owner what they were and I was right! (That doesn’t happen very often.) These came from Shanghai and they date from the 1920s. The buyer thinks they are hotel furniture from that period. Aren’t they cool?



Published in: on February 12, 2017 at 9:36 am  Comments (2)