You don’t really want a nickel for every can of Budweiser sold in the past 100 years. That would be bad for your character. Not to mention the moral well- being of your several spouses, disgruntled lovers, dissolute heirs, and hangers-on of every stripe. Part of the purpose behind muckraking books, like this energetic history of the Busch dynasty of St. Louis, is to assure us that every fortune comes with a mummy’s curse of misery, sin, and corruption.
Or something like that. Actually, authors Peter Hernon and Terry Ganey, reporters for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, appear to be of two minds about the Anheuser-Busch empire. In Under the Influence, they gleefully observe that the family has amassed ”enough skeletons in their closets to fill a cemetery” in the five generations since Adolphus Busch emigrated from the Rhineland and opened the brewery that now commands roughly 42 percent of the U.S. market. Yet the authors also pay grudging respect to the clan’s steadfastness. ”The Busches,” they write in an afterthought sure to bring smiles at corporate headquarters, ”have vanquished the field by playing tougher and smarter than anyone else and by brewing what is arguably the most consistently excellent beer ever mass-produced. The word ‘quality’ has never been merely a public relations buzzword with them. It is the gospel according to Busch.”
For that matter, the authors can’t seem to make up their minds about the product itself. Is beer the balm of the working man, whose praises Adolphus Busch sang? Or is it a dangerous drug that lures the nation’s youth into drunkenness by means of TV ads as seductive as they are insidious? At different points in their book, the authors contrive to have it both ways.
Even so, the beer business gives Hernon and Ganey an excellent vantage point for examining American popular culture over the past century. Basically anecdotal in structure, Under the Influence is filled with rich vignettes. For example, little more than a decade after the anti-German hysteria of WWI helped Prohibitionists shut down breweries, a thirsty crowd watching President Herbert Hoover throw out the first ball of the 1929 baseball season chanted, ”Beer! Beer! We want Beer!”
If it’s scandal and tragedy you’re after, there is plenty of it here. Held together by the gravitational pull of a great fortune, the Busches appear to have endured more than their share of sin and sorrow over the past 120-odd years. But then few American families can trace their ancestry back that far, and fewer still have had every last divorce, auto wreck, and violent episode so amply documented. B