A Merry, Happy Berghausen

By Pete Ehrmann on December 23, 2014
A Merry, Happy Berghausen
“Pineapples! Sugar cane! Hula dancers! Champagne! Boy, was I ever in high gear!”

A reporter asked if he knew Berghausen in Paris during World War I and Tunney replied, “Oh yes, that scoundrel. He was always in the can…”

As a longtime cornerman in Milwaukee boxing rings, Albert W. “Whitey” Berghausen rubbed shoulders with (and of) many famous champions. But the closest he ever came to joining their exalted ranks was when Berghausen was runner-up in the “World’s Beer Drinking Championships” in 1935. The 160-pound Berghausen downed a half-gallon in 37 seconds flat, finishing three seconds behind the 310-pound winner — and then protested the results on the ground that the quart containers used in the competition were too small.

“I’m no quart quaffer … I’m a gallon guzzler!” roared Berghausen. “I say that in a gallon contest I can make any so-called champion look like a hamstrung steamroller, or a chicken with the colic.”

As a young man Berghausen fought in bootleg matches. He wasn’t very good at it, and when John Morgenroth saw him battered up after a bout he implored Berghausen’s family to never let him fight again.

“Well, then you take him,” Morgenroth was told.

Morgenroth put Berghausen to work as his personal chauffeur and meat cutter at the lunch counter of his famous downtown saloon/gambling den. Whitey also worked with the boxers who trained in Morgenroth’s third-floor gym.

During World War I, he spent 17 months in France with the U.S. Army — three of them in jail after it took a volley of warning shots from Paris gendarmes to convince Pvt. Berghausen — no mere quart quaffer even then — to end his high-speed joyride around town on a “borrowed” motorcycle with a barmaid in the sidecar.

Nine years later, heavyweight champion Gene Tunney was training for his rematch with Jack Dempsey in Illinois. “The Fighting Marine” was also in Paris during the war. A reporter asked if he knew Berghausen then and Tunney replied, “Oh yes, that scoundrel. He was always in the can.”

After the war Berghausen was a staple of Morgenroth’s and the local boxing scene. When the Great Depression hit he also served as timekeeper for the dance marathons, walking contests and other crazes that lured folks willing to try just about anything to stay afloat.

Tapped out and jobless in 1936 (John Morgenroth died the year before, and Morgenroth’s closed for good), Whitey announced his candidacy for county sheriff and put an ad in the newspaper seeking 500 women to circulate his nomination papers. But he neglected to notify the owner of the café where the harem was to gather, and he ordered Berghausen to find another campaign headquarters.

Whitey’s political career thus died aborning, and voters were denied the opportunity to elect a sheriff who promised to “mind my own business and not bother anyone.”

Berghausen’s own ship came in when his father died on the West Coast and left a $50,000 bequest for the perpetual care of his grave at a Hollywood cemetery. But in a mix-up his remains were cremated instead of interred, and Whitey and his wife, Eleanor, hocked enough furniture to hire an attorney to break Berghausen Sr.’s will. Whitey ended up getting $37,500 — the equivalent today of $667,125.

It wasn’t genteel for a rich man to be called “Whitey,” so the first thing he did was rechristen himself “A. Whitney Berghausen.” Then he and Eleanor headed for Hawaii, where A. Whitney blew through his fortune like an unhamstrung steamroller.

Within a couple years he was Whitey again.

“(The money) went so fast I couldn’t count it,” Eleanor told the judge when she filed suit in 1940 to end their 17-year marriage. “The (Hawaiian) trip was taken against my wishes. He wanted to be a big shot. He was under the influence of liquor from the time he left until he got back.”

The Berghausens had left Milwaukee with five suitcases. They returned with as many steamer trunks filled with junk Whitey bought, including two $150 coats made out of wombat fur. “Wombat, wombat — boy, it sure sounds funny,” said Whitey. “But it wears like nobody’s business.”

Asked by the judge to account for his profligacy, Whitey said, “My father got a kick out of saving that money, and I got a kick out of spending it.”

Eleanor testified that Whitey had also beaten her. In granting her petition for divorce, Judge Roland Steinle told the 51-year-old defendant, “Whitey, today you are losing the best pal you ever had in your life.”

“I know it,” he said with tears running down his face.

Nevertheless, so cherished were his memories of Hawaii (“Pineapples! Sugar cane! Hula dancers! Champagne! What a country! Boy, was I ever in high gear!”) that when Pearl Harbor was bombed a year later Whitey took it personally and wrote his old pal Tunney, then a Lt. Commander in the Naval Reserve, volunteering to serve as a boxing coach for the troops. The old scoundrel’s offer was declined.

“Albert W. (Whitey) Berghausen, the poor man’s ‘bon vivant,’ reached the end of his world travels in a small room in the Republican hotel,” The Milwaukee Journal’s Sam Levy wrote when Whitey, all alone, died of a heart attack on March 21, 1949.

A lot of things weren’t the same around town after that, including Christmas.

Every year Whitey mailed out holiday greetings by the bundle to friends, boxers, reporters, cops, politicians and entertainers. When he was flush, he scribbled his sentiments on penny postcards he bought himself. By the mid-‘40s, when every penny counted, Berghausen went to the Brown Bottle tavern, where public tours of the famous Schlitz brewery concluded, and availed himself of the free beer and free pre-stamped Schlitz postcards on tap there.

“A merry, happy Christmas — Whitey,” he inscribed on each postcard until the endless beer took effect. Then he condensed it to “A merry, happy Berghausen.”

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  1. Eric 08:05am, 12/24/2014

    Schlitz was after all, “the beer that made Milwaukee famous,” and “when you are out of beer, you are out of Schlitz.”  But if you are going to have a couple brews, “Schaefer is the one beer to have when you are having more than one.” However, “if you got the time, we got the beer,” Miller taste too good to hurry through.” “What’ll you have?” Pabst Beer? No. “Mabel, Black Label.”

  2. Pete The Sneak 05:42am, 12/24/2014

    Pete (something about that name I like), what a great story. Totally enjoyed it. Looks like Ol’ Whitey had a way with words (quart quaffer, chicken with colic, hamstrung steamroller, etc.) that would make those Yogi Berra Yogisims sound downright sensible…lol…Great stuff and Merry. Happy Berghausen indeed…Peace.

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