Mr. High Life and Mr. Lowlife

By Pete Ehrmann on September 18, 2018
Mr. High Life and Mr. Lowlife
“Give me a schnapps and take me home. I’ll stay home nights and behave hereafter.”

Charlie Metrie fought some of the best lightweights of his era, including world champion Benny Leonard in 1919 (TKO by 7)…

Charlie Metrie fought some of the best lightweights of his era, including world champion Benny Leonard in 1919 (TKO by 7). But in 10 years as a professional boxer and later as a Milwaukee gym owner and manager of boxers, Metrie never had a day as auspicious as the one on which he met Emil Miller must have seemed.

The circumstances of their first encounter, in early December 1928, are unknown, but it’s a good bet it happened in a speakeasy or gambling joint, those being the favorite hangouts of Miller, scion of Milwaukee’s first family of beer brewing.

Founded in 1855 by Emil’s father, German emigrant Frederick Miller, the Miller Brewing Company leaped to the forefront of storied Milwaukee breweries in 1903 with the production of Miller High Life, “the Champagne of Bottled Beer.” Frederick died in 1888, but the company flourished under the stewardship of Emil and his siblings. Up to 1920 Emil served capably as a Miller factotum, taking his own turn as company president when the Miller progeny rotated in that capacity.

By the mid-‘20s, Emil was a multi-millionaire. The bachelor beer baron was also out of control—so addicted to booze (not beer), gambling and hookers that his family gradually removed him from the day-to-day operation of the brewery.

“Emil probably suffered from bipolar disorder, a mental illness that, slowly over time, caused him to fluctuate between manic highs and paralyzing lows,” wrote Tim John, great-grandson of Frederick Miller, in his 2005 book The Miller Beer Barons: The Frederick J. Miller Family and its Brewery. “(He) discovered that massive amounts of alcohol could help him escape temporarily from the painful cycle.”

An annual allowance of $100,000 (almost $1.5 million in today’s dollars) also helped, though Emil’s pedal-to-the-metal profligacy—one of his bacchanals, according to Tim John, lasted three months, at a cost of up to $4,000 a day for “gambling, living, and prostitutes, whom he was changing as one changes pants; paying $100 to $1,000 for their services” —rendered even that gaudy sum inadequate. The other Millers were often called on to cover his massive losses and debts, which they did with growing resentment and reluctance. When Chicago gambling czar Mont Tennes put Emil on ice until his relatives coughed up $25,000 he owed, they deliberated for a week before doing so.

Tim John says servants at Emil’s mansion in Milwaukee “feared answering the door with the probability of thugs, prostitutes, or gamblers appearing to request a conference with the man of the house.”

“By December 1928,” wrote John, “Emil was estranged from his friends and family and enjoying Milwaukee’s illegal nightlife, while encountering opportunistic toughs”—i.e., Charlie Metrie—“and scammers in those places.”

Just a week or so after they met, Emil, his new pal Metrie and Milwaukee restaurant operator Frank Scaler took off for French Lick, Indiana, to spend a week at a health spa there. They made it as far as Chicago, where Emil booked them into an expensive suite at the Morrison Hotel and they spent three days gambling, drinking and whoring to the tune of $1,600 (about $24,000 today) daily until Emil was tapped out. His—or someone’s—solution was for Emil to write three personal checks for $1,300 apiece, have Metrie go back to Milwaukee and present them at Miller headquarters to be cashed, then return to the Morrison with the money to keep the party going.

Ernest Rahtjen, Emil’s personal secretary in Milwaukee, had been through this before. He had drawers full of IOUs and markers supposedly signed by his boss. Figuring out which were legit could drive a man to drink. When Metrie showed up with the checks, Rahtjen refused to cash them and pointed to the door. The ex-boxer departed, and Rahtjen made a telephone call.

Metrie headed back to Chicago unaware that he was being shadowed by Rahtjen and Sgt. Arthur Burns of the Milwaukee Police Dept. In the Windy City the latter picked up blue-clad reinforcements, and at the Morrison Hotel the posse burst into Miller’s suite.

At first, the Chicago Tribune reported, “Miller and his friends were jovial.” Then a frisking of Metrie produced two pair of dice. Both were loaded so they rolled only deuces and sevens. Suddenly Emil wasn’t jovial anymore.

“Give me a schnapps and take me home,” he tearfully pleaded to his secretary. “I’ll stay home nights and behave hereafter.”

Metrie and the other guy spent the night in jail. They were sprung in the morning after donating $50 each to the Police Charity Fund. By that time Emil was checked into a facility in Dwight, Illinois, to take the cure.

The cure didn’t take. From the New York Daily News of April 28, 1929: “Chicago, April 27—A three-day party beginning with three friends and ending with 25 strangers cost Emil Miller $60,000.”

Despite spending, as Tim John wrote, “the last years of his life … a caricature of the drunken gambler,” when Emil died of tuberculosis in 1934 he left an estate valued at $4.2 million (more than $75 million today).

That might’ve been the hardest punch Charlie Metrie ever took.

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  1. Lucas McCain 07:22am, 09/23/2018

    Hard to imagine this being turned into a screenplay, but it’s a striking confluence of characters and events.  As the 60s song said—It’s a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack.

  2. Bob 04:06am, 09/20/2018

    Another gem, Pete. Very sad but enjoyable read.

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