By Cecil Hoge
While trying to clean up my basement, I came across a crate containing a bunch of musty old photographs and newspaper clippings. It took some rummaging through it until I realized that these must have been pictures and clippings that my mother had collected and preserved over many years. Most the pictures and clippings were familiar, but one small article caught my attention and made me realize just how colorful my grandfather must have been.
My grandfather was a bit of a drinking man. Well, maybe more than a bit. It was said that you could tell the time of day by the level of the bottle of whiskey behind his desk. My grandfather was also an immensely rich man for his time.
In the first World War, he owned Shewan Shipyards. In addition to building battleships, tugboats, Merchant Marine boats and destroyers, Shewan Shipyards did the repairs for the Atlantic Fleet. It was a good job for my grandfather, Edwin Shewan – “Pops”, as he was known to his daughters, was paid well. In 1929 he sold his business to Bethlehem Steel for $15,000,000. Since this was a period of almost no income taxes, this was roughly the equivalent of one billion dollars in today’s money.
Being a rich man, my grandfather had many of accouterments of a rich man. He was married to one of the most beautiful women of the day. He had five houses…one in New York, one in Rye, one in Phoenix, one in Southampton and one in Paris. Last, but not least, like many rich men of his day and of this day, he owned, at one time or another, five separate yachts.
Life was good to my grandfather and his immediate family. They spent the 1920s cruising back and forth across the Atlantic, dividing their time between their five houses and luxury resorts in the Caribbean and Europe. Summer would find them in Southampton or on the Riviera, fall could bring them to New York or Paris, Winter might be in New York or Phoenix or Bimini, Spring it was back to Paris or New York.
During the 20’s, my grandfather kept up his drinking, his cruising around the world and his fondness for the high life.
“Pop was Scotch,” was my mother’s explanation of my grandfather’s great appreciation of that beverage. In fact, my grandfather was Scottish, but my mother felt that Scotch was a clearer definition.
My grandfather had an interesting way of approaching his duties as a father to his two daughters. When they needed to learn to swim, he stationed a man with a rifle on his 110 foot yacht and threw his two daughters into the sea below. Two other men were stationed in a nearby lifeboat with strict instructions to pick up his daughters if they started to sink or some danger approached. The gentleman with the rifle had strict instructions to shoot any approaching sharks.
However unconventional this system was, it worked. Both my mother and my aunt were Olympic class swimmers. Apparently, fear of sharks is a great aid to learning to swim fast.
When the great crash came in 1929, my grandfather decided that he, his two daughters and his beautiful wife should remove themselves from the unpleasantness in the States and live in his Paris house. To take care of my mother and her sister, my grandfather hired a French Mademoiselle to teach them all things French. This gave my mother flawless French, a great love of Artichokes and a fondness for red wine. My grandfather stuck with his Scotch.
My grandfather, in spite of his large wealth for that day, had been hurt by the crash of stock market, losing over 50 percent of the monies he had accumulated in owning and operating Shewan Shipyards. This situation was furthered worsened by my grandfather’s insistence on not changing his lifestyle one iota and by a lifelong envy of William Randolf Hearst. The lifelong envy of William Randolph Hearst best expressed itself in my grandfather’s insistence on trying to outbid Mr. Hearst at every art auction that the two gentlemen attended. This was particularly unfortunate because Mr. Hearst was considerably wealthier.
Be that as it may, my grandfather continued his high life unabated, acquiring many beautiful artifacts from his competitions with Mr. Hearst, spending his fortune as he went.
Around this time, a new development arose. That was called Prohibition. You can imagine the fear and animal spirits that this new situation created. For a drinking man used to his cup being full, the coming of Prohibition must have aroused fear, loathing and not a little sense of adventure.
Given my grandfather’s eclectic approach to teaching swimming, it is probably not surprising that he would approach the problem of Prohibition with the same dramatic flair. After all, he had at his disposal some ways of dealing with this problem that were not available to the common man. Having spent all his life working his way up from one luxury yacht to another, going from 60 feet to 70 feet and increasing every 5 or 10 years another 10 feet or so. This left him in possession of his latest and his most magnificent yacht called “Edwina” – 110 foot beauty that took up quite a bit of real estate in Sag Harbor every summer.
I am not sure just how much whiskey a 110 foot yacht can carry, but my guess is quite a lot. My explanation of my grandfather’s mindset is that he must have been quite concerned about this Prohibition thing. How else is one to explain my grandfather’s later actions?
As mentioned at the beginning of this story, I found out about my grandfather’s incident when I was rummaging through some old newspaper clippings that my mother had saved. One article was quite clear on what had happened.
1370 CASES OF LIQUOR TAKEN OFF SHELTER ISLAND (By United Press, Special to Daily News.)
The article went on to describe the action.
“Sag Harbor, NY., May 18, 1931. – United States custom officials raided the palatial yacht “Edwina” here today, seizing 1,370 cases of whiskey, valued at $120,000.
The yacht was released by orders of the Internal Revenue Agents. It was stated by Edwin Shewan, who was in command, that the yacht was under British registry and exempt from American seizure.”
All of this was quite a surprise to me. It seems my grandfather was a felon, involved in the desperate occupation of smuggling. Since this is the sole printed evidence, I really do not know what the outcome of this run-in with the Feds was. Coming on this story almost 100 years after the fact, a bunch of questions come to mind. Did he go to jail? Did he beat the rap? Did his alibi work? Did he get to keep the booze? If so, did he get to drink the evidence? These were some of the questions this small article brought to mind.
I don’t know the answer to any of the above questions. Both my mother and aunt, my grandfather’s only two daughters, have passed away and I do not know any other living relatives who might know the answer to these pressing questions, but I do remember my aunt mentioning this incident in passing.
“Pops got busted,” she said, “He was testing the goods when the Feds came on board.”
My aunt thought this run-in was quite amusing. Unfortunately, I don’t remember her giving more details. So with only this to go on, I would like write down what I think might have happened.
I imagine my grandfather standing on deck majestically with a drink in his hand (Scotch, I am sure) on his latest and most palatial yacht, “Edwina”, swaying slightly side to side. I am thinking that the “Edwina” was my grandfather’s gift to himself after a nasty divorce that winter. How else to explain my grandfather’s lapse into crime?
I imagine the scene. One rifleman is stationed the deck of the yacht, a high powered rifle trained on the water. Down below my mother and aunt are splashing in Gardiner’s Bay, no doubt screaming that the water is damned cold . Two seamen are stationed in Edwina’s lifeboat, ready to rescue my mother and aunt.
No doubt they are more than little miffed.
“It’s damned cold,” my mother is saying – she used the word “damned” a hell of lot. And other words besides, but that’s another story.
I am sure that my grandfather was not nearly as concerned as his daughters.
“Nonsense, my dears, it’s already the middle of May. Pretty soon you will be complaining about the heat. There’s no satisfying you two.”
Just then I imagine the sound coming from a loud bullhorn being spoken through,
“Rifleman drop your rifle. Edwina prepare to be boarded by U.S Custom agents.”
The rifleman, knowing which side of his bread is buttered, would have immediately thrown down his rifle and raised his arms, preventing the possibility of a more unfortunate confrontation.
I am pretty sure that my mother and aunt would have taken this as a blessing in disguise and a wonderful opportunity to climb hastily into the nearby lifeboat. The two seamen would no doubt do their part and eagerly help the two beautiful young ladies clamor into the lifeboat.
Only my grandfather would have been taken by surprise, no doubt trying to figure out what he should save first – his two beautiful daughters, his 1370 cases of whiskey or the remaining whiskey in his glass. My guess is that he recovered his composure pretty quickly, seeing that his two beautiful daughters were being pulled to safety by two very eager seaman.
And so, I think Captain Shewan, donned his Captain’s hat, drained his whiskey glass, threw it overboard with an authoritative flourish and then turned to face the speeding runabout pulling up deck side.
“Gentlemen, are you aware that this ship is of British registry?” my grandfather would have boomed.
The strength of my grandfather’s voice must have been impressive. I imagine the custom agents being impressed with the authority of his voice, although they may have been curious about the fact that my grandfather’s words were slightly slurred.
I suspect that the next thing to happen was that the custom agents boarded the ship and began an inspection that shortly revealed the 1370 cases of whiskey.
As I have said, I do not know if the custom agents bought the British registry story. I suspect that custom agents got to keep the whiskey, my mother and aunt got to change their clothes and that my grandfather ended up going into Sag Harbor and having a face to face chat with the local authorities. And after my grandfather’s lawyer showed up, I am guessing my grandfather went off to console himself in a local Speakeasy with a magnificent “Get Out Of Jail” dinner and after party.
At least, that’s the way I hoped it ended.