Welcome to the latest installment of the HerKentucky Guide to Speakeasy Louisville! On Thursdays throughout the fall, we'll travel back to the Jazz Age in the Derby City, when the nation's Prohibition laws didn't quench the collective thirst for Kentucky Bourbon. We'll channel our inner Daisy Buchanans and dance the Charleston at Louisville's finest establishments. And, of course, we'll take a sip or two of the native drink that kept the city's spirits high. Today, we'll visit the famous hotel that served as a playground for some of the nation's most notorious mobsters and inspired one of the seminal novels of the generation.
The Seelbach Hotel -- "the only fireproof hotel in the city" -- was built by Bavarian brothers Otto and Louis Seelbach in 1905 at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets in Downtown Louisville. The hotel design was of the Beaux Arts Baroque style and reflected turn-of-the-century opulence, but the Seelbach's lasting legacy would be its ties to the Jazz Age.
Underworld figures like Lucky Luciano and Al Capone frequented the hotel in the 1910s and '20s, drawn by clandestine high-stakes poker games and Kentucky bourbon whiskey. Cincinnati mobster George Remus found that there was a lucrative business in bootlegging the city's native spirit. The hotel's secret passageways famously helped these guests elude police and move liquor. Remus's exploits stood out to a young serviceman named Scott Fitzgerald who'd recently dropped out of Princeton, enlisted, and been stationed at nearby Camp Taylor.
Second Lt. Fitzgerald had his share of fun at the Seelbach -- he was even thrown out of the hotel after a night of merrymaking -- and drew upon his experiences in the late 1910s when writing The Great Gatsby. The title character's shadowy past is based at least in part on George Remus's bootlegging exploits, and his paramour, Daisy Buchanan, was a Louisville debutante. Of Daisy, Fitzgerald wrote:
Over the years, the Seelbach has changed hands and even briefly closed before it was restored to its original opulence. The hotel manages to retain the elegance of bygone days while providing modern amenities. And, as you walk the halls of the grand old hotel, it's easy to imagine that, just for a moment, you caught a glimpse of days gone by -- perhaps a Big City mobster, a flapper debutante, or a young soldier with a story to tell...