New York likes to claim it’s the center of the food universe, with dozens of famous restaurants and even more celebrity chefs. And while it’s truly a great place to have breakfast, brunch, lunch, or dinner, not that long ago, the Big Apple wasn’t just known for its dining establishments but for its breweries, distilleries, farms, and food factories that helped nourish the nation.
With more than eight million inhabitants and an ever-growing collection of skyscrapers, it now seems hard to believe that over the last 400 years, the five boroughs were home to sprawling facilities, which employed hundreds of New Yorkers. Joy Santlofer spent years trying to chronicle this fascinating (and now often lost history), but she passed away in 2013 before she could finish her magnum opus, Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York. The work was fortunately completed by her husband, Jonathan Santlofer, and a team of other family members and friends.
The book unearthed a number of stories of entrepreneurs, innovators, and business owners who at the time were quite famous but have since been forgotten by the general public. One of my favorite concerns the family drama that unfolded at the Lion Brewery on Manhattan’s Upper West Side after August Schmid passed away in the late 1800s, leaving the company and its dozens of bars in the hands of his wife, Josephine. Even at the turn of the century, the brand was valued at millions of dollars and its worth led to a soap-opera style family feud.
So, pour yourself a cold one and enjoy this rare look at a piece of lost New York.
Brewery Princess by Joy Santlofer
Though it’s unlikely that he expected to die suddenly at forty-six, August Schmid so believed in the business acumen of his thirty-six-year-old wife that he bequeathed her his half of the Lion Brewery and his enormous estate, which she was to manage until their two daughters came of age and the estate was equally divided between them. A woman heading any large business, especially a brewery, was an anomaly in 1889. The Lion Brewery, a sprawling group of buildings between 107th and 109th Streets and Amsterdam Avenue to Central Park West, employed 230 men and not a single woman. When Josephine Schmid incorporated the brewery, she made herself president and treasurer and showed up at the plant every day. She also ran the fifty saloons her husband had accumulated over the years, though her work was exclusively on the executive side. She “never attempted to brew beer in person,” she later explained, and the “mending of beer pumps was always relegated to employees.” During this time she also expanded August’s real estate holdings and six years after his death built a limestone mansion in a style reminiscent of a Loire Valley château at Fifth Avenue and 62nd Street.
Her daughter Pauline later recounted that during the period when Josephine was trying to work with her partner, Simon E. Bernheimer, she had “business difficulties” and was “rather bitter against everybody.” Bernheimer wanted to move the Lion Brewery closer to the Hudson River and was undoubtedly shocked when Josephine objected. In 1900 he initiated a suit to declare that all the Lion Brewery’s assets—the land, buildings, and capital—belonged to the partnership and should be sold. Josephine countersued, stating that half the land under the brewery was hers. And she won. By 1903 she had bought out Bernheimer’s interest for $3 million and was solely in charge of the brewery.
It was a good time to own a large brewery; beer consumption had risen steadily, as a 1905 headline in the New York Sun, “Beer Drives Out Hard Liquor,” testified. Mechanization and refrigeration were speeding up brewing, and the total number of breweries declined as several of the larger ones expanded and smaller operations were forced out of business. By 1910, Brooklyn was down to thirty-one breweries, and by 1915 to twenty-three.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, most large breweries had bottling facilities, and about 20 percent of their output was earmarked for pint and quart bottles of pasteurized, clear, pale, and mellow beers distinguished by branded labels. Once the top was popped, creamy white foam formed as the liquid cascaded into a glass. New Yorkers could now chill bottles in the icebox and drink beer at home.
When Pauline Schmid turned twenty-one in 1894 (her older sister had died two years earlier at the same age), Josephine offered to buy out her portion of the inheritance for a lump sum of $342,748, promising to manage the money and pay her daughter 5 percent of its profits annually. What Josephine didn’t tell her daughter was that the estate was worth about $10 million. Asked later why she agreed to sign away her fortune so easily, Pauline replied, “I signed anything she wanted me to sign,” because she believed any profits “were for both of us” and eventually every- thing would be hers.
Pauline’s attitude obviously changed by 1908, when she sued to receive her fair share of the estate and to remove her mother from management of the brewery, where most of the profits went to pay Josephine’s $500,000 salary as treasurer. During the trial, which lasted for almost a year, fifty-five-year-old Josephine married in a quiet ceremony in Brooklyn. The groom, Don Giovanni Del Drago, who claimed to be twenty-seven and an Italian prince, was actually forty-seven, twice divorced, and had a twenty-year- old son in Switzerland, and he was no prince. Four days after her wedding Josephine settled the lawsuit, agreeing to step down as treasurer but not as president. Pauline now became a director of the brewery.
Even though Princess Josephine Schmid Del Drago, as she was now known, spent much of her time with her husband in Italy, she retained tight control of the brewery, to the detriment of the business. After the brewery experienced several years of significant losses, Pauline sued her mother for neglect and mismanagement. Josephine won, and she and her husband, possibly chastened, took charge of day-to-day operations.
After years of further legal wrangling with her mother, Pauline Schmid Murray emerged as the sole shareholder of the Lion Brewery in 1925, and her husband was named president. The brewery survived Prohibition and continued to operate after the Murrays were killed in a car crash in 1931. The wealthiest woman in the American brewing industry, Pauline was worth over $4 million at the time of her death—$3 million attributed to shares in the brewery.
Excerpt from Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York by Joy Santlofer. Copyright © 2017 by the Estate of Joy Santlofer. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.