The dark past behind the Anheuser-Busch family

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By Dan Sears

Life should have been as royal as the family’s famous advertising slogan, “Budweiser, the King of Beers” for William K. “Billy” Busch, born in 1959.

To the outside world, the Busches were the golden family, one of America’s wealthiest, according to Forbes.

But behind the walls of Grant’s Farm, the opulent Busch homestead outside St. Louis, Mo., there was heartache, scandal, and tragedy.

The estate spanned 281 acres and included a French Renaissance-style chateau with 34 rooms.

There was an amusement park on the grounds and a carriage house where the famed Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale horses were housed.

Despite all this abundance, Billy’s only friends were the farm workers on the estate and assorted animals such as Tessie, his pet elephant, and a kangaroo.

In his new memoir, “Family Reins: The Heartbreaking Fall of An American Dynasty” (Blackstone), the first by a family member, Busch reveals the dark side behind an American legend.

As he tells it, Billy’s handsome father Augustus “Gussie” Busch, Jr., chairman of Anheuser-Busch, was too busy running the world’s largest brewery to spend much time with Billy, who was one of Gussie’s 10 children from four marriages.

The main house at Grant’s Farm, the opulent Busch estate outside St. Louis.
Courtesy of the Busch Family/ Black Stone Publishing

“He wears Gucci loafers and leaves the house each day festooned in a gold watch and gold rings,” writes Billy.

“Everywhere the sun touched him, he sparkles.”

His mother Gertrude was Gussie’s second wife, a former Swiss restaurant hostess and blonde fashionista who would have seven children with Gussie.

According to Billy, she all but ignored him, waking late in the day and spending hours getting dressed, then riding around the estate in a coach pulled by the Clydesdales as she waved to visiting tourists.

Leaving Billy and his siblings in the care of servants, she’d go to Switzerland for face-lifts, and much later into rehab for a serious drug addiction.

As he tells it, Billy’s handsome father Augustus “Gussie” Busch, Jr., chairman of Anheuser-Busch, was too busy running the world’s largest brewery to spend much time with Billy.
Courtesy of the Busch Family/ Black Stone Publishing

“We weren’t poor little rich kids, unhappy, lonely, or sad. We loved our nurses and butlers. The more I think about my childhood, the more I realize how small a role my parents played in my day-to-day life,” he writes. “I often sought solace from the people that worked for us, never thinking to go to my parents for such things as affection and comfort even though they were often sitting right beside me.”

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The Anheuser-Busch beer company was founded in St. Louis in the mid-1800s by Adolphus Busch, Billy’s great-grandfather.

Traveling in Germany with his brewmaster in search of the perfect beer, Adolphus discovered the monk’s brew at a monastery in the small Bohemian town of Budweis, according to a family account.

He would later merge with Eberhard Anheuser, who had a brewery business, after marrying his daughter, Lilly.

“The boy from Germany who arrived in St. Louis with nothing but a dream had risen to the highest echelons of society in the American Gilded Age,” writes Billy.

August Anheuser Busch Jr. with President Truman at Grant’s Farm.
Courtesy of the Busch Family/ Black Stone Publishing

After Adolphus Busch died in 1913, Billy’s grandfather August Anheuser Busch Sr. took control.

Anheuser-Busch jumped into the war effort during World War I, its Missouri factory constructing diesel engines for the US Navy’s submarine fleet.

Meanwhile, calls for prohibition were gradually getting louder and August was one of the most vehement against it, for obvious reasons. Still, the company continued to operate even during the Prohibition years of 1920-1933.

Tragedy struck the family in 1934 when — suffering from gout, heart disease, and chronic pain — August Busch Sr. committed suicide with a pearl handle .32 caliber pistol.

Billy’s father was tapped to run the business.

Busch Jr. with an 8-horse hitch at the brewery.
Courtesy of the Busch Family/ Black Stone Publishing

A shrewd marketer, he purchased 16 Clydesdale horses and wagons, loaded them with Bud, and rode them into the nation’s capital as an advertising trick, sealing the company’s future as the “King of Beers.”

But the joys and pleasures of success, wealth, and fame were often overshadowed by family tragedies, according to Billy.

There had been a series of horrific events, including the kidnapping of Adolphus “Buppie” Busch Orthwein, by a masked gunman on New Year’s Eve, in 1930.

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A close 15-year-old friend of Billy’s brother Adolphus died on the family farm when the horse he was riding slipped and fell on a bridge.

And then there was the 1974 death of Gussie’s youngest child, Christina — his “Honeybee,” as he called her — who was eight years old when she was killed in an eight-car pileup as she was being driven home from school.

Busch Jr. with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Courtesy of the Busch Family/ Black Stone Publishing

The family’s long-trusted chauffeur, Nathan, was decapitated in the accident.

“Christina was the apple of his eye,” writes Billy.

“He never spoke to any of us about it. “Losing Christina and not talking about it was the beginning of the end of our family as I knew it.”

He writes that his father began aging rapidly with the death of Christina.

“He wept constantly. My mother’s patience with him had reached its limit, and that impatience gave way to outright anger and vitriol. [Her] berating him at dinner just broke my heart. Mom had very little sympathy for him, for any of us, for that matter.”

His parents, he writes, were now spending more time away from each other. “There was no happy family. No hope that my mother would reconcile or find her way back to loving my father… His inconsolable grief and her desire to live. Nothing was ever the same again . . . while my father was distracted grieving his youngest daughter, his older son . . . his heir who he had been grooming — saw a way to push him out of the company.”

The heir apparent was August “Auggie” Busch III, who, according to Billy, plotted to take over the company in 1974, rallying the family against Gussie, and trying to convince them that he had become senile.

“The only ones who had nothing to gain or lose were Andy and me,” writes Billy. “We were too young, and neither of us was in line to take over the company.”

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Auggie proceeded to turn over senior positions to his son, August IV, who was involved in a 1983 car crash that resulted in the death of a 21-year-old female passenger.

According to Billy, August IV sent the company on a downward spiral.

Gussie Busch died at age 90 on Sept. 29, 1989, of pneumonia.

And then it all came to an end.

In 2008, after many decades of Busch family ownership, a company called InBev, the largest beer company in the world — owner of some 400 beer brands today — bought the Anheuser-Busch Company in a hostile takeover for a whopping $52 billion, making the surviving Busch family members even wealthier.

But they lost what was clearly their sole reason for their existence — the family business — which underscores the “heartbreaking fall” in the book’s title.

"Family Reins" by Billy Busch was released in August 2023.
“Family Reins” by Billy Busch was released in August 2023.
Courtesy of the Busch Family/ Black Stone Publishing

With his book about to be published, Anheuser-Busch was back in the headlines with the Dylan Mulvaney scandal.

The company had lost hundreds of millions of dollars in Bud Light sales to retailers in the aftermath of the event, and the popular, bestselling brand all but lost its foaming luster.

But none of that had anything to do with the founding Busch family and the generation of 62-year-old Billy, who has plans to start his own brewery, according to press accounts.

Gertrude Busch died on May 11, 2016, at age 89 of Alzheimer’s disease.

As Billy notes, “The glory days of living on Grant’s Farm were now nothing more than a sweet memory.”

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