The Lemp saga is a story of meteoric success and crushing tragedy. It begins with the arrival of Adam Lemp from Eschwege, in the heart of Germany. Upon his arrival in St. Louis in 1836, he established a small grocery about two blocks from the riverfront. From that small establishment he introduced a German-style lager beer to St. Louisans. It was a welcome taste of the old country for a large and growing German population in Lemp’s adopted city. Adam named his business the Western Brewery, and from there he instituted a brewing revolution in America.
ADAM DIES, AND A DYNASTY IS BORN
Upon Adam’s death, his son, William J. Lemp, became president of the family enterprise, and with his astute business mind and advanced brewing prowess, the brewery – later named the William J. Lemp Brewing Company – was poised for long-term success. William moved the brewing operations to south St. Louis, so they would be closer to the caves his father had used to age his beer. He gradually expanded the facility until it covered 14 city blocks.
Just as the Lemp family reached the apex of its success, tragedy struck: In 1901, William’s son Frederick, heir-apparent to the Lemp empire, died unexpectedly at age 28. The grief-stricken father never recovered from the shock, and committed suicide three years later. At that point, William Jr. (Billy) was thrust into the leadership role.
While deeply engrossed in business pressures, Billy had also had a personal crisis to attend to: a bitter and sensational divorce from his wife, Lillian, widely known as the Lavender Lady due to her fondness for wearing that color. The very public trial lasted weeks, and ended with joint custody of their son, and a record amount of alimony for Lillian.
Untimely death would strike the family again in 1920, when Billy’s sister Elsa was found dead in her bed from a gunshot to the heart. Though ruled a suicide, suspicious circumstances have long cast doubt on that verdict.
The 1920s had another crippling blow in store for Billy and the Lemp brewery: Prohibition, which made the Lemps’ livelihood illegal. Upon the closure of the plant, Billy had a plan to liquidate the brewery by putting it on the auction block, but became embittered when it earned a small fraction of its appraised value.
Billy’s combined business and personal problems took a toll on him, and in late 1922, he became the second Lemp to commit suicide in the family mansion. His brother Charles would follow suit in 1949.
IT ISN’T ALL TRAGIC
Not all the children of William and Julia Lemp were destined for tragic lives. For example, their eldest child, Annie, married financier Alexander Konta of New York, where they put down their roots. She was a highly respected writer, and received critical acclaim for her book, “A History of French Literature.” She also penned an appeal for civility in the face of anti-German sentiment in the early days of the first World War.
Another daughter, Hilda, married Gustav Pabst, which united two great brewing dynasties. The Pabsts settled in Milwaukee, where they reared three children. Louis Lemp became active in political circles, was an aviation enthusiast, and excelled at breeding and racing horses.
Edwin, the youngest of the seven Lemp children, retired from the family business at a young age and spent his life as a world traveler, gourmet cook and collector of fine art and antiques. He is best known for his expertise with animals, which he applied to helping establish the Saint Louis Zoo. Edwin, the last of the immediate family, died of natural causes in St. Louis, at the age of 90.
Today, there are Lemp descendants in the St. Louis, New York and Milwaukee areas.
Most of the family members who remained in St. Louis are at rest in the magnificent family mausoleum in St. Louis’ Bellefontaine Cemetery.
Learn more in "Lemp: The Haunting History."