Joined: Aug 19, 2007
From: Athens, Georgia
|Posted: 2008-02-17 8:35 pm  Permalink|
The Straight Man
Local filmmaker makes documentary about rum runner Bill McCoy
By Kristina Dorsey Published on 2/17/2008
Bill McCoy was one of the last gentlemen bootleggers. He wasn't violent. Heck, he didn't drink. He didn't even water down the booze he sold during Prohibition, and so his product became known as “The Real McCoy.”
The story of tall-ship-sailing rum runners like McCoy has been relatively unexplored in the media. That is part of what compelled Bailey Pryor to create a documentary about McCoy, called “The Real McCoy.”
“Every story I heard about Prohibition was always focused on Capone and Chicago — the gangster story,” Pryor says. “To me, it was this very large and important portion of American history that is totally under-represented in the media.”
The documentary will premiere Saturday at the Garde Arts Center in New London, with proceeds going to Mystic Seaport's education and preservation efforts.
“The Real McCoy” paints a portrait of McCoy and his times using everything from event re-creations to previously unseen National Archives footage.
McCoy's story is, in a way, about 1920s America, touching on why Prohibition was instituted and how the fight against rum runners led to the growth of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Pryor — a filmmaker from Mystic — based the documentary on the upcoming book “The Actual McCoy” by Noank author Stephen Jones. Both Pryor and Jones will attend Saturday's screening and discuss the movie afterward.
Jones is a principal of Flat Hammock Press in Mystic and an author of nine books. He owns West Mystic Wooden Boat Company and teaches at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus.
Pryor has worked in film and TV for two decades. He was president and CEO of Warren Miller Entertainment, and was a staff producer and vice president of production at Sonalysts Studios in Waterford for six years. He has since founded his own company, Telemark Films.
Pryor described Bill McCoy as “a happy-go-lucky, fun guy in search of adventure and excitement.”
He found it, especially when Prohibition began in 1920 (it lasted until 1933). McCoy became the first person to sail large amounts of liquor from the Bahamas to New York City. He was so successful that others followed his lead. They created “Rum Row” off the New York coast; a line of ships would anchor just beyond the government's three-mile jurisdiction, and the rum runners would load their liquor into speed boats that could outrun the Coast Guard.
Jones says that McCoy was a rum runner but not a gangster.
“He was a boat builder, and he sailed his own boats. He had gone to a maritime academy that was on a vessel. His whole interest was the tradition of the sea, the great sailing ships,” Jones says.
McCoy began as a sailor working for Morton Plant, whose estate in Groton is now the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus.
For a lot of rum runners, a boat was just a getaway car. McCoy saw rum running as a way to make money with a boat.
Pryor says, “He was never a violent man. He was never a murderer — he never killed anybody. We don't know if he even got in any fistfights.”
And, at least once, he ran away from a police confrontation. That on his one stop in New London, where he stayed — briefly — at the Mohican Hotel on State Street.
“This was at a time when he was known for his rum running. He was being sought after,” Pryor says. “When he got into his hotel room late in the night, he had an uneasy feeling. He climbed out the window and went down the fire escape and ran down toward the pier, by the train station. And by doing so, he avoided the police kicking his door in at some point in the middle of the night.”
For the documentary “The Real McCoy,” Pryor filmed 17 re-creation scenes, including onboard the schooner Alabama and a whole scene of Rum Row in the water off Martha's Vineyard, with the cameraman shooting from a helicopter. A speakeasy scene featured folks from southeastern Connecticut, including Gary Buttery and his jazz band. Everyone was dressed in costume, dancing to the band, and opening bottles of champagne and rum.
McCoy, who was a Methodist, never drank. But drinking was a huge issue in America before Prohibition. People who had moved over the Allegheny Mountains were growing grain but couldn't get it to the wealthy markets on the East Coast before the stock went bad. Groups in Kentucky and Tennessee decided to distill it and make alcohol.
“With the advent of this new, inexpensive alcohol, suddenly you could buy a gallon of liquor for a sixteenth of your weekly wage,” Pryor says. “So all of a sudden, it was cheap, readily available, and people started getting absolutely blotto.”
At the time, the Anti-Saloon League published a study that 20 gallons of hard liquor was sold for every man, woman and child in the country. Which translates to eight times the alcohol consumption today. Later studies in the 1930s and '70s agreed those numbers were actually low.
When the Prohibition laws were put into effect in 1920, though, officials didn't consider how much money the government brought in through liquor importation fees. Varying figures estimate anywhere from 30 to 80 percent of the total revenue collected by the government came from those taxes; this was a time when the United States had very little income tax and no property tax.
“So we just cut that off, and started a war, and had no infrastructure to enforce the law,” Pryor says. “There were guys in rowboats in the lifesaving service now being charged with enforcing Prohibition, watching the rum runners zip by in their boats. So what happened was, criminals had more money than the government, and this technological war began.”
With all this rich background surrounding McCoy's life and times, Pryor says that it was a challenge as a filmmaker to take such a complex story and explain it in a condensed version without losing its power.
Yet another aspect of that: how rum running affected the development of the U.S. Coast Guard.
“You always think of the Coast Guard as an incredibly efficient, well run, organized, highly funded institution, the way you think of the Navy or the Army,” Pryor says. “It wasn't like that originally. The Coast Guard in 1918 was only a few steps ahead of George Washington and his ragtag fugitive collection of guys walking up and down fighting the British. They had no money, they had no political power, they had no identity.”
The Coast Guard became instrumental, however, in running down rum runners.
In addition to touching on that part of history, the documentary also profiles McCoy's nemesis, the assistant attorney general in charge of Prohibition enforcement, Mabel Walker Willebrandt.
“Here's the most powerful woman in American, yet she didn't have the right to vote in this country,” Pryor says. “She was very much an American hero in terms of law enforcement history and has been quite ignored.”