JUST WHEN HE WAS GOING UNDER, FATE LENT A HELPING HAND
Your great-grandparents once sang about a dandy named Champagne Charlie. A popular tune said:
Champagne Charlie is my name
Champagne Charlie is my name
There’s no drink as good as fizz, fizz, fizz
I’ll drink every drop there is, is, is.
All round town it is the same
By Pop! Pop! Pop! I rose to fame
I’m the idol of the barmaids
Champagne Charlie is my name.
Champagne Charlie actually existed. He brought champagne to America and his story is wilder than any tale Hollywood could concoct.
Charles Heidsieck was born into a French family with a long history of marketing champagne. Charlie founded his own company in 1851. Visiting the U. S. the next year, he discovered champagne was unknown to Americans. A major market was waiting be tapped.
Charlie secured an agent in New York and began exporting bubbly. Just one sip and Americans were hooked on the new drink.
Returning the following year, Charlie was the toast of New York. He used his charismatic personality and celebrity status to promote champagne (the same way Colonel Sanders did with fried chicken a century later).
Newspapers dubbed him Champagne Charlie. They couldn’t get enough of the dashing Frenchman and his intoxicating product. He was fun company and embraced his Champagne Charlie image by dressing in the latest Parisian fashions, wining and dining the rich and powerful, filling their glasses with more bubbly as his order books filled with requests for more bottles. Being Champagne Charlie was very lucrative.
Until America went to war with itself in 1861. Half of Charlie’s assets were unpaid bills in America. Rushing here as fast as he could, he was met by bad news. His agent used a curious bit of logic to claim a new law passed by Congress excusing Northerners from paying debts on cotton from the South meant that he, the agent, didn’t have to pay his debts to Charlie.
So Charlie hurried to New Orleans, now deep in the Confederacy, to collect a big debt there. Arriving in April 1862, he found the debtor was unable to pay. So he gave Charlie a warehouse full of cotton instead. It was shipped to Mobile, Alabama and loaded on two blockade runners sailing for cotton hungry Europe. Both were caught and the cotton burned.
Charlie decided to return to New Orleans and charter a boat to Mexico or Cuba and go home from there. France’s consul in Mobile gave him a diplomatic pouch containing documents bound for Paris to aid his escape plans. But when he arrived in New Orleans, he discovered the city was now in Union hands. Examining the diplomatic pouch’s contents, Federal officers found letters about French companies supplying Confederate uniforms. Charlie was tossed in prison as a spy.
With his business teetering on bankruptcy, his wife sold her personal belongings just to buy food for their children. Influential relatives lobbied French Emperor Napoleon III, who personally appealed to President Lincoln for Charlie’s freedom. Released in November 1862, he returned home broke and sick.
Then something curious happened the next year. An American missionary delivered a letter from the brother of the agent who had stiffed Charlie in 1861. The writer said he was humiliated by his brother’s bad behavior. To atone, he included the deed to land in the American West. That’s nice, Charlie, thought, but what good was property in the wilderness?
Charlie barely kept his champagne business afloat. His family teetered dangerously close to poverty.
A few years later, in a desperate final bid to avoid going under, Charlie decided to sell the American land. Only then did he bother to learn where his holdings were located.
The property was in Colorado, which was experiencing a bonanza just then thanks to the discovery of gold. Charlie, it turned out, owned one-third of the boom town of Denver!
In an instant, he was suddenly rich again. The windfall allowed him to revitalize his business, which remains one of France’s leading champagne houses today.
Champagne Charlie was very wealthy when he died at age 71 in 1893.
I dare Hollywood to come up with a better twist ending than that!
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