Looking back at the 900 plus “whiskey men” profiled on this website the vast majority began as indigent immigrants or native-born poor with little education who by hard work and intelligence succeeded in the liquor trade. Not so Harry Milton Levy, the five foot, four inch, gentleman shown here. Born to riches in Cincinnati, Levy was sent to Harvard for his college education and stayed to earn a degree from Harvard Law School.
Harry’s good fortune began when he was born in 1862, the son of Albert and Julia Fries Levy. His father and a brother had immigrated from Wurtemburg, Germany; settled in Cincinnati, and founded a highly successful wholesale liquor house known as James Levy & Brother. At the time Cincinnati boasted its centrality east of the Mississippi River, its role as a canal and railroad hub, its access through the Ohio River to the Mississippi Basin and the Atlantic Ocean and, most important, its ability to tap the burgeoning distilling capacities of Kentucky. “The Queen City,” as it was known, became the center of the liquor trade in America. The Levys were among the beneficiaries.
After graduating from Harvard Law, above, Harry Levy never practiced for even one day. He hurried back to Cincinnati and the family liquor house, located at 33 Sycamore Street, to join his father and uncle. At the time the Levy brothers were selling at wholesale multiple brands that included: “Belle of Milton,” "Crab Orchard,” "G. W. H.", "Hazel Nut", "Madison", "Maywood", "Old Pioneer ", “Pilgrimage,” “Richwood,” "Spring Lake,” "Spring Wood,” “Susquehanna," “Susquemac,” “Treubrook,” and “Teakettle.”
Like other wholesalers the Levys were always on the lookout for sources of whiskey supplies for their house brands. An opportunity arose in 1880 with the availability of The Tea Kettle Distillery about 70 miles downriver in Trimble County. Established about 1840, this distillery had been destroyed by fire in July 1879. Rebuilt, the facility was contracted to James Levy & Bro. to handle its entire output.
Insurance records from 1892 describe the property as containing a stone still-house with a boiler house. A shed located 16 feet from the still housed cattle to be fattened by the slops. The property also included three bonded warehouses: Warehouse "A" -- brick with a metal or slate roof, 210 feet south of the still house. Warehouse "B" -- brick with a metal or slate roof, 125 feet SE of the still house. Warehouse "C" -- iron-clad, 150 feet north of the still. In 1892 Harry Levy was recorded as the “proprietor” of this complex.
Beginning with the Trimble County distillery Harry took the family liquor business in a new direction. Instead of seeking whiskey from a host of suppliers, James Levy & Bro. now contracted for the entire output of a handful of Kentucky distilleries with reputations for quality products and as “jobbers” marketing their whiskeys nationally to wholesalers and retailers.
The 1888 Centennial Review of Cincinnati offered this assessment: “Twenty years ago Louisville would have considered impossible recognition by the jobbing trade of any city outside of itself as a jobbing market for fine Kentucky whiskey; yet the firm of James Levy & Bro. has not only made Cincinnati recognized as such, but has plucked the laurels from Louisville….” The article goes on to say that the Levys were not rectifying or compounding liquor but shipping their straight whiskey direct to customer warehouses from the half dozen distilleries they controlled.
The blue ribbon prize of those distilleries had been founded by Judge W. H. McBrayer of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Shown above, McBrayer’s “Cedar Brook” whiskey had won international metals and was, in one report, “the finest handmade sour mash whiskey in the world.” This “coup” for James Levy & Bro. was engineered by Harvard-educated Harry. As he aged Judge McBrayer had become increasingly aware of his inability to market his whiskey effectively to a wider audience. In a visit to the Lawrenceburg distillery, below, Levy was able to persuade the old gentleman to give him exclusive rights to merchandise Cedar Brook nationwide. With the help of the Cincinnati organization the brand became synonymous with the best in Kentucky whiskey.
As Harry worked with other family members to build a national and international business for Kentucky whiskey, he was conducting a personal life. In 1896 he married Jeanette Feiss, Ohio-born in 1873 and about ten years younger than Harry. Jeanette was the daughter of Leopold and Sarah Wyler Feiss; Her father was a prominent Cincinnati businessman, involved in the tobacco and clothing trades, and known for his civic involvement and philanthropy.
Although the couple apparently had no children, Harry consistently provided spacious accommodations for the couple. From about 1904 until 1916 the Levys lived in East Walnut Hills residential district of Cincinnati. The house, still standing, was a large and impressive pressed-brick residence at 2933 Fairfield Avenue, having the look of a French chateau. The couple lived there together with one or more servants in attendance. Harry also bought a summer residence at Tupper Lake in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, a favorite retreat for the well-to-do. The Harry Levys were among the few Jews recognized in the “exclusive” Mrs. Devereux’s Blue Book of Cincinnati Society.
Wealthy after almost 30 years helping to guide the fortunes of the Levy liquor house, Harry about 1910 cut his ties with the company. The reason is not clear. His father Albert had died in 1905. Uncle James Levy had sons, his cousins, who may have been slated to manage the business. Or Harry could have sensed the tightening noose of Prohibition. Or perhaps he simply wanted a change. The 1910 census gave his occupation as “capitalist,” someone dealing investments.
His new career coincided with a passion to build Jeanette and himself a new house, one like Cincinnati had never seen before. The mansion, shown above, has been described thus: “The design blends elements that were modern for the time, reflecting the approach of the Arts & Crafts a movement, with evocations of the historic past, primarily English architecture of the Tudor and Jacobean periods of the 16th and early-17th century to create a unique amalgam.” The residence was located in the fashionable Hyde Park district of Cincinnati on six large lots overlooking the Cincinnati Country Club. The 1920 census records the couple residing there with four live-in servants, a male and three females.
Harry Levy, however was about more than fine houses. He never forgot Harvard. In 1892 he personally paid for the attendance of a number of Cincinnati students to Harvard. Harry also helped finance and administer the local Harvard Club’s annual “scholastic field meet” for local high school students. Much of his philanthropy went to “beautifying” Cincinnati. For at least a quarter century he was treasurer of the city’s Municipal Arts Society. That work explains the “art souvenirs” folders under his arm in the caricature that opens this post. The Arts Society actively sought to make Cincinnati a more attractive city by promoting open space and public art and by working with schools to advance art appreciation.
In 1905, for example, the Society, with Harry in the forefront, persuaded city officials to give it a statue of Cincinnatus that had been stored away after being defaced with red paint. The members paid to restore and place it in a public park for general viewing, as shown here. When Cincinnati’s City Hall was redecorated, with Harry leading, the Society provided for the internal decoration. The result were dozens of refurbished stained glass windows and painted ceiling panels that even today have made City Hall a tourist destination. The building is listed on National Register of Historic Places.
Heavily invested in stock and bonds, Harry Levy faced a significant financial setback at the time of the stock market crash. He and Jeanette could no longer afford their servants and moved out of their spacious Hyde Park home and rented it for income. The couple, however, were far from penury. They moved from the house to the Hotel Alms, shown right, a fashionable residential hotel in nearby Walnut Hills. The couple apparently lived there until Harry died in 1940 at the age of 78. Jeanette subsequently sold the iconic house.
For a final word on whiskey man Harry Levy it seems appropriate to quote from a Cincinnati Press Club publication. The article hailed him as “one of Cincinnati’s foremost capitalists, and certainly entitled to the fullest recognition as a philanthropist, for his benefactions for years have been of the most generous nature.”
Notes: This post has been garnered from multiple sources of which by far the most important was the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for the Harry Milton Levy House. It was co-authored by Walter E. Langsam and Beth A. Sullebarger of the Cincinnati Preservation Society in 1997 and provides many cogent details about Harry and Jeanette Levy.