Picture it... 1921, Nassau, The Bahamas.
A stylishly dressed young woman leaves her second-storey office on Market Street and heads for the teeming harbour.
Her eyes span Nassau’s transparent blue waters, where steamships from Glasgow and Liverpool lie at anchor, their holds loaded with whisky. She hails the supercargo. Manifests are checked as box after box unloads under her watchful eye.
Native workers heft the “liquid gold” to waiting donkey carts headed for ramshackle warehouses along the palm tree-lined harbour. Dockside pandemonium is best described in a period history. Boys rolled heavy barrels from the docks, dodging wooden-wheeled horse carts burdened with precarious stacks of liquor cases. The motley collection of stables, houses, chandleries, and shanties near the waterfront had been drafted into service as warehouses. It was not long before the steamships and the sailing vessels began arriving all day and all night, leaving mountainous accumulations of off-loaded goods on the rickety pier, hundreds upon countless hundreds of cases from each boat... the Bahamian policemen who tried to keep order on the increasingly unruly waterfront soon had to contend with a new form of traffic: the startling spectacle of island women walking from the harbour quays towards the warehouses with graceful purpose, wooden cases poised upon their heads.
Cargo secured, Cleo heads for nearby Lucerne Hotel, headquarters to so many bootleggers they host an annual “Bootleggers Ball”, a rollicking 36-hour, champagne-fuelled blast where bar tabs were paid in $1,000 bills; and every barman could give change.
Friends described Cleo Lythgoe as “a truly wonderful personality. A woman of cultivated tastes, who can talk on books and who travels with the best music in her trunks, and shows such artistic taste in dress.”
Some thought her Egyptian, gypsy, American Indian, Russian or Spanish. Given her sultry good looks Cleo could pass for any nationality.
Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe was daughter to a Glasgow mother and a Liverpool father. Nicknamed “Queen Cleopatra,” thanks to her unique appearance and self-promoted mysterious background, she’d already been crowned “Queen of the Bootleggers” by the New York Times, the “Bahama Queen” by others, the only woman to make a name for herself, and a fortune to boot, in a man’s game – running liquor during Prohibition.
Based in Nassau as a Scottish whisky sales representative, Cleo lived a swashbuckling life, always packing a pistol for protection against assorted rascals. She rubbed elbows with dukes and rum-running sea captains galore, colourful characters recalled in her fascinating 1964 autobiography The Bahama Queen (reprinted 2007 by Flat Hammock Press, Mystic, CN ).
Cleo Lythgoe never broke the law. It was never illegal to import whisky into the Bahamas. When Washington complained to the British government, Britain refused to intervene. Churchill, who despised Prohibition, called it “an affront to the whole history of mankind.”
One can imagine the glee among Scottish distillers upon hearing America had gone “dry.” They cranked up their production. Stills ran day and night. Bottle makers, too, worked overtime to keep horse-drawn drays, loaded with whisky boxes, rolling down Buchanan Street to River Clyde docks. ”Accidental” breakages were happily sipped along the way.
Clyde-based ships rushed tons of boxed and barrelled whisky to the (then) British Bahama Islands to Nassau, Bimini, and Grand Bahama. In 1919, a scant 914 gallons of Scotch left Scotland for Nassau. The following year 386,000 gallons swamped Nassau’s docks.
According to one historian: “Drunk on revenue from the export tax, the (Bahamian) government was able to dredge the harbour, resurface miles of roads, and install a new sewage system and a 2,300 volt diesel generator.” Many a prominent family of today confides: “We still thank Prohibition and Johnny Walker (meaning all Scotch) for our grandparents and our wealth.”
Cleo sold her top-brand whisky from Nassau in cargoes bound for “Rum Row”, the nautical road to riches lying off the three-mile-limit of the US coastline, later extended to 12 miles.
She once sailed with pal Bill McCoy (William Frederick McCoy 1877-1948) with 5,000 cases stowed aboard his sleek Gloucester Sloop Arethustra, fastest of all on Rum Row, racking up 1,096 miles (1,765 kilometres) to New York to meet up with fleets of waiting ‘go fast boats’.
“The Real McCoy” is not an original metaphor. An old Scots phrase printed in 1856 reads: “A drappie o’ the real MacKay.”
As for that prize rye whiskey stored in America, some say Cleo wangled an export license to get much of it out to legitimate foreign buyers. Later, it reached Nassau, from where she boomeranged it back to American shores via her far-flung contacts.
Cleo Lythgoe died a wealthy lady at age 86 in 1974 in California. She was the inspiration for a 1975 film Lucky Lady, starring Lisa Minnelli, Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds, the tale of a trio of rum-runners. Some say Cleo’s ghost lurks in old Nassau landmarks such as the Harbour Lighthouse, Market Street, and the British Colonial Hotel.