One of the more odious forms of TV miniseries and motion pictures is the patchwork historical drama, in which each character serves in the most contrived way to represent an important facet of the times being dramatized.
One might want to raise the same complaint about Dan Baum's second book, "Citizen Coors," except that apparently it all actually happened that way. The saga of the Colorado brewing family is intertwined with thread after thread of American history: Western expansion, rugged individualism, Prohibition, patriotic contributions in wartime, the rise and fall of unions, concern for the environment, the triumph of consumerism over quality, the rise of the conservative movement.
The story of the Coors family is just as rich on a more personal level, filled as it is with humble beginnings and mountains of money, high principle and stunning hypocrisy, charity and vindictiveness, even murder and suicide. It is an epic from any angle, and despite the flaws in his rendering of it, Baum deserves high credit for obeying the first rule of biography: Find a story worth telling.
Adolph Coors learned brewing in his native Germany, but when his parents died and the Kaiser went to war, Coors stowed away to America in 1868. He eventually paid his fare, but it is instructive that for decades, that free passage remained a blot on the family's sense of its heritage, unfit for discussion.
Coors eventually made his way to the Colorado frontier, determined to stand out. He would make beer, and he would make the best by controlling as much of the process as he could. The economic term for that is vertical integration, but more plainly, it was all about control. Adolph Coors insisted on being in charge.
In those early days, his determination brought great prosperity. But succeeding generations hewed unquestioningly to Adolph's way, and as the world changed, this same trait became obstinacy; even when a boycott motivated by their hiring practices threatened to bring them down, they still held the attitude that no one could dictate how they would run their brewery.
Baum focuses on the third generation, beginning in the 1930s, led by William and Joseph Coors, sons of Adolph Jr. (A third brother involved in the business, Adolph III, was kidnapped and slain in 1960.) Of the two, Bill gets the more favorable rendering - which may be because he agreed to talk to Baum, albeit sparingly and grudgingly, and Joe didn't.
That is a pitfall evident throughout the book: Those who gave interviews come off largely as reasonable people toiling in unreasonable circumstances, and those who gave the most interviews look the best. There were many more interviews given outside the family than within, and the family often gets the worse side of events.
This is never more true than in Baum's central tableau, the company's endlessly fitful adjustment to the century of marketing. For years, the family simply didn't have an advertising department, just as it had no lawyers or accountants, or business plan. Its first ad director had a PhD in art history. That he had few qualifications for the job was unimportant; the family didn't really want him to do anything.
The first real ad man, John Nichols, came aboard in 1978, brash and immodest. In Baum's telling, he is a shining knight, tilting at the family's preposterous, hidebound ways, overflowing with great ideas that Bill and Joe would sneer at. In an appendix, Baum gives an accounting of his interviews (there were about 225 in all): Nichols gave nine, more than anyone else, and more than all Coors family members combined.
There's another possible reason that Joe especially is portrayed unflatteringly. He owes much of his prominence to his politics, which are decidedly conservative. There was a time when he would put John Birch Society pamphlets in his workers' paychecks, and he is the founding patron of the Heritage Foundation, which helped nurse the rebirth of the conservative movement in America. Joe was on a first-name basis with Ronald Reagan long
before he was a candidate for president.
Baum's own agenda is well to the left; it is fair to say that conservatives reading "Citizen Coors" will find more evidence for their belief that the media have a liberal bias. For example, one of Baum's tenets is that unions are good and employers who don't want them are evil. Another is that profit should be not just the highest goal of business, but the only proper one - that political and moral principles have no place in the marketplace. The latter may well be true (the Coorses certainly took numerous beatings because of their politics), but one is left to wonder if companies devoted to more acceptable causes would be subject to the same opprobrium.
An irony is that the Coorses, and Bill particularly, were green long before green was groovy. Partly because he cringed at the sight of Coors cans discarded at the roadside, he suggested to the US Brewers Association in 1960 - 1960! - that aluminum cans be recycled. Led by Anheuser-Busch, the industry rejected the idea, saying consumers wouldn't go for it. Ten years later, 85 percent of Coors cans were being turned in for cash, foreshadowing the nickel-back campaigns that many states require today.
But coupled with that irony is the sort of startling crosscurrent that makes the Coorses so complicated, and thoroughly human. They revered Clear Creek, whose waters had lured Adolph to Golden in 1873. But in 1981, when Bill and Joe learned they had been releasing solvents into the groundwater, they chose not to report the spills as required by federal law. They envisioned large fines, the intrusion of federal officials (which offended their conservative sensibilities), the possibility of having to shut down temporarily, and the certainty of public pillorying. So they covered it up. They had their principles, but this time, business was business.
At other times, Joe and Bill were downright reprehensible, such as when they spent a substantial sum on drugs and undercover agents to try - unsuccessfully - to prove certain of their employees were dealing. Their suspicions about their workers knew no bounds; once during a speech to them, Bill proclaimed the existence of a communist cell among them. The year was 1978.
Just as the Coorses had flaws, so does the author. In addition to the infusion of his own politics and values, Baum crosses into personal mockery, such as when he describes Jeff Coors, one of many born-again fundamentalists in the family, as a "prissy Christian" when he objects to the use of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, as a Coors huckster. That's a pretty harsh description of someone acting on his deepest beliefs.
Baum's narrative flows smoothly and he cleverly blends the personal and political, but his writing is unexceptional. Repeatedly, he ascribes motives to actions for the sake of continuity, such as when he says, "In an expansive mood after his wedding, Bill sat down with the leadership of Local 366 and worked out a pension agreement." He sometimes engenders confusion by not following a strict chronology; that's not the only way to tell a story, but Baum should have taken more care when jumping around.
Considering its subjects, the book's shortcomings are oddly appropriate. They do stain its achievements, but don't negate them. It is that way with the Coorses, too. They have erred, sometimes motivated by principle, sometimes by venality. But they've also created something lasting, from nothing. They have been more than witnesses to American history; they have helped write the book.