Frances Stroh, daughter of a brewery magnate,
pens the memoir 'Beer Money'
By Lou Fancher
Behind the "pop" of every opened Stroh's beer can and the rise and fall of the Detroit-based brewing dynasty lurked gremlins.
If the family owned and operated Stroh's Brewing Co. strived to preserve an image as highbrow folks who nevertheless understood the desires of everyday consumers, Frances Stroh, in "Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss" (HarperCollins, $25.99, 312 pages), strips away the facade and reclaims truth.
Stroh, a San Francisco-based installation artist and writer, tells the story of the Midwestern beer company that rose to national prominence during the second half of the 20th century. Stroh's Brewery began with Bernhard Stroh, a German immigrant to America who, in 1850, sold his handmade beer door to door from a wheelbarrow. Switching during Prohibition to ice cream and malt syrup, Stroh's survived to revert back to beer and by the 1980s was estimated to be worth at least $700 million.
Even so, a series of business moves by successive generations -- or lack of movement, in the case of missing the "lite beer" bandwagon -- and the economic demise of Detroit caused the family fortune to crumble. In 1999, Stroh's was sold to the Pabst Brewing Co., and divided "like so many spare parts," writes Stroh.
Stroh, 49, grew up in the exclusive suburban enclave of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in a sprawling, six-bedroom home filled with rare Martin guitars, antique Leica cameras and other valuables she was forbidden to touch. Her father, Eric Stroh, was a collector and photographer with unrealized dreams who quit the company in 1985 over a dispute with a family member. He often drank too much and terrified his daughter by teaching her how not to get kidnapped for ransom.
"Stand right here," he'd tell Stroh, leaving her on a sidewalk. Cruising past her in the family car, he'd dangle chocolate out the window and taunt her to approach. Stroh recalls the psychotic look on his face, and 40 years later, retelling the story , shudders at the memory.
At other times, her father's charisma prevailed -- as he was sharing inside jokes, taking her out for dinner and more. Stroh once told his daughter that he'd like to be a character in "her great American novel," should she ever write one. "In a way, he is just that," she says.
The memoir features his and her photos at the start of each chapter. "He was extremely talented, but also, there's complexity behind the images," she notes. "He was trying to fortify certain images, even as they fell apart."
In writing the book, Stroh says she was picking up pieces of herself that were left behind in childhood and "rearranging the dots" her family customarily swept into secrecy to avoid addressing tragic things that happened. Her brother, Charlie, died due to drug addiction; her mother, Gail, intensely frugal despite their wealth, sometimes had them sleep in the car instead of a hotel during family vacations.
For years, Stroh suffered confusion about her relationships and her place in the world. Drugs, art, a Fulbright scholarship and a constant need to move on did not resolve her inner battles. "Writing is a reclaiming of those lost moments, of people I loved, my whole family," she says. "I came from a family that tried not to let shame tarnish the family. We swept it under the rug, but it was there."
The tension between her family's public presence and reality compounded by the death of her father in 2009 triggered a realization. "I had to write my story. A person can feel their destiny is in place, and that's not true. Everyone needs to figure out for themselves who they are," she says.
Working during her "most lucid" early morning hours, she took two years to complete the first draft. A freelance editor she met through the San Francisco Writers' Grotto helped her tighten the book's focus. Publishing a 7,500-word chapter in 2014 with SheBooks, an e-book publisher featuring women authors, taught Stroh a swift lesson. An article in Forbes following an interview she gave "wasn't in the vein I was expecting," she says. "It had sensational tidbits about my family, not information about a literary work. I learned to steer myself carefully."
Within eight months, Stroh had an agent and soon thereafter, a publisher.
Support for the book has come from members of the Grotto, whom she credits with providing "great fuel" for her writing. And from her mother, who has surprised her daughter. "She's been amazing: it's brought us closer together. She was amused -- even by the part about the coagulated mac and cheese left in the fridge."
Stroh is deeply involved in San Francisco's literary scene and also in Detroit's rebirth as an arts mecca. Co-producing the Stranger Than Fiction reading series at the Edinburgh Castle Pub, the birthplace of the Litquake literary festival, and active in Dave Eggers' tutoring organization, 826 National, she is part of a task force working to establish 826 Michigan.
A portion of book sale proceeds will support the project.