The Foul-Mouthed Milwaukee Bartender That Connected Al Capone and Joseph McCarthy

Her newly-reissued memoir abounds with gangsters, whiskey and an unquenchable spirit

September 1, 2019 12:23 pm
Helen Cromwell
Helen Cromwell featured on the cover for the new edition of her memoir.
Feral House

The first thing you read in the new edition of Helen Cromwell’s memoir Good Time Party Girl: The Notorious Life of Dirty Helen Cromwell, 1886-1969 is an account, by co-author Robert Dougherty, of how he first met Cromwell. It happened in the Sunflower Inn, the Milwaukee bar Cromwell ran for decades — a place better known as “Dirty Helen’s.” Upon encountering Cromwell, Dougherty is immediately taken by her presence and personality. It’s also there that she makes a declaration that will come up again later in the book: “I’ll roast the goose that pisses on your grave!”

That phrase may give you a sense of just why Cromwell’s bar was known by the nickname in question. But her baroque use of profanity, which would give Deadwood’s Al Swearingen a run for his money, is only part of the reason she remains a legendary figure in Milwaukee lore — and why her memoir remains so compelling over 50 years after it was first published.

Initially published in 1966, Good Time Party Girl has been reissued in an expanded edition by Feral House — the same publisher behind American Hardcore: A Tribal History and Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground. It is no understatement to say that Cromwell is every bit as intense, imposing and contradictory as the musicians discussed in those books—if not even more fearsome.

Alternately? Cromwell’s book is probably the only life story you’ll encounter where both Al Capone and Joseph McCarthy make substantial appearances. At one point, Cromwell writes, “Besides being a speakeasy operator, a barkeep, an ex-madame, a party-giver extraordinaire, and a housewife, I had become an alcohol runner.” Throw in some time spent as a sex worker — and a significant dose of sex-positivity — and you have a sense of why Cromwell’s life story is so compelling.

In an interview with On Milwaukee, Feral House’s Christina Ward spoke about undoing some of the changes made to Cromwell’s memoir for the 1966 edition, including restoring Cromwell’s initial use of profanity

But an outsized personality and deft cussing aren’t the only reasons Cromwell is still discussed today. She is also fondly remembered for her generosity. A 2015 article looking back at her life in the Shepherd Express summarized that neatly: “In Milwaukee, she had a soft spot for Marquette kids down on their luck. She couldn’t even remember how many tuition bills she paid, hating to see a kid quit school just because he couldn’t get the money.”

Her bar was infamous for serving only one type of bourbon: Old Fitzgerald. (Drinkers looking for other options had one: Scotch. Exactly one brand of it.) It’s there, in the memoir, that one Julian Van Winkle makes an appearance — which may delight whiskey historians.

For those in the know, Cromwell has been immortalized in a way befitting a notorious bar owner: Indiana’s Barley Island Brewing Company named a beer after her, while author Jeanette Hurt’s 2016 book Drink Like a Woman contains a recipe for a cocktail called the Dirty Helen. To coincide with the new edition of Good Time Party Girl, Milwaukee’s Great Lakes Distillery has launched a cask-strength bourbon, also named for Cromwell.

The building that once housed the Sunflower Inn is no more, having been bulldozed and turned into a parking lot — but Cromwell’s place in local history remains assured. This new edition of her memoir will bring the story of her fascinating life to a wider readership—and give a new generation of readers a sense of what it was like to have a drink and soak up the stories at Dirty Helen’s.

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