Anyone who believes that fat people are jolly never met Elmer “Bones” Remmer, San Francisco’s gambling czar. Casino owner Warren Nelson, who worked for Remmer, described Bones as “the meanest, crudest guy who ever lived.” For a man like this, a name like Elmer doesn’t seem to fit. The name Bones, however, seemed oddly appropriate for Remmer, who weighed more than 300 pounds.
In 1929, Remmer was hired to manage Lake Tahoe’s Cal Neva Lodge, one of Nevada’s oldest casinos by owners Bill Graham and Jim McKay. The next year, Remmer made headlines when he tried, unsuccessfully, to collect a $13,000 blackjack debt run up by actress Clara Bow.
Bones was a large, tough man with an appetite for both power and food. As time passed, both his waistline and his ownership in the Lodge increased. In 1937, when Graham and McKay were sent to jail for mail fraud, he took over the club.
The Cal Neva Lodge had a profitable sideline laundering money for racketeers and bank robbers. Remmer cleaned “hot” bank robbery money for desperados like Alvin Karpis and “Baby Face” Nelson. Remmer let Nelson hide out in cabins near the lodge and introduced him to California bootleggers, who the hired Baby Face to protect their liquor shipments. Nelson returned the favor by getting rid of an important witness against Graham and McKay.
By this time, Remmer had a well-earned reputation for collecting gambling debts. “Listen,” he told a reluctant debtor at his Tahoe casino, “it’s a big lake and it ain’t full yet, if you know what I mean. You’re going to pay this off, and I mean now!”
He got his money.
In the 1940s, Remmer expanded his operations into Northern California, running the 21 Club in El Cerrito, the Oaks Club in Emeryville, the 110 Eddy and the Menlo clubs in San Francisco. He had numerous fronts for his gambling operations. You couldn’t get a cigar at Remmer’s B&R Smokeshop at 50 Mason St., but you could always make a bet on the horses.
An oversized man with a personality to match, Bones became a well-known San Francisco character. Legendary gamblers like Nick the Greek and Ty Thompson — the inspiration for Damon Runyon’s Sky Masterson — played for high stakes at the Menlo Club. Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassin, also worked at the club in the 1940s along with his sisters Eva and Ruby, who were card dealers.
Money poured in to the Remmer coffers. But as the Bob Dylan song says, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” For Remmer, it was definitely not the lord — it was organized crime. Much of his gambling profits went to higher-ups: gangsters like Bugsy Siegel, John Roselli and San Francisco mafia boss Jimmy Lanza.
Remmer spread his largesse liberally among state and local politicians. Local police and district attorneys usually overlooked his activities in their town. Remmer also gave $170,000 in campaign contributions to California Attorney General Fred Howser to look the other way. So he was irked in April 1948 when Pat Brown, San Francisco’s DA, raided the Menlo Club and arrested 100 gamblers and 14 club employees. After two trials, which ended in hung juries, Remmer went free.
In 1950, Remmer, along with St. Louis bookie Tommy Walen and Hollywood actress Vici Raaf, was arrested in Los Angeles after a nightclub brawl. Bones was subpoenaed to testify about gambling by the Kefauver Senate Crime commission, but he managed to hide in Mexico until the hearings were over.
Although Remmer was able to beat local gambling charges, he could not avoid one of the two certainties in life: taxes. The IRS seized his assets and charged him with tax evasion. In 1952, he was convicted of evading more than $128,000 in taxes.
He won a new trial on appeal but was convicted again in 1956 and served two-and-a-half years. In 1959, the government sold Remmer’s assets, collecting $863,000 in fines and taxes.
Bones spent his last days bemoaning his losses, reminiscing about the good old days and selling cars on his brother’s car lot. In 1963, he died at the age of 65.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.