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Cleo Lythgoe- Queen of the Bahamas

Hi there- Bette Hardwick here. Sherilyn’s got this great historical fiction trilogy out- The Rum Runners’ Chronicles. It’s a series about a bunch of feisty dames, succeeding in a man’s world.

As a reporter for the Miami Herald and working in a man’s world, I gotta say how much I admire women like Cleo Lythgoe. She make up her own rules, and doesn’t take any guff from  nobody.

Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe (alias: “The Queen of The Bahamas” or “The Queen of Rum Row”) is one of the many famous bootleggers of the Prohibition era in the 1920s. She is independent, strong and knows how to use her charm to both banish and seduce. She threatens menacing men, staves off competition with razor blades and potential rapes with pistols. Cleo is a dame after my own heart.

Born in Ohio to English-Scottish immigrants, Cleo is well-known for her business acumen, hard-nosed attitude, and highly profitable liquor shipping operations.

She appears part water nymph and is surely a majestic-looking woman— or as Sherilyn might say, “hot” in the modern day parlance. Cleo has been mistaken many a time for Russian, French and Spanish, but she was pure American with ties to a British liquor distributor.

She earned the nickname “Cleo” due to her striking physical resemblance to Cleopatra.

Weathering a sobering childhood—losing her mother at a young age and being the last of ten children—Cleo developed a talent for school.

She started her career as a stenographer for a British liquor importer in New York. It was there she became the first woman to hold a wholesale liquor license. When Prohibition was declared in 1920, she saw an opportunity, capitalizing on the situation by setting up a wholesale liquor business in Nassau, Bahamas.

Cleo’s Nassau office is on Market Street and lives in the Lucerne Hotel, known as the bootleggers’ headquarters. The hotel is a haven for shady types, criminals, rogues, colorful characters, and journalists.

With her connections in Scotland, she imports the world’s finest Scotch and commissioned her own flotilla of boats. Like the blockade-breaking-Russian-Czar-taming Madame Clicquot before her, Cleo is a wily entrepreneur with a laser focus on the money.

She is renowned for her intellect and beauty, but also for her fierce actions: when men believe they can disrespect her, she hauls them into her office and makes it clear that they can desist or take a bullet.

Like I said, Cleo tolerates little funny business from competitors attempting to squash her profits and operates fearlessly in a male-dominated profession. On one occasion, on hearing herself and her goods had been bad-mouthed by a man, she marched into the barber’s shop, dragged the critic out—lathered face and all—and took him to her office where she promised to “put a bullet through him” if he didn’t stop. The man fled. Other men have tried to intimidate her and found themselves threatened at gunpoint by the fierce, beautiful woman.

Cleo’s stately beauty, calculated approach to rum running, and pistol-as-accessory brashness has made her the source of both media delight and government frustration. She was arrested and charged with importing over 1,000 cases into New Orleans, but managed to secure her acquittal.

Her peers include smuggling heavyweights like Billy McCoy, who harbors great respect for her. When I interviewed him for the article Freddy Van de Water and I wrote for the newspaper, Bill talked about “the breathtaking fury she could show”—she once, allegedly, threatened to shoot a man simply for speaking ill of liquor.

Cleo has achieved celebrity status through popular newspaper stories about her exploits. She loves the limelight and became a media darling with newspapers from Jamaica to New York.

Men fall in love with her and send “love letters” to the editors. But she always says “I don’t need a man to tell me what to do.”

Despite catching the eye of fellow rum-runner Bill McCoy, the two have never married. Instead, it is Lythgoe’s steely, gun-wielding personality that backbones her ability to run a successful smuggling business as a single woman in the early 1920s.

“Everyone knows that my liquor is the very best.”

Cleo is planning on retiring in 1925. She wants to leave the rum running business in large part because of her belief that there is a “jinx” lurking in the wings to both kill her and destroy her operation.

Heavy is the head that wears the boozy crown.

Postscript: Lythgoe successfully escaped her jinx, dying decades later in Los Angeles at age 86. When Cleo kicked it, the Wall Street Journal estimated her worth at more than $1 million, but she was cryptic and never told.

That’s the thing about women bootleggers. While the men are brash and loud, killing whoever got in their way, “most women were swift, stone cold cunning and rarely talked.”

In the wake of her passing, the Nassau flags flew at half-mast for days in honor of their fallen queen.

If you love “A cool-headed woman persevering in the dangerous business world of prohibition America”, then you should read Gathering Storm, book 1 of the Rum Runners’ Chronicles.

This is not just a story of prohibition in America, it’s a story of womanhood and strength. The feeling one is left with when closing Gathering Storm is one of steely determination and hope.

Those who are looking for a female-led historical fiction with a backbone of steel, this book is for you.

Available on Amazon. Click here to start reading today!


  1. Tom Septembre says:

    Dear Ms. Decter,
    In 1972 I interviewed Ms. Lythgoe at the Columbus Hotel on Biscayne Blvd, Miami, Florida, where she was living, for a paper I was writing for my U of M Florida history class. As South Florida history was so new, compared to the rest of the country and many who lived it were still alive, my Florida history professor encouraged us to meet with, ask questions of, and document what the people that actually lived history remembered. An article in the Miami Herald or News disclosed where she was living. I wrote to her and requested an interview and Ms Lythgoe granted an audience. Upon arriving, I was ushered into a large living room overlooking Biscayne Bay where Ms Lythgoe was properly seated on what one would consider an Egyptian Throne. She dressed as a queen. We spoke for a couple hours, during which she was very forthcoming about her rum running life, where the anachronism “Cigarette Boat” came form, and Billy McCoy. U of Miami Press had published her book. It was one of the most personal and exciting interviews I have had with the real “pioneers” of South Florida history.

    1. Hi Tom- Thanks so much for sharing this… and lucky you to meet this incredible woman. One of the things I love about writing historical fiction is discovering powerful/ magical/ intriguing bits through my research. Cleo and Bill are certainly unforgettable historical figures and I only hope I’ve caught a whiff of their presence between the pages of the Rum Runners’ Chronicles.

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