Charles Schumann Faces Allegations of Sexism and Misogyny
»No I really have nothing against.«
— Charles Schumann
After winning the World’s 50 Best Bars bar icon award, a veritable crisis has swept over Charles Schumann. The resurfacing of some comments he has previously made has led many to claim that he’s not a legend, but a sexist, misogynistic dinosaur. MIXOLOGY now attempts to put things in perspective.
Today, years later, the following scene has a somewhat prophetic air. Charles Schumann sits at the counter of Clover Club in New York, with bar operator Julie Reiner standing behind him, her face exhibiting a distinctly irritated air. Women would work in his bar Schumann’s until ten in the evening at the latest, according to Charles Schumann. Julie Reiner retorted, stating that almost all important contemporary New York bar owners had learned about the bar business from two women: her and Audrey Saunders (owner of the Pegu Club).
It’s a scene from the film “Schumann’s Bargespräche” (2017), directed by Marieke Schroeder. In the film, Charles Schumann visits bartenders and bar operators from all over the world. In the previous scene he sits at a table with David Wondrich, Dale DeGroff, Jillian Vose, the sadly deceased Sasha Petraske, and Julie Reiner herself. It’s a true assembly of the New York bar intelligentsia and they all discuss the influence Charles Schumann and his early bar books had on them.
A crisis erupts
A few years later Julie Reiner has another message for Charles Schumann, on the occasion of him winning the ‘Industry Icon Award 2019’ award at the ‘World’s 50 Best Bars’ ceremony in London. It took the form of a social media post saying the following: “People, stop awarding prizes to assholes.”
Renowned US bar protagonists such as Ivy Mix, Don Lee, and the bar Death & Co. joined in. An old quote from Charles Schumann then went viral. In his words, a bar “is not for women. All important characters are men.” This statement came from a ten years old article by the author Nicholas Coldicott for the Japan Times, in which the writer confronted Charles Schumann with a quote from Playboy ten years earlier. Lo and behold, as Charles Schumann travelled to Berlin for the next awards ceremony, a shitstorm set off. Travelling from New York across the Atlantic, it was a large and, some might say, evil cacophony of noise.
The tone was this: he is sexist, misogynist a ‘prick’, an ‘asshole’. “He’s an 80 year old German…why are people shocked by this? He probably thinks Holocaust number are exaggerated too,” one post said.
It was a social media storm so befitting of 2019. Bartenders posted (and continue to post) pictures with the Hashtags #notmyicon, #shamefulschumann or #womenbehindthebarafter3. The latter doesn’t make clear whether it’s 3 a.m. or 3 p.m, and even so, as aforementioned, Charles Schumann actually said 10 p.m in the film. As it often is online, anger quickly displaced accuracy.
Charles Schumann, the provocateur
It’s a misunderstanding, and not the only one. The whole thing seems to be impossible to understand without a clear grasp of cultural identity. But above all what’s necessary is some basic knowledge of the person Charles Schumann is; a roughneck who likes to test people and deliberately shock them, but who also has a reputation as a loyal and just boss. On this side of the Atlantic, especially in German-speaking countries, the outrage at Charles Schumann has therefore been comparatively limited. Jörg Meyer, for example, has expressed his annoyance by the wild nature of the insults, whilst still defending the ideas of equality behind the entire argument.
With a spontaneous speech at the presentation of the MIXOLOGY Bar Awards in Berlin, presenter Magdalena Karkosz took a stand for Charles Schumann. “He has done so many things for our industry and still does, including for the women in it. I am ashamed of your words, it is disgusting. Shame on you,” said the former bartender.
Even days later the former bartender didn’t change her mind, on the contrary standing even firmer behind her stance. Karkosz, also known as an activist for women’s rights, regularly helps organizing World Women’s Day events with other bartenders. In addition, she serves on the board of an NGO that works against racism. “My lawsuit against a former male employer for assault and battery is about to be concluded. I know what I’m talking about when it comes to women in gastronomy,” says Karkosz. “Julie Reiner may be a role model for her community. For me and for our bar scene she is not. Everyone is free to choose their icons, but not to misrepresent someone and publicly throw them to the wolves.”
Nicholas Coldicott, author of the Japan Times article in question, is also surprised at the late impact of his article. “I very much regret my part in this,” the journalist writes in a message regarding the case. “I’ve talked to Charles a lot since that first meeting. Sometimes he’s a provocateur, sometimes rude, never delicate, but always erudite, generous, and inspirational. There is a reason why his employees – male or female – are so intensely loyal to him. An anecdote: he once postponed a session in Tokyo to meet a bartender he had never met before. She had been accosted by someone and couldn’t attend his talk, so he went to her bar to talk to her one-on-one. That’s a better representation of him than the stupid quote he gave me ten years ago to shock me.”
One must differentiate
The fact that no women work in the Schumann’s Bar has been criticised here in the past time and again. But this doesn’t mean Schumann believes that women are bad bartenders, or shows any general misogyny. Charles Schumann grew up in the bar in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s – and even earlier on the nightclub scene. He knows what drunken men do in a bar. And he knows what they don’t do when male bartenders face them. This attitude may be interpreted as antiquated, but it doesn’t make him an enemy of women.
Moreover, at Les Fleurs du Mal, the bar on the first floor of Schumann’s, female employees have also been working the night shift for quite some time. According to Johannes Möhring, former employee and today operator of Munich’s Ménage Bar, it was planned from the outset to employ women as bartenders, with little fuss made about it. The former bartender Anne Brune-Bau, who now works as a trade ambassador for Bacardi, contacted us and confirmed that Charles Schumann himself had on many occasions offered her a job in the bar, which is open until 3 a.m.
This knowledge of both his bristly but generous character and his ironic side, something very traditional to Munich, has seemingly protected him in his home country from the hatred and malice that has sprouted internationally. MIXOLOGY editor Helmut Adam also refers to this in a Facebook post defending Schumann: “As a jury member of our Made in GSA competition, Charles has always supported bartenders of all sexes, ethnicities, and backgrounds and repeatedly voted women to the top. (...) Bring your moral superiority to him, confront him with it, and talk to his staff. And I promise you, your black and white worldview will collapse.”
But remarks like these seemed to fuel the debate. Which is why both Helmut Adam and the well-known Hamburg bar operator Jörg Meyer tried in several posts to address the legitimate concern of sexism in bar gastronomy. “The remarks are clearly unacceptable and I have seen and read how hurtful they have been to many female bartenders,” says Helmut Adam, referring to his first post.
In one of the resulting conversations, a female Berlin bartender explained why Schumann’s remarks upset her so much: “I have been working in one of the highest volume bars in Berlin, if not Germany, for a while. When I started I had to put up with jokes, laughs, and a lot of very hard comments from the all-male team. I continuously asked to work at the cocktail station five nights a week and (it) was conceded to me after a lot of fighting, with the remark: You will come begging us to give you a long drink or put you on service station after a month. They obviously underestimated my love for what I do and determination. I never asked to change.”
Charles Schumann apologizes
Charles Schumann is not unaffected by the storm of indignation. In a statement published on Facebook in German and English, he states: “I am truly sorry if my statements were misleading and I hurt the feelings of members of our bar community. I hereby formally apologize to them. But I ask for an open dialogue so that these misinterpretations can be eliminated. I feel committed to the universal values of equality and participation. They have also been the basis of my work in gastronomy for over 55 years,” he writes.
This changed little in the discourse, and Schumann soon made a decision. Only a few hours after his statement, Charles Schumann returned the World’s 50 Best Bars Award that was presented to him: “In light of the controversy surrounding my person and the awarding of The World´s 50 Best Bars – Industry Icon Award 2019, I am hereby returning the award. I don‘t want it anymore,” he writes.
Julie Reiner has posted a letter in which she criticizes and claims the silence of World’s 50 Best Bars six days after the award. The organization only then apologized for awarding the prize to Charles Schumann. Isn’t this the same as assigning blame to Schumann? That wasn’t it: a spirits brand then removed the Munich-based entrepreneur from the jury of an annual bartender contest, one in which he has played a prominent role for many years. The wave of social media protest continued apace.
Sexism is a topic that needs to be further explored. But from this episode, one impression sticks for us: that Charles Schumann had been found as a convenient victim; with a case cobbled together from statements made around 20 years ago and in bad English to boot. After all, irony tends to fall by the wayside when speaking any language aside from your mother tongue.
Just how effective Julie Reiner’s campaign against Charles Schumann has been is clear by the fact that several well-known national and international protagonists of the industry contacted our editorial staff via Messenger and email to share their views on the matter. However, they all asked to refrain being publicly named, in order to avoid any potential conflict with their employers.
“Based on personal interaction with Charles Schumann, I disagree with some of his antiquated views with regards to women. Despite our disagreements, I can respect him for what he has done and is still doing for the bar community,” says a female long-standing C level manager of an international spirits group, whom Charles Schumann knows very well from his daily work. “I can also acknowledge his age, the time he was raised in, and how this opinion might have been formed. What better way to prove someone wrong by being a successful businesswoman driving change in a still male-dominated industry? I totally support the public discussion that many industry women have started. I am with them: things still need to change in our industry and it is up to us to drive that change. However, I strongly disagree with the tonality and name calling of some of the current interactions. It is not acceptable to me how a human being and his legacy gets potentially destroyed in rage and one-dimensionality.”
The movie revisited
Time will tell whether the controversy at least triggers a reasonable debate. A few days after the scandal erupted, Naren Young, bar manager of Dante New York City – the bar voted World’s Best Bar in the exact same World’s 50 Best ceremony – has publicly confessed to having harassed women. The reactions to this are largely positive, however, and there are no calls to strip him of his award. Whatever one thinks of Schumann: everyone in the German bar scene knows that hardly anybody is further away from harassing women than Charles Schumann.
Director Marieke Schroeder is in any case very unhappy about the developments surrounding the protagonist of her film. “As a director who has travelled and worked with him for more than three years, I know that you can get into the ring with him – or rather that you have to. But I’ve never worked with anyone less sexist in all my years,” says the filmmaker. “It wasn’t problem-free, but it wasn’t because I was a woman. On the contrary, he neither favoured me nor discriminated against me because of it.”
Possibly Charles Schumann has fallen victim to his addiction to provocation. We live in irony-free times after all. As Charles Schumann is not aware of this, perhaps he is a dinosaur. But perhaps he is also a victim. A German bartender who wants to remain anonymous has confirmed a two-year-old statement by Julie Reiner, who reportedly said about Charles Schumann: “I’ll get him someday.”
Maybe you just have to take a close look at the aforementioned, fateful scene with Julie Reiner again – preferably two or three times. Charles Schumann says, shortly before the cut comes to the next scene: “No, I really have nothing against.”
And by that he means women at the bar.
Time to rethink
Possibly this negative episode will actually animate Charles Schumann to employ women during the night shift at the Schumann’s main bar and to engage explicitly and actively against sexism even outside his own company. The statements about women in the bar, however shortened or misunderstood they may be, Charles Schumann has made them and there is no way around the fact that he explicitly has to revoke them. After all, we are no longer in the 1970s. Still, he is probably the only one of the bar grandees who has promoted innovation in the modern bar. As a cocktail technician, he’s certifiably not a dinosaur. It would be a huge shame that sticking to this mantra would then define him in the public eye as one.
Julie Reiner and Charles Schumann in the film “Schumann’s Bargespräche” (2017).
This article was written in cooperation with Stefan Adrian, Caroline Adam and Nils Wrage. Edited for clarity by Andrew Wilkin.
Foto: ©Caroline Adam