By CHRISTOPHER LEONARD
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Family lore says the first liquid to touch August Busch IV's lips was beer from the Anheuser-Busch brewery. As a child, Busch accompanied his father to business meetings at the brewery's headquarters. As a young man, he made his mark creating ads for the product that would dominate his life: Budweiser beer.
Busch enjoyed a seemingly charmed life with good looks, money and a bevy of beautiful women. But his playboy lifestyle landed him in legal trouble, and he took the throne at the king of beers, only to see the company sold out from under him.
The scion of St. Louis' richest and most powerful family found his name in the national headlines again last month, once more tainted by scandal. Busch's 27-year-old girlfriend was found dead at his home of unknown causes. Busch told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch she had been taking a sleeping medication called Trazodone and might have accidentally overdosed. Toxicology tests are pending, and police said there is no evidence of foul play or trauma.
St. Louis residents have been transfixed by Adrienne Martin's death and followed the story with a kind of knowing disappointment. Busch, like his hometown, has struggled to find an identity without Anheuser-Busch.
The company "was his life. It was everything he knew. He loves beer," said Busch's ex-wife, Kathryn Thatcher. "I think he's still trying to figure out what he wants to do. He just expected that would be his life, and suddenly it wasn't any more."
Busch has kept a low profile since Martin's Dec. 19 death and declined an interview request through his attorney. One acquaintance declined an interview, saying she'd been asked not to talk to The Associated Press, and several of his former co-workers and acquaintances declined to comment.
Busch told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the he "loved (Martin) with every ounce of my heart" and that her death was "the saddest thing I've ever dealt with."
Those who agreed to talk about Busch presented a picture of a driven man who seemed thwarted by fate at every turn. The secrecy surrounding him, combined with tales of wild parties and a series of glamorous girlfriends, helped perpetuate a misleading portrait of a man who is more diligent, humbler and harder working than most believe, said his former mother-in-Law, Nancy Thatcher.
Kathryn Thatcher, who was in her 20s when she married the 40-something Busch, said the company dominated his life and he spent a lot of time talking about beer, watching Super Bowl ads and thinking about marketing. He was crushed by his inability to stop InBev's hostile 2008 takeover and the wave of layoffs in St. Louis that followed.
"He fought (the buyout) so hard, and he was so upset by it," Thatcher said. "He felt like he let everybody down."
If Busch mistook the company's - or his family's - identity for his own, he had good reason.
Busch "tagged along" with his father to business meetings and company headquarters when other children were playing with friends or doing homework, said Jerry Ritter, former chief financial officer at Anheuser-Busch.
Like his father, Busch partied hard as a young man and, with his square jaw and strong dose of confidence, had no problem attracting women.
"I think that the Busches tend to like really fast cars or airplanes, or whatever, women, until some time in their late 20s," said Bill Finnie, who retired from Anheuser-Busch as director of strategic studies and planning in 1991. "And then at some point in their late 20s, they say: `Wow. Business is just as fun as fast cars and planes."'
But before Busch made that transition, he made a mistake that haunted him for years. He was driving late at night in 1983, when he took a turn too hard and crashed his black Corvette into a tree, killing his passenger, 22-year-old Michele Frederick. Busch, who suffered a fractured skull, fled the scene and claimed he had amnesia. After a seven-month investigation, authorities declined to press charges against the University of Arizona student, citing a lack of evidence.
After the accident, Busch moved back to St. Louis, got a degree in business and went to work at the brewery. He made his mark by pushing the company to redraw marketing plans that had been hidebound by tradition. Putting aside the family's famous Clydesdales, Busch helped create ads with a cast of frogs and lizards. It worked.
"He recognized and supported good ideas, but he also had some great ones of his own," wrote Tom Shipley, who worked in the marketing department under Busch in the 1990s. Shipley agreed to discuss Busch only by e-mail.
The two met in 2000, when Shipley worked as an Anheuser-Busch sales manager in Colorado. He was told to pick up the executive widely as "The Fourth" at the airport and give him a ride to a meeting. The man Shipley met wasn't the party animal depicted in the media.
"He was all business with questions about pricing, market share, competitors, personnel," Shipley wrote.
Busch rose in the company's ranks, but by the time he became CEO in 2006, the groundwork was already laid for the company's demise, Finnie said. Busch's father had refused to expand aggressively overseas, clearing the way for competitors like InBev to flourish as Anheuser-Busch struggled to gain more than half the U.S. market share.
"Nothing happened. Nothing happened under The Third . . . nothing happened under The Fourth. Nobody came up with an overall international strategy," Finnie said.
Busch married Thatcher in 2006 but it lasted less than three years. Thatcher's mother said her daughter, who came from a small town in Vermont, and Busch were just too different. Thatcher said the stress of the brewery's sale helped break up their marriage.
"We were having problems in our relationship, and that happened and it was just horrible," she said.
By Christmas 2010, Busch, 46, was spending time with Martin, another young model nearly half his age. While gossip and speculation about her death are on tongues in St. Louis bars and at water coolers, there's also a kind of loyalty to the man, as if everyone hopes the story could somehow turn around.
"I wouldn't want anything bad to happen to him," said Judy Buchmiller, Busch's former longtime girlfriend. "He's a good guy. He's really misinterpreted."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)