For several generations now of Chicagoans traveling abroad, there will be an inevitable encounter with a local who, upon learning their city of origin, might respond with “Ah! Al Capone!” before cradling a fake Tommy gun in their hands and making a “rat-a-tat-tat” noise.
And indeed, other than the fictional Godfather, Vito Corleone, the very real-life Alphonse Capone is probably the best-known gangster in both history and pop culture. His rotund frame, flashy clothes, fedora, cigar and scarred face (from an actual barroom brawl) providing an instantly recognizable visage.
There have been many Capone biographies before – some even coming out while his shady and violent deeds were still in current newspapers. But here, author Bair digs deep for the most complete and detailed look at the man who, posing as simple Windy City resident “Al Brown, second-hand furniture dealer,” was actually one of the most powerful, feared and wealthy Mafia members of his time (as, in the parlance of the times, “The Outfit”).
A man who for much of the 1920s and '30s achieved the folkloric status of more mythical characters. And whose name alone brings up mental images of flappers, speakeasies, illegal booze, and wanton murder and “rubbing out” of enemies. The man who put the Massacre into St. Valentine’s Day.
In her research, Bair talks to many Capone family members and descendants who have never given interviews before. And, in many cases, acted as a one-woman Ancestry.com for the family who valiantly tries to sort out their own first, second, and third-hand memories of their infamous relation.
Part of her work is either proving or debunking the many myths surrounding Capone. Sure, he would gladly dole out large amounts of cash to anyone with a sob story or the poor in need – but with hundred dollar bills, not the thousands of lore.
And yes, he operated a soup kitchen that at one point fed 2,000 to 3,000 Chicagoans a day during the height of the Great Depression. But as an antidote to the pundits who screamed about his criminal deeds in drugs, gambling,
Bair also points out that Al Capone knew how to fashion an image and play the media long before John Gotti did the same. Summoned to a press conference they assumed would take place in one of his ornate offices, stunned scribblers instead traipsed to Capone’s own private home and were greeted at the front door by the gangster wearing a pink apron, house slippers, and carrying wooden spoon that stirred the sauce for the spaghetti dinner he served them all. After all, how could this man who cooked, loved his family, and cried at the opera be such a bad guy?
“The public loved him, even though he was largely responsible for washing the streets of Chicago in blood,” Bair writes. “For most Americans who did not experience such sights directly, newspaper photographs and movies that portrayed sprawled and bloody dead gangsters and bullet-ridden cars were only entertainment…evil was appealing, even enticing, as long as it did not touch them directly.”
The FBI’s avowed (and first) “Public Enemy #1” burned bright and held an iron grip over underworld activities in Chicago and some other areas. But a combination of bad luck, competitors nipping at his heels, and the meticulous work of lawyers, police, and government agents brought him down in a then-unique way.
It wasn’t murder or bribery or kidnapping or theft that finally landed him serious jail time, but (as any viewer of The Untouchables film, with a plumped-up Robert De Niro as a short-fused Capone, knows) tax evasion that did him in.
Rather than going out in a blaze of bullets, the demise and death of Al Capone
“This is the story of a ruthless killer, a scofflaw, a keeper of brothels and bordellos, a tax cheat and perpetrator of frauds, a convicted felon, and a mindless, blubbering invalid,” Bair writes in the book’s intro. “This is also the story of a loving son, husband, and father who described himself as a businessman whose job was to serve the people what they wanted. Al Capone was all of these.”
If the book has a weak point, it’s that Bair’s attention to fine, too fine detail can read somewhat textbook, and the prose often doesn’t match the excitement of the events it describes. Nonetheless, she has succeeded in giving the real “Scarface” the literary legacy his life and story richly deserve.
Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend
By Deirdre Bair
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday