From his heyday to the present moment, Al Capone Public Enemy Number One has gripped popular imagination. Rising from humble Brooklyn roots, Capone went on to become the most infamous gangster in American history. At the height of Prohibition, his multimillion-dollar Chicago bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling operation dominated the organized-crime scene. His competition with rival gangs was brutally violent, a long-running war that crested with the shocking St. Valentine s Day Massacre of 1929. Law enforcement and the media elite seemed powerless to stop the growth of his empire. And then the fall: a legal noose tightened by the FBI, a conviction on tax evasion, Alcatraz. After his release he returned to his family in Miami a much diminished man, living quietly until the ravages of his neurosyphilis took their final toll. But the slick mobster persona endures, immortalized in countless novels and movies.
The true flesh-and-blood man behind the legend has long remained a mystery. Unscrupulous newspaper accounts and Capone s own tall tales perpetuated his mystique, but through dogged research Deirdre Bair debunks the most outrageous of these myths. With the help of Capone s descendants, she discovers his essential humanity, uncovering a complex character that was flawed and sometimes cruel but also capable of nobility. And while revealing the private Al Capone, a genuine family man asremembered by those who knew him best, Bair relates how his descendants have borne his weighty legacy.
Rigorous and intimate, Al Capone provides new answers to the enduring questions about this fascinating figure, who was equal parts charismatic gangster, devoted patriarch, and calculating monster."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-06-20
- Reviewer: Staff
National Book Award-winning biographer Bair (Samuel Beckett) interrogates the notion of the “real” Al Capone (1899–1947). Capone’s life has been well documented in countless books, articles, and movies, but most of it has been falsified or exaggerated, especially given Capone’s own marionette-like control of the media and his descendants’ desire to bask in reflected glory. Bair’s goal is to collect all the myths side by side, comparing their shortcomings and information gaps and debunking them as necessary. She follows Capone, in his fedora and lime green suit, from Brooklyn, Chicago, and Miami to a cushy jail cell in Pennsylvania prison, and then to progressively less cushy jail cells in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta and San Francisco’s Alcatraz before his death in 1947 after neurosyphilis left him with the mental faculties of a seven-year-old. She also explores the lives of his friends and family, including the ongoing feud between his elegant, reserved wife, Mae, and his fiercely protective mother and sister, who considered themselves to be in charge of the household. The biography is a meticulously researched and thorough account of the man described by a reporter in 1931 as “gorgeously and typically American,” but it’s best suited for those who are already somewhat familiar with Capone, bootlegging, and the Chicago Outfit. Less informed readers will find themselves bogged down by too much detail and the sorting out of conflicting accounts. Agent: Kristine Dahl, ICM. (Oct.)
Al Capone and his enduring fame
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the glory days of Al Capone—Scarface, Big Al, Public Enemy Number One—is how short they were: six years, from mid-level thug to big boss to jail. So why is he still the iconic American gangster, nearly 70 years after his death from the complications of syphilis?
Well, he loved publicity. But because his legend was a creation of newshounds and Hollywood, much of what we think we know is wrong. Biographer Deirdre Bair tries to uncover the man behind the flamboyant image in Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend. It seems a surprising project for an author who has written about Samuel Beckett and Carl Jung. Bair fell into it by happenstance when she met a man who was trying to find out if he was related to Capone. Eventually, she was able to talk extensively with Capone descendants.
They mostly turn out to be private, law-abiding folks whose reminiscences are engrossing and sometimes touching. Capone’s Irish-American wife, Mae, is at the heart of their memories—a woman who was, in their eyes, decent, loyal and loving. Syphilis, likely contracted from a prostitute, destroyed Capone’s mind, but Mae never gave up on him.
Bair carefully tries to sort out truth from baloney. No one knows how many people Capone and his minions killed. But Bair can say with confidence that the federal income tax evasion case that sent him to prison would have fallen apart if he hadn’t had incompetent lawyers and a biased judge.
Bair is particularly good at putting the Capones in the context of the Italian immigrant culture that shaped them. Capone himself wouldn’t have liked that; he always stressed that he was American-born, not an Italian. But he would have gotten a huge kick out of his enduring fame.