Deirdre Bair wasn’t that familiar with Al Capone. Beyond the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, she’d been more focused on literary biographies, racking up numerous awards including the National Book Award. But when she was contacted by a friend who had a friend who knew someone (yes, it went like that) who wanted help in solving some family mysteries about Al Capone she was intrigued.
“I asked what does he want, a private investigator or a ghost writer?”
The man was a relative of the infamous gangster and after they talked, Bair received phone calls from other Capone relatives.
“They called me and said we’re getting old, we want our story to be told,” recalls Bair.
And so began years of interviews, extensive research and writing as Blair learned from Capone’s surviving family members about the Capone they knew—a devoted father, a loved husband, a kindly caretaker of his relatives.
“There are so many legends about him,” says Blair, noting more than 100 books have been written about Capone. Her book, “Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend” (Nan A. Talese 2016; $30) is the first to have the cooperation of his family who provided her with exclusive access to personal testimony and archival documents.
Of course there’s the Jazz Age, bootlegging Capone. But in his brief arc of fame and success—Bair points out that he took control of his gang at 25 and by 31 was ill, broke and in prison, he became a role model for, of all things, business management.
“The Harvard Business School did a case study of how he ran his business,” says Bair. “Today the Bulgarian Mafia say they study Capone. So many people tell me a generation or two later, he could have been a CEO.”
His family saw him as loving. His wife May, says Bair, said she knew every bad thing he’d done (and we know he did a whole lot of bad stuff) but she still loved him. His son remembered him as a great dad.
“Every day was a revelation,” says Bair. “But I don’t think anyone will ever have the final answer as to who he really was. He’s a riddle, a conundrum and an enigma.”