Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago during Prohibition

Prohibition in Chicago was the ultimate business opportunity for the violent men who made up the many gangs who fought to control alcohol as well as narcotics, gambling, labor and business racketeering and prostitution in the city. And while there were turf wars during Prohibition in many American cities, Chicago was the bloodiest of all.

“The apex of the violence in Chicago was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre where seven men were killed,” says John J. Binder, author of  (Prometheus Books 2017; $25). “That was a record. In any other city, there were never more than two or three gang murders at one time.”

Chicago at that time was almost completely lawless and these mobsters thought they were untouchable says Binder, adding that gangsters like Al Capone even gave interviews which added to Chicago’s reputation as did the way they did business including machine guns, drive-by shootings.

Binder, who has been writing about organized crime for more than 25 years, is an Associate Professor Emeritus of Finance in the College of Business at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His background in business and finance is perfect for writing what is the first complete history of organized crime in Chicago during Prohibition because after all it is a business.

“The sole goal of organized crime is to enrich their members,” says Binder. “Sure, they’re violent and sure they kill each other, it’s useful in running the business. But the goal was to make money.”

While legendary figures like Al Capone have taken on almost mythical status, Binder says that many books don’t even cover some of the other 12 gangs who were major bootleggers in Chicago at the start of Prohibition.

“A lot of books about Prohibition in Chicago just cover the same thing,” he says, noting that five years of research went into his book.

The Chicago mobs’ reach also extended into Northwest Indiana says Binder who will be conducting a tour of Prohibition sites.

“The Canadian Whiskey Superhighway ran from Detroit through Gary to Chicago,” he says.

Ifyougo:

What: Talk and book signing

When: Tuesday, Oct. 10; 6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. program

Where: Chicago History Museum, 1601 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois

Cost: $25, $20 members; cash bar available

FYI: 312-642-4600

What: Author and historian John J. Binder leads an in-depth tour of Chicago’s Prohibition and related crime history.

When: Saturday, October 14 at 1 p.m.

Where: Tour begins at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois

Cost: $55, $45 members; tour runs 3.5 to 4 hours

FYI: 312-642-4600

White Collar Girl

Even if you weren’t addicted to the black and white movies about newspaper gals such as Katherine Hepburn in “Woman of the Year” and Glenda Farrell in the Torchy Blane series like I was, Renee Rosen’s latest book, “9780451474971 (2)” about a Chicago reporter in the 1950s, is still a great read.

Rosen, who plums Chicago’s history to write such books as “Dollface,” about flappers and gangers like Al Capone, and “What the Lady Wants” about the affair between department store magnate Marshall Field and his socialite neighbor, tells about a time not that long ago when women reporters were almost always relegated to covering soft news and society items.

In her latest, Jordan Walsh wants to break out of her role as a society reporter and sees her chance when she finds a deeply connected source in the mayor’s office. But despite her source and ambition as well as family connections to such great Chicago writers as Mike Royko, Nelson Algren and Ernest Hemingway, Jordan must still contend with the attitude of it’s a man’s business.

To research her book, Rosen spent a lot of time talking to reporters to find out what it was like back in the day.

“I think what I found most surprising was how the female reporters back then were called ‘Sob Sisters’ because they were assigned the sentimental stories or stories intended to tug at the readers’ heartstrings,” Rosen says about what she found when she began her extensive research. ”Sexism in the newsroom was blatant back then. Also in terms of sexual harassment, back in the day that phrase wasn’t in anyone’s vocabulary. Of course career women didn’t like it, but there was no one to turn to, no one to complain to.”

Rosen, who lives in Chicago, says she often will find herself walking down a street and thinking this is where Dion O’Banion worked (one of the gangsters featured in “Dollface”) or this is where Delia Caton and Bertha Palmer shopped (“What the Lady Wants”).

“Or in the case of ‘White Collar Girl,’ I’ve been to some of the watering holes where a young Mike Royko or a Nelson Algren would have frequented,” says Rosen, noting that she’s watched “All the President’s Men” about “a million times.”

“I can go to City Hall and walk the very hallways that Mayor Daley walked. Call me a history nerd, but for me that’s a thrill. Sometimes I do get so obsessed with a subject matter that I do find I have to pull myself back to the present time.”

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