The gangster is an American icon, and none is more infamous than Al Capone. However, the treatment of these icons often falls into cliché. That’s why, for the most part, I’m not a fan of books about gangsters, gang culture, or Al Capone. Yet from the very beginning of Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend (Doubleday), Deirdre Bair presents a complex portrait of Capone that includes an examination of the context that created both him and his legend. Bair weaves biographical material, historical context, as well as shows how the radio and syndicated newspapers produced the legend of Scarface. This combination allows Bair—an award-winning biographer—to transcend a near-sighted gangster biography and instead pushes the book toward the likes of Luc Sante’s Low Life, Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, or the writings of Herbert Ashbury. Those writers I adore for how their writing resuscitates the world through the minutia of life. Bair does the same with relevant details of Capone’s childhood, migration to Chicago, rise to power, and ultimate demise upon release from prison.
Al Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York, and there he fell in love with Mary Josephine Coughlin, the daughter of Irish immigrants. Bair digresses from Capone’s young days as a gangster to address how race influenced the budding love. By showing us the slum apartment of the Capones’ and the well-off home of the Coughlins’, the reader gains insight to how economics, race, and gender define their relationship. Bair points out that the Irish considered Italians “colored” and that the marriage would be considered “mixed.” This level of contextual detail presents a rich description of how American cultural at the dawn of the century shaped their lives. From this beginning, Bair parses reality from speculation—keeping one eye on Capone’s life while the other examines how the burgeoning media developed his legend.
The development of newspaper syndication and radio modernized the American landscape, connecting rural hamlets to metropolitan epicenters. Many journalists had little to no integrity at the time. Their editors wanted to move copies and the drama of politicians, boozer runners, speakeasy society became fodder for the masses. The journalists turned Capone into a Robin Hood figure in order to captivate readers and sell papers. By 1926, Capone’s Outfit brought in $105 million a year (approximately $1.4 billion in 2015), but he lived in a modest home on the South Side of Chicago and gave money away to people and schools in need. He wore tailored suits that were lime green, yellow, and lavender as well as sported a pinky ring and always walked around with a wad of bills in his pocket for anyone with a good sob story. Bair retells a possibly embellished incident of a rain-soaked newspaper boy asking if Capone wants to buy a paper. Capone buys all of them with what amounted to several weeks’ salary for a laborer if they boy promises to go to school the next day. The media ate up stories like that. Legends propelled Capone into the spotlight as the self-made man, as a saintly sinner—ideals that the public adored.
Everyone knows that Al Capone made a significant portion of his wealth running booze during the Prohibition. But few people are aware that in 1928 Capone purchased a house on Palm Island, Florida that was once owned by Clarence M. Busch of the Anheuser-Busch family. As legal beer waned, so did the family’s fortune. This transaction symbolized the shift of power toward the bootlegger and gangster. Another incident that represented this cultural zeitgeist is that Andrew J. Volstead died five days before Capone. The man who wrote the Eighteenth Amendment—establishing the Prohibition—and inadvertently created the environment for gangsters to prosper passed from the world within days of Capone. Like a cosmic exhalation, a horrible phase of American history ended with the deaths of these antagonists.
But Capone was never one who let fate define him. When Capone learned of the eventual repeal of Prohibition, he began to take over local unions as a way to supplement his payroll. I have always been aware of the stereotype that waste management companies and unions were tied to the mafia but never really understood why. Bair explains that at the end of the Prohibition all those gangsters tried to go legit by taking over unions.
Al Capone was arrested for not paying taxes, but that was all the government could pin on him. Bair dives into the ins and outs of the case, but that wasn’t for me. Once in jail, Capone didn’t cause much trouble because he was eager to get back to his family. “The wop with the mop” worked and lived like all the other prisoners despite many myths of luxurious standards within the prison. Nonetheless, he was transferred to Alcatraz—home to some of the most wanted men in America. But the transfer meant that Capone’s wife would have an “arduous cross-country train trips each month for a single hour-and-a-half visit.” As a result of the difficult trip, the two prolifically wrote letters, which Mae saved. I can barely imagine how those years would’ve challenged the two and the significance of the letters. But late in life, she collected them and many family photos to burn in order to keep their life private. It’s hard to empathize for gangsters but details like this humanize Capone and Mae. While the court case failed to capture my attention, these details of their relationship moved me.
During his time in jail, the doctors diagnosed him with neurosyphilis. Upon his release from prison, he had the intellectual ability of a pre-teen. There was no glorious return to his post. Later, he died of bronchial pneumonia. Where most biographies would end, Bair continues showing how the family he left behind lived in the shadow of his death.
My dislike in gangsters is a result of how their stories have become generic. I have little interest in the tough-guy talk, action scenes, or any of the other stereotypical plot points. What separates this book from the rest is that the author has spent her life writing biographies of literary icons like Samuel Beckett, Anaïs Nin, and Simone de Beauvoir. Bair accesses the interiority of the Al, Mae, and the other major players in her biography. The environment of America at the dawn of the century defined their minds and hearts. In an indirect way, we readers observe and assemble meaning by putting these pieces together, resulting in a rich narrative that can captivate an audience that has little interest in gangster but nonetheless loves a biography.
Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend
by Deirdre Bair
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2016