Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend by Deirdre Bair
Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend as written by Deirdre Bair tells us of an Al Capone who has not previously been revealed to the world. The author concentrates more on the private man than the public figure, utilizing personal testimony and archives from family members, and she gives us a wider portrait of the man who became a criminal legend during the Roaring Twenties. In fact, Al Capone, aka Public Enemy No. 1, was arguably the most notorious gangster in history and in 2014 Smithsonian magazine named him one of the hundred most influential Americans in the entire history of the country.
Taking us back to a time before Al’s heyday, we learn how Al Capone’s parents emigrated from Naples to America in the 1890s where his father established himself as a barber in Brooklyn, NY. Alphonse was their first child born in the New World on January 17. 1899. He had 6 brothers and a sister. Al and his siblings were given more opportunity then their parents and they were encouraged to use those opportunities to gain an education and become hard-working, honest citizens. All to no avail, as Al and his brothers all left school very early on and turned to crime. Al always thought of himself as an American, rather than an Italian. He was a quick learner and earned good grades during the time he attended school, but he also had a fiery temper and was quite big for his age. By the age of 9 he was already known in the neighborhood for the many fights he won and he became part of a group of Italian boys that thought of themselves as a gang and called themselves the South Brooklyn Rippers. These boys were led by Frank Nitto, who later became the infamous Frank Nitti, Al Capone’s enforcer.
Later on, Al became part of a gang who called themselves the Forty Thieves Juniors and this brought him to the attention of crime boss, Johnny Torrio. This was the point upon which Al’s future would take a turn toward the legend he became. During those same years, Al met a pretty Irish girl named Mary Josephine Coughlin who was always called Mae. Al and Mae’s son, Albert Francis Capone, who was always called Sonny, was born in December of 1918 and his parents were subsequently married. His mother-in-law thought of Al as a charming and attentive husband and father and a man who always took care of his family financially. Al treated Mae like an angel and he wanted to give her and his son the best. Working for Johnny Torrio and Frankie Yale would help Al provide for them and he was sent to work for the Chicago Outfit.
Al proceeded to become one of the most powerful figures in the world of crime so it has become difficult to tell which stories of Al’s life were facts and which were exaggerated to the point that they became myths. The author makes great efforts to separate the two. What is not in doubt is Al’s careful and strategic climb to the top of Chicago’s gangland where he ran one of the most successful criminal operations that there has ever been. An interesting fact from the book is that there was an Economics case study performed at the Harvard Business School showing how Al ran the Outfit as if it were a major corporation. The HBS study examined the years 1920– 33, when Al controlled literally hundreds of “brothels, speakeasies, and roadhouses, which served as venues for the gang and administered gambling, prostitution, and illegal alcohol sales.” The conclusion of the Harvard case study was that there were roughly 700 gang-related deaths from 1920 to 1930, with Al Capone either “directly or indirectly responsible for over 200.” Boy, Al sure didn’t let anything get in the way of bringing home the bacon!
There is no doubt that Al was known as a very generous person and there are many stories of true kindness to others on his part. He loved his wife and son and was not only protective of them but very protective of his other family members as well. His wife Mae did not get along with Al’s siblings but she did manage to suppress most of this, and Al was always given respect by both parties so the family coexisted peacefully. Al’s word was law in the family however Mae did manage to keep their sickly son, Sonny hidden from the public eye for his own protection. Al was also very generous with his money and was known to give money to those in need, which made him well-liked in a lot of circles. He had a family that he sheltered with and he was very generous to them as well. But in the bigger picture, he angered a lot of people who mattered, and these people saw Al as an ill-mannered, illiterate and ruthless murderer. He would take on airs to make himself seem more cultured, but in the end he would never actually be the man he envisioned himself to be. None of this would stop the paparazzi from recording his every move.
Of course, some of this material was not new to a reader who knows anything about Al Capone. The author does cover personal things such as Al’s syphilis, the scars on his face from a barroom brawl, which led to the nickname Scarface and what she finds to be most likely a myth, about his extravagant use of cocaine leading to a deviated septum. She also covers infamous parts of Al’s murderous and cruel professional life such as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the lengths he went to for his own protection and his eventual downfall for tax evasion which led to his imprisonment at Alcatraz. There is a lot of material here, some new and interesting, some old and some rehashed to the point of boredom.
I want to thank the publisher (Doubleday Books) for providing me with the ARC through NetGalley for an honest review.