You know how there are some movies that you know aren't the world's greatest movies, but for some reason you'll just watch them over and over? One of mine is "The Untouchables," the 1987 story about the fight against organized crime in Chicago during Prohibition. Based on a TV series, there's an awful lot of fiction here, but I still find it a lot of fun.
But of course, once I see the fictional version of something, I want to know the truth. Luckily, the reliable Jonathan Eig has brought us "Get Capone," the story of the crime kingpin who ruled Chicago during the 1920s and early '30s.
This isn't the overtly glamorized Mafia of movies and TV, that people love for all the heavy-handed trials about "family," "honor," "being made" and such. Honestly, the Mafia as portrayed on screen sometimes seems more like the Masons or something, with the added discomfort of everyone being related. Al Capone, though, was involved in organized crime. Yes, family members were involved, but as far as he was concerned, he was a business man. During Prohibition, providing alcohol was big business, and he was the biggest provider in a city that demanded a lot.
Capone got his start in the business pretty much just by falling in with some men from the neighborhood (Brooklyn, to start), who were dabbling in alcohol running, whorehouses, and gambling. He was sent to Chicago to run a whorehouse and ended up, after his mentor and boss was forced out of the business, expanding the empire.
To stay out of the way of the Chicago police, Capone ran most of his business out of the nearby town of Cicero. It was easy to get people on your side if you were involved in an illegal business, especially a business that most people thought shouldn't be illegal, like alcohol sales. You could promise to help someone get elected, offer someone a small cut of a business, or of course, threaten to kill them (and, if someone--including rival gangsters--was too much trouble, follow through on that threat). In Chicago in those days, it wasn't hard to find police officers or politicians who were willing to turn a blind eye to what was going on. Especially because Capone was so popular--he seemed to be always available to a fascinated press, who could find him in his hotel suites, mildly protesting anytime his name was dragged into one of the broad daylight, street shootouts or assassinations that set people in Chicago on edge. Even as his rivals ended up bullet-ridden corpses in gutters, Capone always coasted above the fray. His argument was that he was just a businessman, providing what the people wanted.
He was indeed a businessman--in addition to the alcohol business, he also made a lot of money from racetracks, both horses and dogs. With a much lower overhead, greyhound racing was immensely popular (and evil and should be banned everywhere, I will mention). Capone understood the importance of breaking up all his businesses into small units, with the information about them and their profits only available to a few people in each case. There were few records available and almost nothing with his name on it.
As the bloody street battles escalated, though, it became too much for everyday people in Chicago. Federal agents were sent in, including Eliot Ness, the self-aggrandizing leader of his uncorruptible "Untouchables," whose role in crime fighting got blown way out of proportion, raising him to mythological status (in truth, Ness became an alcoholic and a failure in every other thing he got involved in after he left Chicago).
Capone served some time in jail on weapons charges, but emerged unscathe. He decamped to Florida, building a lavish estate there that belied the zero income he declared, and that led tax investigators to the slow, tedious task of proving that he did, indeed, have an income, so they could put him in jail on tax evasion charges. Capone feigned ignorance of any such thing--he was again, just a guy running a business, a good American who loved his mother, adored his son, and didn't treat his wife too badly while running around with a series of girlfriends. When the St. Valentine's massacre happened, the press and the police tried to connect him to it, but Eig makes a pretty convincing case that he wasn't involved. When the Depression hit, Capone opened a soup kitchen for the hungry in Chicago that fed numerous desperate residents.
In the end, though, a couple of lucky breaks (an associate or two willing to turn informant) led investigators to the information they needed and Capone was put in jail for tax evasion. Business was slowing down anyway, with the lifting of Prohibiiton. In prison, the syphilis that had long inhabited his body began to take a toll on his mind. By the time he was released from prison, his brain was essentially mush. Capone was no longer the genial, yet threatening crime boss, so much as a harmless man shuffling around the house, barely aware of what was going on. He died in 1947.
Capone comes off as a good guy, despite his lengthy record and involvement in unsavory activities--not the alcohol sales or gambling, but the hits that he put on others; he probably didn't do as many as people imagined, but he undoubtedly had blood on his hands. People were scared of him, but many also liked him. The surprising thing (at least to me) was how young Capone was when he was on top; he was only 48 when he died, and astonishingly, in his twenties when he had Chicago under control. It's almost hard to imagine how he could rise so high so quickly, but those were the times. That's the kind of thing that happened in the 1920s.
I've read other books by Eig (see here and here), so I felt pretty confident that I would like this one (and oh, what it took for me to get it from the library; that's a story in itself). The book is researched impeccably, as you would expect, and the sense of place--Chicago--very clear; it's obvious that he's familiar with the territory (it's so much easier to write about where you live than give yourself a crash course in someplace else). The writing itself is tough and blunt enough for the topic, without straying into the dangerous territory of pulp novel imitation, a temptation some authors can't resist when covering similar subjects which never turns out well. Trust me, if you want a description of brains on the street after a gangland assassination, you'll get it, but thankfully not done in fake Raymond Chandler. Read it and enjoy it--I always have to recommend a book that passes the "train test," as in it made me miss my stop, or in this case, get on the wrong train.