In the chronicles of gangster lore, "Scarface" Al Capone is typically recognized as the most infamous mobster ever. He's a seemingly-invincible mafioso who ran the Chicago Outfit with ruthless abandon and reigned as the de facto Prohibition-era don of the criminal underworld. Holding court when bootlegging was king, Capone's chokehold on the city's alcohol trade fueled organized crime's illicit profits in Chi-town. He's also credited with orchestrating the St. Valentine's Massacre, which left seven rival gangster's from George "Bugs" Moran's faction dead. Capone was a cunning and vicious adversary who rose to the top echelon of La Cosa Nostra in less than a decade, creating an everlasting legacy of gangsterism in popular culture that lives through Hollywood movies like Scarface and The Untouchables.
In a new book titled Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, out October 25, National Book Award Winner Deirdre Bair takes a different approach than most Capone biographers, forgoing analysis of the gangster's well-covered "professional" life to instead examine his private and personal. She gained unprecedented access to a number of Capone's descendants who provided her with exclusive personal testimony on what he was like behind-the-scenes—from his origins in Brooklyn, to his years in the federal slammer for tax evasion, to his final days in a posh Miami mansion as a syphilis-addled ex-con.
VICE talked to Bair about the charismatic and ruthless gangster to find out why his persona continues to grip the world's imagination, despite the public knowing so little about his personal life. She also spoke about how Hollywood has romanticized his legend, how Capone was a surprisingly tender father, and why modern-day critics use his name to vilify public figures in business and politics.
VICE: You've written biographies on Samuel Beckett, Carl Jung, and Simon de Beauvoir. Why Al Capone? It seems like a departure from your previous work.
Deirdre Bair: All of my books began with either a question I wanted to answer or an idea I wanted to pursue. I knew very little about crime and very little about that particular period of American history, so I started reading. In my reading, I discovered that the public life of Al Capone was very well-known, but nobody knew anything about the private man. I started meeting his family members, his descendants, and the descendants of his brothers. I was so intrigued that I knew this was the next book I'd write. I started the book in 2012 and finished writing about nine months ago. I interviewed several hundred people by the time I was done.
I have a great deal in the book about the Italian-American experience in the United States, starting from the 1880s through Al Capone's period. I think, in many ways, Al Capone's public and private personalities were shaped by the world in which he lived, but I show the private man more than the public man in the book. I didn't need to go into the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, because so much has already been written about that. Let the scholars fight it out over what really happened and who did what to whom. The division between Al Capone the public man and the private man shows that they were two relatively, if not entirely, different people.
Can you talk about the differences between his private and public personas?
Here's how I began the book: "This is the story of a ruthless killer, a scofflaw, a keeper of brothels and bordellos, a tax cheat and perpetrator of frauds, a convicted felon, and a mindless blubbering invalid. This is also the story of a loving son, husband, and father who described himself as a businessman whose job was to serve the people what they wanted. Al Capone was all of these." This was the complex person I wrote about, the one who remains to this day an enigma, a riddle still to be solved.
His Irish wife Mae hid from the public spotlight that Capone relished in. She was independent and quick-witted with a keen sense of fun, but Capone was as good at trading quips as she was. Mae found his determination and ambition attractive. Capone, for his part, was enchanted with her and demonstrated his affection with sweet talk. He liked having his family surrounding him. He liked swimming in his pool and fishing off his boat.
When his son suffered from a steady stream of ear infections as a young boy Capone offered a New York doctor $100,000 to save his life. This was in 1925. But the boy's life was never in danger, only his hearing and surgery corrected the problem somewhat. Capone adored his son, hovering over him, fussing and worrying after the operation for years to come. A loving letter he wrote to his son just sold for $62,000.
Can you tell me about how you got in touch with his family and interviewed them for the book?
People knew my reputation and when I heard there was a cousin or a grandson I'd contact them and send them a copy of one of my books. Many of these people are quite elderly and they'd say, I'm glad you're here, because we're getting old and when we die, the real history is going to die with us. I'd meet a descendant of one of his brothers who would lead me to another descendant. I talked to his granddaughters. His wife, Mae, burned everything, though. She said she didn't want any detail of her marriage to Al Capone to remain alive after she was gone so that people could write salacious things about them. Capone's love for his son and his kindness and generosity in general were aspects that nobody had really explored in-depth, so I spent a better part of the book writing about his personal life.
I know how to evaluate sources and I was able to know what was quote-unquote "the real history," as opposed to reconstructed history that's been told again and again. One person leads you to another person who leads you to another, and when you put all of that material and information together, sift through it, and evaluate, you come up with the closest to the literal truth that you're going to get.
Are there any myths about Capone that have been perpetuated that you'd like to address or debunk?
There are so many myths, too many to count. But I do like one remark a journalist made, that if Capone had eaten in all the restaurants or slept in all the hotels [that people claimed he eat and slept in], he would hardly have had time to run the Chicago Outfit. Some rumors are preposterous, such as the one about how he sneaked off anonymously to play golf on Scottish courses, or that he built tunnels in Baja California to smuggle booze (Mexico didn't have Prohibition). Debunking was the fun part of writing the book.
Why do you think Al Capone remains such a profound figure in popular culture? What is it about him that appeals to so many different people?
People often ask what's the most surprising thing you found out about Al Capone and to me the most surprising thing is how young he was when he took charge of the Chicago Outfit and how brief his reign was. He was 25-years-old when he was in control and 30 when he went in jail. He was at the top of the world for five short years, and we're still talking about him. He died in 1947 and his name is the one name that the entire world recognizes.
Harvard's business school even offers a case study on how he conducted his business. Postage stamps from foreign countries have his face on them. Here we are almost 80 years later and Capone has universal recognition. The Smithsonian magazine did a survey of the 100 most important and influential Americans of all time, and Al Capone's name is on that list. In one of my conversations with one of his granddaughters, I said I don't know what to call him. She replied, "He's an enigma." I think basically that's what keeps him so alive in the worldwide imagination.
Everyone had something different to say about Capone and the myth and legend grew.
Why are modern-day businessmen, politicians, and even presidential candidates like Trump compared to Capone by critics when they choose to assassinate someone's character?
The minute Donald Trump refused to release his tax records, the immediate comparison was Al Capone. They call Hillary Clinton "Al Capone in a pantsuit." It's just so easy to bring up his name. He's what I call a cultural allusion, an easy reference to something that everybody will recognize so that you don't have to go into any kind of detail. If you say Al Capone, that can fit a multitude of allusions or references. Any bad thing you want to bring up, you can link to Capone's name, so he's become an universal cultural allusion; you just compare the person to Al Capone and everyone understands.
How did Al Capone manipulate the media and get politicians on his side in the 1920s? And what happened to him after he served his time?
He just flashed his money around politicians. He had everybody on his payroll in Chicago. He really was the unofficial mayor of the city of Chicago. He threw his weight behind them for reelection and that weight often consisted of a great deal of money. Capone knew the value of a press conference and he also knew the value of disappearing into privacy so that nobody knew where he was. But he'd emerge and tell reporters these stories that may or may not have had a veracity of truth in them.
After Capone came out of prison, he had the mentality of a seven-year-old. His mind was so ravished by syphilis that he wasn't able to do anything. His family kept him tightly chaperoned and sequestered in his Miami estate [once he was out], but reporters from all over the world hung outside the gates hoping that something would happen, and when nothing happened they'd invent stories. Everyone had something different to say about him and the myth and legend grew.
Do you think you achieved your goal to write the true account of his personal life? Are there any missing gaps or details you were never able to clarify?
I think I did achieve my goal. I say this because every family member who talked to me was presented with an advance copy of the book, and they all marvel at several things: How I captured the man they knew, and how I recreated the life they led with him (and after him). They have only positive things to say about what I wrote. As for gaps: no, none. However, I learned a great deal that I chose not to write about, but I can address all that at another time.
Is there more to learn about Capone? Do you think more books will be written about him and should they be written at all?
Of course there is always more to learn about anybody (and everybody)! I like to say that all my biographies are only the point of departure for getting the complete picture. Biographies have to cover an entire life; other scholars and writers must read them and then decide what specific points are important enough to need further in-depth writing and analysis. And no biography can ever be definitive: each is good for our time, certainly, but how can we even know what questions future generations would like to have answered? Every generation needs its own.
Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend is out now through Nan A. Talese press. Order it here.
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Photo via The New York Times/Getty Images