Wilfrid Sheed once quipped that there were so many books about the Mob that “We now know everything about it except whether or not it exists.” We know for sure that Al Capone, America’s most famous and cinematic gangster, did exist, but a new biography, Get Capone–The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster by Jonathan Eig, makes you wonder if anything we know about him is true.
Eig, author of serviceable books about Lou Gehrig, The Luckiest Man, and Jackie Robinson, Opening Day–The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, appears to be out to subvert every popular notion we’ve ever had of Capone, most notably that Capone was connected to the Mafia, that Eliot Ness was responsible for bringing him down, and, most notably, that Capone was behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
The first two are old news. No organized crime historian ever claimed Capone belonged to the Mafia–Capone was Neapolitan, not Sicilian, and his gang was multiethnic–nor did anyone but Ness and his biographer, Oscar Fraley, in their book, The Untouchables, claim that he and his agents were behind Capone’s downfall. (The story of Capone’s conviction on tax evasion was brought about largely through the efforts of Chicago citizens working with the federal government, as clearly documented in 1993 in Scarface Al and the Crime Crusaders by Dennis E. Hoffman; the book is not mentioned in Eig’s sources.)
We’ll get to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre shortly. For the moment, suffice it to say that Capone has already been the subject of numerous biographies, most recently Mr. Capone – The Real and Complete Story of Al Capone by Robert J. Schoenberg (1992), and the definitive work, Laurence Bergreen’s 700 page opus, Capone – The Man and the Era (1994) (like Eig’s book, published by Simon & Schuster). Eig seems to know less about Capone than his predecessors. There’s scarcely anything about Al’s crime career in Brooklyn before landing in Chicago, and virtually nothing about the expansion of the Capone mob in the Midwest and Southwest after he went to prison for tax evasion in 1932.
Eig doesn’t seem to know much about organized crime outside Chicago during Prohibition. He apparently believes that “Modern organized crime may have been born” with Capone and his mentor, Johnny Torrio, in 1923. This would have been a surprise to Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, who, backed by New York’s top criminal bankroller, Arnold Rothstein, had been trafficking in illegal booze since 1920. Eig makes the baffling suggestion that Capone was suspected of ordering Rothstein’s assassination in 1928 though “no evidence linked Capone to the murder.” The reason there’s no evidence is that no one, particularly Rothstein’s biographers, ever thought Capone was involved.
That’s merely one of the contentions that Eig doesn’t seem to have thought completely through. He suggests that the infamous baseball bat slaughter by Capone of two associates–made famous in the 1987 film The Untouchables–may have been inspired by “an imaginative flourish in a 1975 book by journalist George Murray.” But the story is decades older than Murray’s book and was even used in the 1966 film, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Both of Get Capone’s two big revelations rest on flimsy evidence. Of the “secret plot” referred to in the book’s subtitle, it’s long been clear that President Hoover wanted Capone stopped, but whether the government had an actual role in influencing the legal process which put Capone in prison is far from clear. Eig raises the issue only to waffle in his conclusion that “No one can say.”
At the heart of Get Capone is Eig’s assertion that he has “the key to unraveling the mystery of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.” What mystery? That Capone had the means, the motive, and the temperament to order the mass slaying of seven members of the rival North Side gang on February 14, 1929 has never been doubted by four generations of historians. Eig wants to know why Capone’s rival, Bugs Moran, wasn’t in the garage at the time of the killings, to which a skeptical reader might reply, “Maybe he just slept late.”
Some sort of complicated set-up is implied, that Moran’s men had been “expecting company” or else why would the hoods have been “so smartly dressed” and “why else would there be coffee set out on the table?” I’m guessing they were smartly dressed because Prohibition era gangsters liked flashy clothes; I’m also guessing that the coffee was there because that’s what people in Chicago drink on cold mornings.
Almost buried in Eig’s notes on his sources is this: “My theory [sic] about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre stems from the discovery of a single sheet of paper ... found within the FBI archives. The letter is available for all to see on the FBI’s web site.” Then why play a shell game with the evidence? Why not print the letter for all to see? Eig’s “theory,” as he calls it, that the Massacre was the result of a revenge on Moran’s men by some Chicago cops – why would real cops who planned a mass killing let themselves be seen in uniform?–turns out to be a misfire.
By the time the reader has reached the massacre scene, his concentration has been gunned down by cliches – Capone “was a man’s man if ever there was one”; “Dyer was no goody Two-shoes” Jack Guzik was a Jew “who looked about as threatening as a bagel and cream cheese”; Louise Rolfe was “the kind of voluptuous siren who would drive even the toughest mug nuts”; and reporter Jake Lingle “was as much a part of Chicago’s speakeasy scene as ashtrays.” Such phrases fly off the page like dum-dum bullets from a Thompson submachine gun.
Birmingham native Allen Barra writes about sports and culture for numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, American Heritage and The Los Angeles Times.