Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties

Lucy Moore

The glitter of 1920s America is seductive: jazz, flappers, wild parties, the cult of celebrity, and a glamorous gangster-led crime scene flourishing under Prohibition…

Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties

Publisher: Overlook
Price: $25.95
Author: Lucy Moore
Length: 400 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-03
Excerpted from Chapter 1: ‘You Cannot Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea’ (courtesy Overlook Press, March 2010).

In early 1927, when Chicago’s Beer Wars between rival gangs of bootleggers were at their peak, Al Capone invited a group of reporters to his heavily fortified home. Fetchingly attired in a pink apron and bedroom slippers, rather than his usual sharp suit and diamond cuff-links, he dished up a feast of home-made spaghetti and illegally imported Chianti and told his guests that he was getting out of the booze racket. Capone wanted the world – not just the public but the police, the federal authorities and his mob enemies – to believe that he was finished with crime. But despite his public pronouncement, he had no intention of quitting such a profitable business.

At the end of the year, with gangsters still dying in regular shoot-outs on the streets of Chicago, Capone again tried to distance himself from the criminal underworld. Summoning journalists to his suite at the Metropole Hotel, his headquarters in the centre of the city, he announced his retirement for the second time in a year. He had only been trying, Capone declared, to provide people with what they wanted. ‘Public service is my motto,’ he insisted. ‘Ninety per cent of the people in Chicago drink and gamble. I’ve tried to serve them decent liquor and square games. But I’m not appreciated... I’m sick of the job.’

He was no more a criminal than his clients, he argued. ‘I violate the prohibition law, sure. Who doesn’t? The only difference is I take more chances than the man who drinks a cocktail before dinner and a flock of highballs after it. But he’s just as much a violator as I am...’ Falsely, he claimed that he and his men had never been involved in serious crime, vice or robbery: ‘I don’t pose as a plaster saint, but I never killed anyone.’

The worst of it was the suffering his work – which he implied was practically charity – caused his family. ‘I could bear it all if it weren’t for the hurt it brings to my mother and my family. They hear so much about what a terrible criminal I am. It’s getting too much for them and I’m just sick of it all myself.’ Although several of his brothers worked with him, Capone idealised his mother and his wife and son and kept his family life rigidly separate from his professional activities and the late-night perks that went with them of drinking, drugs and girls. It was as if maintaining his family’s innocence allowed him to hope that he was not entirely the monster he knew himself to be.

When Capone made these announcements in 1927 he was at the peak of his power. Just twenty-eight, growing into his role as Chicago’s leading gangster, he was becoming ever more confident about engaging with the legitimate world – albeit on his own terms. While on one hand he was cautious of his safety after the attack of 1925 that had nearly killed his partner, Johnny Torrio, on the other he was increasingly willing to reveal his personality in an effort to win over the public whose approval he craved – and on whose approval, he believed, his continued success depended. This desire for appreciation and attention was what lifted him out of the everyday ranks of mobsters into a class of his own.

His car, a custom-built, steel-plated Cadillac, which weighed seven tonnes and had bullet-proof window glass and a hidden gun compartment, encapsulated the dichotomy between Capone’s need for protection and his love of display. Although it was undoubtedly secure it was also instantly recognisable, and became a defining element of the Capone mystique.

Another element of Capone’s public image was his distinctive appearance. Even in his twenties Al Capone was a broad man – he stood five foot seven and weighed 255 pounds – but he was capable of grace as well as power. He was softly spoken but immensely charismatic, his air of authority enhanced by an undercurrent of menace. As he was reportedly fond of saying, ‘You get a lot further with a smile and a gun than you can with just a smile.’

Capone may have been known for his facial scars, but he covered his face with thick powder to try to hide them and hated being called Scarface. Among friends the nickname he preferred was Snorky, slang for ‘elegant’. His hand-made suits came in ice-cream colours, tangerine, violet, apple-green and primrose, with the right-hand pockets reinforced to hide the bulge of his gun; he wore a marquise-cut diamond pin in his tie to match his cuff-links and an eleven-carat blue-white diamond on the little fingers of his left hand, the hand he didn’t use for firing a gun.

Capone wanted to present himself as the acceptable face of crime – a modern entrepreneur rather than a crook. He began playing the role of benevolent public figure, watching baseball games and boxing matches with friends, greeting the aviator Charles Lindbergh when he landed his hydroplane on Lake Michigan in the summer of 1927 following his heroic solo flight from New York to Paris. Celebrities who passed through Chicago were taken to meet him; he was generous with ice-creams for children and racing tips for strangers he met on the street; when buying a newspaper, he’d pay with a five-dollar bill and tell the boy to keep the change.

Golf, a 1920s craze, became a passion – though, as ever, Capone played by his own rules. Wearing baggy grey plus fours held up by a belt with a diamond buckle, pockets bulging with guns and hip-flasks, he and ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn and ‘Killer’ Burke played for $100 a hole. They used each other as human tees and wrestled, played leapfrog and turned somersaults on the greens. On one occasion, accused – almost certainly with reason – of cheating, Capone drew a gun on one of his bodyguards. Danger was never far from the surface, even during a friendly game of golf.

At the same time, Capone courted the press, developing close relationships with several journalists. The Chicago Tribune’s crime correspondent, James Doherty, found Capone neither entertaining nor articulate, but more than willing to be profiled. He was aware, wrote Doherty, that a positive public image would ‘make better business for him’. Another Tribune writer, Jake Lingle, a police reporter and, in his spare time, an avid gambler, was well known for his friendship with Capone. But this intimacy with the underworld was dangerous: in 1931, Lingle was shot dead, probably by a rival of Capone’s. Subsequent investigations revealed that he had been in Capone’s pay.

But perhaps the most useful of Capone’s press connections was Harry Read, city editor of the Chicago Evening American. In return for exclusive interviews (and generous holidays), Read coached Capone on his image, encouraging his softer side. Read, like Doherty, realised that it was the violence of Capone’s world to which the public objected, not his specific crimes. Too many people liked having a flutter on the horses or a stiff drink to condemn Capone for supplying their needs. As Doherty said, Capone ‘was giving them a service they wanted. No one minded about them trading booze; it was all the killing that brought about their undoing.’

Lucy Moore was born in the United States and moved to Britain to study history at Edinburgh University. Although an American, she was voted one of the “Top Twenty Young Writers in Britain” by the Independent on Sunday. Her books include the bestselling Maharanis: The Lives & Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses and the acclaimed Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France. She lives in London.

©Overlook Press, 2010





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.