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…
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.
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.’
©Overlook Press, 2010