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Get Capone

by Jonathan Eig

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Get Capone by Jonathan Eig
© Simon & Schuster
Simon and Schuster, 2010

Al Capone was a complicated man. Largely uneducated, he successfully ran a far-flung business that was widely diversified and highly profitable. He participated in, was implicated in, or rumored to be part of innumerable incidences of murder and mayhem, yet he contributed to various charities and was known to be kind to his friends. He was married to the same woman for years and seemed to cherish the time he spent at home. On the other hand, he kept a mistress (or many), contracted syphilis early on and maintained a "home" in a variety of hotels. He did not want his son to grow up in the "business," but he continued to exploit all the possible angles to make them grow, and grow they did. While his business included illegal alcohol sales and prostitution, businesses it seems one would want to keep quiet, he became a celebrity in the 1920s. He was nearly always willing to grant an interview to reporters and even talk frankly about what his businesses were.

Get Capone is Jonathan Eig's third biography. His first was of the beloved Lou Gherig (Luckiest Man) and the magnificent and ground-breaking Jackie Robinson (Opening Day). Both were award winners, and one expects this biography will be no less exalted. But why, after biographies of such upstanding men as Gehrig and Robinson, did he turn to Capone who Andrew Carnegie had once cited as a version of the Horatio Alger story? Eig has said that he wanted to write the true story in the ultimate biography of Capone.
Like Eig's previous biographies, Get Capone relies on accuracy and brilliant writing. No account is reported unless Eig was able to confirm it from at least two sources. All in all, Eig has said, one must think of Capone as a human being. As a criminal he was not the heinous person the government made him out to be. The truth is complicated and those who brought him down did not always act heroically.

An article in the May 17, 1927 Chicago Tribune was hardly noticed by Capone and his henchmen; however, it signaled the beginning of the end for him: "Washington, D.C. - Bootleggers must file income tax returns, the Supreme Court of the United States held today." While Capone was responsible for the deaths of dozens and the sale of illegal alcohol and prostitution, they were not what would bring about his downfall. It was his seemingly legitimate businesses. These included dry cleaning establishments, dog tracks, and jazz clubs because each of these offered a way to make money under the table.

How much money was at stake? No one knows for sure, but the Feds said that in both 1925 and '26, he made about $25 million (about $1.2 billion! in today's dollars). He spent about $15 million each year for bribes. He did this while keeping a low financial profile. There were no mansions, no bank accounts. "In 1927, he still hadn't even paid off the $4,400 mortgage on the family's South Prairie Avenue home." He gambled and dressed well, riding around in an armor-plated Cadillac. What Capone had was power and the willingness to exert it whenever and however it was necessary.
Capone's genius was his ability to run a loose organization where "booze came from innumerable sources, and... he never attempted to corner the market or control the supply lines." However, when it became necessary to emphasize what was "his," he had no qualms about exerting his influence. Eig details episode after episode of violence that reinforced Capone's control. Chicago experienced 80-85 murders each year. Probably one-third were attributable to Capone though only 10 were directly ordered by him. The full story of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre is told here. It is not what many of us have grown up believing.

The real hero of the effort to get Capone was US Attorney George Johnson, not Eliot Ness. In truth, Ness was a nerdy bit player who was little more than a nuisance. However, he had written a 30-page biography that exaggerated his part in breaking the Capone cartel. After his death a ghost writer expanded it, then it was picked up eventually by television, and Ness became the crime-busting hero of conventional lore. It was Johnson who made the income tax charges stick, resulting in Capone's eventual incarceration in Alcatraz. After nearly 8 years in prison, he was released on November 16, 1939. The next summer a federal judge ruled that he still owed the government $265,877 in back taxes. Capone never paid. He lived his remaining days in declining health, dying on January 25, 1947. Few people were at his funeral.
It was Johnson who contributed, long after his death, to the writing of this exceptional biography. His papers were obtained by a professor in Nebraska whose intended book never materialized. Eig tracked him down and found a treasure trove of primary materials, including original documents from the investigation. These showed, for example, that the government was having trouble making a case and was prepared to plea bargain for two and one-half years, but the government won by compromising and behaving like crooks. These documents led to other sources. Eig got the IRS to release a key letter. He found two of Capone's sisters who were still alive. At the Newberry Library, he found a letter from Capone handwritten in pencil for his autobiography that never happened.

Eig has brought the real Capone back to life. While acknowledging the myths that have defined Capone for ninety years, Eig has placed Capone's life accurately in the culture that spawned both him and his myth. This is a brilliant biography of an iconic American whose exploits have characterized the Roaring Twenties.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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