4 MAE CAPONE
She was known as Mae for as long as anyone can remember. Or that is what the kinfolk say. Mae was christened Mary Josephine. Her parents were both Irish immigrants and they arrived in the States in the 1890s. The parents of Mary Josephine made separate journeys across the Atlantic and met in the new homeland. Mae was the second of five daughters and, like the rest of the Coughlin kids, she was born in Brooklyn, New York. Mae had two brothers. Walker was born just after Mae, and Dennis was the youngest in the family. The siblings socialised together and liked to visit a nearby club and have a few beers but Mae was closest to sister Muriel. Joseph, the father of the family, died of a sudden heart attack when Mae was sixteen years old. His wife Bridget Gorman Coughlin remained at home and survived by sending the family out to work. They lived in what Americans call a row house but the British describe as a terrace property. Bridget never had to take in boarders to boost the family income. The biographers of Al Capone are vague about how Joseph Coughlin earned a living. Although he has been described as such, Joseph must have been something other than a labourer. The New York poor lived in apartments and worse. The parents of Mae were able to provide a comfortable home for their children. The family was Catholic and religious. Mae was a regular attender at Mass throughout her life. Mae has been described as beautiful and elegant. At least pleasant looking and attractive, the 1920s flapper fashion and her own good taste in clothes flattered her appearance.
Mae met Al Capone at the end of 1917. Her prospective husband was not quite two years younger. Mae was twenty-years old. Although Al was collecting income for his work with the local hoodlums Al had a recognised job as a labourer in a box factory. Mae worked in the same factory but in the office as a timekeeper. Money and masculine physical strength have impressed a significant number of women over the years. Yet it is not fanciful to imagine the choices made by Mae being affected by the death of her father two years earlier. The swagger of an affluent Capone and his belief in his omnipotence could have rested certain emotions within Mae. By December 1918, and one day before the New Year’s Eve celebrations that year, Mae was a married woman. Her husband was nineteen years old. Mae was not pregnant. The child of Mae and Al Capone had been born on December the fourth and before the marriage.
Girls from Irish families marrying men from other nationalities was not unusual in New York. Irish men and their American offspring had a tradition of marrying later in life. Irish girls would sometimes tire of waiting for hesitant Irish males. And Al would have impressed the girlfriends of Mae. He had money and wore good clothes. Mae and Al were both accomplished dancers and they also were capable of sharp wisecracks. After Mae became pregnant and stopped working, Al made a financial contribution that supplemented the reduced weekly income of the Coughlin family. The decision to delay the wedding until after the birth of the son Albert Francis has been attributed to the mother of Mae. Perhaps Bridget Coughlin had decided that her daughter might miscarry and if that happened there would be no need for a marriage.
Before he was married, husband Al worked in a brothel and did not say no to the perks being offered. Mae discovered at some point, probably after the wedding, that she had syphilis. Unlike her husband she received medical treatment but throughout her life the syphilis would make periodic returns and require visits to the clinic. The child Albert Francis was later known as Sonny. He was a sickly child, and it has been assumed that he was born with a syphilitic infection. The son did, though, outgrow the childhood illnesses. For a year Mae, Al and the child lived in a large Chicago apartment. When the family became affluent a detached suburban home on Prairie Avenue was purchased. The names on the deeds of the house in Prairie Avenue were Mae Capone and Theresa Capone, the mother-in-law of Mae. The house was comfortable rather than ostentatious. The Capones owned no other homes in Chicago but later a mansion on the coast of Miami was purchased in the name of Mae Capone. The name of the house and surrounding estate was Palm Island. After the year in the apartment, Mae and Al lived in spacious and comfortable homes but she did have to endure the burden of an extended Italian family. There would have been periods of calm, and there was also space available to seek isolation, but there was always a degree of friction between Mae and her mother-in-law. The bickering between Theresa and her assertive daughter Mafalda also irritated Mae. Neither did it help that mother-in-law Theresa only spoke Italian.
Al Capone was obliged to spend long periods away from Mae, especially after he had built his empire. Mae received a phone call from Al every day when he was away from home but so did Theresa and he always rang his mother first. Mae often remembered the year in the apartment that she shared with her husband and son, their brief existence as a nuclear family. She described it as one of the happiest periods of her life. The purchase of the Capone home in Miami followed a trip to warm California that Mae wanted to be a break from not just the in-laws but the harsh and cold Chicago winters. Wherever she lived Mae was regarded by neighbours as cheery and polite but also considered to be a private person. Mae liked to shop, and that might have affected how businessmen and women responded to their affluent customer. Whatever the reason she was known to be popular with shopkeepers.
The reports from the family are that Al Capone treated his wife with respect and there was real affection between them. Away from home, though, there were the sexual liaisons. Mae dyed her hair blonde when she was twenty-eight-years old. This mundane detail has generated debate. Some writers believe it was at the instigation of Al. Others claim that Mae did it as an act of defiance and to alert her husband to what she knew about his taste in his mistresses. The more mundane but not necessarily true explanation is that the hair of Mae turned prematurely grey.
After he was convicted of tax evasion Capone served his sentence in three different prisons. The first of these was Leavenworth. A relaxed approach from the governor allowed Mae to take control and provide home comforts and a cell where Al could continue to run the business. The superior conditions in which Al Capone was being kept prisoner provoked criticism. He was transferred to Atlanta. Newspapermen appeared at one point on the journey. In one photograph Mae, Theresa and Mafalda are visible amongst the crowd of officials and sightseers. Theresa and Mafalda are at the front, gesticulating and shouting protests. Mae stands behind the crowd. Her face is half hidden by the low brim on her hat. She is silent and wary.
In the1930s the journeys from Miami to visit her husband in the prisons at Atlanta and Alcatraz were difficult but she made them. Whether she liked it or not Mae had to act as a go-between and carry business news to her husband and take back his decisions. Al learned the banjo in prison and wrote a song for his wife which he gave her as a present on Mother’s Day. The previously untreated syphilis of her husband led to him being transferred to prison hospitals. Al was released from prison in 1939. Mae donated two weeping cherry trees to the hospital where Al was treated before he was discharged. At home, Mae had medical support from a resident nurse and a doctor that visited. But Mae assumed, and in writing, full responsibility for the care of a man whose mental age was often no more than that of a child of seven. The medics advocated that Al Capone needed routines. The unusual would only upset him, and people he did not know or had forgotten might precipitate violent tantrums. Mae followed the medical advice but refused to accept that her husband was incurable. Living with a wrecked husband caused Mae to have trouble eating and sleeping. She lost weight. Before he died, Al and Mae had stopped sleeping together. After his seven years in prison, Al found it difficult to settle down in a large bedroom. The night when his final decline began, and no longer thinking of the fun he used to have with the always available whores and mistresses, he wandered to where Mae slept. Capone crawled into the bed of Mae and sought final comfort from his madonna.
Mae sold Palm Island, the house and estate in Miami, in 1952. She moved to Hollywood, Florida to live with her favourite sister, Muriel. Eventually Mae left Muriel and her husband to themselves and bought her own small home. Muriel and Mae were supportive neighbours in Hollywood, Florida. Mae stayed in her house until the final years when she had to move to a nursing home. For most of her life Mae had kept a diary. This and the daily love letters Al sent her from prison she buried sometime before she died. Mae wanted what was contained in the letters to remain private until and after her death. Mae died on April 16th 1986. Throughout the notoriety and afterwards she had, unlike her celebrity husband, avoided the press. Mae refused lucrative offers from publishers that were eager to print whatever she remembered about her famous husband. Her memories, many of them pleasant, she shared willingly with her grandchildren whom she liked to visit. She was 89 years old when she died and had survived her husband by 39 years. Mae remained unmarried until her death. Perhaps, though, Mae Capone did not think of it that way.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Long After This is now available here.