40 AL CAPONE THE MAN
He was a tough guy and handy with his fists. Anyone he hit stayed down. There was some petty crime in his youth but the young man always had entrepreneurial skills. What the young man robbed he sold. Because he had ambition and knew how to network and negotiate, the man established himself in business. He managed and then owned saloons where customers could drink, gamble and pay girls for sex. He was not averse to having relationships with sex workers. This man owned premises and employed people. To make sure his establishments and employees operated without hindrance he made corrupt deals with politicians and law enforcement officers. His career is best remembered for a violent confrontation that involved several deaths. For his enemies he had a harsh code. When opposed by rivals he was prepared to seek homicidal vengeance. In a bitter feud that he had with another gang, he did kill people. The name of this businessman and sometime executioner is Wyatt Earp. He is someone that became an American hero. Few regard Al Capone as an American hero although one writer described him as a pure American creation. Everything written above, though, could be applied to the nature and the life of Al Capone.
Somewhere on the Internet there is an interview between Melvyn Bragg and Saul Bellow that was recorded for the South Bank Show. The two men talk about the complex and dual nature of Chicago, how a lust for money existed alongside civic ambition and concern. Bellow describes Chicago gangsters. ‘If they had low cunning, there was also high mindedness.’ Perhaps Bellow was playing with words, stumbled a little on a remark that was more elegant than accurate. Or perhaps not. Capone was not a member of the Mafia. He was not born in Sicily and was not obliged to follow the strict code they imposed on their members. Apart from being required to pledge lifelong loyalty, members of the Mafia were forbidden to commit adultery. Capone, like most men that are rich and powerful, was not faithful to his wife. There must have been times or moments when he thought of his birthplace and thought he had been fortunate. Capone had the willpower, skills and nerve that enabled him to manage a large organisation composed of difficult characters. Violence and its threat would have been utilised to ensure betrayal was kept to a minimum but motivation of his workforce would have required traditional management skills. A journalist recalled visiting Capone. The visit took place in a large hotel room which Capone was using as his office. In the middle of the room was a desk that had seven telephones. Most of the time that the journalist was present in the room Capone was either answering phone calls or giving advice to those that answered on his behalf.
The philandering, parties and evenings in the jazz clubs were part of the life of Capone but being a bootlegger and running a large organisation required a work ethic. Capone claimed that he employed 7000 men, most of whom had a prison record. Without him, argued Capone, these men would have been on the streets committing mayhem. The figure of 7000 was an exaggeration, some of these people he would have paid for performing ad hoc tasks. The permanent payroll, though, would have been considerable, at least 1800. His organisation required rules of behaviour and, although all bosses have double standards, some of those rules would have applied to him. The relatives and admirers of Capone insist that Capone would have remained in legitimate business if his father had not died when he was working out of town as a bookkeeper. The young Capone was obliged to return to Chicago and find money to support his widowed mother and the rest of the family. Capone sought employment from gangster Frankie Yale. If his father had survived and Al had persisted with his office job, perhaps he would have been the man that his wife wanted him to be. Mae Capone told her son that her husband had broken her heart. Because all the Capone brothers were connected to crime in some way, most assume that the famous Big Al led them all into hustling on the Chicago streets. Al, though, was the third eldest brother. He followed Ralph into the life of petty crime. Al became the most successful criminal in the family because of circumstance rather than eminence. In gangster movies, Al Capone is presented either as a man that shot his way to the top, the Howard Hawks version of Scarface, or someone that was battling to control bootlegging in Chicago, the Roger Corman film The St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Neither thesis is accurate.
Al Capone inherited rather than captured the Torrio organisation. Capone rose through the ranks because he was loyal to Torrio and was considered to have skills beyond that of the typical thug. If his employment was secured because he could cope with the physical demands of being a bouncer, his ascendancy in the Torrio outfit was not secured through violence. Unlike Lucky Luciano and others, he did not kill any of his bosses. Those that want to be sympathetic will regard Capone as loyal. Others will suspect that Capone was a sycophant. A ruthless man would have responded differently to the shooting of Johnny Torrio by Hymie Weiss. The incident presented an opportunity for Capone, as the number two, to hasten the end of his boss. Capone could have stepped aside and let the Moran gang finish what they had started. Capone, though, moved into the hospital, where Torrio lay wounded in bed, and remained as a bedside protector until his boss had recovered. This act of devotion inspired the scene in The Godfather movie where Michael discovers an unguarded Don Corleone in hospital.
The notion that the conflict between bootleggers in Chicago was sparked by a desire for total territorial dominance is also a myth. Under the astute guidance of Johnny Torrio the gangs of Chicago formed a cartel. There were borderline skirmishes and misunderstandings between unruly members but Capone as much as anyone, and like Torrio, wanted peace to prevail. His reasoning was simple. Violence was bad for business, and as he stated often, ‘there is more than enough to go round.’ The response from Capone to the truculent and treacherous Joe Aiello, though, was vicious. Torrio would have perhaps been more adept than Capone at responding to the troublesome Aiello gang. Nothing demonstrates patience and control more than the refusal of Torrio to be provoked by Dean O’Banion. But even Torrio struggled to manage to keep the peace between the Genna and O’Banion gangs. The St Valentine’s Day massacre is often quoted as an example of Capone savagery but what happened and whether Capone was connected to the crime merits a separate debate.
There have been many allegations linking Capone to savage violence. Some have already been mentioned and challenged elsewhere in this series. Rather than examining them individually here, more preferable is to acknowledge that the celebrity of Capone had to ensure that his misdemeanours were exaggerated. It is the nature of gossip, and much of the history of crime is based on gossip from men whose survival skills depend on bravado. As Deirdre Bair says in the essential Capone -The Life, The Legacy and Legend, her subject is an enigma. Capone was always a contradictory character that was obliged to be misunderstood. He set up soup kitchens to alleviate suffering in Chicago and wrote sentimental love songs when he was in prison. Mae, his wife, did nothing to financially exploit the name of her husband after his death. She never remarried. Perhaps she was devoted to her husband, but perhaps her loyalty was shaped more by Catholic faith and her commitment to a family rather than a man. Mae was shy and quiet. Like her husband, Mae Capone is a mystery. Additional facts reveal contradictions and inconsistencies rather than clarity
Relying on instinct and intuition, this is how I see the man. Capone came from a family that was poor but had sons tough enough not to be frightened of violent confrontations on the rough streets. Violence, because of what is at stake, encourages harsh judgements being made about opposing antagonists. Once the fists are raised the response to grievances are always disproportionate. Present day knife crime in London is an obvious example. Those that survive in a violent world become harsh critics too willing to condemn and punish. They also often develop an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Such men expect to have more than the rest, those that can be dismissed as weak or lacking courage. This mixture of appetite and contempt would have been nurtured in Capone by not just the streets of Chicago but also by his group of tough and competitive brothers. Yet his family loved him, and he had respect from both legitimate and illegitimate business partners. The behaviour of Capone can be separated into three distinct areas of activity. These are how he behaved with those people that he liked, how he responded to the internecine warfare that existed between the Chicago gangs, and the way he ensured the continuous day-to-day running of his business or criminal interests.
It might help to think of these three distinct areas as representing three separate Capones. Capone one, the version his family saw, appears to have been kind and sociable. He liked large family dinners and took pleasure in seeing the relatives enjoy themselves. Business partners found Capone amiable and trustworthy. Capone two, the gang leader, did increase the extent of his business territory but this happened at the end of his criminal career and was more a consequence of the failure of the Moran gang to maintain a successful business than the imperialist ambitions in Capone. Compared to the behaviour of Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese, the behaviour of Capone was remarkably restrained. Capone three, the man that ran the day to day business, has a darker personality. The subversion by Capone, and Torrio, of political democracy and independence in Cicero showed scant regard for the locals. The injuries to often principled individuals was on occasion horrific. Capone was a young man determined to impose an economic order that would be beholden to him. This damage he did, though, was not just a consequence of thuggish instincts nurtured on the streets of Chicago. The behaviour of businessman Capone also reflects the instincts of a callous capitalist. But his first option was to offer remuneration to those that resisted his business plans. If that failed then violence and intimidation followed. He was also more sensitive to the impact of collateral damage than those politicians that begin military conflicts.
Capone was neither the richest nor the most violent gangster that has stained the history of the USA. He became famous because he courted celebrity and, although he was not, he appeared to many to be the first of his kind. There might be other less tangible reasons. The years he dominated Chicago crime were between 1925 and 1931. He became famous when he was twenty-six-years old and was sent to prison when he was thirty-two-years old. Young outlaws are more prone to becoming legends. And some people complement the needs of our imaginative selves more than others. Most of us imagine Capone as a short man although he was not. If that sounds fanciful, look at the photographs of other powerful gangsters. They merely look like old, sly foxes. Who knows why he is the ultimate criminal icon but for some reason that vowel stuffed name, Al Capone, once heard is never forgotten.
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 BORIS JOHNSON PFEFFELS AND PIFFLES is now available here.