Capone: The Man and the Era
New York et al.: Simon and Schuster, 1994
Subject, Methods, Database:
A journalistic biography of Al Capone, based on previously published biographies, media reports, government documents and interviews conducted with acquaintances of Capone and their descendants.
Al Capone was born in Brooklyn in 1899 to petit-bourgeois immigrants from Naples, Italy. He dropped out of school at age 14 to become an errand boy for local numbers racketeer John Torrio. At 18 Capone went to work for Frank Yale, another prominent racketeer, as bouncer and bartender in a Coney Island bar and dance hall. It was there that in a brawl with a knife-toting customer he received the famous scars on his left cheek which would later earn him the nickname "Scarface".
After marrying his life-long wife Mae in December of 1918 following the birth of their only child Sonny, Capone worked briefly as a bookkeeper in a legitimate construction firm in Baltimore.
In 1921 Al Capone entered the service of John Torrio who had seized control of the gambling and prostitution businesses of the murdered Chicago vice lord Jim Colosimo. Capone prospered and in 1923 he took over the management of the operations in the town of Cicero, where the Torrio organization had moved its headquarters to evade Chicago's newly elected reform-mayor Dever. In 1925 Capone succeeded Torrio and increasingly received public attention. Unlike other underworld figures, Capone loved the limelight and actually courted the press.
By the late 1920s Al Capone had become "the most powerful, important, and controversial figure in Chicago" (p. 355) with "a limitless income from his organization's management of gambling, vice, and bootlegging activities" (p. 154) and control over "bootlegging and racketeering networks reaching all the way from New York to the western states" (p. 582).
Efforts to indict and convict Capone on various charges failed until in 1931 he was sentenced in federal court to 11 years for tax evasion. He served his time in the Cook County Jail and the Atlanta and Alcatraz federal penetentiaries before receiving an early release in 1939 due to his poor mental condition resulting from tertiary neurosyphilis. Al Capone died in his retirement home in Florida in 1947.
The most significant and also the most convincing aspect of Bergreen's Capone biography is the attempt to show the person behind the shroud of mythical imagery. As Bergreen follows the chronology of events, he presents quotes from people who met Capone and express their surprise at how different he really was: tall, soft-spoken, charming, a highly intelligent businessman, a very nice, affable fellow, a generous tipper and a big spender, etc.
In contrast, there is relatively little (but quite contradictory) information provided on Capone's activities, on his power and influence, and on the structure of the so-called Torrio-Capone organization. There is talk about Capone's organizational genius, but no mention of how precisely he put it to use in the rackets. Likewise, Bergreen stresses how powerful Al Capone supposedly was ("dominated" the bootlegging business, "de facto mayor of Chicago" etc., p. 299). Yet, he also claims that throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s, not Capone but Frankie La Porte, a Chicago Heights gangster, was the "ultimate boss," the "real head of the Outfit" (p. 406, 591, 609, 615); and he hints at the possibility that Capone may have owed his reputation of being the big boss to inaccurate press reports more than to his actual position within the underworld by quoting a crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune with the words: "We built him up as the big shot in the gang world" (p. 211). Regarding the structure of the Torrio-Capone organization it is only mentioned in passing, for example, that at one point in time Al Capone turned over the day-to-day operation to his brother Ralph and to Jack Guzik (p. 188), but not much is told about the relationship between the Capone brothers, the Guziks, Nitti and Humphreys.
So despite the more than 600 pages Bergreen has filled, some important aspects and events are neglected or completely ignored, like the violent conflict surrounding the Retail Cleaner's and Dyers' Association and Capone's involvement in it, an episode that sheds some light on Capone's actual power at the climax of his gangster career in 1928. It is also regretable that Bergreen has failed to draw on Mark H. Haller's research on the structure of the "Capone syndicate" (see reference below). This would have provided the basis for a more thorough analysis of Al Capone's business partnerships. In the end, some "myth and pseudofacts" (p. 530) remain more or less unchallenged and Capone continues to be "the best-known, least understood gangster of all" (p. 605).
A personality-centered biography, well written but with little attention to those aspects which are most important for students of organized crime.
Haller, Mark H., Illegal Enterprise: A Theoretical and Historical Interpretation. Criminology 28(2), 1990, 207-235.
Kobler, John, Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1971.
© Klaus von Lampe, all rights reserved.