I have the good fortune of being an Italian American. (I’m also Irish, but that’s for another post.) I grew up on Noni’s spaghetti sauce every Sunday, pronounced ricotta the proper way (ree-gott-ah), and my favorite meal usually involved pepperoni, red sauce and cheese, in various forms (Stromboli, calzone, pizza, etc.). As a family, we watched the best movie ever, The Godfather, about once a year. It was impossible to come from this family and not be slightly interested in the mafia.
Oh, and also because my great-grandfather, was by most accounts, a family man.
I don’t think I’m revealing any state secrets here when I note that Michael DeAngelo, my great-grandfather, had ties to many men who were involved in the mafia. My great-grandfather operated bars and transported booze throughout Prohibition, already described on these pages as one of the stupider periods of time in our history. He was a well-known bookie with a 500+ page FBI file and a rap sheet with a bunch of silly convictions. His only daughter, my grandmother, still tells stories about him with a twinkle in her eye. She would note that he was a wonderful man, gave a lot to his community and Italians, and raised a fine family (in the more traditional sense of the word). But to be clear, Grandpa Mike was also a badass. And I’m damn proud of this.
At one point, Grandpa Mike had a little run in with the law and had to spend a few months in Atlanta, as a tenant of a federal housing facility, if you know what I mean. Here’s a picture of one of his cells. The guy next to him was Al Capone. They struck up a bit of a friendship, and Al’s brother Ralph, came to visit the DeAngelos when he was released. So there’s my Capone connection, and as Jonathan Eig says in his new book “Get Capone,” almost everyone connected to Chicago in the twenties could tell a story about how they met the great gangster.
“Get Capone” was the first biography I’ve read of Capone. I enjoyed it, but I admit to being surprised at the juxtaposition of the Capone legend I knew from the movies and the reality that Eig researches and describes in his book. Turns out Capone’s rule was surprisingly short—just a little more than a decade during Prohibition. Many of his most famous “hits” could have been the work of other mobsters, but were attributed to Capone because of his reputation. He was constantly harassed by the police, though Eig bursts another bubble when he portrays Eliot Ness as a media whore who never actually did much. Howard O’Brien, who tried to write an authorized biography of Capone, is quoted in this book as saying that Capone was “a symbol, and by no means the potentate he is supposed to be.”
Prohibition gets an abbreviated but fair treatment here—without question, prohibition was the sole reason that the underworld could amass such influence. (Eig wisely thanks Daniel Okrent, author of “Last Call” for providing background on prohibition.)
Capone got his start in Chicago much as described in “Boardwalk Empire” –a fantastic series on HBO. He “takes care” of Big Jim Colosimo and spends his first years working for Johnny Torrio, both characters on the show. Eig shows the rise to power more as a result of circumstance and the benefit of being in the right place at the right time. He doesn’t give as much detail, and who would expect there to be sufficient records of, the web of partnerships that Capone had in the press and the government.
Eig introduces us to Capone the “spinmeister” too—Capone cared a great deal about his reputation in the press, enough so that he chose repeatedly to comment on the record, befriend reporters and editors, and fuss over stories where he was portrayed in a negative light. He was as thin-skinned as some elected officials. And it makes one wonder how much of his reputation was indeed puffery.
In later years, Capone seemed to be tired of the gig. With President Hoover looking to score a victory as his reputation suffered during the Great Depression, the feds also closed in on Capone. He tried to move his empire in Miami and seemed to enjoy a life outside of the hood in Chicago. Yet he kept getting drawn back in by local disputes or by law enforcement. As Michael Corleone said, “Every time I try to get out, they keep pulling me back in!”
America’s (and my) fascination with the mafia continues unabated, no doubt due in part to the legend of Capone. Surprisingly, we choose to root for these same characters. It is probably because at some level, our fantasies have some common themes with the mobsters—gambling, making lots of money, running a club with our buddies, drinking and eating excessively, and well, so on and so forth. But books like Eig’s do my fantasies no favors. The legend of Capone isn’t quite what it was made out to be in grade school and the movies. Capone died a broke and broken man, riddled with syphilis instead of bullets. I think I’d rather just stick to Coppola, Scorcese, Deniro and Pacino. Who needs reality?