Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the glory days of Al Capone—Scarface, Big Al, Public Enemy Number One—is how short they were: six years, from mid-level thug to big boss to jail. So why is he still the iconic American gangster, nearly 70 years after his death from the complications of syphilis?
Well, he loved publicity. But because his legend was a creation of newshounds and Hollywood, much of what we think we know is wrong. Biographer Deirdre Bair tries to uncover the man behind the flamboyant image in Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend. It seems a surprising project for an author who has written about Samuel Beckett and Carl Jung. Bair fell into it by happenstance when she met a man who was trying to find out if he was related to Capone. Eventually, she was able to talk extensively with Capone descendants.
They mostly turn out to be private, law-abiding folks whose reminiscences are engrossing and sometimes touching. Capone’s Irish-American wife, Mae, is at the heart of their memories—a woman who was, in their eyes, decent, loyal and loving. Syphilis, likely contracted from a prostitute, destroyed Capone’s mind, but Mae never gave up on him.
Bair carefully tries to sort out truth from baloney. No one knows how many people Capone and his minions killed. But Bair can say with confidence that the federal income tax evasion case that sent him to prison would have fallen apart if he hadn’t had incompetent lawyers and a biased judge.
Bair is particularly good at putting the Capones in the context of the Italian immigrant culture that shaped them. Capone himself wouldn’t have liked that; he always stressed that he was American-born, not an Italian. But he would have gotten a huge kick out of his enduring fame.