Book review: Capone - bio doesn’t untangle complexities of mobster’s life

Al Capone biography accepts his relatives’ stories as fact and glosses over the famous Chicago gangster’s criminal history and legacy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 6:25pm


by Deirdre Bair

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

2.5/5 stars

Go into any souvenir store on a touristy Chicago street and behold the man: Al Capone. His visage adorns T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, coffee cups and countless tacky tchotchkes people buy to commemorate their visit to the city where the world’s most famous gangster made his name.

Go into enough Chicago-area restaurants or bars, and it may surprise you how many are decorated with framed pictures of the ruthless killer grinning beneath his famed white fedora.

The life story of Al Capone is unrivalled in Chicago history, and perhaps American history. How did an ill-educated bouncer from Brooklyn become not just a powerful crime boss – many such crime bosses have come and gone – but one who fascinates us generation after generation?

Deirdre Bair’s new book, Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, is the latest volume to attempt to answer this question. Bair, who won a National Book Award for her 1981 biography of Samuel Beckett, is a brilliant and engaging writer, able to construct compelling and nuanced life stories in gripping prose. Her latest book distinguishes itself from its competitors due to her access to descendants of Capone’s large family. Their memories and family stories are being added for the first time to the Capone narrative.

Capone was a self-serving mythmaker, one whose willingness to talk to reporters (until they turned against him) helped fuel what might be called a bootleg version of history. Relatively few stories about Capone’s public or private life can be entirely verified, and so writers from his day to ours have had to grapple with myriad sources, to weigh them one against another, and to proceed with caution.

The addition of Capone’s family stories to the mix has tremendous potential to deepen our understanding of the man as an individual human being. But it inevitably runs the risk of adding another unverifiable ingredient to the already bubbling cauldron of legend. Not just more myths, either, but myths from people who can fairly be considered as biased toward a primarily positive understanding of Capone, as his foes (and victims) would be toward a wholly negative one.

Bair’s focus on Capone’s family life, marginalising details of his criminal endeavours, is unbalanced. She pays scant attention to Capone’s legacy, the ongoing history of organised crime since he helped create the Chicago Outfit. Finally, a single concluding chapter covers the “legend”, the presence of Capone in popular culture and memory, more a gesture than an actual examination.

First, the life. Bair seems to take for granted that her readers will know copious details about the Outfit’s criminal empire, which had roots in the 19th-century racketeers who focused on prostitution, gambling and extortion, usually within their own ethnic enclaves in immigrant-dominated cities including Chicago and New York. The potential profits for organised crime expanded exponentially once Prohibition gave criminals with business acumen a product and a customer base beyond their fellow immigrants and habitues of illicit urban nightlife. Respectable working-class, middle-class and upper-class people wanted their beer, whiskey and wine, and the Outfit was there to supply it.

Bair never even fully narrates, much less explores the moral dimensions of the bloodshed wrought by Capone’s men and their enemies on the streets. When discussing Capone’s precautions against being poisoned by enemies (including having his cook taste the food in front him), she writes, “All these precautions were necessary because of the carnage of the past several years.” But Bair almost never provides cogent details of that carnage.

Her access to Capone’s descendants, and their family stories, makes compelling reading, and even fills in a few blank places in narratives of his evasions of the police and rival gangsters that Capone aficionados know well. But even here, Bair stumbles.

Bair’s decision to focus on the family side of Capone’s life (and the lives of some of his compatriots) sometimes leads to statements that are simply astounding. Bair describes Capone’s criminal activities as his “professional life”. Such diction exonerates unjustly.

Al Capone still awaits the biographer who can fully untangle, and balance, the complexities of his life.