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The Rise And Fall Of Gangster Al Capone
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
The gang wars and drug violence that have afflicted some urban
communities have taken a frightful toll, but this isn't the first time
American cities have seen such violence. Writer Jonathan Eig's book
takes us back to the Roaring '20s in Chicago, when cops and judges were
on the take, and unsolved murders piled up by the dozens every year.
Eig chronicles the rise and fall of legendary gangster Al Capone. It's
based on newly acquired documents and interviews with some of Capone's
descendants. There's a lot you probably didn't know about Capone, like
how freely he spoke to reporters of his exploits, the time he shot
himself in the groin, how little Eliot Ness actually had to do with
putting him away, and how venereal disease eventually robbed him of his
health and sanity.
Jonathan Eig is a former writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal,
who's written bestsellers about Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson. He lives
in Chicago, a half a mile from the site of the 1929 St. Valentine's Day
Massacre. I spoke to him last year, when his book was released in
hardcover. It's now out in paperback. It's called "Get Capone: The
Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster."
Jonathan Eig, welcome to FRESH AIR. Al Capone comes to Chicago from New
York in the early '20s. Give us a sense of the Chicago he arrived in.
Mr. JONATHAN EIG (Author, "Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured
America's Most Wanted Gangster"): It's a wild town. It's a rip-roaring
town by almost any stretch of the imagination. And Chicago, for many,
many years has been a fairly lawless town, a place where the police have
a hard time keeping up with the bad guys just because they are so
But by the 1920s, 1920 in particular, when Prohibition becomes the law,
the city gets a lot crazier, and the Prohibition really just amplifies
everything, and it makes incredible opportunities available to men like
Capone, who are willing to continue breaking the law. Suddenly, there's
a lot more money to be made than they ever dreamed possible.
DAVIES: And who was Capone? Tell us a little bit about his life in New
York and what drove him to Chicago.
Mr. EIG: Capone was born 1899 in Brooklyn, part of a big family, one of
eight children, and he was married just before coming to Chicago. He was
working as a bouncer in a bar in Coney Island, a place called the
Harvard Inn, and it was not Ivy League at all. It was a very tough
place. And that's where he met a lot of the underworld figures who would
become really key to his career going forward.
And once he got to Chicago, he was able to really grow in terms of his
stature, in terms of his prominence. I suspect if he'd stayed in New
York, he would've remained a small-time guy. There was just too much
competition for mugs like him.
But Chicago was a different story. Chicago, he was fortunate to latch on
with a good organization, where he really learned and was able to move
through the ranks quickly and became the man that we know today, you
know, the ultimate symbol of the 1920s, lawlessness, the ultimate
DAVIES: Talking a little bit about what was going on in Chicago and
reading the book, I'm really stuck by the level of violence, including
political violence, battles over alderman elections.
Mr. EIG: That's right. You had candidates for alderman throwing bombs
through each other's windows or at least using their representatives,
their campaign workers, to do some of this violence.
You had gangsters shooting each other over turf, you know, over beer
sales and on an average of about 50, 75 a year. And there were no
convictions. That was really the key. And that's why this violence was
allowed to flourish.
There were very few arrests and literally no convictions in these gang
wars throughout the 1920s, and that's because the whole system had been
purchased at a great discount by these gangsters. They were able to
bribe everyone in sight so that the law simply wasn't functioning, and
that made almost anything possible for these guys.
DAVIES: I'm interested in how violent a man Capone himself was. Clearly,
he spent a lot of his career directing others, but there is a murder
that you describe of a man named Joe Howard. Tell us what we know about
that murder and what we know about Capone's role.
Mr. EIG: I think early in his career, Capone was a violent man and did
carry out many of these hits himself. And in this case, this is really
the murder that put him on the map and I think signaled to the gang in
Chicago that Capone was a man they could count on when the going got
So what happened was one of Capone's men, an accountant, got picked on
in a bar by Joe Howard. And Joe Howard was one of Capone's rivals, but
he was a two-bit thug, really. Capone didn't know much of him. But you
didn't go after Capone's men, and that was the point.
So in broad daylight, with one of his bodyguards, Capone walks right up
to Joe Howard, says hello, puts the gun to his cheek, fires six times
and holds him on the bar stool as he keeps firing so that Joe Howard
cannot get away, cannot fall, even.
When he's finally sure that Howard's been completely obliterated, he
lets go, watches him fall to the floor. Everybody in the bar watches
Capone walk out. And this is amazing because you've got the police
swarming the place, and they know that it's Capone.
They've got eyewitnesses saying we know it was Capone. People saw him
come in and out. But suddenly, no one will testify because nobody wants
to be on the wrong side of Al Capone. Nobody wants Capone to be coming
after them next.
So he walks away from this crime. He answers the police questions, and
there's no arrest. There's no conviction. He walks away a free man. And
that sort of cements his reputation in the city, at least among
gangsters, and it's one of the first times that he gets his name
prominently displayed in the newspapers in Chicago.
DAVIES: By 1925, Capone is really the leading organized crime figure in
Chicago. And he is, what, a man in his mid-20s, right?
Mr. EIG: That's right. He's 26 years old.
DAVIES: And tell us a little bit about what his business was.
Mr. EIG: Well, he's making a lot of money. It's all cash. And it's
mostly in the beer and whiskey business. He's bringing the stuff in from
many, many different sources. It's a very complicated business. And
that's really the key to Capone's success: He's able to keep a lot of
balls in the air.
He's able to run bars, brothels, casinos. He's bringing in some booze
from Canada; he's bringing in some booze from New York. He's bringing in
some whiskey from Iowa. It's a very complicated arrangement with a lot
of people who have to be paid off, a lot of police officers, judges,
politicians all have to be bribed. There's a lot of overhead involved.
There's just it's a complicated business.
Now, I don't think Capone is taking in every penny from this operation.
I think he's wise enough to share it with the people who he needs to
keep happy in order to maintain such a complicated organization.
But nevertheless, the amount of money coming in is staggering. By the
government estimates, it's, you know, millions of dollars a year, which
I think was probably exaggerated, as the government later tried to build
a case against him for income tax evasion. But I'm certain, at the very
least, Capone was dealing in hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash
And for a young man in his 20s with not much education, a sixth-grade
education, and not much really in the way of school smarts, he does a
terrific job, really, of running this organization. And I think that's
really the key to his success is his charisma, his sort of intuition as
a businessman. It carries him a long way, that, of course, and the
threat of violence.
DAVIES: Now, you also write in this book that the Tommy gun changed the
nature of crime. How?
Mr. EIG: Well, the Thompson submachine gun was invented during World War
I. It was meant to put an end to World War I, but it arrived too late.
So the general who designed the gun looked for other outlets, tried to
sell it to police departments. But police departments didn't have the
budget and weren't really sure what to do with such a powerful weapon.
Enter the gangster, who can easily purchase the machine gun in a
sporting goods catalog or at a local gun shop. And there happened to be
one just a couple blocks from where I live now in Chicago, a place where
you could walk in and buy a machine gun if you had the cash.
And this became the weapon of choice for the gangster because they could
shoot on the run. They could shoot from their car windows and fire
hundreds of rounds within seconds.
This, along with fast automobiles, really gave the gangsters an
advantage over the police because the cops had slower, older cars. They
had much lighter weapons. And this enabled them to commit their crimes
and escape as if bribing the police officers wasn't already enough of an
advantage for these guys.
DAVIES: You know, mob hits are in some ways sort of a part of life in
many cities at many particular times, and citizens don't worry so much
about them because, you know, it's gangsters settling scores with one
It seems a little different if you have a car driving up and a
submachine gun splattering bullets all over a sidewalk. Did Chicago's
population feel terrorized?
Mr. EIG: You know, I think at times Chicago's population felt
terrorized, but it wasn't so much the machine guns that did it, I think
because there really was very little collateral damage. There were
hardly any incidents in which innocent civilians were killed in these
It was really the gangsters being killed. And I think given that the
police weren't doing anything to stop these guys, the fact that some of
them died didn't stir a lot of sympathy among most Chicagoans.
The real issue, I think, for most Chicagoans was the damage it did to
the city's reputation. We already had, you know, an image of corrupt
politics. We had a mayor who was widely perceived as being one of the
most venal in the country's history, Big Bill Thompson. And then you've
got these gangsters walking down the street with machine guns shooting
it out on Michigan Avenue in broad daylight.
And this is, as you can imagine, not good for business. So the city's
business leaders are really the first ones who start to raise a ruckus
and say something must be done about this.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that made Capone unique was his
public profile. And that's something that he fed in ways that modern
gangsters I just don't think did. I mean, it's remarkable to read some
of the quotes in your book that he gave newspaper reporters.
And I thought, you know, just for a little flavor here, I thought we
would listen to Robert De Niro as Al Capone in the movie "The
Untouchables." This is a moment where I think he's getting a shave and
having an exchange with some reporters. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Untouchables")
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) An article which I believe
appeared in a newspaper asked why, since you are or would seem that you
are, in effect, the mayor of Chicago, you've not simply been appointed
to that position.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROBERT DE NIRO (Actor): (As Al Capone) Well, I'll tell you, you
know, it's touching. Like a lot of things in life, we laugh because it's
funny, and we laugh because it's true. Some people say, reformers here
say, put that man in jail. What does he think he is doing? Well, what I
hope I'm doing, and here's where your English paper's got a point, is
I'm responding to the will of the people.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Capone) People are going to drink. You know that, I
know that. We all know that. And all I do is act on that, and all this
talk of bootlegging, what is bootlegging? On a boat, it's bootlegging.
On Lakeshore Drive, it's hospitality.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DE NIRO: I'm a businessman.
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) And what of your reputation
that you control your business through violence, that those that don't
purchase your products are dealt with violently?
Mr. DE NIRO: (As Capone) I grew up in a tough neighborhood, and we used
to say, you can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with
just a kind word.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DE NIRO: And in that neighborhood, it might have been true. And
sometimes a reputation follows you. There is violence in Chicago, of
course, but not by me and not by anybody I employ, and I'll tell you
why, because it's not good business.
DAVIES: And that is the fictional Al Capone, portrayed by Robert De Niro
in the movie "The Untouchables." We're speaking with Jonathan Eig, who
has written a new book about Al Capone called "Get Capone."
Jonathan, Eig, how close is that to the real thing?
Mr. EIG: It was pretty close, actually, because Capone did talk to the
reporters a lot, and he always defended himself as a businessman. He
always said people want to drink, and all I'm doing is giving them the
pleasures that they desire.
The irony is that De Niro actually understated Capone's tolerance for
violence because in interviews, Capone would often say violence was part
of the job, that he didn't see it necessarily as something God would
consider a sin because he was protecting himself. He was protecting his
family. He was protecting the business that he needed in order to take
care of his family.
And maybe he had a broader view of this thing than the law has it.
That's how he explained it, and - but he did acknowledge that he was a
bootlegger. He acknowledged that sometimes violence was necessary in
order to do his job.
DAVIES: How did his associates in organized crime feel about him being
such a media hog? I can't imagine they thought this was a good idea.
Mr. EIG: No, it didn't go over very well with his peers. Now, you have
to remember that in the 1920s, everybody wanted to be a celebrity.
Everybody wanted to be like Babe Ruth or Lucky Lindbergh or at least,
you know, like these guys who were sitting on flagpoles.
And businessmen in particular in the '20s really believed that to be a
success, to be an entrepreneur meant to have a personality, to cultivate
a sense that you were a success and to - that's why I think Capone
dressed the way he did.
And that's why I think he entertained the press, because he wanted to be
perceived as a successful American, you know, sort of - Dale Carnegie
later, when he wrote his famous book on success in business, would cite
Capone actually as a model for creating the public image. Obviously, it
went bad in many ways with Capone, but nevertheless, that's what he was
going for. And I think that you have to understand that cult of
celebrity and that desire for the spotlight that really was so strong
during the 1920s.
DAVIES: On the other hand, he clearly cared about his public image. How
did the public feel about Al Capone?
Mr. EIG: I'd say the feelings were mixed. Clearly, Capone was a villain,
and clearly he was a criminal. And the fact that he discussed his
criminality didn't absolve him of those crimes in any way.
At the same time, he was breaking a law that was wildly unpopular.
Prohibition was a mistake by almost any definition. And by the 1920s,
when the war was over, and people were coming out of these hard times
and looking to celebrate, and the economy was booming, it was really,
just, it just was a terrible fit. And Capone became really the symbol of
that era in many ways.
And certainly, when it came to people's willingness to break that law,
Capone became a very powerful icon. And he stood up for a lot of people
who were willing to say they didn't like it.
So he becomes the icon for the '20s because everyone is breaking this
law, and he's just breaking it in a much bigger way than anyone else.
DAVIES: Jonathan Eig's book "Get Capone" is now out in paperback. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Our guest is Jonathan Eig. His book, "Get Capone: The Secret
Plot that Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster," is now out in
Now, he had a house on Chicago's South Side, where his family lived, his
wife and other relatives. And he spent a lot of time kind of occupying a
suite in downtown hotels. Was he seen on the street? Did the public come
up to him and fawn over him and seek autographs or photos?
Mr. EIG: Yes, Capone really was a very public person, and he went to
ballgames. He attended opera. He was seen around town, and it became a
joke, really, among tourists when they visited Chicago, you know, when
you came back from your trip, people would say: Did you see Capone? Did
you get any pictures of Capone? Do you have any bullet holes in your
And some of it was a joke, but much of it was actually inspired by the
fact that Capone was seen around town. There were pictures of him in the
newspaper when he went to the races. He did not sneak about. He felt
like he was a businessman, and he wanted to be seen that way.
DAVIES: And, you know, we haven't talked about what he looked like, but
just give us a sense of the physical presence he struck.
Mr. EIG: Capone was a big man. You know, he was 5'10", 210 pounds,
roughly, in his prime. He got a little heavier late in his career. But I
think that was the key to his early success is that he was big enough
and strong enough to scare people when he stood over them in a bar.
But he always wanted to be perceived more elegantly, and he liked
actually, you know, his nickname was Scarface, of course, in the
newspapers because of the three hideous scars on the left side of his
But the nickname he preferred was Snorky, which at the time meant
elegant, ritzy. And he dressed in, you know, incredibly fashionable
ways, with gleaming diamond belt buckles but also, you know, very
tasteful three-piece suits. It was a real mix of elegance and show, and
I think that that's how he preferred to be perceived, and that was very
So you had this big, hulking guy who wanted to dress like Fred Astaire.
He wanted to be seen as a symbol of wealth and elegance.
DAVIES: You know, eventually gangsters like Capone appeared in the
movies. And I guess it was in 1931 that the film "Little Caesar" was
made, which did not have a character named Capone, but Edward G.
Robinson played a guy named Rico Bandello, right?
Mr. EIG: That's right.
DAVIES: I thought we'd hear just a little bit of this. This is a moment
in the film where he's basically ousting one of the local crime bosses,
taking over from a guy whose character's name is Sam Vettori. He's
played by Stanley Fields. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of movie, "Little Caesar")
Mr. STANLEY FIELDS (Actor): (As Sam Vettori) I see the color of that...
Mr. EDWARD G. ROBINSON (Actor): (As Rico Bandello) Just a minute, Sam. I
got my own idea of a split this time, and you can take it my way or
leave it. We ain't begging you.
Mr. FIELDS: (As Vettori) Yeah? Well, I boss this job, and I'm going to
get my split in the regular way or else.
Mr. ROBINSON: (As Bandello) How do you boss this job, by sitting here in
your office cheating yourself at solitaire? Well, that don't go no more,
not with me it don't. We're done. I've been taking orders from you too
Mr. FIELDS: (As Vettori) And you'll keep on taking orders, too, or
you'll get out of here so fast.
Mr. ROBINSON: (As Bandello) Yeah, well, maybe it won't be me that gets
Mr. FIELDS: (As Vettori) No? Well, maybe the boys, they got something to
say about that. What about it? So, that's it, huh?
Mr. ROBINSON: (As Bandello) Yeah, that's it, all right. Sam, you can
dish it out, but you're getting so you can't take it no more. You're
DAVIES: And that's Edward G. Robinson from the film "Little Caesar" from
1931. Jonathan Eig, you know, it's interesting that Al Capone was such a
public figure in his day. Do we know if actors like Robinson or Cagney
actually drew their performances from Capone?
Mr. EIG: We think that they did and, you know, these movies were made
while Capone was still in operation. That's the amazing thing, while
even before Capone went to jail, before he was convicted by the federal
government, these movies and books were in the works.
And some reports say that Edward G. Robinson attended the Capone trial
to sort of get a sense for Capone's body language and his mannerisms. I
think there's more Edward G. Robinson than Capone in Rico Bandello, but
there's it's clear that many of the elements of these characters in the
movies were based on Capone. And it's fascinating to think that even in
his lifetime, even before he got sent away to federal prison, that he's
watching these books and movies emerge based on his life story.
And I think what fascinated the American public was not just the
violence but the fact that these were immigrant stories. And if you
watch these movies today, really that's the key to their drama, to their
psychological power. It's the fact that these are, you know, Horatio
Alger stories in many ways.
These are immigrants or immigrants' children trying to make it in this
country and finding a way that may not be the best way and is a dark,
evil way in many ways, but nevertheless, it's their way of getting up
and getting a step up in this country.
DAVIES: Did these films affect the public perception of Capone?
Mr. EIG: Oh, without a doubt. I mean, I think this is what cemented the
public perception of Capone and really began to turn it from a human
being, which, you know, Capone was. Capone was really not the psychopath
that he was eventually made to be in the movies. He was not this killing
He was, you know, a product of his times and a product of Prohibition.
And, you know, his rise to power is certainly attributable to his
violence, but it's also attributable to his ambition. But I think these
movies really began to turn the picture into something much more
DAVIES: Jonathan Eig's book "Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured
America's Most Wanted Gangster" is now out in paperback. He'll be back
in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
Our guest is Jonathan Eig, whose book chronicles the rise and fall of
the legendary gangster Al Capone, based on newly acquired documents and
interviews with some of Capone's descendants. His book called "Get
Capone" is now out in paperback. Eig wrote that Capone ruled the Chicago
mob in the 1920s and often spoke candidly about his underworld clout to
It's interesting to read the story of his cat and mouse battle with law
enforcement. And there's a period of years where he seems to be
practically, openly, running this huge bootlegging and gambling and
prostitution operation and probably connected to multiple murders.
Authorities can't seem to get him on anything. But he's so harassed that
he eventually fleas Chicago for long periods, tries to set up in L.A.,
that doesn't work, ends up in Miami. What was going on?
Mr. EIG: Well, it really was harassment. When the police came after him,
ultimately, he got away each time. You know, they might charge him with
some small crime and he'd spend a night or two in jail, but he would
bribe his way out every time and the justice system just wasn't capable
of putting him away for any stretch. The irony is that he paid a brief
visit to Philadelphia and got picked up there for possession of a
handgun and was jailed for a year in Philadelphia, after a decade in
which the Chicago judicial system was unable was incapable of doing
anything with the guy.
But finally, by the late 1920s, he does start to feel like the
harassment is getting to be too much and he sort of flits about, from
Los Angeles back to Chicago, Chicago down to Miami, Miami back to
Chicago really getting harassed everywhere he goes. And this is, by now,
is when the net is beginning to tighten on him and the federal
government is really getting involved and there are FBI agents following
him everywhere. There are wiretaps on his phones, prohibition agents
keeping an eye on him and trying to shut down his operation and limit
his cash flow.
And the Chicago police are still fairly ineffective at this point, but
there are enough forces coming after Capone by now, that he's starting
to really feel the pressure.
DAVIES: Right. And one thing that stepped up the pressure was the events
of St. Valentines Day, 1929. What happened?
Mr. EIG: That was a huge moment for Al Capone. This is, of course, the
St. Valentines Day massacre. Everybody knows this as one the most famous
unsolved crimes in American history. Seven men in a parking garage on
the North Side of Chicago, most of them members of the Bugs Moran gang.
And they are accosted by three or four men, two of them wearing police
uniforms. They're lined up against the wall and gunned down with
machineguns and shotguns. And everybody assumes, at first, that it
must've been Capone who did this because these were rival gang members.
But there are many competing theories, including that it may have been
done by a gang from Detroit, a gang from St. Louis. Some people say it
may have been the cops who did it.
And over time, these theories just come and go. And Capone was not in
town at the time. Given how much pressure he was under from the federal
government, I find it hard to believe that he would've been so daring,
to go after the Bugs Moran gang in this way, and then also not to get
Bugs Moran, you know, the leader of the gang, wasn't in the garage that
day. So, to me it doesn't have the hallmarks of an Al Capone crime. But,
nevertheless, it becomes just associated with him. And this puts more
pressure than ever on the federal government to do something about this
DAVIES: Right. And so, you've got the federal government; the president,
Herbert Hoover is making a big issue of the lawlessness in the cities
and he's pressuring the IRS and the then brand new predecessor really,
of the FBI, right? Everyone is trying to find a way to get Capone. And
one of the things that's interesting is the role of Chicago business
leaders. I mean there are people who obviously who - corporate and civic
leaders who have some interest in reform in the town. What assistance,
if any, did they give to authorities in putting Capone away?
Mr. EIG: The Chicago business community was a great help, first of all,
in getting the federal government of its back, getting them to do
something about this, because the business leaders were tired of this
man destroying the city's image. And they went to Washington and they
met with Herbert Hoover almost immediately after his inauguration and
said that we need your help, 'cause we can't count on the local police,
the local courts, to do anything about this. And Herbert Hoover
responded. He was really the perfect man for this at the time because he
came to office promising to clean up America's broken justice system and
promising to enforce the laws of prohibition. And he really made this a
priority of his administration. Of course, this is before the Depression
And right now, you know, if you look at the spring of 1929, the economy
is booming, the stock market is going up and up, and Hoover can really
gain a lot of points by going after these criminals. And so he makes
this a priority and he orders his administration, not only to reform the
justice system, but to go after Capone, to make a symbol of this man. He
understands the public relations value in taking out the man that
Chicago business leaders have dubbed, public enemy number one, and
that's really a phrase that the marketing team in Chicago has come up
with to try to put more pressure on the government to come after Capone.
DAVIES: We're speaking with writer Jonathan Eig. He has a new book about
Al Capone called "Get Capone."
Well talk some more right after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Our guest is Jonathan Eig. His book "Get Capone: The Secret Plot
That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangsters" is now out in paperback.
Now, in the legend as it has come down, it's Eliot Ness that was leading
the charge against Al Capone. And I couldn't resist playing a little bit
of the opening of The Untouchables, the TV series in which Eliot Ness is
played by Robert Stack. This is the opening to the show with Walter
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of "The Untouchables")
Mr. WALTER WINCHELL (Newspaper, radio commentator): In the last weeks of
March 1931, Eliot Ness and his Untouchables were hitting hard at the
Capone empire. Every day gunshots rattled the concrete as Ness led his
men in raid after raid. While prosperity stayed around the corner for
most of us, it came out and licked the hands of mobsters, bootleggers
and bookies. For them, it had been Rome at its height under Emperor Al
Capone, until Eliot Ness moved in to clean up.
DAVIES: And that's from the TV series "The Untouchables."
Jonathan Eig, you tell us that the Eliot Ness story contains a fair
amount of mythology. How did he get to be the legendary crusader against
Mr. EIG: Ness was a prohibition agent during the 20s. He got the job
because of nepotism. He was really not qualified for it, particularly,
and he wasn't very good at it either. Early in his career, he did some
undercover work that just ended disastrously and he was completely,
easily identified by these gangsters and was never able to go undercover
again. So he spent his years in the Capone case really, just as a sort
of a nuisance to Al Capone, busting down doors and breweries, breaking
up distilleries and trying to disrupt Capone's cash flow.
He never came up with any evidence that was useful to the prosecutors
who were trying to build their case against Scarface Capone. And as a
result of that, I think Capone really had very little to do with Eliot
Ness. I don't even know if he knew that Eliot Ness existed, to be
honest. He was much more concerned with the lawyers who were building
this case, and he was much more concerned with Revenue Bureau agents,
the tax men, who were coming after him about his income taxes. These
were the real pressures that were making Al Capone sweat.
Eliot Ness really only became famous later at the end of his career.
After Chicago, he went to work as a public servant in Cleveland. His
career did not end well. He ran for mayor and lost. He had some problems
with the law himself, a drunk driving case, some affairs with women that
became public. But he was fortunate enough to run into a man who rewrote
his story for him. And this ghost-written story of Eliot Ness became a
very successful book and was turned into the TV show and then, of
course, the movie later, with Kevin Costner. But these stories were
really only very, very loosely based on the truth, and Eliot Ness was
the beneficiary, really, of just a great marketing team that went to
work for him late in his life. And he never actually lived to see the
fame that would come his way.
DAVIES: So who were the key figures in taking Al Capone down?
Mr. EIG: Well, after Herbert Hoover, Hoover really is the man the
engineer who's making all this happen. But the key person in Chicago is
someone your listeners have probably never heard of and that's George
E.Q. Johnson. He was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of
Illinois. And I was fortunate in my research to find his personal
papers, to find all of his government work papers. None of this had been
cataloged; none of it was in the National Archives where it should have
And what this stuff showed, I mean this was thousands of pages of
government memos on the Capone case, transcripts of wire taps - it
showed that he was really a very nervous man who had a very weak case
against Capone and he was afraid to bring it to trial, in fact, and
really had to do so only after getting sort of kicked in the tail by
President Hoover and his top men in the Justice Department, wondering
why it was taking so long to put together any kind of a case against Al
DAVIES: Right. Now, and it was tricky, because although clearly, Al
Capone had a lot of money and spent a lot of money. There weren't really
records that showed he got any money from his illegal activities. They
did put together some witnesses and put together and case and indict
him; but it had some holes, right?
Mr. EIG: Yes. The case against Capone had a lot of holes. And the
federal government knew it. First of all, they were dealing, almost
entirely, with circumstantial evidence. They had no proof of income.
They were not able to find any checks. They were not able to find any
bank accounts. They really could find very little property with Capone's
name on it. So, they built this case basically on his expenses. They
showed the court, they showed the jury, that he was a lavish spender.
And they asked the jury to believe that if he was spending lavishly he
must've been getting the money from somewhere. But, in fact, there was
no way to really tie Capone to this bootlegging business, except for the
fact that he went around telling everybody that he was a bootlegger.
DAVIES: Right. And he had attorneys who, at times, approached the
government and said look, we want to make a deal. We want to settle our
tax debt. And, in fact, one of the memos that they gave on - one of the
attorneys gave to the government on Capone's behalf, was then used
against him to show, a-ha, see he does have all this illegitimate
Mr. EIG: That's right. And this is one of the very suspect moments in
the Capone trial. They take this letter that was written in an attempt
to settle the case, and they say okay, here's what well agree to, if
you're willing to make a deal, well agree to pay this much money and
well, theoretically, say that Capone had, you know, $100,000 of income
this year and $100,000 that year and $90,000 the following year. The
government says well, that's, thanks very much. We don't accept your
offer, but we will use this letter to prove that Capone had income in
those years. Now that probably should have been thrown out, should not
have been admissible in court, but Capone's lawyers were not able to
stop it from being entered into the record.
DAVIES: And the fascinating thing, as I read the development of this, I
mean everybody wanted to get Al Capone. They had this somewhat shaky
indictment on tax evasion. And the government, including George E.
Johnson, the U.S. attorney, agreed to a deal in which Capone was going
to plead guilty and get what, two and a half years. Is that right?
Mr. EIG: That's right, two and a half years.
DAVIES: And the judge refused to approve it. What happened?
Mr. EIG: This is one the most intriguing moments. And these documents
that I discovered, in the George Johnson files, really went into this in
great detail. Because Johnson thought he had a deal, Capone's lawyers
thought they had a deal, everybody up to the U.S. attorney general had
signed off on this deal. And the judge himself had told the U.S.
attorney that he would go along with this. And then they walk into
court, Capone enters his plea of guilty, and the judge says I'm taking
it off the table, I do not accept, and he insists on a trial. Now
DAVIES: And why did he do that?
Mr. EIG: Well, that's the really interesting question. Some people think
that it may have been because the judge was irate that Capone had
already been going around bragging to his pals at the newspapers that he
was going to get two and a half years and he could do two and a half
years standing on his head. He'd be out. He'd only be 33-34 years old.
He'd be back in business. But there's also a school of thought that says
that Herbert Hoover himself, the president, intervened here, and may
have sent one of his emissaries to visit the judge the night before
Capone entered his guilty plea and insisted that the judge should take
this to trial - that the president was not happy with the two and a half
year plea bargain.
DAVIES: And in the end, he is convicted by - not every charge, but
enough - so that the judge puts him away for 11 years. What was his
Mr. EIG: He was stunned. Nobody saw this coming, especially after he was
thinking, you know, we're talking two and a half three years, based on
what kind of an offer the government had made and based on other income
tax cases. You know, he had already seen some of his gang members go to
jail for income tax invasion. He'd seen his brother convicted and the
typical sentence was two-three years. So he was not prepared at all for
this. And one of the keys, really, is that Capone was not tried by a
jury of his peers. The jury was really hand-chosen, specially selected
by this judge. And they were not only it was difficult in the 20s to
find men who were willing to convict bootleggers, because everybody
drank, but this was a jury that was not only willing to convict, it was
eager to convict. And to say they threw the book at Capone is a massive
DAVIES: So, when Al Capone is sentenced to 11 years in prison in 1931,
he's still a young man. And, you know, he might have gotten out in 10
with good behavior and resumed his career, but he didn't. What became of
him in prison?
Mr. EIG: When Capone got to the penitentiary in Atlanta, they ran a
series of standard tests. They interviewed him about his life. They took
an IQ test, found that he had a 95 IQ. They completed a very detailed
record of his life and his health. And in doing the health examination,
they found that he had tertiary syphilis, which meant that it was
already affecting his nervous system and affecting his brain. And he
told the doctors that he had first noticed the symptoms of syphilis when
he was a very young man, at about 19 or 20, and had ignored them and not
Had he treated them at that point, he probably would've made a complete
recovery. There was a very good treatment at the time. But in letting it
go, the disease spread, and by then it was affecting his neurological
system and there was no turning back. There was nothing anyone could do
about it at that point. And as a result of that, his remaining years
would be just brutal, really. His mind began to melt away. He would
enjoy some moments of clarity and some moments where he was a capable of
writing letters to his family and visiting with them in peace, but there
were also times when he suffered seizures, when he was delusional. And
by the end, as one of his fellow gang members put it, he was nutty as a
DAVIES: Did some time at Alcatraz, which was new, but eventually was
released and died in 1947 - never was an active criminal again, as far
as we knew?
Mr. EIG: No. He really was not capable of it, even if he had wanted to
get back into the life.
DAVIES: And he lived in Miami, right, with his wife, May and his son,
Sonny, is that right?
Mr. EIG: Yeah.
DAVIES: Was there enough money left over from the enterprise to make
Mr. EIG: I think the family lived comfortably in those last years. And I
think the Outfit, as it continued on without him - obviously,
prohibition came to an end and they found other ways of making their
money - I think the Outfit continued to take care of Capone and his
family members. I think they would receive regular supplies of cash for
whatever they needed. But once Capone died, those envelopes stopped
coming and the family had to fend for itself.
And there was never any great treasure chest that discovered. A lot of
Capone family members thought that Capone must have hidden the money
away somewhere. And in those late years when his mind was going and he
really behaved in a childlike way, they would ask him, again and again,
you know, where did you put the money? Where is it? And it's possible he
spent it all, but he always said that he couldnt remember. And if he'd
hidden any away, he couldnt remember where it was.
DAVIES: And irony of ironies, he never paid the tax debt that sent him
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EIG: That is true. He died owing the government all this money. They
never seized the house in Florida. They never seized his mother's house
in Chicago. But they took every other asset they could find, and he
still left quite a considerable debt.
DAVIES: Well, Jonathan Eig, its been fun. Thanks so much for speaking
Mr. EIG: Thank you.
DAVIES: Jonathan Eigs book is called "Get Capone: The Secret Plot That
Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster" is now out in paperback. You
can read an excerpt at our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz on DVD releases of a pair of Hollywood musical
stars from the 1930s. This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'Sweethearts' On Screen, But What Happens Off?
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers weren't the only famous Hollywood musical
team of the 1930s. There was also Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy
appearing in a series of operettas. Two of them are now available on DVD
from Warner Archives. Classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz says the
two couples achieved their success in quite opposite ways. Here's his
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. JEANETTE MACDONALD and Mr. NELSON EDDY: (Singing)(unintelligible)
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Around the same time that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
were swinging their way into America's hearts with a snappy new American
approach to movie, musical comedy, another musical movie couple,
Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, made a huge success bringing to the
screen and enlivening a dying European tradition of sentimental musical
romance we call operetta. Astaire and Rogers danced to tunes by Cole
Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and that most American song-
writer, Irving Berlin, who was actually born in Russia. Most of these
were original scores written for them.
MacDonald and Eddy used already familiar, even old-fashioned material by
such European composers as Sigmund Romberg, Rudolf Friml, Victor
Herbert, and even Noel Coward.
Astaire and Rogers came to movies from vaudeville and Broadway, where
they had to Americanize their names (imagine a dance team called
Austerlitz and McMath). MacDonald (her real name) also appeared on
Broadway, while Eddy (his real name) came from the concert stage. Their
singing is more formal and operatic.
But operetta hasn't survived as well as musical comedy. The first
commercial DVDs of Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy operettas have only
just been released. One is their very first film, Naughty Marietta, from
1935, based on a 1910 Victor Herbert operetta. As in several of their
films, the plot concerns a European MacDonald coming to the United
States. Here she's a princess escaping in disguise to New Orleans from a
loveless betrothal and falls in love with Eddy, a backwoods mercenary
captain. Herbert's original score is pared down, but the songs are
memorable: especially the famous "Italian Street Song," "Tramp, Tramp,
Tramp," "I'm Falling in Love with Someone," and the iconic, surprisingly
moving "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life," their public declaration of love at
the moment they're forced to part.
(Soundbite of song, "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life")
Ms. JEANETTE MACDONALD and Mr. NELSON EDDY: (Singing) Ah! Sweet mystery
of life at last I've found thee. Ah! I know at last the secret of it
all; All the longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning. The burning
hopes, the joy and idle tears that fall. For 'tis love, and love alone,
the world is seeking, and 'tis love, and love alone, that can repay.
'Tis the answer, 'tis the end and all of living for it is love alone
that rules for aye.
SCHWARTZ: The other Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy release,
"Sweethearts," comes from three years later, and was not only their own
first full-length Technicolor musical, but MGM's as well. It's also by
Victor Herbert, and it's dazzling to look at, with an amusing new script
by Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell, in which married Broadway stars are
celebrating the sixth anniversary of their revival of Herbert's 1913
"Sweethearts." The opening credits list, quote, "immortal melodies by
Victor Herbert," though I wouldn't call it one of his very top scores.
The new DVDs also include 1940s radio versions of both "Naughty
Marietta" and "Sweethearts" and fascinating takes from the recording
sessions for these films.
(Soundbite of music and singing)
Ms. JEANETTE MACDONALD and Mr. NELSON EDDY: (Singing)(unintelligible)
SCHWARTZ: They certainly make an appealing team. MacDonald has
tremendous vivacity and backbone - she was once nicknamed the iron
butterfly - and though Eddy is a little stiff, he's actually not as
stiff on screen as he is in my memory. Although they were married to
others, a rumor persisted that they were really lovers, and another that
they hated each other. On screen, they're quite convincing and endearing
in both their fights and their musical lovemaking. They made six other
films together, including "Maytime" - with a wrenching performance by
John Barrymore, and "Rose Marie," in which young James Stewart plays a
bad guy and Eddy and MacDonald sing their most famous â and most
parodied â duet, "The Indian Love Call." I hope we don't have to wait
too much longer for them all to be released.
DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix
and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts,
Boston. He reviewed two new Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy DVDs
available from Warner Archives.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.