Thursday, May 6, 2010

Jonathan Eig's "Get Capone"

Jonathan Eig is a former writer and editor for the Chicago bureau of The Wall Street Journal and the former executive editor of Chicago magazine. He is the author of two highly acclaimed bestsellers, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig and Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season. Luckiest Man won the Casey Award for best baseball book of 2005, and Opening Day was selected as one of the best books of 2007 by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Sports Illustrated. Eig lives in Chicago, half a mile from the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, with his family.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster, and reported the following:
The test fails.

Page 99 of my book is a section break. It’s the start of the book’s second act. The page contains only four words:



For some time while I was writing, I thought about using “King Capone” as the book’s title. It has a nice ring to it, evoking King Kong, of course, but also suggesting that he was a man who ruled his world.

Capone was in fact the king of the Chicago underworld, if only for a period of four or five years. He came to the city in 1920, at the dawn of Prohibition, and worked at first as bouncer and bartender in a dive called the Four Deuces. He was fortunate, though, to have for his boss a man named Johnny Torrio, who recognized that the ban on booze could make criminals insanely wealthy. So Torrio, with Capone at his side, assembled an organization that would continue to produce and distribute beer and alcohol in spite of the national law.

Capone was a capable lieutenant, but he was not the visionary, and he did not seem particularly hungry for power.

So how did he become king?

In 1926, two things happened that changed his life: Torrio got shot, decided to retire, and left Capone in charge. The man known as Scarface was only 27 years old at the time and a virtual unknown.

The second event was even more critical: Someone shot and killed a prominent local prosecutor, William McSwiggin. Most people assumed the killer was Capone. So the big man disappeared for a couple of months, and it appeared that perhaps he would never return.

Instead, in the summer of ’26, Capone came back to Chicago. He summoned the press. He declared his innocence and declared that he’d been bribing the prosecutor for years and certainly had no reason to kill him.

From that moment on, Capone became a towering figure on the national scene. He embraced celebrity like no gangster before or since. He tried to make the world see him as he must have seen himself: as a businessman merely trying to meet the public demand for his product, a man who had been all but forced into a life of crime by an unpopular law, a man who tried his best to avoid conflict but, yes, did occasionally find it impossible to avoid.

There were bigger criminal outfits in the country. There were more vicious gangsters out there, too. Capone became king not so much by his actions but by his words. He loved talking to reporters. He always felt like he had to explain himself. He felt picked on. When the stock market collapsed in 1929, he said he couldn’t wait to see how the feds would blame that on him, too.

Damon Runyon and other ink-stained wretches ate it up.

But crime kings, as a rule, do not enjoy lengthy periods of rule.

When Herbert Hoover took office (and before the economy tanked), he grew furious with Capone’s high and mighty image. He wanted to show Americans that he intended to enforce the nation’s laws, including the unpopular ones. He made plans for sweeping reforms in criminal justice, but he also wanted to make a symbolic gesture, and to do that he informed his top officials that he wanted them to go after Capone.

That’s the turning point of my book. That’s where the conflict and the suspense really arise. That’s why, after much debate, I decided not to call my book King Capone.

If you read Get Capone and think I chose badly, you can rip out page 99 and paste it on the cover. I won’t mind. And you won’t miss a word of text.

Here’s the first full page that follows, the beginning of the “King Capone” section on page 101:
Al Capone called his organization the outfit, small t, small o. He referred to it casually, and, despite the organization’s Byzantine structure and bountiful cash flow, he ran it fairly casually, too. The word “mafia” never crossed his lips. The term usually applied to Sicilian criminal groups, and Capone was not a Sicilian. He was also non-discriminatory in his hiring practices. His closest aides were Jack Guzik, a Jew,; Tony Lombardo, a Sicilian; and Frank Nitti, who hailed from Angri in Calabria. Brother Ralph Capone supervised beer distribution (thus his nickname, “Bottles”), assisted by Capone’s cousin Charlie Fischetti and another Italian business associate named Lawrence Mangano. Pete Penovich, a native of Austria, ran much of the gambling business. A pair of Irishmen, George “Red” Barker and William “Three Fingered” White, along with a Welshman named Murray “The Camel” Humphreys, took care of the labor unions and rackets. The outfit’s principal gunman was Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, a Sicilian, whose real name was Vincenzo Antonio Gibaldi.

The Capone empire reached every corner of the city, and yet, like Lake Michigan, it was nearly impossible from almost any single angle to comprehend its depth and breadth. Capone owned the house on Prairie Avenue, along with with his wife and mother. But that was it. He didn’t want to be tied too closely to any of the illicit businesses he helped to supervise and supply. Members of his organization, on the other hand, had their own hotels, casinos, speakeasies, lower-class speakeasies known as “blind pigs,” cabarets, restaurants, breweries, bakeries, and brothels. Capone would get a slice of the profits…
Read an excerpt from Get Capone, and learn more about the book and author at the official Get Capone website.

--Marshal Zeringue