CAPONE: The Life and World of AL Capone.
By John Kobler. Putnam. 409 pp. $8.95.
There's a nice little flurry of books about the Bad Guys now (John Torrio, Dutch Schultz, Meyer Lansky), and this is the most engrossing because it's the success story of the all-time titleholder.
Alphonse Capone, son of a Neapolitan barber raising a brood of nine In Brooklyn's Navy Yard slum, fell in with bad companions at an early age. Salvatore Lucania, later Lucky Luciano, Boss of All Bosses. Little John Torrio, who in time would point the warring Chicago mobs toward a sounder business footing. Frankie Yale, later head of Unione Sicilione and an executioner of note.
Capone turned up in Manhattan's Five Points Gang at a tender age. He was a beefy, ham-fisted animal but he lost an argument to another hoodlum and wound up with his face badly slashed. After that people called him Scarface and this, in John Kobler's narrative, eventually proved distasteful to a millionaire of Capone's delicate sensibilities.
But the bad name didn't hurt a bit. "Uncle John" Torrio, in the process of taking over the booming North Side rackets from his real-life uncle, Big Jim Colosimo, imported Capone to Chicago in 1919 on the eve of Prohibition and the underworld's own Gold Rush. Less than six years later, the bruiser from New York inherited the nation's most affluent crime conglomerate when Torrio--all shot up in a bungled assassination attempt--abdicated.
Over the torn bodies of the competition (in the hundreds), Capone surfaced as Cook County's leading entrepreneur: beer and liquor merchant, proprietor of gambling dens and brothels, "influential" in labor and management, and Commander-in-Chief of an armed band of 700 to 1,000 supplemented by a much larger force in uniform. Sometimes given to slight exaggeration, Capone put his police payroll in a single year at $30 million.
What did it add up to? With the help of the police, prosecutors, courts, a mayor and even a hand in the State House now and then, the far-flung Capone underworld empire (a misnomer because it operated in the open) attained a gross of $105 million a year by 1928.
But then came the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and other little excesses and President Hoover, no less, decided that something had to be done about errant Chicago. And so, late in '31, the Midwestern playland's best known citizen went behind bars on an 11-year income tax sentence (plus $80,000 in small change for fines and court costs).
The fallen ganglord was packed off first to the federal pen in Atlanta and then to dread Alcatraz. He came off the island in January, 1939, a mumbling hulk wasted by an old case of syphilis, and
eventually withdrew with his wife and son to his walled waterfront estate on Palm Island in Miami. He died on Jan. 25, 1947. He was 48.
The only other full-blown biography of the mobster goes back to the purple prose of Fred Pasley's "Al Capone: The Biography of a Self-Made Man," vintage 1930. Kobler tells it in massive detail supported by lots of old fashioned leg work. He draws no moral lessons for us, but then he didn't have to. It's all there in stark relief, an American saga without parallel, before or since.
It is a story, known in its main outlines for decades now, that has taught us nothing. The national crime syndicate which Al Capone helped launch continues to thrive, the alliances between crime and politics as secure as ever. What is anybody really doing about it? In the highest places today men brood more over whether we ought to be using such naughty words as Mafia and Cosa Nostra than they do about busting the big underworld combines.
Kobler's book is marred, unfortunately, by some ragged continuity and evidently hasty editing. On Page 189, a hoodlum named Sam Peller, one of the targets in a mass shootout, falls dead with 15 bullets in him and two sentences later is suffering from nothing worse than a groin wound and calling for a doctor, please. An apparent mix-up in the names of the day's deceased.
It's the sort of thing that happens more and more now that books go to press just like the Wall Street editions. What a great pity.