Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Uncle Al Capone: Chapter 11 Exerpt

I never wanted to leave that house that night, and they knew it. I think I sensed the discord between my parents. The Prairie Avenue home was a safe haven, a place where I could forget the tension and unease that had become all-too-familiar in my young life.

As she walked me to the large front door, Grandmacita handed me a bag of sesame cookies and rubbed my back where I’d fallen. I munched those cookies all the way home, nestled in my father’s arms.

I looked up at him and whispered, “Daddy, I was really, really scared today. I couldn’t breathe.”

“Yes, I know,” he said. “But Uncle Al took care of you. You’re OK now, aren’t you?” I gripped his hand more tightly.

“Yes, I am,” I answered proudly. “I’m OK.”

Before I ever picked dandelions again, my mother left my father.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

An Email

There have been so many people who have sent me emails with their accounts of how they, or someone they knew personally, experienced my family and found them to be the people I knew. The following is a recent letter I just received from a man who has spent over 60 years reading and researching my family. I have his permission to publish this. In his note he used the word ‘omerta’ which is the Mafia code of silence. That is how I was raised, your word is your bond. You never break a promise.

I'm currently waiting for my literary agent to sell my book on Jack McGurn and Louise Rolfe, but I'd like to give you something that I always thought was truly dear, that will be in my book. Feel free to "scoop me." I had an anonymous source extremely close to the Gebardi/DeMory family whom I interviewed at a large party in the north suburbs  in 1979. I attended Highland Park High School in the early 60's and approximately 35% of my classmates were either Italian or Sicilian from Highwood; they are still my close friends. As I formally began researching Vincent Gebardi in 1969 after undergraduate school, one of my high school classmates invited me to this wonderful BBQ and Bocce tournament, and that's where I met and spent several hours talking to my incredible source. I made this person a promise to never reveal his identity, and I never will, because even though I'm Jewish, I have a profound respect for omerta, and I refuse to betray a confidence, even though this person has long passed.

I will call him "Sal" (it wasn't his name). He was in his late seventies, but had one of those incredible, clear memories of everything. Out of respect and good conscience, I asked him nothing concerning criminal enterprise; I was only interested in family matters. He knew your great grandmother Teresa and your aunt Mafalda. He told me that McGurn's mama, Josephine Gebardi (Gibaldi until 1919), used to attend mass with your great grandmother (at her church) once in a while, and that they were good friends. He was also at McGurn's funeral at Rago's in 1936 and he watched as your Aunt Mafalda went to the aid of Angelina DeMory (McGurn's sister) when she passed out. Teresa and Mafalda also went to Mount Carmel that morning to bury McGurn, and your great grandmother stood by Josephine DeMory, holding her up (Sal stood close by). The reporters, who were all parked along Roosevelt Avenue, which is right beside the Gebardi/DeMory plot, were all "admonished" not to take photographs because your great grandmother was there. There wasn't a single picture snapped. It was a February day, about 20 degrees, and the only photograph ever taken was of the hearse with McGurn's casket in front of Rago's. Sal also told me that Josephine DeMory loathed her son's wife, Louise Rolfe (the "blond alibi"), who stood on the opposite side of the grave braced by two detectives, and not with your family.

Here's what I liked best: Sal also told me that before Mafalda became a Maritote, when she was still a teenager, she had a huge crush on Jack McGurn, who was already married to Helen DeMory. It was joked about at a few of your family dinners and Mafalda would uncharacteristically "blush." Your grandfather, Uncle Al, and Uncle Mimi kidded her about it. When your uncle Frank was killed, McGurn came to dinner at the Prairie Avenue house more often, almost as if he was "filling in" as an adopted Capone son (you know how few people from the outfit were invited to dinner with your family in that house). Sal trusted me with a few other tidbits (none of them regarding the Capones) that I have left out of the book to protect living members of McGurn's family, much the same way I would protect your family if I knew something sensitive that could be embarrassing and has no importance to history.

I've been at this for most of my life, Deirdre. I would probably sell my soul to be invisible and attend one of those dinners, to see your family interact. I must be getting old, because just the thought makes me tear up. The more you know, it is nearly impossible not to fall in love with your people. Everybody in Wisconsin loved your grandfather Ralph. My uncle used to sell Albert Francis golf clothes in Miami in the late '40's, early 50's. He would close his store on Lincoln Road so nobody would bother Sonny while he shopped (early on he was accompanied by a bodyguard). Sonny didn't have lots of money, and my Uncle Austin, who was a huge admirer of your uncle Al, used to give him nice discounts. When Mae put Palm Island up for sale, Sonny gave my Uncle Austin a snooker ball from Al's table. It was passed on to me, and I gave it to another gangsterologist as a gift for helping me over the years with my book. I should have kept it.

I wanted you to know this about Mafalda, because of all the Capones, I've always felt the most affection for her. She was a tough cookie, but McGurn warmed her little heart!

I cannot wait for your book. My "Sal" was the real deal, Deirdre. Everything I've told you here is true, small things that mean more to me than most of the work I've done because it is love of and from family that redeems anyone's faults.

Good luck, Deirdre. I truly hope it's a blockbuster. I'm so sorry you lost your dad so early. Not only would he have made your life better, he could have helped all of us as well.

Warmest regards,
Jeff Gusfield
P.S. Please don't be upset with me for disagreeing with Jonathon Eig; I've quietly been at this longer than he's been alive.

I passed on another tid-bit of information to Jeff about my Aunt Maffie. She was madly in love with Rocco Fischetti also which should put to rest what many ‘gansterologists’ have claimed, that the Capones and Frishettis were related. They were not.

No Other Book About Al Capone Was Written By:


  1. A member of his family
  2. A person who ate meals with him, sat on his lap, slept in his house
  3. A person whom he taught to swim, ride a bike & play the mandolin.
  4. A person who helped him cook meals
  5. A person who’s father was raised by Al’s mother as a sibling
  6. A person who was Al Capone’s only sisters’ best friend
  7. A person who’s grandfather was Al Capone’s older brother and partner
  8. A person who as an adult had countless conversations/interviews with A.C’s business partners and younger brothers
  9. A person who can make the previously unpublished recipes for A.C’s favorite meals
  10. A person who’s father committed suicide due to the burden of the Capone name
  11. A person who was scorned by classmates for many years, and fired from job’s because she was related to Al Capone
  12. A person who presents Al’s partner’s version of what really happened on St. Valentine’s Day of 1929
  13. A person who knows what happened to the millions of dollars Al Capone had stashed away
  14. A person who was told by famous comedian/singer Joe E. Lewis, that it was not Al Capone who was responsible for his throat being slashed
  15. A person who learned from her grandfather of A.C’s history changing plans to buy the Chicago Cubs, make Babe Ruth the player/manager and hire Satchel Paige to be the first black player in the history of baseball
  16. A person who has previously unpublished family photos
  17. A person who was personally told by Nat “King” Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. how helpful and supporting AC was with black people
  18. A person who can take you inside the homes of Al Capone to Chicago, Wisconsin and Miami as they were when he was living in them
  19. A person who can give you an entirely different view of one of the most world renown men in history
  20. A person who survived the stigma of the Capone name to become a productive, successful citizen, with 4 college educated children and 14 beautiful grandchildren – all a credit to society.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Uncle Al Capone: Chapter 1 Exerpt - I Don't Like Mustard

Chapter 1
I Don’t Like Mustard,
and I Am Related To Al Capone

I have always been opposed to violence, to shootings. I have fought, yes, but fought for peace. And I believe I can take credit for the peace that now exists in the racket game in Chicago. I believe that the people can thank me for the fact that gang killings here are probably a thing of the past.- Al Capone

I am a Capone. My grandfather was Ralph Capone, listed in 1930 as Public Enemy #3 by the Chicago Crime Commission. That makes me the grand niece of his partner and younger brother, Public Enemy #1: Al Capone.

For much of my life, this was not information that I readily volunteered. In fact, I made every effort to hide the fact that I was a Capone, a name that had brought endless heartache to so many members of my family. In 1972, when I was in my early thirties, I left Chicago and my family history far behind me, reinventing myself in Minnesota and making sure that no one in my life other than my husband Bob knew my ancestry. I succeeded—even with our four children.

But the truth about who I was hovered at the edges of the reality I had created, and I was terrified of it—terrified of revisiting the shy, wounded girl who grew up friendless, shunned by classmates, forbidden to play with a mobster’s child; terrified of once again hearing those dreaded words, “You’re fired,” and seeing another employer’s doors close to me because of my name; terrified of reawakening the grief of losing both my father and brother to suicide, collateral damage of the Capone legacy; and, above all, terrified that if my children learned they had “gangster blood” running through their veins, they’d be exposed to the same pain I had experienced.

As if this weren’t enough, my silence was also motivated by a little trick of fate truly stranger than fiction. My husband’s uncle married the sister of one of the men killed in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. As you’ll read later in this book, I have good reason to believe that Al Capone was not as responsible for those cold-blooded murders as history has written, but all the same, how could I bring such a terrible complication into our family life? How could I know that my aunt by marriage wouldn’t see her brother’s murderers in my face? This concern was overshadowed because I was more afraid of my children finding out about their ancestry so I kept up the false front.

When my nine-year-old son Bobby came home from school one day in 1974 to announce that his class was learning about Al Capone, it knocked the wind out of me.

Ever since my children started school, I had developed the habit of asking, “What did you learn today?” when they came home. Of course, I always listened to their answers with great interest, but on that particular day, I felt like the whole world had just slid out of focus, leaving only Bobby and me. There he was, smiling and cheerful as always, telling me he was learning about my uncle in his fourth grade class.

My heart seized, but somehow, I managed to get out a half-casual, “What did you learn about Al Capone?” “We learned that he was a gangster,” Bobby told me. He went on to tell me about Prohibition in the 1920s and 30s, Al’s bootlegging operation, and how he had been such an expert outlaw that when the police finally nabbed him, the only charge they could pin on him was tax evasion. I was so astonished that all I could do was nod along as he spoke.

Later that evening, when Bob and I were alone, I told him what Bobby had said. I felt like I had been holding my breath ever since Bobby so innocently chirped the name “Capone.” Bob and I decided together that we couldn’t keep the truth from our children any longer. We had no idea how they would react, but one thing was certain—we didn’t want them to hear about it from someone else, and now that our oldest kids were teenagers, they had started to ask about their grandparents. We couldn’t keep this from them forever.

The next evening, as Bob and I gathered our kids in the kitchen, I was petrified. This was a moment I had created in my head time and again, since Bob and I decided to start a family. And each time I imagined it, it ended badly. I thought our kids would be furious with me for keeping the secret, or for even being a Capone in the first place. Maybe they would be ashamed of me. Or worse yet—maybe they would be ashamed of themselves. Maybe hearing the truth about their family would send them into the same kind of downward spiral that had swallowed so much of my childhood.

When I was growing up, I was often mad at God for making me a Capone. I couldn’t understand why other children weren’t allowed to play with me, and my heart broke every time I heard someone murmur a slur or read the newspapers’ awful accusations about the family I loved—and the family that loved me in return while everyone else shunned me. If these were my prevailing memories of growing up as a Capone, I just couldn’t imagine that things would be any different for my children. As I sat them down at the kitchen table and prepared to break the news, I felt like I was on the verge of crushing the happy life that Bob and I worked so hard to give to them.

I could tell they sensed my nervousness, and they sat unusually quiet as I told them I had something important to say. I squeezed Bob’s hand tightly, and the words came slowly.

“There’s something I want to tell you about my family,” I began. “Al Capone was my uncle. My grandfather was his brother. I was born Deirdre Marie Capone.”

For a split second, there was silence in the kitchen. I could feel my heart in my throat. Then, at the exact same instant, both of my teenagers exclaimed, “Cool!”

In retrospect, I suppose I should have anticipated the reaction, think about what any teenager might say upon hearing they are related to a legend. But to be honest, their excitement was the last thing in the world that I expected. I was so used to hiding and living in quiet shame that it just didn’t cross my mind that my children might be more intrigued than upset.

But of course, it was a different time. I grew up with headlines about the menace of Al Capone’s “Outfit” splashed across the front page. I grew up seeing my classmates’ parents look at me and my family with constant suspicion and fear. I grew up well accustomed to men in dark suits guarding the Capone family home with machine guns. My children, on the other hand, grew up thinking of Al Capone as a celebrity, a folk hero more than a criminal.

As soon as that word, “Cool!” broke the tension in the room, the two younger kids chimed in. Bobby’s eyes grew wide as saucers and, before I knew it, all four of them were peppering me with questions. “What was he like? Was he nice to you? Did he love you? Do you look like him? Do you have pictures?”

Relief washed over me. I had built this moment up in my mind for so many years, but here I was, discovering that the very source of my shame was now the source of pride for my children. I tried to answer their questions as best I could. I pulled out my family photo albums and began to introduce my own children to the people who loved me most when I was their age.

First, there was Theresa Capone, the mother to Al and my grandfather. She was the rock of the Capones, the woman who held the family together as they emigrated from Italy to New York and then to Chicago. She had known poverty in Brooklyn and the realization of the “American Dream” as Al built his business in Chicago. She raised my father when his biological mother abandoned him, and she acted as a grandmother to me. Her house on Prairie Avenue became the warmest place in the world to me, even with heavy drapes drawn across the windows and armed men stationed at the doors.

Then there were her children. Mafalda—or, to me, Aunt Maffie—was the youngest and the only daughter. Only five years older than my dad, she was more of a sister to him than an aunt. To me, she was a hero and I was her spitting image. Everyone in the family called me “Little Mafalda.”

The older children were six boys: Vincenzo, my grandfather Ralph and his younger brothers, Frank, Al, Mimi, Bites, and Matty. Frank, Ralph, and Al were all involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in earning the family’s keep—which meant operating the Outfit, the organization that distributed liquor illegally during Prohibition. But to me, they were as far from “criminals” as anyone could get. They were loving, funny, larger-than-life men and fiercely proud of me. I could never reconcile the frightening images the newspapers painted of them with the warm-hearted people who teased and joked with me at Sunday dinners.

Finally, there was my dad, Ralph Gabriel Capone. In his short life, he had been the star and the hope of the family. He was keenly intelligent and determined to set out on a different path than his father and uncles. He wanted to make a name for himself with a legitimate business, but the Capone name dogged him and dashed his hopes. Ultimately, he took his own life when I was only ten years old.

Sitting at the table with my children and sharing these memories, some painful and some brimming with joy, was a defining moment for me. For many years, I had delved privately into my family’s history, searching for the line between rumor and truth, and, very slowly, began shedding the thick blanket of shame that came with the Capone notoriety. But to offer this history to my children and to find that they were proud to call it their own was a new step for me. At the age of thirty-four, with the help of my children, I finally accepted myself as Deirdre Marie Capone.

Not only were my children happy to learn of their family ties to Al Capone, they loved to tell people about them. And today, I have fourteen grandchildren who all think of their heritage as a badge of honor. When my granddaughter, Abby, was in the second grade, her teacher made a book for the class in which each student wrote two things about themselves, something true and something untrue, so that the other children could guess which was which. Abby proudly wrote, “I don’t like mustard” and “I am Al Capone’s grand-grand-grand niece.”


Long before I told my children about my family—in fact, long before I even had children—I began to research the Capone history. The research I did—sometimes by reading secondhand historical accounts, but more often by tapping the memories of the family members who lived that history personally—forms the basis of this book. It was my children’s acceptance that gave me the courage to go ahead with the writing, but this book has been in the making for many years. In a sense, I have been writing this book all my life.

There was one episode in particular, when I was only seventeen, that set off my need to understand my family. In the fall of 1957, just after I graduated from high school, I got my first full-time job with an insurance company on LaSalle Street in Chicago. I was offered a full-ride scholarship to go to college, but my mother needed help supporting herself and my younger brother. The job was nothing glamorous; I earned $200 a month as a secretary in the Boiler and Machinery Division. Each week, I turned my entire check over to my mother.

At first, the job was not what I envisioned for myself, but over time, I began to adapt. I was proud of myself; I was never late, and I worked hard. My boss even suggested I take on stenographic work for him in addition to my regular duties. And I made friends there—in fact, it was at that company where I met Bob, my future husband.

So, when my boss called me into his office slightly more than six months into my stint there, I had no reason to believe he would have anything negative to say. I assumed he wanted to test my dictation skills, as he had done once before, so I brought my stenographic tablet with me into the office. He gestured at the chair across from his desk and asked me to have a seat. I, still suspecting nothing, sat down and got ready to take notes. But then he said something unexpected. “Deirdre, please tell me your name.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, I felt my face flush and my heart begin to pound. There is a trait that runs in the Capone family: intuition. My uncle Al survived countless attempts on his life because of it. In fact, he even had premonitions in dreams that saved his life. And in that moment, sitting across from my boss, I sensed what was going to happen.

“Deirdre,” I answered. “My name is Deirdre Gabriel.”

For years, I had been going by Gabriel, my great-grandfather’s first name and my father’s middle name. My mother had even legally changed my brother’s name from Ralph Capone to Ralph Gabriel, but she said it wasn’t worth all the paperwork to change mine because I would get married someday and it would change then.

But my legal name did matter. I applied for the job as Deirdre Gabriel, and that’s how everyone I worked with knew me. But because it was a life insurance company, I was eligible after six months for a free policy, and I had to use my legal name on the paperwork. As soon as that paperwork crossed his desk, the life insurance agent called my boss with the news.

“Tell me your real name,” my boss said.

I swallowed. There was no sense trying to pretend. “Capone…Deirdre Marie Capone.”

“Are you any relation to Al Capone?” He asked.

“Yes,” I admitted, “he was my uncle.”

For a moment, the words hung in the air between us. Then my boss sighed and shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we can’t have you working here. I’m going to have to let you go. You’re fired.

I don’t know how I managed to get out of his office and into the ladies’ room without breaking down, but somehow I found myself there, sobbing uncontrollably. By that time, Al Capone had been dead for ten years, and the Outfit was now run by Tony Accardo. But it was still associated with my family. It was just at that time in the 1950s that they began laundering money by investing it in legitimate businesses like insurance companies and car dealerships, then sitting on their boards. I realize in retrospect that the executives of the company I worked for worried that, by employing me, they might give law enforcement the false impression that the Outfit’s money was behind their operations.

That was why they let me go. But at the time, even if I understood their logic, it wouldn’t have offered consolation. As I cried in the ladies’ room, I was overcome with shame. My being fired had nothing to do with my performance—I knew I had done a good job. And I saw this same situation destroy my father. He was enormously gifted, brimming with potential, but time and again, the Capone name had shut him out of opportunities. No matter what his merits, no matter how hard he worked, he couldn’t get a leg up, and ultimately, those continual disappointments killed him.

And I had to wonder if the same thing would happen to me. I felt like the door to my true identity had suddenly flung open for all the world to see. A sinking feeling in my heart told me that if I was a Capone, I didn’t deserve a nice job. I came from a bad family, and I was a bad person by association. I didn’t deserve to sit across from an important man in a corner office with the sun shining through enormous windows. My real self finally caught up to me, and I understood that no matter what I did, I would always be doomed.

Somehow, I managed to regain my composure, clean out my desk, and leave the building. I got on the Illinois Central to go home, and the train’s rhythmic chugging sounded like, “You’re fired. You’re fired. You’re fired.” I was sure everyone else in the train car could hear the same words. I felt like they were staring at me, the poor unemployed girl, punished for the sins of her family. I don’t think the term “self-image” had been coined yet, but mine had taken a mighty blow.

The moment I got home, I knew exactly who to turn to. I called the woman who had always been my role model and confessor, my aunt, Maffie.

When I told her what happened, she answered without hesitating. “Come over and we’ll talk about it,” she said. “Uncle Johnny’s working, and I could use the company. I’ll fix us a good dinner of gravy and meatballs.”

Though Maffie was technically my great-aunt, that label didn’t hold much meaning in our family. The Capone generations were unusually blurred and interwoven. Because my father and Maffie were so close in age, they were much more like brother and sister than nephew and aunt. So, I considered Maffie my aunt and not my great-aunt.

This blurring of generations is partly why Maffie and I became so close. Add that to the fact that I, just like her, was the only Capone girl of my generation, and she treated me like someone special. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with her—often more than with my own mother. After my father died, she took me to my grandfather Ralph’s place and we spent the whole summer there together, healing and reconnecting to family. When I became a teenager, she took me shopping, fixed my hair, and, along with my grandmother Theresa, taught me to cook all the intoxicating, authentic Capone family recipes.

Whenever I felt blue or had a personal problem, I’d turn to Maffie. I knew she would take my side—the Capone side. In fact, after I left my first husband, an abusive man who threatened our infant daughter, Maffie asked me if I wanted to have him killed. I politely declined, but I’ve always believed she would have arranged it if I had just said the word.

And so, naturally, I went to her when I got fired. She had the grit to deal with any blow to the family honor. When she was born in Brooklyn in 1912, her parents Gabriel and Theresa Capone named her after the ten-year-old princess of Italy, the second child of King Emmanuel III. It was the right choice. As the only living girl of nine children, Aunt Maffie was the princess of the Capone family, and she had no trouble handling the role. Her brothers spoiled her, and she in turn developed a sense of entitlement and a ferocious tongue that she didn’t hesitate to use against anyone who crossed her or the people she loved. Everyone, myself included, was a little afraid of Maffie. She was the only member of the family I ever heard talk back to her mother, the matriarch Theresa.

Maffie was the female Al Capone. She had the dark, curly Capone hair that framed her wide-set eyes. But even with large hands, full eyebrows that almost met in the middle, and a habit of speaking through her teeth, there was something very feminine and attractive about her. She had both Al’s courage and his temper, along with the “Al Capone stare.” He was famous for it. All of a sudden, if he was threatened or in a tense situation, his face would just go stoic, and he would stare right through whatever hapless person crossed him. Aunt Maffie had the same focused, piercing stare.

She was fiercely proud of the Capone family name, and she was quick to defend her brother Al, even after he was sent to prison. Most of us, including Al’s own son, took on other identities to escape the burden of the family name. But not Maffie. I still remember visiting her in a nursing home shortly before she died. She leaned into me and whispered, “Tell them who we are. Tell them we’re Capones. They’ll treat me better.” She was one of the very few in our family who insisted that her real last name be marked on her headstone.

But Maffie’s grit didn’t only come from carrying Capone stock. It was also something she had to develop by necessity. She didn’t have an easy life, something I witnessed firsthand. She was barely eighteen years old when she married Johnny Maritote, a creepy, charm less man who could never hope to match her. It was an arranged marriage, designed by Al to secure relations between members of the Outfit. Johnny was the younger brother of Frank Maritote (alias Frank Diamond), a ruthless, out-of-control member of Al’s organization who was later killed by a shotgun blast.

Maffie told me that, as a little girl, she always dreamed of a big wedding but never had many suitors, much less proposals. As she put it, “Who would want to date Al Capone’s little sister? You’d have to be crazy!” So, Johnny was Maffie’s only chance. But while the marriage was good for business, and gave the Outfit reason to hope Frank Diamond would be held in check, Uncle Al was never happy about it. He knew both Maritote brothers were thugs. And that was the real reason he didn’t attend Maffie’s wedding—not, as was reported, because he was afraid of being arrested or attacked at such a public event.

Al, however, did agree to pay for the wedding. How could he deny his baby sister the day of her dreams? He spent extravagantly, inviting four-thousand guests, including most of the Raiola family in Italy. Maffie loved to describe the occasion to me. In fact, in her house, she kept a photograph on the wall of the wedding cake. It was nine feet long and four feet high and baked in the shape of a ship—just like the cruise ship that Al would send them on for their honeymoon. The cost of the cake alone was $2,100—in 1930 dollars! And the cake paled in comparison to the wedding gown. Maffie wore an ivory satin dress with a twenty-five-foot train. It took four women to hold the train up as she walked down the church aisle.

But, unfortunately for Maffie, the wedding was the best part of her marriage. After that gorgeous ceremony, her union with Johnny never brought her joy. I never heard them say a single affectionate word to each other. Johnny was a brooding man who gave me the creeps. Once when I was thirteen and stayed overnight at their house, I noticed him spying on me as I undressed. That same summer, at the Capone compound in Wisconsin, he offered to give me a driving lesson and insisted I sit on his lap. He began making inappropriate comments and movements. After that, I tried to stay as far away from him as possible.

In 1975, after I had been out of touch with all of the Capones for almost a decade, I called Aunt Maffie to say hello. Uncle Johnny answered the phone and gave me an enthusiastic, “Deirdre, where have you been? We’ve missed you!” I told him honestly that that was hard to believe—I didn’t think he loved me. His response was: “If I didn’t love you so much, I would have raped you when you were thirteen.” What kind of a man would say something like that? If I had had any doubts before, those words confirmed that my aunt Maffie had gotten a bad deal in that arranged marriage.

However, it was Johnny who finally drove home to me how much my aunt had cared about me. After she passed away in 1988, my husband Bob, our youngest son Jeff, and I all paid our respects to Johnny at his home in Michigan, where he and Maffie had moved to be closer to their daughter and granddaughter. He was happy to see us, and said over and over how much Aunt Maffie loved me and always called me “Little Mafalda.” He showed us a baby picture of me, which Maffie had displayed on her bedroom dresser for half a century. Seeing that photo sent a little wave of pain through me. Maffie’s later years coincided with the time when I needed to separate myself from being a Capone, and I had fallen out of touch with her. But, still, nothing could diminish the tremendous role Maffie played in my life—and how, on that day in 1957 when I lost my job, she instilled in me a new sense of pride in our family.

When she opened the door to me that afternoon, the first thing she did was give me a fierce, tight hug of sympathy. Then, she unleashed a slew of choice words about my boss. But I was only seventeen and felt scared and sorry for myself. In my sorrow, I blurted, “Aunt Maffie, why did Uncle Al do so many bad things? Why was he such a terrible person?”

Aunt Maffie’s face crumpled. I could tell by the look in her eyes that I had broken her heart. She stared at me with a mixture of surprise and pain, as if my words were a dagger that I had shoved in her heart. Her face seemed to say, “I thought I would never hear those words come from your mouth.”

For a brief moment, tears actually sprang to her eyes. But then she rallied. Her teeth came together, and her fists clenched at her sides. This was the Maffie we were all in awe of—this was the Maffie who could pierce anyone with her eyes. She grabbed me by the arms and sat me on the sofa. Sitting down next to me, she said in a firm voice, through her teeth, “Look, if you want to be mad at someone, be mad at the idiot who fired you.”

Her eyes left mine briefly and she seemed to be searching her memory, trying to find the words to make me understand her fierce loyalty to the family. Then, that stare locked onto me once again.

“My big brother, Al, was the man who kept our family together when my father died,” she told me. “I was only eight years old. We had no means, and Al became the chief breadwinner. He moved the whole family—including your dad, who was just a baby—from Brooklyn to Chicago. If it hadn’t been for him, we would all have starved.”

Aunt Maffie went on to try to get me to understand what the culture had been like in the 20s and 30s, when Prohibition was an almost universally unpopular law. “Deirdre, it was a business,” she said matter-of-factly. “The government was telling people they couldn’t drink, but people wanted to drink. So, the businessmen who supplied alcohol were filling a need. The Kennedys did it. The Rockefellers did too. And Al and your grandfather…they were supplying high quality stuff; it wasn’t rotgut. They were giving the people what they wanted, and the people loved them for it. Al’s speakeasies were full of politicians, police officers, judges—I saw them there myself. They were his best customers, and half of them were on his payroll! He wasn’t some ruthless person, committing crimes for sport. He was a businessman. And then, Prohibition was overturned, and the ‘crimes’ people wanted to hang him for became perfectly legal and honorable.”

Maffie went on to tell me that she knew Al as well as anyone, and she would lay down her life on the fact that he never peddled drugs or intentionally harmed a single innocent person.

For a moment, I hesitated. “What about the people the Outfit killed?” I asked quietly.

Maffie nodded. “I knew you’d wonder about that,” she said. “But you remember what we’ve always taught you. Family is everything. There were people out there who were trying to kill Al for their own gain—because he was the biggest competition there was. And they were willing to go so far as to threaten his family. When you were just a little girl, some of them were willing to threaten you. That’s where Al drew the line. He didn’t tolerate backstabbing, and he didn’t tolerate people who wanted to hurt us.”

She paused and held my gaze. I knew if there were ever a time to listen up, this was it. “No one in our family was ever involved in any cold-blooded killing,” she said. “If somebody is trying to hurt you, aren’t you permitted to protect yourself?”

Then she told me that she never knew a “gangster” who helped other people as much as Uncle Al. After the 1929 stock market crash, he set up soup kitchens all over Chicago and fed thousands of men, women, and children who otherwise would have starved. His speakeasies created jobs for people out of work and supported the careers of dozens of minority jazz musicians who perfected their craft performing for his customers.

“And my brother’s word was his bond,” Aunt Maffie finished. “Everyone knew that. He would have given his life to save your life or mine. So don’t be so hard on him. He loved his family. He loved you. Don’t you ever forget that, OK? Capish?”

That evening was a turning point in my life. Being a Capone had already influenced so much of who I was, but most of that influence centered on shame. Now, I wanted to understand my uncle Al and his partner, my grandfather Ralph, as human beings and not as “public enemies.”

But much of their story took place before I was born. I was born in 1940, but Al and Ralph were at the height of their power during the 1920s. When I knew Al, he had already suffered through the seven-year imprisonment—most of it in Alcatraz—that changed him forever. And he died in 1947, when I was just a little girl.

So, to understand my family, I had to develop a strategy. From the day I was fired, I began to ask each member of my family—Aunt Maffie; my grandfather Ralph; Al’s other brothers, Mimi, Bites, and Matty; Uncle Al’s wife Mae, and their son Sonny—to tell me everything they would or could about Al and the family business. I wanted to know how things really were. What was the secret behind Al’s business success? What was the true story of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre? What happened to Al in prison? And, of course, the question people have asked me all my life: Where did all the money go?

Some of my family members were more open than others, but all of them had stories to tell. And all of them were concerned that I might be writing a book. They made me promise that if I wrote anything, it would not be published until long after they were dead and buried.

At the end of his life, my father was in the process of writing a book about the family, which he called Sins of the Father. Just before he was found dead, Hedda Hopper mentioned in her gossip column that he was working on a manuscript. So, there was a lot of speculation in the years after his death that perhaps it wasn’t suicide. Perhaps he had been murdered—not by any member of our family, but by some other member of either the Outfit or politics who was worried about being implicated with the Capones. I will tell the full story of the questions surrounding my father’s death later in this book.

People have often asked me, “Why has no other member of the family ever written a book? Why didn’t Sonny ever write a book?” I think it’s because of the mystery that my dad’s aborted manuscript created. In this book, I will tell what actually happened at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre—and who I believe were the real perpetrators—as well as many other, as of yet untold, stories about the inner workings of Capone’s Outfit. Revealing these secrets is no small matter when you’re a member of a family that had such ruthless and unscrupulous enemies. Even if my father wasn’t murdered for working on a book, the fact that everyone believed he might have been is telling.

But now those unscrupulous enemies are long dead. And so, too, are all the members of my family who can remember Al Capone personally. Uncle Mimi, the last of Al’s siblings, died in 1994. Sonny, Al’s only child and my godfather, died in 2004. As far as I can tell, I am the last member of my family to be born with the Capone name. So now, finally, it is time for the story from inside the family to come to light.

I will not pretend to be able to paint a rosy picture of my uncle Al. I cannot make him out to be a perfect man, or even a good man. But what I want people to know is that he was a complex man. He was human—and he had a heart. He was a son, a brother, a father, and an uncle. There were two Al Capones. There was the Al Capone that strutted, wore fancy suits and big hats, and loved the limelight. There was the leader of the Outfit, who sat straight in his chair, stiff and rigid. The man who often wore a smile on his face that could instantly turn into an intimidating glare when he felt challenged.

And then there was the Al I knew—the man who would get on the floor and play with me like a big teddy bear; the man who would put on an apron and make spaghetti sauce, roaring with laughter the whole while; The man who would sing operettas in Italian at the top of his lungs and taught me to play the mandolin. This was the private Al Capone that no one ever saw. And this is the Al Capone who does not appear in the dozens of books you’ll find about him. Professional biographers can tell you about the legend, the businessman, and the leader—which they do by researching old newspapers and police blotters—but only a member of his family can tell you about the man within.

And that’s what I will do. I’ll start at the beginning—in Italy in the late nineteenth century, when Al’s parents were starting a family and deciding to come to America. And I’ll tell you the family history from before I was born, the stories of Al and Ralph’s bootlegging operation, and Al’s imprisonment. Then I’ll move forward in Al’s life to tell you about the uncle I knew personally for seven years. And finally, I’ll tell you about the legacy that Al left behind, what happened to me and the rest of the family after his death, and how we lived with both his memory and his legend. It is my hope that you will come to know Al as something more than an icon of an era. It is my hope that you will get a sense of him as a man.

Perhaps my most important reason for writing this book, however, is that I hope it will give my father’s short life some meaning. It will finish the project of telling the Capone story that he began so many decades ago and was never able to complete. And it will, I hope, absolve him of the guilt he suffered from being the inheritor of the sins of his father. It will show that he came from a good family and produced a good family—mine.

If you read the biographies, you’ll find no difference between the Capone boys and men like John Gotti. But I know that there was a difference—and I will share it with you in this book. I am a patriot because of the Capones. My love of this country—and my eagerness to contribute back to it—was instilled in me by the Capones. And I learned from the Capones what it means to have a warm, generous heart.
Have you ever wondered how two people can carefully follow the directions for a recipe, using the exact same ingredients and measurements, and achieve entirely different results? What happened? How could it be? It’s a mystery. But I propose to solve that mystery. The solution can be reduced to one word: Love.

When the Capones taught me to cook, they taught me that cooking is a labor of love. My grandma Theresa used to say to me, with a little translation from Aunt Maffie, “When you cook for someone, you must do it with love in your heart. That makes everything taste better.” How we think influences the outcome of what we do. Cook with love in your heart, and those you cook for will love the results.

On the evening after I was fired, Aunt Maffie brought me into her kitchen and taught me her famous meatball recipe. First, we ground the different meats—beef, veal, and pork—kneading them together with breadcrumbs, pine nuts, and Italian parsley. After molding them into balls, we fried them in lard, and once they were brown on all sides, we baked them in the oven, giving us plenty of time to talk.

That night, I asked her the questions I had always been afraid to ask—about Uncle Al’s business, about his relationship with my father, and about the things he did and did not do. That evening was the beginning of this book.