Friday, January 18, 2013

Reprinted With Permission - Quintessential New Trier Magazine - Copyright © 2013
She strode into the ballroom like a
Prohibition Princess.
She was a stone cold babe, wrapped in white faux fox with a jaunty, vampish feathered
fascinator tilted at the edge of her head. She was a pip, a doozy.
The room gasped. Every eye followed her. The men rushed to fill her glass after they recovered.
The women sniffed in mock indifference. She was 72, an irrelevant number. She was the most
gorgeous creature in the room, a bombshell Floridian visitor with an eye for the good life.
She’d seen things, ya’ know. She’d been around. She was Al Capone’s grandniece.
Deirdre Marie Capone had come home to Chicago to sort out things about her beloved Uncle Al.
Deirdre was back in town. What would you expect, Little Orphan Annie?
Good idea with a bad outcome
For appropriate reasons, Chicago’s high society has been jittery about
celebrating either the history of Prohibition or its official Constitutional
demise 79 years ago. No use bringing up bad memories. The supposed legalized
banishment of alcohol as America’s drug of choice only guaranteed its
unchallenged reality in that role.
Prohibition was meant to legally enforce abstinence. It not only failed that
goal, but guaranteed organized crime and corruption would embed themselves
into American life permanently. Never have good intentions enforced
by law gone so horribly sour.
No place symbolized that failure and its cost more than Chicago which
had been merely corrupt before Prohibition, but became a civic cesspool.
Virtually no Chicago criminals of any kind went to prison during Capone’s
days. Everybody was for sale: judges, juries, voters, police, and politicians.
And no person symbolized the cost to public integrity more than Capone.
Whether accurate, or overwrought hyperbole, history paints Capone as the
singular face of America’s organized gangsterism.
But Deirdre, the last Capone born to the name, had come to Chicago for
a grand anniversary gala at the Chicago History Museum. She came not to
bury Little Caesar, but to praise him. It was a royal coming out party for her.
She carries his torch
Deirdre had been on the road toward this night for more than a year. She has
delivered the message of her book – “Uncle Al Capone” - in bookstores, big
box stores, libraries, radio and TV stations and every sort of venue across the
country. If there was a crowd, she talked.
She has delivered the message and details hundreds of times, so often that
the seeming impromptu presentation came to resemble well-worn and rehearsed
talking points by a political operative. She seldom deviates from the
message or even the phrasing. Every story is retold.
She is a mother of four grown children and 14 grandchildren, one who
had run from her name for an entire life. But then she stopped running, and
she decided to stand up and be the last Capone. The very last one.
And that meant she would tell what she views as the untold truth of her
uncle. Her oft-repeated theme? “Was he a mobster? Yes. Was he a monster?
Trying to know a man’s reality
Deirdre Capone has few illusions about the wrong her great uncle did, though
she fights some charges – particularly his assumed role in the St. Valentine’s
Day Massacre of 1929 – with passionate fury and sound logic.
Her fight is less with the facts of his life than the thin, desiccated understanding
of him as a real human being. Even the worst of us can be good; the
best of us can do evil. But history, she believes, never had a reason to know
the full Al Capone, and so rejected that idea without a second thought.
But he was a real man, often affable, and generous, and apparently with a
Reprinted With Permission - Quintessential New Trier Magazine - Copyright © 2013 | Quintessential Barrington • 103
On Dec. 5, Deirdre Marie Capone shares family stories at a Chicago History Museum event called, Cocktails and Capone.
photo credit: John Alderson/Chicago History Museum
sense of devotion to family and a personal warmth for the children in his life
that still reaches out to touch Deirdre. She will not run from that again, no
matter what the world thinks or says about him.
An example? She had been 5 or 6 and was hurt and stunned. She had
fallen from a tree in the yard and seemed unable to breathe. But a large man
rushed to her side. She looked up into the blue eyes of Al Capone. As he lifted
her and cradled her in his arms, he comforted her and held her close until
she had recovered.
He dried her tears, and walked her into his Chicago house at 7244 S. Prairie
Avenue. He found his mandolin and began to strum the strings. Then he
began to softly sing her a lullaby.
“That’s the Uncle Al I remember,” she says. Uncle Al had taught her to
swim and even play his mandolin. Al and the children in his home would
gather around the radio to laugh at Red Skelton and eat Uncle Al’s popcorn.
He told them to be honorable and fair. “These were the kind of messages I
grew up hearing from the Capones,” Deirdre says. “I saw him cry, and I saw
him laugh. He would snort when he laughed, and he couldn’t catch his breath.”
She had looked forward to Uncle Al’s role in her seventh birthday on Jan.
25, 1947. But he suffered a stroke that morning and died. There would be no
birthday party.
A difficult legacy to bear
Deirdre ran from the blaring headlines and the name. She was shunned and
vilified because she bore it. Her father committed suicide trying to escape the
name’s weight. But her children eventually persuaded her it was time to stop
running. They had never known who she was until she told them after they
had grown.
She is a virtual lone voice on this crusade, which suits her just fine.
Capone and his reign have been profiled and studied by hundreds of historians
and authors. None find him redeemed or complex. They view him as a
callous killer.
But Deirdre’s passionate defense argues that no one need be naive to comprehend
subtly in the human heart or that known history is often an unfinished
canvas. She only asks that Al Capone be seen as more than we had known.
It seems a fair request to consider, although the cost to the nation in mobspawned
corruption has been staggering. At its height, Capone’s empire made
$100 million a year for him in untaxed income, and none of it went to make
Chicago function as a city. Chicago was profoundly bankrupted, both financially
and morally, during his reign. Chicago, itself, was a criminal conspiracy.
While Al might have been a jovial uncle, he never drove in a car without
armed guards flanking him in the back seat. Rivals tended to die abruptly.
Reprinted W 104 • Quintessential Barrington | QBar r ing ith Permission - Quintessential New Trier Magazine - Copyright © 2013
Book signing is a regular event for author Deirdre Marie Capone. Here she signs
copies of “Uncle Al Capone” at a Chicago History Museum event.
”Uncle Al Capone” is sure to please with its history and author’s personal
accounts of life in the Capone family. Deirdre Marie Capone
shares family recipes, as well as her amazing journey from a remarkable
and at times painful legacy to a successful and happy adulthood.
Her book is available at
photo credit: John Alderson/Chicago History Museum
Killing was a cost of business, and eventually the price of brazen lawlessness
was too steep for President Herbert Hoover to tolerate. So the Feds eventually
convicted Capone of tax evasion and sent him to Alcatraz. Uncle Sam
had no love for his most notorious uncle.
Between 1922 and 1926, the Capone gang wars in Chicago alone claimed
the lives of 215 hoods. Another 260 were killed by the police. In 1926, 42 died
in crime feuds, while 60 died in battles with law enforcement. The killing
continued. Between 1927 and 1930, 227 gangsters died within the city limits.
Deidre’s answer to the record is that Al never killed anyone who didn’t
deserve it, and besides, he delivered products to the people of Chicago at an
economical price. It was just “business.”
But even Capone had to escape the business. Luckily for him, there was a
road out of town. It took him to Wisconsin. And Deirdre went, too.
The lure of the dark woods
For reasons hard to quantify, Biggest of the Big Prohibition-era Chicago
mobsters could not resist the deep woods of Northern Wisconsin. How
utterly odd and unpredictable. They might as well have been seafarers summoned
to the blackest waters by siren seductresses.
Something about forests and cold, clean lakes drew them. Maybe it was
the quiet.
Reprinted With Permission - Quintessential New Trier Magazine - Copyright © 2013 | Quintessential Barrington • 105
Special guest, Deirdre Marie Capone, and John Russick, Director of Curatorial
Affairs, Chicago History Museum, enjoy a spirited evening on the 79th
anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition.
photo credit: John Alderson/Chicago History Museum
For a mobster wishing to alight with minimal interference, Highway 14
rolling north through Barrington became a handy thoroughfare because it
wasn’t the main road to anywhere. It was a natural back door escape hatch
from Chicago.
Not every trip was without incident, even in Barrington. George “Baby
Face” Nelson started life as Lester Gillis, but early on became a cold, lusty
killer of police. He was finally caught on Highway 14 by Feds on his way
back from his Wisconsin hideout in 1934. There had been a fierce gunfight
in Wisconsin. Eventually, the Feds plugged him six times in Barrington, but
he survived the night only to have confederates dump his corpse at a Niles
cemetery the next day.
Mobsters lived quickly and exited life even faster.
That only adds to the seeming oddness of the mobster fascination with
Wisconsin, though one reason seems obvious. Three hundred miles due
north of Chicago is a place so non-Chicago that even an urban warrior and
crime lord prepared to kill or be killed on a daily basis knew he could get lost
there. And stay lost if the need persisted.
Al Capone and older brother Ralph, the shy one, knew early that being
named Public Enemies No. 1 and No. 3 respectively probably were not career
choices that promised longevity. Some Prohibition mobsters walked away from
the life; most were carried out in a body bag, or died in prison. Al and Ralph
knew that well enough. They had caused many of those body bags to be filled.
But beyond a comfy hiding place, Wisconsin seemed to hold deeper
magic to them than just utilitarian camouflage. They had gained a fearsome
power and more money than people of the 1920s and ’30s could even imagine.
But they could not escape the life they had chosen, or the life that had
chosen them.
So, mobsters came to the dark wilds of Wisconsin regularly and found
solitude even deeper than the freedom from being stalked by hunters
with badges.
Deirdre was part of the Capone family’s regular pilgrimage to Wisconsin.
She was a child there for many weeks every year, and the good times
seemed never to end. She liked the winters best of all. She romped in the
snow-packed woods.
“The older (Capone) children were six boys: Vincenzo, my grandfather
Ralph, and his younger brothers, Frank, Al, Mimi, Bites, and [sister]Matty,”
Deirdre says. “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.”
Whether the Capones ever came to regret their careers and crimes, no
unchallenged evidence survives, except for their occasional poses as social
well-doers. Publicists (Uncle Al hired famed writer Damon Runyon as one)
often counseled him to be a civic benefactor. It was good for image. But the
life cost all of them.
“Finally, there was my dad, Ralph Gabriel Capone,” Deirdre recalls. “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 10 years old.”
The ultimate hideout
As odd as it might seem, the Capone sires allowed themselves to be boys in
the Wisconsin hideouts, too. They hunted and fished and played cowboys.
They played at being cops and robbers. Really. The guns were real but they
were only mimicking the careers they lived for real in Chicago. They also
conducted “business” – mostly the capitalistic details of operating bootlegging
distribution, gambling and brothels.
The brothers taught Deirdre to shoot a gun efficiently. She developed a
love for kayaking and rowing there, too. Even in her seventh decade, she
remains athletic and graceful. She is a sound golfer and teaches yoga lessons.
Some of life’s approaches actually last a life.
Mercer and her Capone elders gave her that. As for the Capone men, they
settled easily into the momentary sanctuary. Even now, you can go there and
see the architectural remnants of that life. But unless you know where Mercer,
Wis., is – there would be little good in describing geographical details.
It’s the “Loon Capital” of the world. Even loons don’t always know where
it is. Know the Chequamegon National Forest? Didn’t think so. It’s down the
road west.
But for natural grandeur, Mercer’s neighborhood is a hard place to
improve. There are 200 lakes within a 20-mile radius, 300 miles of trout
streams, 378,000 acres of deep forest are all around, as are 456 miles of manicured
snowmobile trails. A person can boat, swim, hunt, and watch loons
there without human interruption.
Reprinted W 106 • Quintessential Barrington | QBar r ing ith Permission - Quintessential New Trier Magazine - Copyright © 2013
Deirdre Marie Capone is pictured at the lake
where family members stayed in the summer. Her
grandfather, Ralph Gabriel Capone, had property in
Northern Wisconsin, in the town of Mercer.
Deirdre Marie Capone sits with her
Uncle Al Capone as Santa.
Photos courtesy of Deirdre Marie Capone
The truth is that Mercer is home to 1,500 or so generally nice folks interspersed
around Highway 51, but mostly, it’s 380 miles away from Chicago
and is a whole lot of nowhere masquerading as a name on a road sign.
Wisconsinites hold a dubious view of outsiders – especially “flatlanders”
from Illinois taking liberties with their state.
But they have made exceptions. The Capones were always welcome. They
are recalled even now as good neighbors who could always be counted on
to help when the need arose. Ralph, the oldest brother, loved the place so
much that he bought the Rex Bar there and operated it until his death in
the 1970s. Mostly, Mercer is a place to avoid being noticed and celebrate the
rustic outdoor joys.
As did Ralph, younger brother Alphonse came to the hidden warrens
and forested glens to escape. Even Al Capone needed to escape from being
Al Capone.
When Al yearned for even deeper privacy away from wandering G-Men
and wayfaring hit men, there always was his separate 400-acre hideout 170
miles northwest of Wausau – a place so remote even native cheeseheads say
“where?” His main lodge – more a fortress really - sported 18-inch walls and
a 37-acre lake large enough to handle incoming seaplane shipments of highgrade
bootleg whiskey from Canada.
Local deliveries
He eventually stored much of the hooch at the towering silos that now serve
as the Town Hall in Inverness, just up the road from Barrington.
When the John Dillinger gang and “Baby Face” Nelson headed north
through Barrington and Highway 14, they often were on their way to Little
Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters. Another Wisconsin destination.
North side Irish mob leader “Bugs” Moran and his wife favored the
more genteel attractions in Lake Geneva. Members of the Irish gang and the
Capone Italian/Sicilian confederation never vacationed within gunshot of
each other.
Many of the Northwoods mob haunts still exist as tourist attractions and
plans seem ever on the verge of restoring Al Capone’s massive fortress.
If so, the whiskey they’ll sell will all be legal. No guns, please, unless it’s
deer season.
But the mystery and murderous magic of the old mob?
That’s gone, just like whatever the truth is about Deirdre’s loving
Uncle Al.
Perhaps that truth is buried somewhere that’s never to be found below
clear blue skies in the deep, dark, peaceful woods of Northern Wisconsin.
David Rutter is the former senior editor at five newspapers,
including the Lake County News-Sun. He is the editorial director
at Quintessential Media Group.
Reprinted With Permission - Quintessential New Trier Magazine - Copyright © 2013 | Quintessential Barrington • 107

Friday, January 11, 2013

Chicago Tribune Article January 2013

Deirdre Capone softens a notorious icon

In 'Uncle Al Capone,' Deirdre does what she can to humanize her great-uncle

By Donald Liebenson
4:17 PM CST, December 28, 2012
What's in a name? If you're a Chicagoan and your surname is Capone, everything. There is perhaps no more notorious name associated with the city (except perhaps Gacy, or for a time, Bartman). Growing up, Deirdre Marie Capone lived what she calls a "shame-based existence" and struggled with her family ties to one of the towering crime bosses of the 20th century.
So it's something of a new chapter in her life that she wrote a book, "Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story from Inside His Family," which takes on the public's perception of her family as personified by Al, former "Public Enemy No.1," whose "Outfit" menaced Chicago during the Prohibition era and who remains the poster boy for Chicago's mob past.

This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.

Unlike Leonard Nimoy, who desperately tried to distance himself from his signature "Star Trek" character with his book, "I am not Spock," Capone confronts her family's legacy head on.
She's got her work cut out for her, considering what we think we know about Al Capone. That little matter of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, for instance.
But here's the thing: What we know about Al Capone isn't necessarily true, and what we don't know would add a more human dimension to the quintessential gangster who inspired the 1932 crime classic film "Scarface."
"Was Al Capone a mobster?" Capone asks. "Yes, he was. Was he a monster? No, he was not."
Is the world ready for a more human Al Capone, one who, Capone writes, taught her to swim and ride a bike and traded knock-knock jokes? Chicagoan Jonathan Eig's 2010 book, "Get Capone," for one, has set the record straight on some of the more infamous aspects of the Capone mythology. But a piece of the puzzle is missing, Capone insists in an interview. "There are more than 100 books written about Al Capone," she says. "But no author ever knew the man, knew the color of his eyes, the way he smelled, the sound of his voice. This is an entirely different perspective."
For decades, when it came to Al Capone, the classic words spoken in the John Ford western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" applied: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." So, despite Eig's research and Capone's interviews with family members who, she insists, gave it to her straight, the public at large has Capone fingered as the orchestrator of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Which he probably was not.
"Al Capone was almost never linked directly to any murders," Eig said in an email. "He was a savvy businessman who kept his hands clean. It's very unlikely Capone was involved in that notorious crime."
Capone devotes a chapter in her book to the massacre, which was intended to be a hit on rival mob boss Bugs Moran. Seven people were slain. Moran was not present. Capone offers her own convincing case that Al was not involved based on talks she had with her grandfather, Al's brother, Ralph. "Anybody who studied Al Capone's M.O. would know that was not a Capone job," Capone says. "If Capone wanted to get Moran, he would have gotten him. There wouldn't have been that farce."
Capone, 72, who lives in Florida, was in Chicago recently in part to speak at a Chicago History Museum gala marking the 79th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. That she would stand before any size crowd to talk about her family would have been inconceivable as recently as two years ago, she says.
She did not tell her husband, to whom she has been married for 50 years, about her family tree until just before they were married and moved to Minnesota in 1972. Two years later, she writes in her book, her 9-year-old son came home from school, and in answer to her question "What did you learn today?" responded that he learned about a gangster named Al Capone.
She was finally compelled to have the conversation with her children that she had long dreaded.
"It was very difficult growing up in Chicago with the last name of Capone," she says. "My father was the first born of the second generation of Capones, and he had all the family hope and promise on his shoulders. He played the role in the Capone family that John Fitzgerald Kennedy played in the Kennedy family. He got his law degree from Loyola, but the Chicago Bar Association wouldn't allow him to practice because his last name was Capone." He took his own life when his daughter was 10.
As for Capone, she had been enrolled in elementary school as Deirdre Gabriel (her father's middle name). She was inadvertently outed, she recalls, in a newspaper story about a ceremony at which "Deirdre Capone" was among the second-grade students who had received their first communion. The ceremony had been held in the wake of Al Capone's death in 1947 on Jan. 25, Deirdre Capone's birthday. The family needed "something joyous," she says, and so the entire Capone clan attended the event. "The priests and nuns (at my school) knew who I was, but my classmates and their parents didn't," she says. "Two weeks later, every other classmate was invited to this girl's birthday party, but not me. I sent out invitations to my birthday party, but no one came."
Years later, she writes, she worked with an insurance company in downtown Chicago. She still went by the surname Gabriel, but six months into the job, she had to use her legal name to take advantage of the company's offer to its employees of a free insurance policy. When her boss learned she was a Capone, she says, she was let go.
She, too, had harbored thoughts of suicide, she admits, but credits the Capone "grit" with her drive to persevere. "I inherited that," she says.
But she still approached with trepidation the task of telling her children that she was a Capone. She was old enough to read when Al Capone died and had seen the obituaries and their recaps of his life of crime. "I couldn't figure it out" at the time, she says. "I knew something was different because when my father took me to grandma's house and Al was there, there would always be armed guards.
"But I loved those people, and they loved me. I was never afraid, and there was never anything awful that went on."
And so she sat down with her four children — then ages 9 through 14 — and told them about her ties to Al and the Capone family. Their response: "Cool."
Following the release in 1987 of Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables," featuring Robert De Niro as Al Capone, it was Deirdre Capone's sons who encouraged her to write a book that would offer at least a more nuanced portrait of Capone, who in the film bashes in an underling's head with a baseball bat.
Capone admires the film and DeNiro but argues that the movie "put a monstrous face on the Prohibition era. It wasn't that violent," she says.
(On this point, Eig disagrees. "Crime was rampant in Chicago in the 1920s, with something like 70 or 80 murders a year," he said).
Make no mistake; Capone is no Pollyanna. She allows for family bias, but just as she passionately knocks down commonly held assumptions about Al Capone, so does she own up to violence committed under Al's auspices. But that violence, she insists, never involved innocent citizens — only those who represented a threat to the business or the family.
In that respect, she says, she finds "The Godfather" movie the most authentic in portraying a sense of what it was like growing up a Capone.
She originally wrote her book as a family history for her children and grandchildren so they would have a better or fuller understanding of the Capone family. For decades she interviewed first-generation family members and kept her promise that the book would not be published until they all had passed. "My children said they really felt the public would want to read this," she says.
Not that the book will change anyone's mind about Al Capone. "There is a group of people out there who I call gangsterologists," Capone says. "They think they know more about my family than I do. They certainly know a lot about the era. But I grew up inside this family.
"Every time a relative died, the newspapers ran all the same stories, and believe me, most of what you read was not factual. I just want a chance to give anyone who's interested an opportunity to see there is a human being named Al Capone."
Are new books about Capone by Deidre Capone, Eig and others having an impact?
Capone points to the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," in which Stephen Graham portrays Al Capone. True to form, the character is portrayed as violent and ruthless. But in a recent episode, Capone was seen comforting his deaf son, Sonny, who had been bullied at school, by tenderly playing him a song on a mandola, placing the child's hand on his throat so he could feel the vibrations of his voice.
It's a start.
For the past 23 years, Donald Liebenson has written features with an emphasis on culture, community and entertainment.

Non-bullet points

  • "I promise you, Dear Reader," Deirdre Capone writes in "Uncle Al Capone," "that after reading this book you will know things about Al Capone and his family that none of his biographers ever knew." Here are some tidbits, from the author or from her book:
  • In "The Untouchables," De Niro's Capone is overcome by an opera performance. But Al Capone was also a jazz buff. His brother Ralph opened a version of New York's famed Cotton Club in Cicero. In the 1950s, Deirdre recalls, "my grandfather took me to the Chez Paree (nightclub) to see Nat King Cole. We were invited to his dressing room."
  • Capone prided himself on his appearance. In exploring options for a legitimate business enterprise, he considered creating the "Al Capone Collection."
  • "Hits" associated with Al Capone would have taken on a whole new meaning if he had succeeded in his plan to buy the Chicago Cubs. "I love Wrigley Field," Al is quoted as saying. When his brother, Ralph, asked him what he was prepared to offer the Wrigley family for the team and ballpark, he is said to have actually replied, "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse."
  • Alphonse "Scarface" Capone had blue eyes.
  • Al Capone's son, Sonny, was a close childhood friend of Desi Arnaz, whose family Deirdre's grandfather Ralph was instrumental in getting out of Cuba following the 1933 revolution.
  • In the 1980s, while still playing down her family ties, Deirdre says she was approached by Geraldo Rivera's people to participate in the now infamous "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults" broadcast. She declined.