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

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