Glamorous exiles Caresse and Harry Crosby and Harry’s sister Kitsa on the beach at Deauville, September 1929. Narcisse Noir reclines at their feet.
A HANDSOME YOUNG MAN STANDS ON A SUNNY BEACH BETWEEN his wife and his sister. It’s late summer and the bathers frolicking in the shallows or shading themselves beneath striped parasols in the background are growing scarce. The two women are in pale knee-length dresses, their hair fashionably styled; one wears a cardigan against the sea wind. Harry Crosby stands out in his dark suit, his hands stuffed into his pockets and his face screwed up against the sun. The photograph was taken at Deauville in late September, 1929, but it has an astonishingly contemporary feel.
The three figures probably look more normal to us than they would have to an onlooker at the time the photograph was taken. So many of the things that would have marked them out as modernists in the eyes of their peers are now taken for granted. When I look at it I have to pinch myself to remember that Harry being bareheaded, at a time when no gentleman went outside without a hat, was a daring declaration of freedom, and that the black silk gardenia he sports in his lapel was a deliberate subversion of the genteel buttonhole and a badge of his alliance with the avantgarde. Knowing the story behind this photograph provides us with clues about the world in which Harry and his family lived, a world of growth and social upheaval on an unprecedented scale—a world which, in its self-conscious modernity and its brash enthusiasms, was startlingly similar to our own.
The Crosbys were American aristocracy, living in Europe on vast wealth accumulated on Wall Street, although Harry affected to despise the conventional milieu from which he sprang and delighted in shocking it when he could. Despite their Establishment roots, Harry Crosby and his companions were prophets of a new age. Today there is nothing unusual in divorce but in 1929 it was still a scandal. On this day at the beach, Harry’s sister announced that she was divorcing her husband. Harry’s wife, Caresse, had left her first husband to marry him, branding them both outlaws from respectable society. Their example heralded a future when divorce would be commonplace. Harry’s eccentric dress and behavior also marked them out. Like fellow members of the Lost Generation, Harry had responded to the atrocities he had seen as an ambulance driver in the French trenches during the First World War with reckless hedonism, fueled by the American age of plenty in which he was living. He was promiscuous, he was profligate, he drank too much, he took drugs, he drove dangerously fast, he died young. Harry Crosby may have felt part of a tiny, forward-thinking elite during his lifetime, but his story is all too familiar today.
I’ve been interested in the 1920s in America for many years, but what made me decide to write about it now was an increasingly powerful sense of recognition. So many aspects of the Jazz Age recall our own: political corruption and complacency; fear of outsiders; life-changing technologies; cults of youth, excess, consumerism and celebrity; profit as a new religion on the one hand and the easy availability of credit on the other; astonishing affluence and yet a huge section of society unable to move out of poverty. Perhaps we too are hurtling towards some sort of catastrophe, the effects of which will evoke those of the crash of 1929. After all, as history so often reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun.
This is a subjective survey of the principal events and characters of the time. The Roaring Twenties was an age of iconic events and people, of talismanic names and episodes that have entered our consciousness more like myths—or morality tales—than historical occurrences. This book is my exploration of those icons. From a distance of eighty years, some still glitter while others have grown tarnished, but their fascination endures.
—London, July 2007
Cozying up to the law: sharp-suited gangster Al Capone (left) with Henry Laubenheimer, US Marshall for Illinois, at the height of Capone’s attempts to present himself as a legitimate businessman, 1928.
IN EARLY 1927, WHEN CHICAGO’S BEER WARS BETWEEN RIVAL GANGS of bootleggers were at their peak, Al Capone invited a group of reporters to his heavily fortified home. Fetchingly attired in a pink apron and bedroom slippers, rather than his usual sharp suit and diamond cuff-links, he dished up a feast of homemade spaghetti and illegally imported Chianti and told his guests that he was getting out of the booze racket. Capone wanted the world—not just the public but the police, the federal authorities and his mob enemies—to believe that he was finished with crime.
But despite his public pronouncement, he had no intention of quitting such a profitable business. At the end of the year, with gangsters still dying in regular shoot-outs on the streets of Chicago, Capone again tried to distance himself from the criminal underworld. Summoning journalists to his suite at the Metropole Hotel, his headquarters in the center of the city, he announced his retirement for the second time in a year. He had only been trying, Capone declared, to provide people with what they wanted. “Public service is my motto,” he insisted. “Ninety percent of the people in Chicago drink and gamble. I’ve tried to serve them decent liquor and square games. But I’m not appreciated. It’s no use . . . Let the worthy citizens of Chicago get their liquor the best way they can. I’m sick of the job. It’s a thankless one and full of grief.” He was no more a criminal than his clients, he argued. “I violate the prohibition law, sure. Who doesn’t? The only difference is I take more chances than the man who drinks a cocktail before dinner and a flock of highballs after it. But he’s just as much a violator as I am . . .” Falsely, he claimed that he and his men had never been involved in serious crime, vice or robbery: “I don’t pose as a plaster saint, but I never killed anyone.”
The worst of it was the suffering that his work—which he implied was practically charity—caused his family. “I could bear it all if it weren’t for the hurt it brings to my mother and my family. They hear so much about what a terrible criminal I am. It’s getting too much for them and I’m just sick of it all myself.” Although several of his brothers worked with him, Capone idealized his mother and his wife and son and kept his family life rigidly separate from his professional activities and the late-night perks that went with them of drinking, drugs and girls. It was as if maintaining his family’s innocence allowed him to hope that he was not entirely the monster he knew himself to be.
After the press conference Capone headed for Florida. “I almost feel like sending him and his boys a basket of roses,” said the Chief of Police when he heard the news. The Chicago papers screamed, “‘YOU CAN ALL GO THIRSTY’ IS AL CAPONE’S ADIEU.”
When Capone made these announcements in 1927 he was at the peak of his power. Just twenty-eight, growing into his role as Chicago’s leading gangster, he was becoming ever more confident about engaging with the legitimate world—albeit on his own terms. While on the one hand he was cautious of his safety after the attack of 1925 that had nearly killed his partner, Johnny Torrio, on the other he was increasingly willing to reveal his personality in an effort to win over the public whose approval he craved—and on whose approval, he believed, his continued success depended. This desire for appreciation and attention was what lifted him out of the everyday ranks of mobsters into a class of his own.
His car, a custom-built, steel-plated Cadillac, which weighed seven tons and had bullet-proof window glass and a hidden gun compartment, encapsulated the dichotomy between Capone’s need for protection and his love of display. Although it was undoubtedly secure it was also instantly recognizable, and became a defining element of the Capone mystique. Another element of Capone’s public image was his distinctive appearance. Even in his twenties Al Capone was a broad man—he stood five foot seven and weighed 255 pounds—but he was capable of grace as well as power. He was softly spoken but immensely charismatic, his air of authority enhanced by an undercurrent of menace. As he was reportedly fond of saying, “You get a lot further with a smile and a gun than you can with just a smile.”
Capone may have been known for his facial scars (while still in his teens he had complimented a girl in a Coney Island dance-hall on her “nice ass” and in the fight that ensued her brother had slashed his cheek and neck three times), but he covered his face with thick powder to try to hide them and hated being called Scarface. Among friends the nickname he preferred was Snorky, slang for “elegant.” His hand-made suits came in ice-cream colors, tangerine, violet, apple-green and primrose, with the righthand pockets reinforced to hide the bulge of his gun; he wore a marquise-cut diamond pin in his tie to match his cuff-links and an eleven-carat blue-white diamond on the little finger of his left hand, the hand he didn’t use for firing a gun. Off duty, he favored gold-piped royal blue silk pajamas embroidered with his initials.
Capone wanted to present himself as the acceptable face of crime—a modern entrepreneur rather than a crook. He began playing the role of benevolent public figure, watching baseball games and boxing matches with friends, greeting the aviator Charles Lindbergh when he landed his hydroplane on Lake Michigan in the summer of 1927 following his heroic solo flight from New York to Paris. Celebrities who passed through Chicago were taken to meet him; he was generous with ice-creams for children and racing tips for strangers he met on the street; when buying a newspaper, he’d pay with a five-dollar bill and tell the boy to keep the change.
Golf, a 1920s craze, became a passion—though, as ever, Capone played by his own rules. Wearing baggy grey plus fours held up by a belt with a diamond buckle, pockets bulging with guns and hip-flasks, he and “Machine Gun” McGurn and “Killer” Burke played for $500 a hole. They used each other as human tees and wrestled, played leapfrog and turned somersaults on the greens. On one occasion, accused—almost certainly with reason—of cheating, Capone drew a gun on one of his bodyguards. Danger was never far from the surface with Capone, even during a friendly game of golf.
At the same time Capone courted the press, developing close relationships with several journalists. The Chicago Tribune’s crime correspondent, James Doherty, found Capone neither entertaining nor articulate, but more than willing to be profiled. He was aware, Doherty wrote, that a positive public image would “make better business for him.” Another Tribune writer, Jake Lingle, a police reporter and, in his spare time, an avid gambler, was well known for his friendship with Capone. But this intimacy with the underworld was dangerous: in 1931 Lingle was shot dead, probably by a rival of Capone’s. Subsequent investigations revealed that he had been in Capone’s pay.
Perhaps the most useful of Capone’s press connections was Harry Read, city editor of the Chicago Evening American. In return for exclusive interviews (and generous vacations), Read coached Capone on his image, encouraging him to show his softer side. Read, like Doherty, realized that it was the violence of Capone’s world to which the public objected, not his specific crimes. Too many people liked having a flutter on the horses or a stiff drink to condemn Capone for supplying their needs. As Doherty said, Capone “was giving them a service they wanted. No one minded about them trading booze; it was all the killing that brought about their undoing.”
When the English journalist Claud Cockburn interviewed Capone in 1929, at the Lexington Hotel in Chicago, his new headquarters, he described entering the gloomy, deserted lobby and being stared at by a receptionist with the expression “of a speakeasy proprietor looking through the grille at a potential detective.”
After being frisked, Cockburn rode the elevator up to Capone’s six-room suite on the fourth floor. “Bulging” henchmen stood idly around; cash was stacked against the wall in padlocked canvas bags; the initials AC were inlaid in the parquet floor. Portraits of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington hung alongside ones of “Big Bill” Thompson, Chicago’s corrupt mayor, and the movie stars “Fatty” Arbuckle and the Vamp, Theda Bara. Capone’s office looked like nothing so much as that of a “‘newly arrived” Texas oil millionaire,” wrote Cockburn—but for the submachine gun behind the mahogany desk.
Cockburn asked Capone what he might have done if he hadn’t “gone into this racket.” Capone replied that he would “have been selling newspapers on the street in Brooklyn.” Growing increasingly agitated, distractedly dipping the tips of his fingers in the silver bowls of roses on his desk, he railed against the un-Americanness of the Sicilian mafia (Capone’s family came from Naples, but he was always proud to say that he had been born in America), its primitive, unprofessional mano nero intimidation tactics. “This American system of ours, call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it,” he shouted, pushing his chair back and standing up, holding out his dripping hands towards Cockburn.
In January 1920 it became illegal throughout the United States to manufacture, transport, sell or possess—but not to purchase or consume—alcohol. For all the recalcitrance with which Americans greeted it, Prohibition was not foisted upon an entirely unwilling population. When the national law was passed in 1919, thirty-three of the forty-eight states were already dry.
Reformers saw Prohibition as a necessary instrument of social improvement—a way to help the poor and needy help themselves. They associated alcohol with urbanization, with violence, laziness and corruption, and with unwelcome immigrants. Sober men, thought Prohibitionists, would be better Americans. They would stop beating their wives, hold down jobs, go to church (preferably a Protestant church), save their pennies. A sober society would be patriotic, stable, pious and prosperous.
Warren Gamaliel Harding, the Republican President elected in 1920, viewed Prohibition in much the same light as most of his fellow Americans, who were virtuous enough to praise Prohibition but not quite virtuous enough to practice it. Harding may have voted in the Senate to ratify Prohibition but in private he had no intention of abiding by its strictures. He could see nothing wrong with his own fondness for whisky, especially when it was accompanied by a well-chewed cigar and a few poker-playing cronies. Prohibition was a little like an unpleasant-tasting medicine: people recognized its merits and uses, but if they did not think they were sick (and very few did) they were unwilling to swallow it themselves. As a New York World satire went, “Prohibition is an awful flop. /We like it . . . It don’t prohibit worth a dime, /Nevertheless we’re for it.”
The reformers had also failed to foresee that once alcohol was illegal it would take on an irresistible glamour. Rather than encouraging people to stop drinking, Prohibition made them want to drink. Writers like Scott Fitzgerald rhapsodized over forbidden cocktails like “the iridescent exhilaration of absinthe frappé, crystal and pearl in green glasses” or “gin fizzes [the] color of green and silver”; the sparkle of champagne suddenly gave drinkers a delightful new sensation of naughtiness; liveried bell-hops rushed up and down hotel staircases bearing soda, buckets of crushed ice and thrillingly discreet brown-paper packages. The popular 1920 song said it all: “You Cannot Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea.”
On a visit to the United States in 1928, the English journalist Beverley Nichols observed that “Prohibition has set a great many dull feet dancing. . . . The disappearance of the “speakeasy” would be an infinite loss to all romanticists,” Nichols continued. “Who, having slunk down the little flight of stairs into the area, glancing to right and left, in order to make sure that no police are watching, having blinked at the suddenly lighted grille, and assured the proprietor, whose face peers through the bars, of his bona fides—who would willingly forfeit these delicious preliminaries? And who, having taken his seat in the shuttered restaurant, having felt all the thrill of the conspirator, having jumped at each fresh ring of the bell, having, perhaps, enjoyed the supreme satisfaction of participating in a real raid—who would prefer, to these excitements, a sedate and legal dinner, even if all the wines of the world were at his disposition?” Before Prohibition, alcohol had been a cheap high. In 1914, a highball might cost fifteen cents. Six years later a swanky speakeasy could charge $3—twenty times as much—for a glass of top-quality whisky and even at the bottom of the market that shot would cost about fifty cents (although it was free for the police). But despite the expense and the criminality associated with alcohol after Prohibition came into effect, people were still drinking “with a frantic desire to get drunk and enjoy themselves.” There were fortunes to be made for those who dared to flout the law.
During the winter, Sam Bronfman ran bootleg whisky on sleds across frozen Lake Erie from Canada into Detroit, where the illegal liquor industry was second only to the motor trade and, by the mid- 1920s, was worth an estimated $215 million a year. Bronfman later became head of Seagrams, the world’s largest distiller. Rum-runners like Captain Bill McCoy cruised up and down the Atlantic seaboard, playing at pirates as they smuggled Caribbean rum—“the real McCoy”—into the United States. They were largely controlled by a syndicate headed by Arnold Rothstein, the man said to have fixed the 1919 baseball World Series and the model for Jay Gatsby’s shady friend Meyer Wolfsheim, the bootlegger who wore cuff-links made of human molars.
It was still legal for doctors to prescribe liquor for medical problems, jokingly known as thirstitis. Beer was not considered remedial, but in 1921 drugstore owners withdrew over eight million gallons of “medicinal” whisky from federal warehouses, about twenty times the pre-Prohibition amount.
The final option for thirsty Americans—and the one that carried the greatest risks, less because drinking it might lead to imprisonment than because it might lead to hospital—was moonshine. Throat-burning Yack Yack Bourbon, made in Capone’s Chicago, blended burnt sugar and iodine; Panther whisky contained a high concentration of fusel oil, which was thought to trigger paranoia, hallucinations, sexual depravity and murderous impulses; Philadelphia’s Soda Pop Moon was blended from “rubbing alcohol,” also used as a disinfectant and in gasoline; Jackass brandy caused internal bleeding. Other poisonous ingredients included soft soap, camphor, embalming fluid and bichloride of mercury, a highly corrosive form of mercury used to treat syphilis and to preserve biological specimens in museums. Most notorious of all was jake, a fluid extract of Jamaican ginger, which caused paralysis and ultimately death.
Distributing bootleg on a large scale required police cooperation as well as a highly organized mob. An investigation in Philadelphia in 1928 revealed that after eight years of Prohibition many police officers there had savings of tens of thousands of dollars, and several of them hundreds of thousands—on average annual salaries of just over $3,000. Of the measly three thousand Prohibition agents covering the country in 1930 (one of whom was Al Capone’s brother, inspired by the Wild West and calling himself Richard “Two Guns” Hart), a tenth had to be sacked for corruption.
Prohibition agents were so well known for their laxity that the most scrupulous and successful agent of the early 1920s became a celebrity. Isadore Einstein, a former postal clerk from New York’s Lower East Side whose father had wanted him to be a rabbi, was a short, fat man who looked so unlike an agent that he was forced to protest in his interview that “there might be some advantage in not looking like a detective.” Izzy was a performer at heart. Despite his distinctive appearance he appeared unrecognized in bars as a traveling salesman, a judge, a cattle-rancher; perhaps carrying a trombone, covered in coal dust, extravagantly bearded or clad in a swimming costume at Coney Island. Einstein relished his work, utilizing to the full his linguistic gifts (as well as English he spoke German, Hungarian, Yiddish, Polish, French, Italian, Russian and a smattering of Chinese) in a multitude of farcical disguises. He even went to Harlem disguised as a black man, complete with authentic dialect, and once tossed his badge on to the bar of a saloon in New York’s Bowery district, demanding (and receiving) a drink for “a deserving Prohibition agent.” After he had received his drink Izzy would arrest the barman, carefully pouring the alcohol into a special jar hidden in his pocket to produce as evidence in court. As well as being a committed Prohibition agent, Einstein, like Capone, had a talent for self-promotion. Press photographers were often primed to await his duped victims outside the scenes of their arrests.
Along with his straight-man partner, Moe Smith, Einstein smashed hundreds of home-stills, raided 3,000 bars, arrested over 4,300 people and confiscated five million bottles of bootleg liquor. Despite their staggering 95 percent conviction rate, Einstein and Smith were sacked in 1925, with no explanation given. The most likely reason is that their fame was making it harder for them to escape attention on patrol—they were just as liable to be asked for their autographs as to make an arrest—but they also attracted the resentment of their fellow agents. If they were honest, agents felt that Izzy and Moe’s vaudevillian antics were bringing the forces into disrepute; if crooked, that their successes were depriving them of bribe-money.
Einstein reckoned that in most cities it took just half an hour to get a drink—although in Pittsburgh it took only eleven minutes and in New Orleans a matter of seconds. He and Smith had more trouble in Chicago. When they arrived they were recognized immediately and closely followed throughout their stay. Al Capone was taking no chances.
The Capone family had landed in New York from Naples in 1894, five years before Alphonse was born, the fourth of nine children. His father Gabriel worked as a barber and his mother Teresa was a seamstress. Like most immigrants from the more deprived parts of Europe, neither Gabriel nor Teresa could speak English or read and write. The Promised Land, increasingly wary of new arrivals flooding its shores, offered less succor and opportunity than they must have hoped. On average, an Italian-born laborer in New York in 1910 earned about $10 a week—roughly a third less than his “native-born” American counterpart. Existing home-country ties of family and community assumed even greater importance in this hostile environment.
Al Capone arrived in Chicago from Brooklyn in 1921, aged twenty-two, at the invitation of the racketeer Johnny Torrio. Already marked by vicious scars on the left side of his face, Capone was a rising talent in the underworld. He had been running errands for Torrio and his gangster associates, Frankie Yale and Lucky Luciano, in Brooklyn since his early teens, finding in the gang mentality of New York a sense of identity and belonging that was painfully absent in the lives of most Southern and Eastern European immigrants. Capone was intelligent and ambitious, but legitimate outlets for his energies and talents did not exist: crime offered him the chance to make it big.
At the hub of a burgeoning railroad network and ideally placed to distribute timber, ice and grain around the country, Chicago in the early 1920s was a town on the make—a Capone of a city—fueled by brutal, frontier vitality, the scent of freshly made money in the air. Shining new-built skyscrapers soared perhaps twenty stories heavenwards, steel indicators of the city’s lofty ambitions; grimy suburbs, filled with immigrants of all races and colors—Southern blacks, Russian Jews, Italians like Capone himself—sprawled out round the center, providing the labor on which the city’s wealth was built and the markets it would service.
Long before Capone’s arrival, Chicago had been home to a flourishing criminal population. Racketeering, gambling and political corruption were commonplace, but vice was Chicago’s particular specialty. White slaves—young girls forced into prostitution—were “broken in,” or repeatedly raped, before being sold on to brothels. From 1900 to 1911 the Everleigh Club, run by a pair of stately sisters, Ada and Minna, was the most opulent and expensive bordello in the country. The Levee was so notoriously unruly a district, populated by street walkers, that police officers did not dare try to enforce the law on its streets until it was closed down in 1912. Pimps and madams each had their own union-like associations (respectively the Cadets’ Protective Association and the Friendly Friends) which raised slush funds with which to pay off the police force. The reign of Big Bill Thompson, the city’s crooked mayor since 1915, had only reinforced these traditions. It was appropriate, therefore, that although Al Capone’s business card read “Second-Hand Furniture Dealer” his first job in Chicago was managing the Four Deuces, Johnny Torrio’s headquarters, a whorehouse, saloon and gambling den. In 1924 police seized the Four Deuces’ ledgers which revealed Capone’s methodical business records—detailed lists of big-spending clients and police and Prohibition agents on the payroll, transport details for smuggled alcohol, itemized income sources—and annual profits of approximately $3 million.
Two years after Capone’s arrival in Chicago, Big Bill Thompson had to withdraw from the upcoming mayoral election in the wake of revelations of his corruption. He was replaced by William Dever who campaigned on a pledge of enforcing Prohibition. Torrio and Capone, who had had a good working relationship with Thompson, knew that under Dever they would have to be more circumspect about their activities. They looked to the sleepy suburb of Cicero, which had its own mayor and a police force separate from Chicago’s, as their new command center.
Cicero was one of Chicago’s western suburbs, dominated by the Western Electric Company which employed a fifth of its 40,000 inhabitants in making, so the company boasted, most of the world’s telephones. It was a quiet, prosperous place, its character determined by the hard-working, old-fashioned and, crucially, beer-loving Czech Bohemians who had settled there. Beer is an easy drink to produce but the most difficult to distribute unobtrusively because breweries and beer-trucks are large and conspicuous; more than any other kind of alcohol, it necessitated large-scale criminal activity.
Johnny Torrio set up Cicero’s first brothel in October 1923. At about the same time the Cotton Club, run by Al’s brother Ralph, was opened there; police files referred to it as a “whoopee spot.” Ralph also managed the nearby Stockade which was a sixty-girl brothel as well as a gambling den, weapons dump and hideout. He had received permission for his establishment after rousing the local police chief from his bed in the middle of the night, taking him to the town hall and kicking and beating him over the head with gun butts. Another brother, Frank, was given responsibility for dealing with Cicero’s administration, promising Capone support in return for non-interference in their affairs.
It was in this atmosphere, in the autumn of 1923, that an idealistic 21-year-old journalist named Robert St. John decided Cicero needed a newspaper that would stand up to the encroaching power of the Capone-Torrio organization. His weekly Cicero Tribune, regularly publishing exposés of criminal activity and attacking the alliance between the Capone family and the local political elite, soon had a circulation of ten thousand.
Al Capone responded quickly. He began targeting Tribune supporters: an advertiser might find the taxman on his doorstep, requesting old accounts; his usual parking place might be replaced by a fire hydrant; pernickety health inspectors might insist on stringent improvements to his workplace. As if by magic, though, all these restrictions and demands would melt away as soon as local businessmen began subscribing to the Capone-controlled Cicero Life instead of the Tribune. Not content with directing the town’s illegal activities, Torrio and the Capones set their sights on local government, paying and sponsoring Republican candidates for the primary elections in April 1924, speaking out about their desires to improve Cicero and “make it a real town.” St. John hung on, continuing to defy mob authority while watching his bribed and threatened reporters quit and his advertisers defect to the Cicero Life.
On election day Democrat activists and voters were intimidated or beaten by Capone’s men; ballot boxes were stolen, one election official was killed and others were kidnapped.
Although Chicago had no jurisdiction in Cicero, the recently installed Mayor Dever was persuaded to send a troop of plainclothes policemen in nine unmarked sedan cars to protect the suburb. St. John was watching from his office window when the procession of long black cars—identical to the ones used by gangsters—entered Cicero’s boundaries. At the same moment as the line of cars stopped abruptly and the plainclothes men spilled out of them, a neatly dressed man walked out of a house on to the street. St. John recognized him as Frank Capone. Turning, Capone reached for the pistol in his rear pocket as the policemen emptied their guns into his body. Although the inquest found that Frank had lured the police into a gun battle and forced them to shoot him in self-defense, eyewitnesses including St. John—not to mention the number of bullets in Frank’s body and in his own, unfired, gun—belied these claims. Devastated, Al ordered every speakeasy in town closed as a mark of respect for his elder brother. He wept openly at Frank’s lavish funeral which, as the Cicero Tribune sardonically observed, would have made a “distinguished statesman” proud.
Gangster funerals were spectacles of power, sentimentality and hypocrisy. Mourners displayed ardent piety, all the more deeply felt in the knowledge that their own lives were very far from virtuous. At the same time they used elaborately coded rituals to establish their allegiances, their position within the criminal hierarchy and their relationship to the community at large.
In the late 1920s the Illinois Crime Survey reported, “In great funerals, the presence of the political boss attests the sincerity and the personal character of the friendship for the deceased, and this marks him as an intimate in life and death.” Because the ties between individuals in immigrant communities were based on family and locality, distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate society were blurred. This helps explain why local grandees, businessmen and officials made a point of paying their respects to fallen gangsters. It wasn’t necessarily corruption; the dead man might have had roots in a neighboring Calabrian village or been married to a cousin. These personal links meant far more than an arbitrary legal system.
When “Big Jim” Colosimo, head of the Italian mafia in Chicago during the 1910s, died in May 1920, five thousand mourners followed his cortège. His more than fifty pallbearers included judges, aldermen, Congressmen and a state Senator, marching alongside the bootleggers and brothel keepers who had been his customers and clients. The Church was more scrupulous: Colosimo was refused a Catholic funeral and buried in unconsecrated ground. The Archbishop who had turned him down specified that this was not because of the way he had made his living—but because he had divorced his wife.
Colosimo had been murdered on the orders of Johnny Torrio, his deputy and nephew by marriage. Torrio, who was said to have paid $10,000 to have Colosimo removed, paid all his funeral expenses and wept profusely for his “brother.” Colosimo had been well known in the business for being anti-Semitic. When Torrio arrived in Chicago to work for him Colosimo had congratulated him on no longer having to work with “dirty” Jewish hoods like Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Seigel and Meyer Lansky—hoods who had been Torrio’s friends and associates for years. The biggest wreath at his funeral was signed, “From all the sorrowing Jew boys of New York.” On the day of Frank’s funeral, the Capone family home (one by one, his brothers and sisters and widowed mother had followed Al to Chicago) was hidden by a wall of extravagant flower arrangements, including a lyre created from orchids and lilies and a six-foot heart made of red carnations. His silver-plated, satin-lined coffin was followed by a huge crowd of mourners who, according to Italian custom, had let their beards grow until the day of the funeral. The flowers were supplied by an impish, baby-faced Irishman named Dion O’Banion. As a gangster himself, as well as an orchid connoisseur, he could be relied upon to create floral arrangements appropriate to both the rank of the mourner and the deceased.
Immigrant communities, especially those living outside the law, defined themselves against other immigrant communities. Al Capone was an exception to this rule—like all good employers he valued merit more highly than background—but for the most part the Italians hated the Jews, who hated the Irish, and so on. Dion O’Banion controlled the Irish vote in Chicago’s northern wards and ran a bootlegging ring from his florist shop opposite Holy Name Cathedral, where as a boy he had served at mass and sung in the choir. In theory, O’Banion worked in alliance with Torrio and Capone; in reality, he was seeking to build up his own power base at their expense. O’Banion usually wore a lily-of-the-valley buttonhole in the suits he had custom-made with three hidden gun pockets, and his volatile personality was described by a psychiatrist as one of “sunny brutality.” He was devoted to his wife Viola, but loathed the six swarthy Genna brothers who dominated Chicago’s South Side, paying Sicilian families $15 a day to produce corn liquor in their home-stills. When O’Banion started hijacking the Gennas’ moonshine deliveries to Torrio, gang warfare began to rage.
After Frank Capone’s funeral, apparently throwing in the towel after months of feuding, Dion O’Banion told Torrio and Al that he was getting out of bootlegging and offered to sell them his share in a brewery. The catch was that he knew the police were planning to raid it. Capone missed the assignation, but Torrio was arrested, fined $5,000 and sentenced to nine months in prison.
Capone’s organization swung into action. One morning in November 1924, as O’Banion was preparing yet another funeral arrangement, three men walked into his flower shop. O’Banion came towards them, one hand outstretched. Although his assistants later insisted that they didn’t recognize the men, O’Banion must have known them for he never shook hands with strangers. In a classic mob assassination, the two outside men grabbed his arms and held him tightly. They fired two bullets into his chest, two into his larynx, preventing him from making a sound, one into his right cheek, and finally, after he fell, one into his head, at such close range that the powder scorched his skin.
Dion’s killers were said to have been paid $10,000 apiece and been given valuable diamond rings, but no witnesses to the crime came forward and no arrests were made. The police—even those who were not on the mob payroll—were content to let the gangsters feud among themselves. As the murder rate on Chicago’s streets rose year by year—from 16 in 1924, to 46 in 1925, to 76 in 1926—in total only six men were brought to trial.
No expense was spared at O’Banion’s funeral, which doubled as a victory celebration for Al Capone. Although O’Banion received no religious rites and was buried in unconsecrated ground, a police escort, three bands and ten thousand mourners, Capone among them, followed his bronze-and-silver coffin to the graveyard. Twenty-six vehicles were needed to transport the flowers, which included a large bunch of roses with a card signed “From Al.”
O’Banion’s death only intensified the Beer Wars. His second-in-command continued his vendetta against the Italian gangs, the violence aggravated by both sides’ use of the machine gun, or “Chicago typewriter.” Tommy sub-machine guns, which fired eight hundred rounds a minute, had been designed for use in the Great War but did not go into production until 1921. By the mid- 1920s, with their serial numbers filed off, they were available on the black market for as much as $2,000 each.
In early 1925 Johnny Torrio was shot and wounded by O’Banion’s men and returned to New York with $30 million in his pocket to work with his old friends, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. His departure left Capone in sole—but shaky—charge of Chicago’s increasingly divided underworld at the age of twenty-six.
Guarding against another attack, Capone no longer went anywhere without a pair of bodyguards. In public places he always sat at the back of a room, facing the door and near a window he could escape through if the need arose. He preferred not to travel during the day, and his own car always followed one or two smaller scout cars. After one assassination attempt, suspecting his driver of involvement, Capone had him kidnapped, tortured and murdered. The man’s mutilated body was found dumped in a water cistern outside the city limits as a warning to other potential traitors.
In the midst of this heightening gang warfare, the young journalist Robert St. John was still buzzing around Capone like an impertinent gnat. When a new brothel opened on the outskirts of Cicero in the spring of 1925, St. John sent a journalist to investigate. Nothing was heard from him for two weeks until a registered letter arrived at the Tribune office announcing his resignation. The reporter didn’t even return to pick up the wages he was owed.
St. John took over the assignment himself with, one imagines, as much excitement as trepidation. Emptying his pockets of identification—for his name, as he thought, if not his face, would be well known to all Capone’s men—he entered the brothel which stood on a deserted road near the race-track. Posing as a customer, he was ushered through the small bar that served as shop-front into a bullet-razed passage closed off at each end by automatic doors. “Although the place had been open for business only about two weeks, the doors already looked like pieces of Swiss cheese and there were black stains on the floor and walls of the corridor.” From there he entered an anteroom where he paid $5 and waited his turn on a bench.
The clinical mood inside surprised St. John. It was, he said, “the antithesis of pleasure”: the girls, dressed in bras and panties, were “blasé and businesslike . . . as if they were selling ninety-eight-cent sweaters in a department-store bargain basement.” When his turn came, St. John went upstairs with a girl named Helen and persuaded her to allow him to interview her. After several hours, having extracted “enough material for a modern-day Moll Flanders,” he leapt from the window and rushed home to write his story.
When the next edition of the Cicero Tribune came out, carrying St. John’s revelations, the upright burghers of Cicero were finally impelled to protest against the rising tide of sin engulfing their town. Ministers spoke out against Capone and his men; outraged committees and delegations laid siege to City Hall. “Everywhere they were given promises of action,” wrote St. John. “Yet the weeks went by and nothing happened.” Nothing, that is, until one morning when a professional arsonist, paid $1,000 by the Cicero Citizens’ Association, burned down the rickety brothel St. John had visited. Care had been taken to ensure that the building was empty when the fire was started.
The fire trail led back to St. John, and Capone had no choice but to make an example of him. Murder was risky; St. John’s outspokenness about the Capones had made him too prominent a victim. Silence was all Capone required. A message was sent to St. John: Al and Ralph Capone were angry with him. Recklessly, St. John sent a message back. He was angry too, “angry that the whole lot of them had not yet decided to get out of Cicero.”
Two days later, as St. John walked to work, a black car screeched to a halt beside him and four men jumped out. As he dropped to the ground, curling up into a ball with his head buried in his arms, St. John recognized Ralph Capone. Using the butt end of a gun, a blackjack and a cake of soap in a woolen sock (a useful mob weapon which, when aimed at the base of the skull, caused maximum damage without leaving a mark), Capone’s men beat St. John unconscious. Two policemen stood by, watching. When they had finished—leaving St. John for dead—the four men got back into their car and drove away.
On the same day, St. John’s brother Archer, who worked for a newspaper in Berwyn, the town next to Cicero, was kidnapped, held in a remote hotel and later released into woodland. He did not publish the exposé he was planning to run on Capone’s designs on Berwyn. “BOY EDITORS BEATEN; KIDNAPPED” howled the Chicago newspapers. Both the Berwyn and the Cicero police forces issued statements that they were not going to investigate the crimes against the St. John brothers. Robert St. John spent a week in hospital recovering from his beating. When he tried to pay his bill, the cashier told him that a dark-complexioned man with a husky voice, very well dressed and with a diamond stick-pin in his tie, had paid the entire amount in cash. “He didn’t give his name. Just said he was a friend of yours.”
Soon afterwards St. John asked a friend in the police department to issue warrants for the arrests of Ralph Capone and the three men who had beaten him up. “Al likes you,” said the friend, demonstrating an intimacy with Capone that surprised St. John. “He likes all newspapermen. But he likes Ralph better. So take it easy, kid!” But St. John refused to back down, and eventually the friend told him to come back to his office at nine the following morning to collect the warrants.
Al Capone arrived at the police station at the same time as St. John, and they were shown up to the same room. Capone thrust his hand towards St. John. “Glad to meet you,” he said. “We’ll get this over quick.” Disingenuously, Capone explained that he had given orders for St. John not to be touched—“I tell them, “Let the kid alone’”—but that his men had been drunk and “forgot.” “Sure I got a racket,” he told St. John. “So’s everybody. Name me a guy that ain’t got a racket. Most guys hurt people. I don’t hurt nobody. Only them that get in my way. I give away a lot of dough. Maybe I don’t support no college or build no liberries, but I give it to people that need it, direct.”
This was Al Capone’s cherished sentimental side, the side that appealed, as one criminal acquaintance put it, to people’s hopes as well as to their fears: buying bicycles for kids on the street; sending flowers to commemorate graduations, weddings or funerals; later, during the early years of the Depression, opening soup kitchens and distributing free milk to poor children. He began peeling bill after bill off a large roll of leaves, slang for hundred-dollar bills. “Now look, you lost a lotta time from your office . . . I guess you lost your hat . . . You had to get your clothes fixed up . . . I’ve taken care of the hospital bill, but there was the doctor . . .” Furious, St. John got up and left the room, slamming the door on Capone and his money.
Al Capone may not have been able to charm St. John, but he could shut down his mouthpiece. Soon afterwards he bought out the other investors in the Tribune, leaving St. John in the unhappy position of being employed—at a gallingly generous salary—by the organization he had been risking his life to condemn. With nowhere else to turn, he fled Chicago for a job in Vermont. He became a successful foreign correspondent and never returned to his hometown.
With St. John out of the way, Capone was able to return his attention to restoring peace to Chicago’s streets—but by peace what he really meant was restoring his own authority. “I told them [his rivals] we’re making a shooting gallery out of a great business and nobody’s profiting from it,” he recalled later. “There’s plenty of beer business for everybody—why kill each other over it?”
But the violence continued to escalate. In 1928 there were nearly twice as many murders in Chicago as in New York. The city’s mob warfare culminated in the notorious St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 when in a savagely premeditated attack Capone’s men (it is thought), disguised as policemen, machine-gunned down seven rivals. No witnesses could be persuaded to testify and not one of the killers—or his bosses—was brought to trial; to this day there is debate about what actually happened.
Capone, who had stepped deliberately into the spotlight by seeking public admiration and approval, was the most prominent mobster in the United States. Even though he shared responsibility for the rise in crime with other gangsters, they had not courted publicity. People associated Capone with crime, and believed that crime rates would fall if he were removed. Despite his best efforts to convince them of his integrity, Capone’s customers—the public—had finally turned against him.
In 1931 he was tried for tax evasion—bizarrely, for not paying taxes on the profits of his illegal activities. Although he had taken the precaution of bribing the entire jury, on the first day of the trial he arrived in court to find that every member had been replaced; he was duly convicted. Al Capone spent the next eleven years in prison, first in Atlanta and then in Alcatraz, California. He died aged forty-eight of tertiary syphilis—the fruit of enthusiastic patronage of his own establishments—at home in Florida in 1947.