07.24.10

American Gangsters Reconsidered

New books on New York gangsters and Al Capone have Allen Barra considering what makes a great crime story and why we can’t get enough of their exploits.

Nathan Ward’s Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront, is true crime done right, sharply researched and written with an economy of language and a minimum of conjecture and as atmospheric as a 2 a.m. stroll down the wharf on a late October night. The subject is a rarity, a great gangland story that has inspired numerous films—including one based on Arthur Miller’s play A View From the Bridge and, of course, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront—but has thus far eluded history.

In his first book, Ward rounds up the usual suspects of names familiar to lovers of mob lore: Lucky Luciano (who was approached by the Office of Naval Intelligence to help safeguard the New York ports from Nazi saboteurs), Joe Profaci, Albert Anastasia, and Jack “Legs” Diamond, who survived so many assassination attempts he became “the clay pigeon of the underworld.”

Wilfrid Sheed once quipped that there were so many books about the Mob that “We now know everything about it except whether or not it exists.”

We are introduced to a host of colorful unheralded characters, such as Bill O’Dwyer, or Bill-O, “a husky dark-browed man whose soft brogue came and went as needed,” and Longshoremen's Union President Joe Ryan, who liked to walk the docks singing sentimental Irish ballads like “Maggie” and who, during the 1953 investigations of corruption on the docks, made the immortal statement, “Racketeering depends on what you call racketeering.”

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Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront By Nathan Ward 272 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26. ()

Dark Harbor also reveals the inspiration for characters made famous in On the Waterfront, such as Father Corridan, the model for Karl Malden’s Father Barry, called by Budd Schulberg “a Hollywood writer’s hokey dream.” The real-life model for Brando’s Terry Malloy sued Columbia Pictures for invasion of privacy and got an out-of-court settlement of nearly $25,000. “The ever-conflicted Brando,” writes Ward, “testified for him.”

Not the least of Dark Harbor’s accomplishments is reviving the reputation of legendary crime reporter Mike Johnson of The New York Sun, whose investigations Ward uses as a framework. (Johnson’s stories inspired Schulberg’s screenplay.) After director Kazan testified during the McCarthy hearings, his film came to be seen as a justification for naming names. “That so many people,” Ward writes, “now regard On the Waterfront as an allegory for something else—the filmmaker’s own testifying to Congress about communism—shows how much has been forgotten about the criminal reality of the docks Mike Johnson exposed.”

Those realities included everything from bodies left on cargo hooks to the theft of 15,000 cases of spaghetti. True crime is so much stranger than fiction.

Wilfrid Sheed once quipped that there were so many books about the mob that “We now know everything about it except whether or not it exists.” We know for sure that Al Capone, America’s most famous and cinematic gangster, did exist, but a new biography, Get Capone by Jonathan Eig, makes you wonder if anything we know about him is true.

Eig, author of books about Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, appears to be out to subvert every popular notion we’ve ever had of Capone, that Capone was connected to the Mafia, that Eliot Ness was responsible for bringing him down, and, most notably, that Capone was behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

The first two are old news. No organized crime historian ever claimed Capone belonged to the Mafia—Capone was Neapolitan, not Sicilian, and his gang was multiethnic—nor did anyone but Ness and his biographer, Oscar Fraley, in their book, The Untouchables, claim that he and his agents were behind Capone’s downfall. (The story of Capone’s conviction on tax evasion was brought about largely through the efforts of Chicago citizens working with the federal government, as clearly documented in 1993 in Scarface Al and the Crime Crusaders by Dennis E. Hoffman.)

We’ll get to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre shortly. For the moment, suffice it to say that Capone has already been the subject of numerous biographies, most recently Mr. Capone—The Real and Complete Story of Al Capone by Robert J. Schoenberg, and the definitive work, Laurence Bergreen’s 700-page opus, Capone—The Man and the Era. Eig seems to know less about Capone than his predecessors. There’s scarcely anything about Al’s crime career in Brooklyn before landing in Chicago, and virtually nothing about the expansion of the Capone mob in the Midwest and Southwest after he went to prison for tax evasion in 1932.

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Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster By Jonathan Eig 480 pages. Simon & Schuster. $28. ()

Suffice it to say that Capone has already been the subject of numerous biographies, most recently Mr. Capone—The Real and Complete Story of Al Capone by Robert J. Schoenberg, and the definitive work, Laurence Bergreen’s 700-page opus, Capone—The Man and the Era. Eig does not seem to have been aiming for comprehensive biography like these so there’s scarcely anything about Capone’s crime career in Brooklyn before landing in Chicago, and virtually nothing about the expansion of his mob in the Midwest and Southwest after he went to prison for tax evasion in 1932.

Eig focuses so tightly on Capone that he sometimes misses the larger story about organized crime outside of Prohibition Chicago. He suggests that “Modern organized crime may have been born” with Capone and his mentor, Johnny Torrio, in 1923. This would have been a surprise to Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, who, backed by New York’s top criminal bankroller, Arnold Rothstein, had been trafficking in illegal booze since 1920. Eig makes the surprising suggestion that Capone was suspected of ordering Rothstein’s assassination in 1928 though “no evidence linked Capone to the murder.” The reason there’s no evidence is that no one, particularly Rothstein’s biographers, ever thought Capone was involved.

Alas, in an otherwise readable account of the hunt to bring Capone to justice that’s merely one of the contentions that Eig doesn't fully explore. He suggests that the infamous baseball bat slaughter by Capone of two associates—made famous in the 1987 film The Untouchables—may have been inspired by “an imaginative flourish in a 1975 book by journalist George Murray.” But the story is decades older than Murray’s book and was even used in the 1966 film, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Both of Get Capone’s two big revelations rest on flimsy evidence. Of the “secret plot” referred to in the book’s subtitle, it’s long been clear that President Hoover wanted Capone stopped, but whether the government had an actual role in influencing the legal process which put Capone in prison is far from clear. Eig raises the issue only to avoid a definitive conclusion that “No one can say.”

At the heart of Get Capone is Eig’s assertion that he has “the key to unraveling the mystery of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.” But it's not entirely clear that this is quite the mystery he claims. That Capone had the means, the motive, and the temperament to order the mass slaying of seven members of the rival North Side gang on February 14, 1929 has never been doubted by generations of historians. Eig wants to know why Capone’s rival, Bugs Moran, wasn’t in the garage at the time of the killings, to which a skeptical reader might reply, “Maybe he just slept late.”

Almost buried in Eig’s notes on his sources is this: “My theory [sic] about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre stems from the discovery of a single sheet of paper ... found within the FBI archives. The letter is available for all to see on the FBI’s website.” Why not print the letter for all to see? Eig’s “theory,” as he calls it, that the Massacre was the result of a revenge on Moran’s men by some Chicago cops—why would real cops who planned to a mass killing let themselves be seen in uniform?—turns out to be a misfire.

All the same, readers seem forever hungry for books on the great criminals in American history and so we can rest assured that the next gangster blockbuster will be coming to our shelves soon.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.