Said Chicago’s Al Capone:“I Give The Public What The Public Wants…”

PrintPrintEmailEmailThe newspapers called him Scarface, but the sobriquet did not safely bear repeating in his presence. It was Mister Capone instead, or Big Al; or, among trusted lieutenants of his palace guard, “Snorky,” a street word connoting a certain princely elegance. The elegance was mostly in cloth, in expensive suits from Marshall Field, silk pajamas from Sulka, the upholstery of the custom Cadillac that was said to have cost more than twenty grand in 1920’s dollars. In his pockets, it was rumored, he carried cash enough to buy two such limousines; he tipped lavishly, and showered his friends with gold-plate gifts. To hide the furrows of the scars on his left cheek, he powdered his face with talcum and explained that the wounds were inflicted by shrapnel while he was fighting in France with the “Lost Battalion.” He believed in the sanctity of the American family. “A woman’s home and her children are her real happiness,” he once told a reporter. “If she would stay there, the world would have less to worry about.…”

For a time, a good part of the world worried about Alphonse Capone of Chicago, Illinois. He was a prince, all right. Beneath the elegant veneer he was prince of the bootleggers, baron of the brothels, and vicar of assorted vices that for more than a decade scrambled the innards of the Second City, its labor, its industry, its law enforcement, its municipal officialdom. He ruled an empire of corruption the likes of which had never before and have not since been witnessed by any American city. He commanded an army of emissaries and assassins whose numbers at peak approached one thousand. He sat at the pinnacle of a society so grotesque the newspapers felt obliged to give both its principals and its understudies nicknames: Mike de Pike, Bathhouse John, Greasy Thumb Guzik, Hinky Dink Kenna, Two-Gun Alterie, and Bloody Angelo; Ecola the Eagle and Izzy the Rat and Lupo the Wolf and Duffy the Goat; Hop Toad Giunta and Blubber Bob, among dozens of others.

In Capone’s supreme snorkiness there was always some wrinkle. Though the tailoring was splendid, it never quite seemed to conceal the bulge in his jacket beneath the left armpit. The Cadillac was custom-made not just for the plush upholstery but for half a ton of armor plate, the steel visor over the gas tank, the thick, bulletproof glass, the removable rear window that converted the back seat into a machine-gun emplacement. The generous tipping was not limited to newsboys and hatcheck girls; he also tipped the eccentric William Hale Thompson a quarter-million dollars to help elect him mayor of Chicago, and Thompson later rewarded his benefactor by dismissing the city’s official obeisance to gangsters as “newspaper talk.” For Capone, a quarter-million was merely a fractional gratuity. His syndicate’s net profits in the late 1920’s were estimated by the Chicago Crime Commission at sixty million dollars a year.

There was even a wrinkle in his story about the scars, for he had never been to France in military uniform, had never felt shrapnel. He had felt instead the cutting edge of a pocketknife in a Brooklyn saloon, his reward for insulting a woman. Of which, in Capone’s view of the species, there were two distinct kinds—the ones who stayed home, and the ones who didn’t. “When a guy don’t fall for a broad,” said Big Al years later, “he’s through.” There was a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy in the remark. In his time, Capone no doubt dodged—and dispensed in kind—more flying metal than any doughboy who served in France. Yet it was to be his fate to die not with his spats on but in his silk pajamas, through at the age of forty-eight, from neurosyphilitic complications.

 

He was of an era that today seems more romantic than grotesque, more imagined than real. He brought to the third decade of this century much of its celebrated roar; and for that, in the minds of many Americans born too late to have heard the harsh authentic decibels, he looms as something of a folk hero, a Robin Hood of the Loop, a grand desperado much closer in style to the flamboyant two-gun type of the Old West than to today’s furtive capo who, in stressful moments, is more likely to reach for a pocket calculator than a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson. In a society vicariously fascinated with crime and violence, it is not surprising that Alphonse Capone should be accorded such retrospective honors. He was the last of the Great American Gunslingers.

After Big Al—notwithstanding the subsequent rise of Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese and Frank Costello and other latter-day godfathers—everything changed. To be sure, the violence did not end with Capone; it simply became more sophisticated—ice picks through the eardrum instead of baseball bats about the head and shoulders, corpses consolidated with scrap metal rather than abandoned in the gutter. After Capone, the rackets diversified, dope preempted illicit booze, the crime families intermarried, and the profits proliferated. But no one ever quite managed to fill Snorky’s shoes. And no other name again became synonymous with Chicago.