May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
Al Capone. It’s amazing what a hit TV series and a few popular movies can do for a guy’s image. Al Capone and Eliot Ness are inextricably locked together in the mythology of twentieth-century American gang warfare, yet they never met and had practically nothing to do with each other. Capone, of course, made Ness famous, not the other way around. Capone was the best-known gangster in America in his own lifetime, and no one knew the name of Eliot Ness until Robert Stack played him on television. But it’s altogether possible that Capone’s fame would have faded by the sixties.
It certainly should have. Nearly every popular conception about Al Capone is erroneous, and nearly all his significance exaggerated. Though his name is generally the first one that pops up when TV journalists discuss “the Mafia,” Capone had virtually nothing to do with that organization outside of occasionally using one of its assassins on loan. Capone wasn’t even Sicilian, and neither was the man who brought Capone to Chicago from Brooklyn, Johnny Torrio. Torrio, along with Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lansky, was one of the great brains and organizers of the modern mob. It was Torrio who saw the coming of Prohibition and what it would mean to the Chicago gangs, it was Torrio who understood the importance of organization within the Italian mob of his uncle “Big Jim” Colosimo, and it was Torrio who had Colosimo eliminated. History and Hollywood gave Al Capone credit for most of these achievements, but it was Torrio who overcame the obstacles and then went back to Brooklyn, handing Capone the machine that would reputedly make him the richest man in America.
Capone didn’t improve on Torrio’s ideas in any appreciable way. If anything, he never understood the principie of cooperation between gangs; to put it simply, he never understood the idea of a syndicate. Though he always claimed to be a businessman, he understood nothing about the art of negotiation, and every confrontation with competing gangs ended in war.
For all the talk of Capone as the “unofficial mayor” of Chicago, he never succeeded in “taking over the city.” He never came close. He wasn’t even safe in his own headquarters town of Cicero, Illinois, where the North Siders parading by Capone’s hangout in black sedans pumped more than a thousand rounds of Thompson .45 bullets through the windows. He eventually had to turn himself in on a phony gun-possession rap and serve a prison stretch partly to escape reprisals from his enemies and partly because the real mob leaders in New York —Luciano, Lansky, and Owney Madden—told him to cool it.
He was on top of the organization that would continue to bear his family name for only a few years and was thirty-one when sentenced to eleven years in prison for income tax evasion, after which he was finished as an important mob figure. The TV series about him, “The Untouchables,” was at the top almost as long as he was.
Lucky Luciano. Salvatore Luciania, a.k.a. “Lucky” Luciano, certainly got his share of print in his own lifetime, but try to name someone who played him in a movie. (Several have: Stanley Tucci in Billy Bathgate and Christian Slater—Christian Slater?—in Mobsters .) None of his movies were hits. That’s because Lucky, or Charlie Lucky, as his contemporaries referred to him, was the absolute role model for what a gangster should be.
He was Sicilian, but he had nothing but contempt for the traditional Mafia. His best friend was a Jew, Meyer Lansky, and together with their friends Ben (“Bugsy”) Siegel and Frank Costello they created a small, multiethnic organization that eliminated the heads of the two leading Sicilian families and paved the way for a criminal business empire based not on lowlife enterprises such as hijacking and prostitution but on classier activities like booze and gambling. Luciano took the business acumen he had acquired as an apprentice of Arnold Rothstein and, with Lansky’s help and guidance, applied it to the mostly Irish New York gang, led by Owney (“the Killer”) Madden. More than anyone else he molded his crew into a cooperative that policed its own ranks. Troublemakers such as “Joe the Boss” Masseria, Dutch Schultz, and, finally, Bugsy Siegel and Lepke Buchalter were removed not by the law but by the syndicate, chaired by Charlie Lucky. He was the greatest man of organized crime; he organized it.
For his thanks he got set up by Thomas E. Dewey (the man whose life he saved by having Dutch Schultz eliminated) on a trumped-up prostitution charge and ended his days signing autographs for American sailors at his restaurant in Naples. So Capone gets Rod Steiger and Robert DeNiro while Luciano gets Christian Slater. As Louise Lasser says in Woody Alien’s Take the Money and Run , it’s not who you kill, it’s who you know.