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1932 Fifty Years Ago

March 2023
2min read

The gates of the Atlanta penitentiary swung shut on Al Capone on May 4, putting an end to a career that had netted the king of gangsters some $60,000,000 a year. Convict No. 40,866 seemed philosophical during his train trip from Chicago: “I’ll make out wherever I am,” he said, though he thought the government hadn’t been “playing fair” when it hung an income tax evasion rap on him. As the train rolled south, Capone began mopping his brow and talking about the heat. “I can stand that, though,” he said. “But I’ll miss my beer.”

At Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a carver named Will E. Campbell made the prisoner a present of one of his celebrated hickory pipes. Though himself a cigar smoker, Capone was pleased: “That’s the first time anybody ever gave me anything.”

Two months later, Capone received a tribute of sorts when, despite the carping of the Hays office, Howard Hughes opened his movie Scarface . According to Ben Hecht, who wrote the script, Capone’s boys were just as dubious about it as was Will Hays. In his autobiography, A Child of the Century , Hecht recalled a midnight visit from two men, “their faces set in scowls and guns bulging their coats,” who were holding a copy of the script:

“You the guy who wrote this?” I said I was. …

“Is this stuff about Al Capone?”

“God, no,” I said. “I don’t even know Al.”

“Never met him, huh?”

I pointed out I had left Chicago just as Al was coming into prominence.

“I knew Jim Colosimo pretty well,” I said.

“That so?”

“I also knew Mossy Enright and Pete Gentleman.”

“That so? Did you know Deanie?”

“Deanie O’Bannion? Sure. I used to ride around with him in his flivver. …”

A pause.

“O.K., then. We’ll tell Al this stuff you wrote is about them other guys.”

They started out and halted in the doorway, worried again.

“If this stuff ain’t about Al Capone, why are you callin’ it Scarface ? Everybody’ll think it’s him.”

“That’s the reason,” I said. “Al is one of the most famous and fascinating men of our time. If we call the movie Scarface , everybody will want to see it, figuring it’s about Al. That’s part of the racket we call showmanship.”

My visitors pondered this, and one of them finally said, “I’ll tell Al.” A pause. “Who’s this fella Howard Hughes?”

“He’s got nothing to do with anything,” I said, speaking truthfully at last. “He’s the sucker with the money.”

On May 21 , headlines exultantly proclaimed that “the aviatrix” Amelia Earhart Putnam had successfully, and in record time, completed the first solo flight across the Atlantic by a woman. The flier modestly said that “the flight meant nothing to aviation.” Atlantic crossings were no longer unique by then, and she claimed she had “thoroughly enjoyed it.” It is hard to imagine how she could have done so.

During the fourteen-hour-and-fifty-six-minute flight from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, to a pasture outside Londonderry, Ireland, where she landed, a terrifying number of things went wrong. She ran into a wild storm about three hours out, was forced to fly low to prevent icing, and realized that her altimeter had failed. For the rest of the squally, windy flight, she never knew how close she was to the water. Soon afterward her exhaust manifold burned out, causing flames to shoot out of the plane. And her fuel gauge broke, so that for hours gasoline dripped down the back of her neck as she sat at the controls.

Mrs. Putnam had flown the Atlantic as a passenger four years earlier—the first woman to make that flight, too. Ever since, she now happily told reporters in Ireland, “I had wanted to do it alone.”

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