My Uncle Al Capone
An exclusive interview with Al Capone’s grandniece, Deirdre Marie Capone, who spent years researching her family’s history – the parts never or seldom told in newspapers. Her book has recently been adapted into a screenplay.
BY ROBIN JAY
“Nobody wanted Prohibition. This town [Chicago] voted six to one against it. Somebody had to throw some liquor on that thirst. Why not me?” said Al Capone…
… as recorded in Uncle Al Capone, The Untold Story from Inside His Family, by Deirdre Marie Capone, Al’s niece. “Hell, it’s a business…All I do is supply a public demand. When I sell liquor, they call it bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, they call it hospitality. There’s a lot of people in Chicago that have got me pegged for one of those bloodthirsty mobsters who you read about in storybooks. The kind that tortures his victims, cuts off their ears, puts out their eyes with a red hot poker and grins while he’s doing it. Now get me right, I’m not posing as a model for youth. I’ve done a lot of things I don’t like to do. But I’m not as black as I’m painted. I’m human. I’ve got a heart in me. Nobody was ever killed except outlaws, and the community is better off without them. A crook is a crook, and there’s something healthy about his frankness in the matter. But the guy who pretends he’s enforcing the law and steals on his authority is a swell snake. You’d be surprised if you knew some of the fellows I’ve got to take care of. You might say that every policeman in Chicago gets some of his bread and butter from the taxes I pay. It seems like I’m responsible for every crime that takes place in this country. The country wanted booze, and I organized it. Why should I be called a ‘public enemy’? I’m out of the booze racket now and I wish the papers would let me alone.”
HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” the 1959 movie “The Untouchables,” the 1983 movie “Scarface,” and countless others have told the intriguingly notorious story of Al Capone and his bootlegging “Outfit” from Chicago. Capone and his crew covertly supplied residents of the Windy City and the nation with booze during Prohibition in the 1920s when alcohol was outlawed. Sensational, crime-riddled headlines about the no-good Capone family sold millions of newspapers and made for fantastic Hollywood fodder.
But, in an era thick with yellow journalism (an era, sadly, that is not bygone), the media in the Roaring Twenties left many of the important details uninvestigated, ignored or untold. Was it not newsworthy, for example, that in Chicago alone there were more than 10,000 speakeasies (so-called “hidden” lounges in which bartenders told patrons to ‘speak easy’ when ordering alcohol) or that politicians, policemen and judges were frequently spotted bellying up to the bar? Why didn’t reporters question why the only conviction authorities could pin on Capone was tax evasion – during a time when income taxes were new, when only one in 5,000 people was required to file a tax return, and when prosecution for non-filing was virtually non-existent? Didn’t a single news outlet care to find out why the only seven bootleggers convicted of tax evasion were from Chicago – none from Atlantic City, New York or Philadelphia? Or want to uncover the real reason why Capone was sent to Alcatraz on tax-related charges when the island penitentiary was reserved for those convicted of crimes by the world’s most dangerous offenders?
In recent decades, some savvy biographers have investigated these and other important factors related to the Capone family, but their books didn’t make the best-seller list (at least not for long) or have producers vying for movie rights. Until now. Meet Deirdre Marie Capone – granddaughter of Ralph Capone, Al’s brother and business partner. Deirdre is Al Capone’s grandniece and author of Uncle Al Capone, The Untold Story from Inside His Family.
“Yes, my Uncle Al was a mobster, but he wasn’t a monster,” Deirdre told South Florida Opulence. “This is the only book written about Al by someone from inside his family, someone who as a little girl sat on his lap, hugged and kissed him, and traded ‘knock-knock’ jokes with him and slept at his house.”
The Family Man Side
Deirdre grew up knowing the personal side of Al Capone – the uncle who taught her to swim, to ride a bike, to play cards and the mandolin. The uncle who sang opera at the top of his lungs while aproned and cooking gravy with his mother for Sunday dinner. Theresa, Al’s mother, all but raised Deirdre after her own mother ran off with a suitor and her father committed suicide [although some evidence now suggests it may have been homicide that led to the death of Deirdre’s father… to silence him from releasing a manuscript, Sins of the Father, he was writing about his family].
Shy and spurned by classmates for being the daughter of a mobster, Deirdre grew up ashamed of her family’s scandal. She lost jobs when employers recognized her last name. On the brink of despair, a 30-something Deirdre fled to Minnesota. She kept her maiden name a secret from everyone except her husband Bob – even her four children didn’t know they were of the Capone bloodline.
“I was horrified when my 9-year-old son Bobby came home from school one day, telling me his class was learning about the gangster Al Capone,” Deirdre recalled. “Bob and I realized it was time to tell the kids the truth so they wouldn’t hear it from someone else. I was petrified. Maybe they would be ashamed of me. Or worse – maybe they’d be ashamed of themselves.”
The family gathered in the kitchen. A nervous Deirdre told her children, “There’s something I want to tell you about my family. Al Capone was my uncle. My grandfather was his brother.”
Silence filled the room. Deirdre felt her heart beat in her throat. Then the reaction came full throttle.
“Cool! What was he like? Was he nice to you? Did you like him? Do you have pictures?” the kids asked.
Relieved by her children’s response to the news, Deirdre was still hesitant to go public. Her epiphany came in 1983 when she received a phone call from her son Jeff, then a college student at Northwestern University in Chicago. The TV series, “The Untouchables”, was the talk of the town – and it reminded the world of the big, bad gangster family. “Mom, why do people think we’re bad people just because we’re Capones? They say we have gangster blood in our veins.”
The phone call inspired her to launch into intensive research to document stories her grandfather had told her as a child – stories that showed another side of the Capone family. “It was the most painful thing I’ve ever done, but I wanted to do it for the integrity of my children,” she said.
Part of her research began with a sheer coincidence. The uncle of Deirdre’s husband was married to Margaret May, sister of John May – one of the men killed in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, which was pinned on Al Capone even though he was at his Miami home at the time. The Massacre took place on February 14, 1929, when Prohibition was nearing its end. Five mobsters associated with the North Side Gang run by Bugs Moran (Al Capone’s nemesis), and two gang collaborators including mechanic John May, were lined up in a Lincoln Park garage and shot execution style. A neighbor heard May’s dog barking and went to see what was causing the commotion. She reported that two of the shooters were dressed as policemen and the others were wearing dark suits and hats. Frank Gusenberg, one of the injured men who was still alive, was taken to the hospital. Newspapers reported he refused to talk to police. Deirdre says she has proof that at least one newspaper told another story – that Gusenberg told authorities it was crooked police who did the killing – and that pinning it on Capone was a cover-up.
“Margaret said Johnny came home from work a few days before the shooting, telling his family certain policemen were stealing booze off Moran’s trucks. He said they knew Prohibition – and their payoff money from Moran – would soon be ending, so they were stealing alcohol to sell while the going rates were still high. Johnny said Moran planned to tell the police chief about the officers who were on the gang’s dole and stealing booze,” said Deirdre, who along with Margaret and some historians, believe it was crooked cops who planned the Massacre and why some purposefully dressed as gangsters to pin the wrap on Al Capone’s gang. “If Al did it, there would have been arrests made.”
Winding Down The Business
“What most people didn’t know was that my Uncle Al was in the process of ending his bootlegging business,” Deirdre continued. “In May of 1929, Enoch Lewis “Nucky” Johnson, a New Jersey political boss (the main character portrayed in the current HBO series “Boardwalk Empire”), called together the bootlegging mob bosses from around the country – including Al Capone – to Atlantic City. He told them Prohibition was ending and that if they would agree to wind down their bootlegging businesses, they would be awarded lucrative alcohol distributorships when it was legalized. After all, it was they who already knew the most efficient logistics. But that didn’t end the greed. Other outfits yearned to take over Al’s Chicago market. A rival racketeer made a phone call to his friend Herbert Hoover and asked for his help in having Capone arrested.”
Al was on his way home from Atlantic City when his car broke down in Philadelphia. He called a friend to come and get him. Instead, Al was arrested and sent to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
Deirdre recounted a heart-to-heart talk she had with her Aunt Maffie (Al’s sister) who consoled her after she was fired from a job for having a mobster’s last name. “My big brother, Al, was the man who kept our family together when my father died. I was only 8 years old. We had no means, and Al became the breadwinner. He moved the whole family from Brooklyn to Chicago. If it hadn’t been for him, we would all have starved. No one in our family was ever involved in any cold-blooded killing. If somebody is trying to hurt you, aren’t you permitted to protect yourself? Then she told me she never knew a ‘gangster’ who helped people as much as Uncle Al. After the 1929 stock market crash, he set up soup kitchens all over Chicago and fed thousands. His speakeasies created jobs for people out of work and supported the careers of minority jazz musicians who performed at his clubs. My brother’s word was his bond. He would have given his life to save your life or mine. So don’t be so hard on him.”
In 1931, Al Capone stood trial for tax evasion. “My uncle had more than 250 employees and a business that made countless millions of dollars, but all they could charge him with was tax evasion?” Deirdre said. That same year, “The Untouchables” – the television series with Capone-like characters, was launched by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. “My grandfather was devastated because Desi Arnaz was his best friend – he helped bring him to Miami from Cuba – and he threw our family under the bus.”
Capone’s Charges Nearly Dropped
Interestingly, Deirdre says her Uncle Al nearly got out of the tax evasion charges. “All he needed to do was file a writ of habeus corpus and the charges would have been dropped, because a witness at his trial lied on the witness stand.”
So the prosecution needed to find a way to keep Al from filing the writ. “Truth is, J. Edgar Hoover called the warden of the prison where Uncle Al was held and asked that he be transferred to Alcatraz – where he physically would be unable to complete the filing. That’s the real reason Al was sent there,” Deirdre said. “But Uncle Al was a model prisoner. He was often taunted by guards. There was a strict code of silence at Alcatraz – and it did a number on an inmate’s psyche – but Al restrained himself from lashing out because he just wanted to do his time and get home to his family, and as he said in letters to his wife, be a man.”
When Capone was released in 1939, he spent most of his time at his home on Palm Island in Miami. Much of his memory had been erased. “Reporters wrote that it was dementia caused by syphilis, but a letter my family received from the sympathizing prison clergyman said that Al was often drugged and tortured. We believe that was the reason for his memory loss. In fact, Uncle Al had to spend some time in an asylum after his release to regain his health. Ironically, before he went to prison, Al had buried millions of dollars around the country so that his family would have money when he was released; but when he got out of prison, his memory was so bad, he couldn’t remember where he had hidden the money. Another Capone myth I’d like to dispel is that Al didn’t die in prison from syphilis; he died at home in Miami from a massive heart attack. We also know that Al funded the Alcatraz escape of inmates Ralph Roe and Ted Cole in December of 1937 – and we have evidence they likely survived, but you’ll have to read my book to find out the details!”
Uncle Al Capone, The Untold Story from Inside His Family, is available at Amazon.com. Since its release in 2012, Deirdre says not a single person has refuted the details of her book – because there is documentation to prove her statements. Deirdre told South Florida Opulence that part II of her book will be published soon, and she has completed a screenplay for a movie about the Capone family. She says she intends to use the proceeds to repurchase Al Capone’s home, currently on the market in Miami for $8 million, in order to have it preserved as a historical site and possibly a museum.
To read about Al Capone’s favorite Rye Whiskey, Templeton, see page 40 of our Fall 2014 issue.