Book Review: 'Dillinger's Wild Ride' by Elliott J. Gorn

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 28, 2009


The Year That Made America's Public Enemy Number One

By Elliott J. Gorn

Oxford Univ. 268 pp. $24.95

In knowledge of most aspects of our collective history, most Americans probably would flunk even the easiest of tests, but in one department we are scholars of the first rank: We know our crooks. We don't just know them, we love them: Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker, not to mention the fictional ones, most notably Vito and Sonny Corleone, and of course Luca Brasi, who for all eternity sleeps with the fishes. Long after their deaths, they live on in our mythology as what Elliott J. Gorn calls "part of America's deepest hero myths."

All these pale, though, next to John Dillinger. His life in the headlines was remarkably brief -- it began in the early summer of 1933 and ended almost exactly a year later, when FBI agents killed him as he left a movie theater in Chicago -- but he had risen to the status of legend long before his death, and he has kept it ever since. He has been the subject of books (both fiction and nonfiction), songs, poems and movies. Played by Johnny Depp, he is the central character in "Public Enemies," a film to be released this week that, considering Depp's huge popularity, is certain to burnish the legend still further.

"Dillinger's Wild Ride" is, inevitably, a rehash of familiar stories about Dillinger's crime spree. But Gorn -- a professor of history at Brown University who has a particular interest in popular history and sports -- tries hard to separate fact from myth, and he makes plausible arguments for why Dillinger captured the popular imagination. Born on June 22, 1903, in Indianapolis, he was in prison by the time he was 21 for attempted robbery and assault, and remained there until his release in May 1933. By June or July -- "as with so much of the Dillinger chronicle, there is lots of information, but much of it is unreliable" -- he and his gang were off and running, knocking off banks all over Indiana. It was the beginning of a "rampage" at the end of which "a dozen policemen, gang members, and civilians were dead, hundreds of thousands of dollars had been stolen, and public faith in law enforcement was shaken."

This last certainly is true, but it needs to be amended with the caveat that if much of the public was appalled, much of it also was thrilled, or amused, or delighted, or all of the above. The Depression was at its nadir, hundreds of banks had collapsed, depriving ordinary people of their savings, and to many Americans the sight of bankers in terror was anything but uncongenial. After one famous getaway, Mary Kinder, the girlfriend of a gang member, told a reporter: "Of course I'm glad [Dillinger] got away. . . . I am tickled to death. The whole United States is glad. Everybody was for him." About which Gorn writes:

"Most citizens' feelings were more complicated than that, but Kinder was on to something. Dillinger might be a hardened criminal, but the man had style. 'Hard and implacable to his enemies,' one [newspaper] writer observed, 'the killer is a bit of a gallant and a debonair to those who cross his path casually.' He described Dillinger as 'a carefree devil with many likeable traits.' "

This may seem a bit difficult to swallow, but it is true. Dillinger was close to his family and was remembered by his sister (to whom he was devoted) as "a sweet-tempered boy who had a mostly pleasant childhood." True, "there was an edge to Dillinger's personality, something more than mischievous, less than sociopathic," but he was also "funny, philosophical, sentimental, in a word, human." Precisely why he chose the criminal life will forever be a mystery, but there's a hint of it in Gorn's description of him at the time he was released from prison:

"John Dillinger was then nearly thirty years old and had spent almost a third of his life behind bars. A spotty work record and a failed marriage did not inspire confidence in his chances for a productive civilian life. Neither the Navy nor prison had enhanced his sense of discipline; quite the contrary. He was a felon with a serious crime to his name, an armed attack on an old man. In prison Dillinger engaged in steady, mostly petty, though occasionally serious infractions; he seemed unable to restrain himself. His professions of reform notwithstanding, he had changed over the course of the decade, and not for the better. He told his sister Audrey shortly after he got out, 'When you're in a place like that, with not a kind word from anyone, how could you help from being sore toward everybody.' He got a 'bum rap,' he said, and he swore never to go back to [prison] alive."

In January 1934 it looked as if he wasn't going to pull that off. He and other gang members were captured in Tucson, and he was flown back to Indiana for trial. But he bluffed prison guards with a wooden pistol -- it's unclear whether he carved it himself or had it smuggled in -- and escaped with another prisoner, a feat that astonished the nation and humiliated Indiana prison authorities. With that he and the gang were off on another rampage, to the extent that it seemed "Dillinger was everywhere" and "brushes with Dillinger were more like celebrity sightings." Then, in April, while holed up with the gang at a lodge in Northern Wisconsin, he was tracked down by the FBI but escaped again thanks to his own bravado and the bureau's "bungling."

That escapade sealed his legend once and for all, but as Gorn says, his end was inevitable and drawing ever closer. He was wounded a couple of time in close calls, and as the FBI ratcheted up its surveillance -- the young agency's ambitious new director, J. Edgar Hoover, knew that capturing and/or killing Dillinger would be a public-relations bonanza -- there were fewer and fewer places for him to hide. Incredibly, he visited his family while this was going on and had a sentimental reunion with them that anticipated scenes in "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." But soon thereafter he was dead, betrayed by a woman who sang to the FBI and said she could be identified at the movie theater by her red dress, hence the legend of "The Woman in Red."

He was dead, but he had fixed himself in the American imagination as a romantic figure: "His story . . . evoked the picaresque heroes of fiction. The picaro was a man of low birth who made his way up the social ladder with laughter, cunning, physical bravado, and sexual prowess. Most of all Dillinger embodied the American road trip, that liminal journey filled with freedom and adventure, even sex and violence, set apart from the crushing ordinariness of daily life." Or, as Gorn says elsewhere: "Dillinger proved that the old American fascination with movement, with flight, with lighting out for the territories was still alive, still glorious, even if the journey lasted only long enough to flame out and die. To die, his friends would add, not like a rat, but like a man."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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