By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 16, 2010; B08
The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster
By Jonathan Eig
Simon & Schuster. 468 pp. $28
"Make it new": That was Ezra Pound's famous challenge to the avant garde writers and artists of the 1920s, and it is the same challenge confronted -- admittedly on a considerably less exalted level -- by the writer who wants to retell a tale that already has been told too many times over. Sometimes this entails the discovery of new material, sometimes a reinterpretation of the story, sometimes a fresh, original prose style -- and sometimes merely a gimmick.
That is what Wendy Moffat came up with in her new biography of E.M. Forster, "A Great Unrecorded History," reviewed in this space last week, in which she focuses single-mindedly if not obsessively on Forster's homosexuality, and that is what Jonathan Eig has come up with in "Get Capone," which is a fairly straightforward biography of America's most notorious criminal masquerading, as its subtitle proclaims, as a startling revelation of how he was sent to prison by federal investigators. In fact, though Eig unearths some mildly interesting details not to be found in other accounts, anyone who has read much about Capone -- and I've probably read more than is good for me -- is not going to find much here that he or she already does not know. At least four full-bore biographies of Capone already have been published -- John Kobler's, published in 1971, probably remains the best -- and though "Get Capone" is competent enough, its lackluster prose is unlikely to attract anyone except the most over-the-top Capone aficionado.
The only important respect in which Eig really differs from his predecessors is that he tries to humanize Capone, even to make him into something approximating . . . a nice guy. This may have something to do with his sources -- "I interviewed and gained valuable insights from several members of the Capone family," he reports -- and it may have something to do with wanting to "make it new," but anyone familiar with Capone's long, sordid history will have a hard time believing Eig's claim that "I got to know Capone the man, not the myth." This, after all, is "the man" as Eig presents him to us:
"He would grow up to be a man who fished, hunted, boxed a little bit, and enjoyed watching almost every kind of sports event. He loved spending money but never bothered saving any. He seldom left the house unshaved, and prided himself on dressing well. He was a man's man if ever there were one." And: "a personable man, a man who seemed genuinely concerned for and fairly involved with his family, a man who seemed to have successfully differentiated his working life and his emotional life. Either he was a good actor or else he really did have a human side." And: "During [medical treatment in prison], he made a friend of his doctor, Herbert M. Goddard, a nationally respected ear, nose, and throat man, who served as the prison's physician. Said Dr. Goddard: 'In my seven years' experience, I have never seen a prisoner so kind, cheery, and accommodating. . . . He has brains. He would have made good anywhere, at anything.' "
Of course Capone had a "human side"; so did Hitler, who loved art. But having a few qualities that the rest of us can identify with doesn't turn a monster into the person you want living next door, and make no mistake about it, Capone was a monster. Just how many people were murdered by his own hand and how many by others at his orders will never be known, not least because, as Eig points out (as have others before him), Capone was skilled at keeping himself once or twice removed from the violence that was everywhere around him. The empire that he built on bootlegging, gambling, prostitution and protection was held together by violence. Most of the people who got in the way of bullets were other gangsters, but more than a few policemen fell victim as well, and Capone left a legacy of corruption at every level of American life that has thrived to this day and will be expunged only by a global cataclysm.
Eig, who has also written books on Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, understands all this at one level, but is more interested in whitewashing Capone -- or romanticizing him as the tough yet tender protagonist of a Hollywood gangster movie -- than in facing his appalling record head-on. He exonerates Capone of complicity in the Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929 in which seven members of Bugs Moran's gang were murdered in cold blood by assassins wearing policemen's uniforms; not very persuasively, he gives us "the man who may have gotten away with the St. Valentine's Day Massacre: William White." He goes to great lengths to portray Eliot Ness, the federal Prohibition agent who led the so-called "Untouchables," as a publicity-seeker who "cared too much about getting his name in the papers" and too little about effective law enforcement. This probably is a useful piece of demythologizing, but it also plays into his strategy of "humanizing" Capone, in this instance by humanizing one of his opponents in a negative way.
Because Capone was so adept at staying beyond the law's reach for the vicious crimes his syndicate committed, federal agents were reduced to a strategy of "ignoring serious crimes and charging the suspect with a related crime that is easier to prove." For Capone this was tax evasion, and the case against him on that account was devised by George E.Q. Johnson, the U.S. attorney for Chicago: "He would use Prohibition agents to harass the bootleggers and to cut off their income, but he would give up on trying to convict the gangsters for selling booze. It was too difficult to prove, and besides, jurors were almost always drinking men and disinclined to convict. But tax law was different: A person paid or he didn't. And jurors, who paid their taxes, had no qualms about sending cheats to jail."
Eig has tracked down Johnson's papers, which add some bits and pieces to what has been known for seven decades: that Capone was tried and found guilty on multiple counts of violating tax law. In May 1931, the judge announced that "the aggregate sentence of the defendant is eleven years in the penitentiary and fines aggregating $50,000," which Eig calls "by far, the stiffest sentence ever handed down in a tax case." There was then, and remains to this day, widespread feeling that Capone had been railroaded on trumped-up charges that a more fair-minded jury and judge would have rejected as unsustainable, a judgment echoed by Capone's most recent biographer, Laurence Bergreen. The case raises uncomfortable questions of ends and means: They got the right guy but on the wrong count. Capone was released from prison in November 1939 and died in Miami Beach in January 1947, at age 48, of various complications resulting from syphilis. It was a deservedly painful end to a vile life.