By Douglas Perry
Viking. 335 pp. $27.95
Eliot Ness was the real thing. Working as a federal Prohibition agent, he led a bold campaign against bootleggers in Chicago and helped send Al Capone to prison. His “Untouchables” really did crash into illegal breweries with a battering ram mounted on a truck.
Ness had a “soft, indistinct face,” writes Douglas Perry in his new biography of the lawman, and “a sadness in his eyes, even when he was smiling.” He stood about 6 feet tall, with a lithe, athletic build, and conveyed a sensitivity that many women found irresistible. Ness understood public relations and took care to nourish his legend. When he seized contraband liquor, he invited newspapers to send over cameramen with no cameras. He sent them back with their camera cases filled with booze. Predictably, he got good press — too good for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a zealous media hog, who declined Ness’s overture to join the bureau.
The end of Prohibition put the Untouchables out of business. Ness went to Cleveland, arguably even more corrupt than Chicago, where as director of public safety he cleaned up the police force and took on the mob. As in Chicago, he was involved in car chases and shootouts with bad guys. But Ness was interested in more than just dramatic heroics. In Cleveland, he instituted an innovative traffic safety program that reduced fatalities, and he worked with youth gangs to steer them away from criminal activity. Under Ness, Cleveland was one of the first cities to employ two-way radios. He put in long hours and got results.
In World War II, Ness went to work for the government on reducing the incidence of venereal disease among soldiers by suppressing prostitution. He sent hundreds of prostitutes to training camps to learn vocational skills. He himself had no aversion to sex and alcohol. He was an all-night party animal who liked the ladies and drank more and more as the years passed. He married three times. When he died at 54 in 1957, he was an alcoholic struggling to earn a living. He had just learned that Hollywood was interested in making a movie about his adventures.
The author may have spent too much time in creative-writing class. He describes Capone’s chief brewmaster as “stocky, cow-faced, with a wide pessimistic mouth like a dried-up old nun.” Nonetheless, Perry has spun a riveting tale.