Two admirable books have just been published which revisit this strange, though far from arid, passage in American history: Daniel Okrent’s “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” and Jonathan Eig’s “Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster”. [Read the full review]–Katherine Powers
"Hedonism ruled," writes Jonathan Eig in this riveting account of America's most notorious gangster. "Women smoked and drank, bobbed their hair ... danced promiscuously, and spoke openly of their sexual desires. It was the age of emotion, the age of pleasure, the age of jazz."
During his early bootlegging days in Chicago, Al Capone was said to take people to a filthy back room and torture them until they gave up the information he wanted. Although he was a ruthless criminal, he was far from the mentally deranged killer portrayed in films. Loyal to his associates and devoted to his family, he comes across in Eig's account as a personable man who seemed to have successfully differentiated his working life and his emotional life.
Eig, former executive editor of Chicago Magazine and a one-time reporter for The Dallas Morning News, bases this fresh take on Capone on previously unreleased IRS files and notes for a ghostwritten Capone autobiography. [Read the full review]– Elizabeth Bennett
Dallas Morning News
Finding a new way to tell a familiar story is a formidable challenge, but one that Chicago author Jonathan Eig has turned into a career of best-selling books. In his first book, “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig,” Eig broke new ground by focussing on the baseball legend's heartbreaking battle against ALS. With “Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season,” Eig took on another icon by him as a rookie.
With his latest effort, “Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster,” Eig has done it again. The book is a fascinating, fast-paced hybrid: a biography and an intensely reported look at the cat-and-mouse chase between Capone and the federal investigators trying to bust him. “I didn't want to write a straight biography,” Eig says over lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant near his home in Lakeview. “I was looking for a new angle.”
In taking on one of the world's best-known gangsters, Eig knew he was up against the work of authors, historians, journalists and, of course, Hollywood directors. He spent hours studying their stories. “I don't want to trash anyone else's work, but a lot of the stuff that was out there was prone to exaggeration,” Eig says. Even the allegedly historical accounts were tainted by, as he puts it, “the stereotype” of Capone, demon of the criminal underworld. “I felt like a big part of my job could be stripping away the parts that weren't true. So you weren't getting any more myth.” [Read the full review]–Noah Isackson
Jonathan Eig, a former writer for The Wall Street Journal and author of best-selling books on Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, has written a book about Al Capone's life and crimes, and the federal effort that brought him down, titled Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster.
Eig tells NPR's Scott Simon that Capone persists in our memory because during his time, the criminal was as famous as anyone in the country.
"He was huge," Eig says. "He was on the level with Babe Ruth [and] Charles Lindbergh and it was because he came along in the '20s when celebrities were just in love with the spotlight, and Capone was the first and really the only criminal that decided that he wanted to be famous, too, and he embraced celebrity."
Capone knew how to play to the people. He called his criminal organization "The Outfit," even though, according to Eig, it was "very loosely organized."
"We have this image now of him as this overlord who was in control of every bar, every casino, every speakeasy and brothel in Chicago." But Capone had a lighter business touch, and Eig says that made a difference. "He didn't try to micromanage. He let the bar owners [and] the gambling house operators do their thing, and collected his portion. And his big job was to make sure everybody stayed happy." He paid off the courts and the cops, Eig says, to keep his crew out of jail. [Read the full review at NPR.org]– NPR
In “Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster,” Jonathan Eig vividly retraces the efforts of President Herbert Hoover, J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. and the United States attorney George E. Q. Johnson to bring Scarface to some sort of justice. Despite the gaudy subtitle, though, fully half the book covers Capone’s rise to power and the grip, drenched in blood, with which he maintained it for almost a decade.
Part of what Eig calls Capone’s “genius” as a businessman was his refusal to keep paper records or flaunt his outfit’s profits, which government estimates put as high as $95 million a year, this when a chicken dinner could be had for 5 cents. He was more than willing to slaughter competitors, as they often tried to kill him, but when his influence grew he began to favor subtler ways of making a point. He understood, Eig says, that “he had to spend money to make money, and he never tried to cut back on the lavish bribes to cops and public officials.”
Nor did he pretend not to be a bootlegger. Instead, he used the unpopularity of the 18th Amendment to justify his profession to a thirsty public. “I violate the Prohibition law — sure,” he admitted to a reporter. “Who doesn’t? The only difference is, I take more chances than the man who drinks a cocktail before dinner and a flock of highballs after it.” It was the officials accepting his bribes who deserved scorn or worse: “Even a self-respecting hoodlum hasn’t any use for that kind of fella. He buys them like he’d buy any other article necessary to this trade. But he hates them in his heart.” What about someone who commits murder? “Well, maybe he thinks that the law of self-defense, the way God looks at it, is a little broader than the lawbooks have it. . . . Maybe it means killing a man in defense of your business, the way you make your money to take care of your wife and child.” It was better, Capone proposed, to think of him as a “public benefactor,” a man who had “given people the light pleasures, shown them a good time.” [Read the full review]
Like most people who rise to the top of their profession, Capone was a driven, complex individual, and Eig explores that complexity without undue bias or overt moralizing. When Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s baby was famously kidnapped in 1932, Capone seemed legitimately disturbed by the crime and, although in federal prison, offered to help solve it. He talked about his line of work the way a pipe fitter might, as a means to an end, a way to provide for his family. Of his only son, he told a reporter: “I don’t want him to be a bootlegger or a reformer, either ... and if he’d ever get to be a public official, I’d want him to be the squarest one that ever lived.” The author concludes that Capone either had a human side that was rigidly divorced from his criminal machinations, or the mobster was a superb actor. After his fall from power, he studiously refrained from talking about his life of crime.
Most people know Capone from the blockbuster movie The Untouchables. I love that movie. But it only paints a broad picture of Capone, and the guy credited for jailing him: Eliot Ness. It turns out that the government’s plot to get Capone ran much deeper than Ness and his small band of agents. Everyone from President Herbert Hoover to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover conspired to get Capone for years. They finally got him for income tax evasion. But it took a lot more work than Ness simply stumbling upon the mobster’s accounting ledgers, as portrayed in the movie.
That’s what I like about Eig’s book. There’s a lot of detail. Which impressed me, as a Chicago guy who thought he knew everything. Like when I walk by Holy Name Cathedral in the city’s Gold Coast. I always knew the bullet holes in the façade were from a gangland shooting. But now I know from Get Capone that the shots were fired by some of Capone’s hit men from a building across the street, killing several rival mobsters. I also learned that Scarface spent as much time in Cicero, Illinois, and Miami, Florida, as he did in Chicago. Meanwhile, he had a wife and kid who lived quietly in a bungalow on Chicago’s South Side. See, Capone got around. Which explains how he caught a social disease that eventually killed him. I learned all this from the book.
Get Capone is great because it adds to the legend while dispelling some of the myths. From one Chicago guy to another: Good job, Jonathan Eig.
But with all the myths, half-truths and Hollywood gloss dripping from Chicago’s most glorified gangster, it’s remarkable what Eig has been able to do in his latest book, Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster.
Library Journal: "An engrossing account"Former reporter Eig has brought new life to the story of Al "Scarface" Capone, reporting on the life, crimes, and fall of America's most notorious gangster. Eig accessed newly discovered material to produce this fresh take on Capone, including the papers and never-released IRS files of Chicago's U.S. attorney, George E.Q. Johnson. He also discovered a letter that contains a plausible solution to the never-solved Valentine's Day massacre. (William "Three-Fingered Jack" White may have led the massacre to avenge the gangster killing of his cousin, a cop's son.) Wrapped in this biography is an engrossing account of Prohibition, Chicago, and legal history (Johnson's innovation of charging suspected criminals of lesser crimes to get a conviction is still in use today). Eig is a fascinating storyteller who throws in the occasional bon mot ("It was cold and gray, as if February had knocked off May and taken its place") that readers will enjoy. While the book would have benefited from a "cast of characters" to help readers keep track of the many players, the accompanying web site (getcapone.com) is a treasure-trove of material, including links to FBI and IRS files. VERDICT This book should be very popular with true crime and Prohibition history buffs; highly recommended.
Publishers Weekly: "A multifaceted portrait"Not since the hunt for John Wilkes Booth... had so many sources been brought to bear in an attempt to jail one man,” writes former Chicago magazine editor Eig (Opening Day). But Al Capone eluded them all—even J. Edgar Hoover. In a page-turning account, Eig details the chase for the elusive Capone, dissecting both the man and his myth. Born in Brooklyn in 1899, Alphonse Capone came to a booming, bustling, corrupt, and very thirsty Chicago in 1920, just as Prohibition began. Rising swiftly through the underworld ranks, Capone soon headed a crime syndicate he dubbed “the outfit,” which dealt in bootleg alcohol, racketeering, drugs, and prostitution. Eig traces the largely unsuccessful efforts by various law enforcement agencies to bring him down. He focuses on U.S. Attorney George E.Q. Johnson, who finally saw Capone convicted in 1931 for tax evasion and conspiring to violate Prohibition laws, leading to an 11-year prison sentence. Using previously unreleased IRS files, Johnson's papers, even notes he discovered for a ghostwritten Capone autobiography, Eig presents a multifaceted portrait of a shrewd man who built a criminal empire worth millions.
Kirkus Reviews: "An impressive, accessible history of a troubled time"Scrupulously researched account of the men who made the 1920s roar, and the straight-arrows who stopped them.
Former Chicago magazine executive editor Eig rescues the narrative of Al Capone from the realm of pop melodrama, offering vibrant historical storytelling and a nuanced, enigmatic portrait of Capone and his Chicago milieu. The author discovered several long-forgotten archives of key documents, including unreleased IRS files and “Untouchable” Eliot Ness’ wiretap transcripts.
Eig constructs a plausible, often surprising narrative of criminality, but he also fleshes it out into a colorful urban social history. The Capone that emerges here is certainly a ruthless criminal, but far from the psychopath portrayed in films. He appears to be more a natural product of his time, a bemused immigrants’ son who, in the brutal environment of working-class Chicago, intuited that Prohibition offered an opportunity to leap from tavern hustler to major profiteer.
Capone was loyal to associates and devoted to his family, apparently tried to broker truces with other gangs before the inevitable internecine bloodbaths and loved nightlife, gambling and women so much that his nickname was “Snorky,” meaning ritzy. The backdrop for Capone’s evolution was a Chicago so chaotic and corrupt that its citizens actually returned the outrageously crooked mayor William Thompson to office, following a seemingly futile reform administration.
Capone loved talking to the press, which thrilled people but infuriated the Feds. While “Secret Plot” seems an overstatement, Eig argues that Herbert Hoover was determined to make an example of the gangster, a preoccupation that persisted even as the Depression grew deeper. The flawed Ness’ contributions were minimal, but a little-remembered state’s attorney and IRS agent doggedly built an intricate case against Capone over several years. Their work seems compromised due to the interference of a vengeful judge, who threw out a plea agreement in order to send the gangster to trial and, ultimately, Alcatraz.— Kirkus Reviews
Ken Burns: "Fresh and utterly dazzling"I thought I knew the Capone story, but Eig’s riveting telling of this iconic American story is both fresh and utterly dazzling. An extraordinarily rich panorama of America in the 1920s, Get Capone brings our most notorious anti-hero vividly to life, masterfully interweaving the epic tale of his rise and fall with the equally fascinating stories of the politicians, lawmen, gangsters, and reporters, who inhabited his world.
— KEN BURNS, filmmaker, director of “Civil War”
Eric Larson: "A taut and compelling narrative"In Get Capone, Jonathan Eig gives us a fresh portrait of the most wanted of most wanteds, laced with newly unearthed details—including hitherto secret IRS files and federal wiretaps—that Eig deploys to build a taut and compelling narrative of the gangster's life and the federal drive to end his reign.
— ERIK LARSON, author of “Devil in the White City”
David Maraniss: "Narrative history at its finest"Get Capone is narrative history at its finest. It is deeply reported, fun and fast to read, and thrillingly evokes gangland Chicago and its most infamous gangster while shattering myths all along the way.
— DAVID MARANISS, author of “When Pride Still Mattered” and “They Marched Into Sunlight”
Doug Stanton: "A masterful biography"Get Capone is a masterful biography, a scrupulously researched history of a pivotal time in America, and a page-turning crime story that thunders ahead like the very best of novels. Using never-before-published research, Eig conjures to life not only America's most famous gangster, but the streets of Chicago. You can see and hear Capone walking through the windblown pages of history, straight at you. Get Capone is for anyone who wants to be enthralled, entertained, and enlightened.
— DOUG STANTON, author of “Horse Soldiers” and “In Harm's Way”
Ald. Ed Burke: "Freshly recreates the gritty Chicago streets and raucous twenties that spawned Capone"An historically gilded account which freshly recreates the gritty Chicago streets and raucous twenties that spawned Capone. By the time you are finished reading this book, you will feel intimately familiar — not only with Chicago’s ultimate gangster — but the city, people and circumstances that gave rise to his infamy.
— CHICAGO ALDERMAN EDWARD M. BURKE
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