11 AUGUST 1961, Page 13

'Gangland's King'

Capone was a celebrity swelling into a legend. Citizens scurried to the kerb to stare when his three-and-a-half-ton armour-plated Cadillac, with bullet-proof glass and tail-gunner's movable back window, passed with its escort of two armed scout cars. Lucky out-of-town and foreign visi- tors among the crowds had their stimulating glimpse of the famous face, stuck with cigar, in the dim haze of silken cushions, perhaps the quick glint of one of his famous diamonds, be- hind the bodyguard in the front seat with Thomp- son sub-machine-gun handily across his knees. Tourist buses had 'Capone Castle'—his Haw- thorne Inn heaquarters in Cicero—and his Metro- pole Hotel city headquarters on their itinerary. A press photograph of him with Jack Sharkey, the boxer, and Bill Cunningham, former All- American football player, which was nationally circulated by an agency, was captioned `Gang- land's King.'

Fact was inextricably scrambled with fiction. It was fact that this new dignitary, the paunchy, pallid-faced Big Fellow who was beginning to tower above the officially eminent with a unique glitter and who was giving Chicago a peculiar global fame, was among the committee appointed to welcome Commander Francesco da Pinedo, Mussolini's round-the-world goodwill pilot in 1927, together with the Italian Consul-General, and Judge Bernard P. Barasa, representing the Mayor. It was a fact that he was lionised by the smart—it was cute to know Al; that he enter- tained at his Florida estate seventy-five guests at a time, many of them fashionable and famous; that he rebuked and instructed politicians and judges over the telephone from his Metropole Hotel office; that on the occasion of the second Dempsey-Tunney fight he threw the biggest, and wettest, party seen before or since in Chicago— it blinded on for three days, the liquor bill (even at his wholesale rates) was 50,000 dollars, and it was attended by socialites, movie stars, politi- cians and theatre and boxing celebrities from all over America.

Appropriate to his station, he lived a sybariti- cally luxurious life. His custom-built car cost 30,000 dollars, his ring, an eleven-carat blue-white diamond from the South African Jagersfontein mines, 50,000 dollars. His casual munificence with his thickly wadded bankroll became one of the romances of that hard-bitten city where nothing had ever previously been for free. He was once charged—and paid without wincing-1,000 dol- lars for a round of drinks in the Country Club, an exclusive New York speak run by Belle Living- stone, dubbed by the papers 'the Most Dangerous Woman in Europe' when she was the outstand- ingly lurid playgirl of the Edwardian age. His Personal gratuity rates were five dollars for a newsboy, ten dollars for a hat-check girl and a hundred dollars for a waiter.

There were many such heart-warming stories as that of the hard-up hat-check girl who, decent but desperate, pleaded for a position in one of his brothels to support her ailing mother. 'Forget it. Not a nice girl like you,' said Al, peeling off a hundred dollars for her. At Christmas he spent 100,000 dollars on miscellaneous gifts. All the year round he distributed diamond-inlet belts to his new friends and ruby-set gold cigarette cases to politicians and business associates, whose cellars were also kept stocked with wine and champagne (not the speakeasy brands). With probably no traditional knowledge to draw upon. he regarded this huge, industrial city as his estate and assumed the function of a squire, a benevo- lent despot capriciously distributing largesse among his villeins. In hard winters the poor of Cicero could draw all the groceries, clothing and fuel they needed from coal depots and depart- ment stores on the Capone account. He paid the hospital bills of a woman bystander wounded in a street gun-battle. It is not altogether astonishing that today there are many respectable citizens in Chicago who speak glowingly of Capone's phil- anthropy and particularly point out that in the early Depression days it was the Capone gang who set up the first soup-kitchens and block- restaurants for the distribution of free food on Thanksgiving Day.

Perhaps one should remind oneself, however, that this one-man Welfare State had at his dis- posal for his good works the lion's share of the 150 million dollars, which was the sum estimated that marauding and extortion cost the State of Illinois annually.

At one point, around the time that he had been described as 'a cancer' and 'America's Nineteenth Amendment,' and was saying mournfully: 'There's a lot of grief attached to the limelight,' Capone considered hiring Ivy Lee, the publicist who pulled off the most formidable assignment in public relations, that of popularising the loathed, union-smashing millionaire, John D. Rockefeller, Snr. This did not come about, pos- sibly because Capone recognised that his own instincts for publicity were as sound as any advice. he could buy from Lee. By 1930 he was a celebrity of a size rare in the pre-television age. Pasley, writing at that period, described him as 'Amer- ica's Exhibit A. Al had grown from civic to national stature. He was an institution,' and Pas- ley grouped him in a small glorious host in the annals of enduring Americana with Will Rogers, Henry Ford, Rin-Tin-Tin, Babe Ruth. Charles Lindbergh, Texas Guinan and Al Smith As it turned out, Pasley sold Capone short. I suspect that today, although Ford and Rin-Tin- Tin might be known to many children in Europe, Africa, the Far East and even perhaps the Soviet Union, most would instantly recognise one name only among that list, and that, if language was a barrier to explanation. they would be able to communicate their knowledge with a levelled finger and a staccato rat-a-tat-tat.

He outlasted four chiefs of police, two muni- cipal administrations, three United States district attorneys, and a regiment of Federal Prohibition agents; he survived innumerable crime drives, grand jury investigations, reform crusades, clean- up election campaigns, police shake-ups, and Congressional inquiries and debates. He killed between twenty and sixty men himself—there is no way of ascertaining any nearer tally—and was responsible by delegation for the murder of at least 400 others, and was never charged with one of them. His ultimate arrest and commitment to gaol on October 24, 1931, came about from the doggedness of the Intelligence Unit of Elmer key, chief of the United States Treasury Enforcement Branch; but it was not really the forces of law and order that defeated Capone. When he was struck down his strength and menace were fail- ing. Capone had been defeated by three unexpec- ted things : the approach of repeal, which was to dissolve his black market in booze; depression, which dried to a dribble the easy money of the golden days; and disease, which was eating him from within.

Now, thirty years after that febrile and pre- datory era, it is evident that Al Capone will have a more durable, definitive place in history, both popular and serious, than any of those other candidates for immortality with the possible ex- ception of Henry Ford, although even that revo- lutionary will never be preserved in the same glare of popular fascination.

As the years go by Capone stands out more palpably as a phenomenon and a symbol of a sort. He cannot be summarised by all. the con- ventional terms of disapproval, that he was evil, ruthless or corrupt, although he was all those things. The splendour of his dispensation to the needy and the greedy cannot be allowed to admit him back to grace, although he did practise a flashy generosity which, although doubtless para- noically vanity-feeding, was no mere fable. In only a decade he ascended from squalid poverty to a status which, if no less squalid, was unique in its power and scope. He was, after all, a pioneer of a kind, for nobody before had done quite what he did, and in him there were undoubted qualities of imagination, forcefulness and ingenuity.