The Man Who Made Chicago Famous

I was in Europe a few years ago.  When people found out I was from Chicago, they’d talk about Michael Jordan, or Riccardo Muti, or President Barack.  That was a big change from the first time I crossed the pond, in 1979.

Back then, when I mentioned Chicago, more than one person would respond by raising his hand, pointing the index finger at me, and mimicking a gun.  I got the message right away.  Chicago=Gangsters.

CaponeAnd who gave us that reputation? Al Capone.

Big Al sets the classic image of the gangster–white fedora, pinstripe suit, oversize cigar, diamond pinky ring, and all the other props.  The scars down his left cheek just add to the package.  He has become part of our collective unconscious.

Alphonse Gabriel Capone was born in 1899 in Brooklyn.  His parents came from the region around Naples in Italy, but Al proudly boasted that he was an American by birth.  He began running with the local New York gangs as a teenager.  In 1920 Johnny Torrio brought him to Chicago.

Prohibition was coming.  Torrio knew there’d be big money made by selling bootleg liquor.  He needed a good, all-purpose thug, and Capone fit the bill.  The kid from Brooklyn soon became Torrio’s right-hand man.

Within five years, Torrio’s syndicate was ringing up an annual profit of $105 million–that’s close to $2 billion in today’s money.  Then some rivals tried to kill Torrio.  He survived, but decided to retire.  That put Capone in charge of the whole operation at age 26.

Commenting on Capone’s swift rise, one writer asked the question, “What was Napoleon doing when he was 26?”  And just recently, I read a quotation from Louis Armstrong about Capone:  “A nice, cute little fat boy,” Armstrong said.  “Young, like some professor who had just come out of college to teach or something.”

Robert De Niro as Capone--age 44

Robert De Niro as Capone–age 44

We forget how young Capone was.  The actors who’ve played him in the movies are usually middle-aged.  Because he was overweight and prematurely balding, Capone always looked older than his years.

Capone was married a lady named Mae Coughlin.  They had a son named Albert–his dad called him “Sonny”–and they lived in a two-flat on the South Side.  Al’s headquarters were at the Lexington Hotel.  A visitor said his office had three pictures on the wall–George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Mayor Big Bill Thompson.

He had only about five years at the top.  In 1931 the feds took him down.  Capone was convicted of income tax evasion and sent to prison in Atlanta.  When Alcatraz opened, he was transferred there.

Somewhere in his adventures he had picked up syphilis.  A few sources say Capone was offered treatment but refused–because he was afraid of needles.  It’s a nice bit of irony, but probably not true.

Capone was released from prison in 1939.  By then the syphilis was affecting his mind.  Jake Guzik, one of his old pals, visited Capone in Florida around this time.  Guzik told the boys back in Chicago, “Al is nuttier than a fruitcake.”

He died on January 25, 1947.  The family brought Al’s body back to Chicago, and he was laid to rest at Mount Olivet Cemetery near another legend, cow-owner Catherine O’Leary.  He was later moved to permanent residence at Mount Carmel in Hillside.

Capone mug shot

Capone mug shot

He remains a cultural icon.  Capone’s image is used to sell pizza, cigars, wine, t-shirts, neckties, and whatever.  He’s on posters and on slot machines, in comics and in song lyrics.  There are Capone calendars and Capone websites.  An award-winning children’s book is titled Al Capone Does My Laundry–with a sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes.

So maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe I’ve been talking to the wrong people.  Maybe Capone is still the symbol of Chicago for the rest of the world.  And he’ll probably remain that symbol, as long as somebody can make a buck on the deal.

Big Al would understand that.



4 Responses to “The Man Who Made Chicago Famous”

  1. 1 Garry June 26, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Al’s Miami house, where he died of syphilis induced dementia is up for sale again for several million. The current owner totally rehabbed the place as it had become a wreck over the years.

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt June 26, 2013 at 1:45 pm

      Capone’s Chicago two-flat on Prairie Avenue was up for sale some years ago, at a lofty price, before the real estate market tanked. I don’t know whether or not it sold.

  2. 3 Steven Barkin June 26, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    What became of Capone’s son and wife?

    • 4 J.R. Schmidt June 26, 2013 at 1:50 pm

      I’m not sure. I know that his son had health problems, and I believe he changed his name. BTW, one of Capone’s nieces recently published a book titled “Uncle Al Capone.”

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