Capone: The Man and the Era

Capone: The Man and the Era
Laurence Bergreen

What can explain celebrity? Al Capone was a famous Chicago gangster, but had a short career at the top and was never the titan of crime he was made out to be. Both earlier and later Chicago bosses would have more power and success. So why has Capone’s name continued to ring down the years, to the point where an entire prime-time television special in 1986 could be based around the opening of an (empty) vault said to belong to him? The short answer is the media. Capone was a snappy dresser, had a catchy nickname, and handled the press like a pro. He was the first Public Enemy Number 1 (in fact, the list was originally made for him). He was the model for the crime bosses depicted in the golden age of gangster films: Little Caesar, Scarface, and Public Enemy. He was further mythologized in a later, hyperbolical “memoir” by the man who aspired to be his nemesis, Eliot Ness. The real Capone was a less sensational figure than all this, but the media chose to go with the legend. Laurence Bergreen’s account of Capone’s life and dramatic times helps set the record straight, and still tells a great story by sticking to the facts.