By Donald Liebenson
4:17 PM CST, December 28, 2012
What's in a name? If you're a Chicagoan and your surname is Capone, everything. There is perhaps no more notorious name associated with the city (except perhaps Gacy, or for a time, Bartman). Growing up, Deirdre Marie Capone lived what she calls a "shame-based existence" and struggled with her family ties to one of the towering crime bosses of the 20th century.
So it's something of a new chapter in her life that she wrote a book, "Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story from Inside His Family," which takes on the public's perception of her family as personified by Al, former "Public Enemy No.1," whose "Outfit" menaced Chicago during the Prohibition era and who remains the poster boy for Chicago's mob past.
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Unlike Leonard Nimoy, who desperately tried to distance himself from his signature "Star Trek" character with his book, "I am not Spock," Capone confronts her family's legacy head on.
She's got her work cut out for her, considering what we think we know about Al Capone. That little matter of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, for instance.
But here's the thing: What we know about Al Capone isn't necessarily true, and what we don't know would add a more human dimension to the quintessential gangster who inspired the 1932 crime classic film "Scarface."
"Was Al Capone a mobster?" Capone asks. "Yes, he was. Was he a monster? No, he was not."
Is the world ready for a more human Al Capone, one who, Capone writes, taught her to swim and ride a bike and traded knock-knock jokes? Chicagoan Jonathan Eig's 2010 book, "Get Capone," for one, has set the record straight on some of the more infamous aspects of the Capone mythology. But a piece of the puzzle is missing, Capone insists in an interview. "There are more than 100 books written about Al Capone," she says. "But no author ever knew the man, knew the color of his eyes, the way he smelled, the sound of his voice. This is an entirely different perspective."
For decades, when it came to Al Capone, the classic words spoken in the John Ford western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" applied: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." So, despite Eig's research and Capone's interviews with family members who, she insists, gave it to her straight, the public at large has Capone fingered as the orchestrator of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Which he probably was not.
"Al Capone was almost never linked directly to any murders," Eig said in an email. "He was a savvy businessman who kept his hands clean. It's very unlikely Capone was involved in that notorious crime."
Capone devotes a chapter in her book to the massacre, which was intended to be a hit on rival mob boss Bugs Moran. Seven people were slain. Moran was not present. Capone offers her own convincing case that Al was not involved based on talks she had with her grandfather, Al's brother, Ralph. "Anybody who studied Al Capone's M.O. would know that was not a Capone job," Capone says. "If Capone wanted to get Moran, he would have gotten him. There wouldn't have been that farce."
Capone, 72, who lives in Florida, was in Chicago recently in part to speak at a Chicago History Museum gala marking the 79th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. That she would stand before any size crowd to talk about her family would have been inconceivable as recently as two years ago, she says.
She did not tell her husband, to whom she has been married for 50 years, about her family tree until just before they were married and moved to Minnesota in 1972. Two years later, she writes in her book, her 9-year-old son came home from school, and in answer to her question "What did you learn today?" responded that he learned about a gangster named Al Capone.
She was finally compelled to have the conversation with her children that she had long dreaded.
"It was very difficult growing up in Chicago with the last name of Capone," she says. "My father was the first born of the second generation of Capones, and he had all the family hope and promise on his shoulders. He played the role in the Capone family that John Fitzgerald Kennedy played in the Kennedy family. He got his law degree from Loyola, but the Chicago Bar Association wouldn't allow him to practice because his last name was Capone." He took his own life when his daughter was 10.
As for Capone, she had been enrolled in elementary school as Deirdre Gabriel (her father's middle name). She was inadvertently outed, she recalls, in a newspaper story about a ceremony at which "Deirdre Capone" was among the second-grade students who had received their first communion. The ceremony had been held in the wake of Al Capone's death in 1947 on Jan. 25, Deirdre Capone's birthday. The family needed "something joyous," she says, and so the entire Capone clan attended the event. "The priests and nuns (at my school) knew who I was, but my classmates and their parents didn't," she says. "Two weeks later, every other classmate was invited to this girl's birthday party, but not me. I sent out invitations to my birthday party, but no one came."
Years later, she writes, she worked with an insurance company in downtown Chicago. She still went by the surname Gabriel, but six months into the job, she had to use her legal name to take advantage of the company's offer to its employees of a free insurance policy. When her boss learned she was a Capone, she says, she was let go.
She, too, had harbored thoughts of suicide, she admits, but credits the Capone "grit" with her drive to persevere. "I inherited that," she says.
But she still approached with trepidation the task of telling her children that she was a Capone. She was old enough to read when Al Capone died and had seen the obituaries and their recaps of his life of crime. "I couldn't figure it out" at the time, she says. "I knew something was different because when my father took me to grandma's house and Al was there, there would always be armed guards.
"But I loved those people, and they loved me. I was never afraid, and there was never anything awful that went on."
And so she sat down with her four children — then ages 9 through 14 — and told them about her ties to Al and the Capone family. Their response: "Cool."
Following the release in 1987 of Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables," featuring Robert De Niro as Al Capone, it was Deirdre Capone's sons who encouraged her to write a book that would offer at least a more nuanced portrait of Capone, who in the film bashes in an underling's head with a baseball bat.
Capone admires the film and DeNiro but argues that the movie "put a monstrous face on the Prohibition era. It wasn't that violent," she says.
(On this point, Eig disagrees. "Crime was rampant in Chicago in the 1920s, with something like 70 or 80 murders a year," he said).
Make no mistake; Capone is no Pollyanna. She allows for family bias, but just as she passionately knocks down commonly held assumptions about Al Capone, so does she own up to violence committed under Al's auspices. But that violence, she insists, never involved innocent citizens — only those who represented a threat to the business or the family.
In that respect, she says, she finds "The Godfather" movie the most authentic in portraying a sense of what it was like growing up a Capone.
She originally wrote her book as a family history for her children and grandchildren so they would have a better or fuller understanding of the Capone family. For decades she interviewed first-generation family members and kept her promise that the book would not be published until they all had passed. "My children said they really felt the public would want to read this," she says.
Not that the book will change anyone's mind about Al Capone. "There is a group of people out there who I call gangsterologists," Capone says. "They think they know more about my family than I do. They certainly know a lot about the era. But I grew up inside this family.
"Every time a relative died, the newspapers ran all the same stories, and believe me, most of what you read was not factual. I just want a chance to give anyone who's interested an opportunity to see there is a human being named Al Capone."
Are new books about Capone by Deidre Capone, Eig and others having an impact?
Capone points to the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," in which Stephen Graham portrays Al Capone. True to form, the character is portrayed as violent and ruthless. But in a recent episode, Capone was seen comforting his deaf son, Sonny, who had been bullied at school, by tenderly playing him a song on a mandola, placing the child's hand on his throat so he could feel the vibrations of his voice.
It's a start.
For the past 23 years, Donald Liebenson has written features with an emphasis on culture, community and entertainment.
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