This is no way to go: "Broke, alcoholic and dead from a massive heart attack at just fifty-five." But that was how life ended for Eliot Ness in 1957.
But how very well the subsequent years treated him, allowing him to come to vivid and heroic life, first in print with the hyperbolic aid of drinking buddy/sportswriter Oscar Fraley, in 1957's "The Untouchables." That book and its heavily embellished anecdotes and fictional characters gave rise to Ness on television (Robert Stack in the 1959-63 ABC series) and film (Kevin Costner in the 1987 Brian De Palma movie, with screenplay by Chicago's David Mamet).
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And that is how most of us know Ness, the crime fighter doing battle with Al Capone. But Capone never met Ness and probably never even heard of him, so fanciful had been the mythologizing.
The record is set straight in the compelling "Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an America Hero" ($27.95 Viking), a new and invaluable biography of the real and much-less-heroic Ness.
The author is Douglas Perry, whose previous book, 2010's "The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired 'Chicago,'" gave us the real story behind the fanciful and very successful dramatic play (in 1926, written by Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins), theatrical musical (1975's Broadway hit by, among others, Chicago-born Bob Fosse) and film (2002's movie starring Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere and Catherine Zeta-Jones). All were titled "Chicago."
That was the city of Ness' birth in 1902; it is a credit to Perry's research that he correctly pins that year long thought to have been and usually cited as 1903, even on Ness' tombstone in Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery.
He was the youngest of five children of Norwegian immigrant parents: father Peter, who "rarely took a day off from the thriving wholesale bakery business he owned," and mother Emma, who "missed her three grown daughters, who had married and left the house, and so she coddled Eliot. Unlike his older brother Charles, Eliot grew into a soft, amiable, unthreatening personality" who "struggled with blue moods. He would come home from school and shut himself up in his room to hide his depression."
School was Christian Fenger High School (now Academy) and later the University of Chicago, where he earned a degree in economics and then a master's degree in criminology. A loner through all of his life, Ness joined the Bureau of Prohibition in 1927 and soon was charged with assembling a team of Prohibition enforcement personnel not initially known as "The Untouchables," but rather the Capone Squad.
"The Capone squad lived in a hermetic, hothouse world of its own, like scientists racing against the clock to find a cure for a pandemic." Of the eight men on this crew; only Ness was allowed to speak on behalf of the group, and he did so effectively: "After weeks of talking to the press, the twenty-eight-year-old had become a local celebrity — and he clearly loved every minute of it."
He and his men did some dangerous work on Capone's booze businesses and continued busting up illegal liquor establishments even after Capone was shipped off to jail in 1931 on tax evasion charges. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Ness went to Cincinnati for a time before becoming public safety director of Cleveland.
His years in Cleveland are revelatory and actually much more exciting than his time here. He rooted out corruption in the police department, shuttered all manner of illegal operations and went toe to toe with that city's considerable number of mobsters. But his increasing drinking wore on his reputation and personal life. He went through three wives and drifted from job to job with the federal government and in the private sector.
He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Cleveland in 1947 and spent a final decade that was certainly sad and booze-filled. Perry tells this story with compassion and in great detail, fully aware that "the truth about Eliot Ness has been up for grabs ever since" his death.
The author has a slight tendency to generalize, calling the South Side neighborhood of Ness' youth a place where "men came home from work singed and defeated, a retreating army. Everyone drank, the men so they could face another day, the women so they could face their husbands." He can slip into overwriting, as in this description of Cleveland in winter: "January was wreathed in darkness. A thick blanket of smoke had smothered the city for a month, squeezing out everything but a collective mood of gloom and anxiety."
But these are minor quibbles. Perry is a fine writer and an insightful one, giving us the Ness story straight, without the bells, whistles and Tommy guns ablaze. He does justice to his subject, a complicated and self-destructive human being, but one who was also admired by many. He is a tragic rather than heroic figure, and Perry nails him with style and compassion.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
"Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an America Hero"
By Douglas Perry, Viking, 352 pages, $27.95Copyright © 2015, CT Now