When I think of General George Armstrong Custer, which admittedly I rarely do, I think Errol Flynn.
Lou Gehrig? Why that would be Gary Cooper's face that comes to mind.
What about Eliot Ness?
Now, that's a tough one because I've got two faces competing for my attention, those of Robert Stack and Kevin Costner. I also have the memories of stories my father related about meeting and playing poker with Ness when my dad was a young reporter and Ness was a Chicago crime fighter in the 1930s: "A bad poker player and boring to boot."
Movies and television have always taken liberties with reality, with real events and real people. This is necessary in order to create dramatic tension and to give us heroes and villains on which our hearts and heads and emotions can hang. You want the real thing? Go see a documentary. You want the truth? Read a credible biography. Hollywood is not in the business of giving us history lessons.
I bring up Ness because he is very much in the news, not only the subject of a soon-to-be-released biography but also causing an entertaining contretemps between well-known politicians.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., recently joined Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, in proposing to rename the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives headquarters the Eliot Ness ATF Building in Washington, D.C.
Immediately Ed Burke, the City Council's resident historian and alderman of the 14th Ward, dismissed this idea, arguing that "Eliot Ness had a checkered career after leaving the federal government. I simply do not think his image matches the actual reality of his legacy."
On Tuesday, the Tribune editorial board weighed in: "you can say this for Ness: Even if the historical figure doesn't measure up to the crime-fighting hype, his integrity as a U.S. agent is unassailed. And he and his agents deserve credit, at least, for a historic assist.
"Reputation inflation is hardly confined to Eliot Ness," the editorial continued. "Abner Doubleday didn't invent baseball. George Washington Carver didn't invent peanut butter. Thomas Edison didn't invent the light bulb.
"Yet they are justifiably celebrated for enormous contributions to this nation. As is Ness.
"Go ahead, put his name on the headquarters."
We have long lived in a world in which a good story will trump reality.
Ness has been dead since 1957. His Tribune obituary was but three paragraphs long, and nowhere in it or any previous stories of Ness' time in Chicago was there mention of the "Untouchables."
But as personified on the little and big screens by Stack and Costner, respectively, Ness sits vividly in the collective mind of a couple of generations as one of our greatest citizens, a hero to be sure, the "good" to Al Capone's "evil."
Stack (whose real name was Charles Langford Modini Stack) starred as Ness in "The Untouchables," an ABC network series that ran from 1959 to 1963. Costner (real name) portrayed Ness in Brian De Palma's 1987 film "The Untouchables." The snappy, inventive screenplay was written by Chicago's David Mamet and helped win Sean Connery an Academy Award for best supporting actor as cop Jimmy Malone (a fictional character). As Mamet said at the time, "The real history isn't all that dramatic."
(All but forgotten is Tom Amandes, the local actor who played Ness in the short-lived, 1993-94 syndicated TV series "The Untouchables.")
The new biography, to be published later this month, is titled "Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero," written by Douglas Perry. (I will have a full review of the book in the Feb. 16 issue of Printers Row Journal, the Chicago Tribune's premium Sunday book section.)
It follows Ness' life from his childhood on the South Side, at Christian Fenger High School (now Academy), graduation from the University of Chicago, and his going to work as a prohibition agent in 1928. He climbed through the ranks and did put together a squad in 1930 to go after Capone's bootlegging businesses. He hurt the operation financially, as prosecutors successfully went after the mobster on tax charges.
A few years later, Ness's law enforcement career moved to Cincinnati and then Cleveland, where became that city's public safety director. He had some successes cleaning up the wildly corrupt town but was unsuccessful in a run for mayor in 1947. He was by then hitting the booze pretty hard and drifting into various law enforcement and corporate jobs before his death at 54.
Jonathan Eig is the local author of many fine books about real people: Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and 2011's "Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster." He is one of the people Perry thanks in his book's acknowledgments, and he recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that "Ness wasn't a bad guy, mind you. I just finished reading a wonderful new biography … by Douglas Perry, and I found myself liking the lawman more than I expected to. He was a sweet, kind, honest man and all too aware of his own flaws."
Eig also gets into the political fray by writing, "Naming ATF headquarters after Ness is a lousy idea. It would be like naming Wrigley Field after the former Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano, a hot dog who never lived up to his hype."
The end of Perry's book is the beginning of most of that hype. In his last years of his life Ness collaborated on an autobiography with Oscar Fraley, a sportswriter. The book is written in first-person anecdotal style, heavy on the action, anecdote and embellishment.
It was published in 1957. A few days before his death later that year Ness received a phone call. When he hung up, Perry writes in his book, "Eliot couldn't wipe the smile off his face." He said to a friend, "They just told me Hollywood is nibbling on the book idea."
Nibbling? Devouring was more like it.
Perry's book has some photos of the real Eliot Ness. He was a nice-looking fellow. But he was no Robert Stack and he was no Kevin Costner.
"After Hours with Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.