Al Capone, October 1931

Al Capone, October 1931 (Chicago Tribune / March 12, 2012)

"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 For decades she interviewed first-generation family members and kept her promise that the book would not be published until they all had passed.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.


Non-bullet points

  • "I promise you, Dear Reader," Deirdre Capone writes in "Uncle Al Capone," "that after reading this book you will know things about Al Capone and his family that none of his biographers ever knew." Here are some tidbits, from the author or from her book:
  • In "The Untouchables," De Niro's Capone is overcome by an opera performance. But Al Capone was also a jazz buff. His brother Ralph opened a version of New York's famed Cotton Club in Cicero. In the 1950s, Deirdre recalls, "my grandfather took me to the Chez Paree (nightclub) to see Nat King Cole. We were invited to his dressing room."
  • Capone prided himself on his appearance. In exploring options for a legitimate business enterprise, he considered creating the "Al Capone Collection."
  • "Hits" associated with Al Capone would have taken on a whole new meaning if he had succeeded in his plan to buy the Chicago Cubs. "I love Wrigley Field," Al is quoted as saying. When his brother, Ralph, asked him what he was prepared to offer the Wrigley family for the team and ballpark, he is said to have actually replied, "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse."
  • Alphonse "Scarface" Capone had blue eyes.
  • Al Capone's son, Sonny, was a close childhood friend of Desi Arnaz, whose family Deirdre's grandfather Ralph was instrumental in getting out of Cuba following the 1933 revolution.
  • In the 1980s, while still playing down her family ties, Deirdre says she was approached by Geraldo Rivera's people to participate in the now infamous "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults" broadcast. She declined.