In Jonathan’s Eig’s brilliantly researched and accessible “life and times” of the most notorious mobster of a notorious era, we learn that Al Capone’s biggest problem wasn’t the Chicago cops or vicious rival crime bosses. These could be bribed away or killed off, both “Scarface” specialties. What ultimately undid the legendary 1920s gangster was his craving to be as famous as Babe Ruth. Capone effectively crafted “a public identity as an overlord of the underworld,” writes Eig. As brazen bootlegging and rampant violence poisoned big cities like Capone’s Chicago, Scarface would describe himself in countless newspaper interviews as a self-made businessman simply offering what customers demanded.
Capone was untouchable in Chicago, running his lucrative criminal syndicate with modern business techniques and resorting to violence when necessary. He paid police and judges for protection, and left rival gangs alone if they didn’t bother him. Yet as the gangland wars inevitably exploded, highlighted by the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (when seven of Capone’s rivals were machine-gunned), the federal government intervened. Capone’s appetite for publicity put a bulls-eye on his back, explains Eig, making him the nation’s “leading symbol of lawlessness.” And as such, he attracted the attention and ire of President Herbert Hoover, who “gave the order to the top officials in every relevant agency: Get Capone.”
Hoover not only supported Prohibition and obsessed about maintaining order, but seemed personally offended by Capone’s public image as a self-made businessman. The President, Eig writes, would begin each morning by asking his cabinet, “Have you got Capone yet?” Capone was eventually put away not for racketeering and murder but for tax evasion and his 1931 conviction would result in the maximum sentence of eleven years, much of it served in Alcatraz. Capone was finished. As Eig observes, his “popular appeal” was crucial to his rise toward the fame he craved—but it “infuriated” those who might have otherwise ignored a single city’s crime boss, and ensured his almost classic fall.