Suttonby J. R. Moehringer
Born in the squalid Irish slums of Brooklyn, in the first year of the twentieth century, Willie Sutton came of age at a time when banks were out of control. If they weren't taking brazen risks, causing millions to lose their jobs and homes, they were shamelessly seeking bailouts. Trapped in a cycle of bank panics, depressions and soaring unemployment, Sutton saw
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Born in the squalid Irish slums of Brooklyn, in the first year of the twentieth century, Willie Sutton came of age at a time when banks were out of control. If they weren't taking brazen risks, causing millions to lose their jobs and homes, they were shamelessly seeking bailouts. Trapped in a cycle of bank panics, depressions and soaring unemployment, Sutton saw only one way out, only one way to win the girl of his dreams.
So began the career of America's most successful bank robber. Over three decades Sutton became so good at breaking into banks, and such a master at breaking out of prisons, police called him one of the most dangerous men in New York, and the FBI put him on its first-ever Most Wanted List.
But the public rooted for Sutton. He never fired a shot, after all, and his victims were merely those bloodsucking banks. When he was finally caught for good in 1952, crowds surrounded the jail and chanted his name.
Blending vast research with vivid imagination, Pulitzer Prize-winner J.R. Moehringer brings Willie Sutton blazing back to life. In Moehringer's retelling, it was more than need or rage at society that drove Sutton. It was one unforgettable woman. In all Sutton's crimes and confinements, his first love (and first accomplice) was never far from his thoughts. And when Sutton finally walked freea surprise pardon on Christmas Eve, 1969he immediately set out to find her.
Poignant, comic, fast-paced and fact-studded, Sutton tells a story of economic pain that feels eerily modern, while unfolding a story of doomed love, which is forever timeless.
A captivating and absorbing read."Kirkus (starred)"
Moehringer relays, in electrifying prose, the highs and lows of Sutton's dramatic life . . . Readers will be riveted by this colorful portrayal of a life in crime."Booklist (starred)"
In Moehringer's more-than capable hands, the story has a life all its own beyond the historical fact."The Daily Beast"
A moving and thoroughly absorbing novel. Filled with vibrant and colorful re-creations of not one but several times in the American past."Kevin Baker, author of Strivers Row"
In Willie Sutton, the greatest bank-robber of all time, thinker and lover, escape artist extraordinaire, [J.R. Moehringer] has found an historical subject equal to his vivid imagination, gimlet journalistic eye, and pitch-perfect ear for dialogue. The result is a terrific first novel by turns suspenseful, funny, romantic, and sad-in short, a book you won't be able to put down."John Burnham Schwartz, author of Reservation Road and The Commoner"
Sutton presents a glorious romance, a riveting heist novel, a financial history of the 20th century, a loving portrait of New York, and an empathetic portrait of the bank robber as a young man, all in one crisp, sad, and often hilarious novel. It is an utter joy to read."Anthony Doerr, author of The Shell Collector and Memory Wall"
A mesmerizing portrait of a remarkable man . . . The author's eye for detail and sense of place make every stop on Sutton's internal and external journeys resonate-from smoking a Chesterfield to Sutton's first sight of the moon as a free man, every scene is saturated with life."Publishers Weekly
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By J.R. MOEHRINGER
HyperionCopyright © 2012 J.R. Moehringer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHE'S WRITING WHEN THEY COME FOR HIM.
He's sitting at his metal desk, bent over a yellow legal pad, talking to himself, and to her—as always, to her. So he doesn't notice them standing at his door. Until they run their batons along the bars.
He looks up, adjusts his large scuffed eyeglasses, the bridge mended many times with Scotch tape. Two guards, side by side, the left one fat and soft and pale, as if made from Crisco, the right one tall and scrawny and with a birthmark like a penny on his right cheek.
Left Guard hitches up his belt. On your feet, Sutton. Admin wants you.
Right Guard points his baton. What the? You crying, Sutton?
Don't you lie to me, Sutton. I can see you been crying.
Sutton touches his cheek. His fingers come away wet. I didn't know I was crying sir.
Right Guard waves his baton at the legal pad. What's that?
He asked you what is it, Left Guard says.
Sutton feels his bum leg starting to buckle. He grits his teeth at the pain. My novel sir.
They look around his book-filled cell. He follows their eyes. It's never good when the guards look around your cell. They can always find something if they have a mind to. They scowl at the books along the floor, the books along the metal cabinet, the books along the cold-water basin. Sutton's is the only cell at Attica filled with copies of Dante, Plato, Shakespeare, Freud. No, they confiscated his Freud. Prisoners aren't allowed to have psychology books. The warden thinks they'll try to hypnotize each other.
Right Guard smirks. He gives Left Guard a nudge—get ready. Novel, eh? What's it about?
Just—you know. Life sir.
What the hell does an old jailbird know about life?
Sutton shrugs. That's true sir. But what does anyone know?
WORD IS LEAKING OUT. BY NOON A DOZEN PRINT REPORTERS HAVE already arrived and they're huddled at the front entrance, stomping their feet, blowing on their hands. One of them says he just heard—snow on the way. Lots of it. Nine inches at least.
They all groan.
Too cold to snow, says the veteran in the group, an old wire service warhorse in suspenders and black orthopedic shoes. He's been with UPI since the Scopes trial. He blows a gob of spit onto the frozen ground and scowls up at the clouds, then at the main guard tower, which looks to some like the new Sleeping Beauty's Castle in Disneyland.
Too cold to stand out here, says the reporter from the New York Post. He mumbles something disparaging about the warden, who's refused three times to let the media inside the prison. The reporters could be drinking hot coffee right now. They could be using the phones, making last-minute plans for Christmas. Instead the warden is trying to prove some kind of point. Why, they all ask, why?
Because the warden's a prick, says the reporter from Time, that's why.
The reporter from Look holds his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. Give a bureaucrat this much power, he says, and watch out. Stand back.
Not just bureaucrats, says the reporter from The New York Times. All bosses eventually become fascists. Human nature.
The reporters trade horror stories about their bosses, their editors, the miserable dimwits who gave them this god- awful assignment. There's a brand-new journalistic term, appropriated just this year from the war in Asia, frequently applied to assignments like this, assignments where you wait with the herd, usually outdoors, exposed to the elements, knowing full well you're not going to get anything good, certainly not anything the rest of the herd won't get. The term is clusterfuck. Every reporter gets caught in a clusterfuck now and then, it's part of the job, but a clusterfuck on Christmas Eve? Outside Attica Correctional Facility? Not cool, says the reporter from the Village Voice. Not cool.
The reporters feel especially hostile toward that boss of all bosses, Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He of the Buddy Holly glasses and the chronic indecision. Governor Hamlet, says the reporter from UPI, smirking at the walls. Is he going to do this thing or not?
He yells at Sleeping Beauty's Castle: Shit or get off the pot, Nelson! Defecate or abdicate!
The reporters nod, grumble, nod. Like the prisoners on the other side of this thirty-foot wall, they grow restless. The prisoners want out, the reporters want in, and both groups blame the Man. Cold, tired, angry, ostracized by society, both groups are close to rioting. Both fail to notice the beautiful moon slowly rising above the prison.
THE GUARDS LEAD SUTTON FROM HIS CELL IN D BLOCK THROUGH A barred door, down a tunnel and into Attica's central checkpoint—what prisoners call Times Square—which leads to all cell blocks and offices. From Times Square the guards take Sutton down to the deputy warden's office. It's the second time this month that Sutton has been called before the dep. Last week it was to learn that his parole request was denied—a devastating blow. Sutton and his lawyers had been so very confident. They'd won support from prominent judges, discovered loopholes in his convictions, collected letters from doctors vouching that Sutton was close to death. But the three-man parole board simply said no.
The dep is seated at his desk. He doesn't bother looking up. Hello, Willie.
Looks like we're a go for liftoff.
The dep waves a hand over the papers strewn across his desk. These are your walking papers. You're being let out.
Sutton blinks, massages his leg. Let—out? By who sir?
The dep looks up, sighs. Head of corrections. Or Rockefeller. Or both. Albany hasn't decided how they want to sell this. The governor, being an ex-banker, isn't sure he wants to put his name on it. But the head of corrections doesn't want to overrule the parole board. Either way it looks like they're letting you walk.
Walk sir? Why sir?
Fuck if I know. Fuck if I care.
Tonight. If the phone will stop ringing and reporters will stop hounding me to let them turn my prison into their private rec room. If I can get these goddamn forms filled out.
Sutton stares at the dep. Then at the guards. Are they joking? They look serious.
The dep turns back to his papers. Godspeed, Willie.
The guards walk Sutton down to the prison tailor. Every man released from a New York State prison gets a release suit, a tradition that goes back at least a century. The last time Sutton got measured for a release suit, Calvin Coolidge was president.
Sutton stands before the tailor's three-way mirror. A shock. He hasn't stood before many mirrors in recent years and he can't believe what he sees. That's his round face, that's his slicked gray hair, that's his hated nose—too big, too broad, with different-size nostrils—and that's the same large red bump on his eyelid, mentioned in every police report and FBI flyer since shortly after World War I. But that's not him—it can't be. Sutton has always prided himself on projecting a certain swagger, even in handcuffs. He's always managed to look dapper, suave, even in prison grays. Now, sixty-eight years old, he sees in the three-way mirror that all the swagger, all the dapper and suave are gone. He's a baggy-eyed stick figure. He looks like Felix the Cat. Even the pencil-thin mustache, once a source of pride, looks like the cartoon cat's whiskers.
The tailor stands beside Sutton, wearing a green tape measure around his neck. An old Italian from the Bronx, with two front teeth the size of thimbles, he shakes a handful of buttons and coins in his pocket as he talks.
So they're letting you out, Willie.
How long you been here?
How long since you had a new suit of clothes?
Oh. Twenty years. In the old days, when I was flush, I'd get all my suits custom-made. Silk shirts too. D'Andrea Brothers.
He still remembers the address: 587 Fifth Avenue. And the phone number. Murray Hill 5-5332.
Sure, Tailor says, D'Andrea, they did beautiful work. I still got one of their tuxes. Step up on the block.
Sutton steps up, grunts. A suit, he says. Jesus, I thought the next thing I'd be measured for would be a shroud.
I don't do shrouds, Tailor says. No one gets to see your work.
Sutton frowns at the three reflected Tailors. It's not enough to do nice work? People have to see it?
Tailor spreads his tape measure across Sutton's shoulders, down his arm. Show me an artist, he says, who doesn't want praise.
Sutton nods. I used to feel that way about my bank jobs.
Tailor looks at the triptych of reflected Suttons, winks at the middle one. He stretches the tape measure down Sutton's bum leg. Inseam thirty, he announces. Jacket thirty-eight short.
I was a forty reg when I came in this joint. I ought to sue.
Tailor laughs softly, coughs. What color you want, Willie?
Anything but gray.
Black then. I'm glad they're letting you out, Willie. You've paid your debt.
Forgive us our debts, Willie says, as we forgive our debtors.
Tailor crosses himself.
That from your novel? Right Guard asks.
Sutton and Tailor look at each other.
Tailor points a finger gun at Sutton. Merry Christmas, Willie. Same to you, friend. Sutton points a finger gun at Tailor, cocks the thumb hammer. Bang.
Excerpted from SUTTON by J.R. MOEHRINGER Copyright © 2012 by J.R. Moehringer. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
J.R. Moehringer is a first-rate writer. In Willie Sutton, the greatest bank-robber of all time, thinker and lover, escape artist extraordinaire, he has found an historical subject equal to his vivid imagination, gimlet journalistic eye, and pitch-perfect ear for dialogue. The result is a terrific first novel by turns suspenseful, funny, romantic, and sad&mash;in short, a book you won't be able to put down.
&mash;John Burnham Schwartz, author of Reservation Road and The Commoner
--Kevin Bake, author of Strivers Row
Meet the Author
J.R. Moehringer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000, is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Moehringer is the author of the New York Times bestselling The Tender Bar and coauthor of Open by Andre Agassi.
- Denver, Colorado
- Date of Birth:
- December 7, 1964
- Place of Birth:
- New York, New York
- B.A., Yale College, 1986
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GREAT READ. VERY addicting, and a super quick read. Loved the references to Brooklyn neighborhoods and streets, and couldn't put it down. That said, I was very confused and almost disappointed in the ending. But all in all, this was a great read.
The author tells a fictional account of the famous bank robber Willie "the Actor" Sutton. It's amazing how many banks Willie actually robbed and how much money he got away with, especially considering the time. The author tells the story from the point of view of Sutton when he just gets out of prison at an old age. The first 30 or so pages are a little slow, but after that I couldn't put it down. The ending is a little confusing, but if I discuss it here it would be too much of a spoiler. I definitely recommend it! Good book!
I'm still not sure how to feel about this story. Part of me wants to dive into an internet search, to see how much was "historical" and how much was "fiction". Part of me wants to believe it all as the author presented it - kinda-sorta-maybe a tad bit crazy Willie Sutton and all. And part of me wants to turn cynic and scoff at all the fantastic exploits attributed to Willie in his day. There were a few Sutty details that I really want to believe are true: That he was a voracious reader - because those who love to read can't be all bad, right? That he was intensely loyal to his friends and loved ones - because we all need to know that there's at least one person in our lives that we can depend on, one hundred percent of the time. That he truly did care for other people, despite his law-breaking ways - because the Robin Hood-like acts the author attributed to Willie towards the end of the book are too perfect, and it would make me sad if that was just a fabrication. That part of Sutty's treasure is still buried in mason jars around the island of New York - because I love a good treasure hunt. Not that I'd actually fly to New York and start digging holes in Central Park, but the thought that there may be money from a bank heist in 1920 sitting in a corroded jar in the middle of bustling New York just tickles my fancy. The writing style of this book took a while to get used to. Not the back-and-forth between past and present, but the lack of quotation marks when someone is speaking. Not entirely sure what that was about, but it was a bit distracting, at first. Also, about half-way through, the story really got bogged down by Willie, and never fully recovered. It was a slow grind, and it never fully stopped being entertaining, but it definitely didn't reel me back in for a humdinger of an ending. "Chronological order, kid" may have been Willie's go-to line, but I quickly found myself agreeing with Reporter and Photographer: "No time like the present to get to the ending of this bad boy..." The ending certainly left me trying to puzzle a few things out. But the thing is - the questions I have...are they questions about things that actually happened, or are they questions about things that Moehringer presented as Willie Sutton fact, but which are, in fact, antics created for the book? If I had enjoyed the book a bit more, I might devote some extra energy into pondering said questions. As it is, though...
I liked the flashback style utilized as Willie, the reporter, and the photographer follow his chronological map of memories through NY. It reminds me of raptly listening to my grandpa and dad talk about the gangster days, relating street corners and buildings in the city to the “old days” – showing me yellowed pictures and news articles. I don’t remember them mentioning Sutton; maybe our Chicago location influenced their choice of gangsters? The mini-history lesson adds to Sutton’s personal story: the Depression, WWI, Nixon, Woodstock etc... The reporter and photographer frequently point out times when Willie contradicts himself as he tells them what happened in the past at each point on his map. Then, in the end, reading of a final contradiction stunned me. Willie’s wry bemusement at the 60’s haircuts (or lack of), Fu Manchu mustaches, and drug habits added humor. The dialogue in the early chapters reminded me of a Cagney film or a Bugs Bunny gangster cartoon....but then, the poetry and imagery of Moehringer’s writing impressed and evoked deeper thought: Willie’s perspective on astronaut Collins from the first moon landing or comparing the sacred code of Irish Town to knowing Judas’ name but not the name of the soldier who nailed Jesus to the cross. Maybe the November weather is influencing my opinion...but Moehringer’s gangster, prison metaphors seem so insightful to me: “youth is a little old lady...with a pocketful of cash” and “time is... a thug”. In his conversation about Bess, she’s described as a diamond to protect while Willie is a ten cent cone, who isn’t worthy of her. The author’s era-grounded, deep meaningful prose makes this read worth much more than just historical fiction that may shock, touch, and sadden you.
This is a ficitionalized story of Willie "the Actor" Sutton, who robbed banks and escaped prisons through most of the first half of the twentieth century. Seen as a hero to much of the nation, Sutton was an anti-hero to many who despised the banking industry. Moehringer did a great job tellling the story and the research is impeccable. He makes Sutton out to be a highly sensitive, well-read man. There is plenty of suspense in the book, as well. I highly recommend this book. The only problem I have with this book is Moehringer's refusal to use quotation marks. This caused some confusion as to whether some passages were spoken, stated, or thought. I don't know why some writers feel the need to fall into such gimmicks. Whats next no apostrophes no question marks no commas no periods
I am always a little suspicious of historical fiction. good story. I hope it is close to the truth
Quick read, interesting setting. Good story
Excellent writer!! Wonderful story
I picked up the book because of a local book club and I like historical fiction. The flashback style took a little patience to get through. The story promtped me to look up Sutton's history. The ending of the book made me feel as if I had wasted all my time. I attempted to look back through earlier chapters to see if I had missed something. I do not know if I dislike the character or the author more.
Well written, engaging. If you're at all debating this purchase, go for it! It probably won't change your life, but it certainly won't let you down.
Great great writing and compelling story, very uniquely told!