He was head of a huge ring of alcohol cookers, illegal brewers, vice resort managers, gambling house keepers, whisky warehouse raiders and hired gunmen that gave Chicago a reputation as a city of lawlessness in the roaring 1920s. He had rivals, of course, but few of them ever got rich and many of them perished by gunfire, which, if he did not order it, was at least in his interest.
—Associated Press, Jan. 26, 1947, reporting the death of Al Capone
Once, a little girl named Deirdre scampered up a tree in her grandmother’s yard, lost her footing and tumbled. The impact knocked the wind out of her. Her great-uncle, a bear of a man, scooped her up and patted her back until she calmed. He took her inside and fetched his mandolin. He strummed the instrument and sang her a lullaby.
The little girl is Deirdre Marie Capone, and her uncle was Al Capone—“Scarface”; Public Enemy No.1; prisoner of Alcatraz; boss of “The Outfit,” the organized crime syndicate that dominated Prohibition-era Chicago.
Deirdre Capone, who is 75 and a Southwest Florida retiree, wants the world to know about the Capones as she knew them: her kindly uncle; her solid-as-a-rock great-grandmother; her grandfather Ralph, Al’s business partner, once named Public Enemy No. 3; and her father, Ralph Gabriel Capone Jr., an aspiring attorney so burdened by the Capone legacy that he committed suicide when she was 10.
She is the author of Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story from Inside His Family. The book, released in 2012, thrust Capone into a circuit of book signings and discussions, restoration consultations for her great-uncle’s Miami estate, and, most recently, a collaboration with a filmmaker who is writing a screenplay based on the book and her additional research.
“My goal was to set the record straight about my family, about my name and about their involvement in Prohibition,” Capone says, settling into a seat at a coffee shop in Naples one afternoon in May. A few weeks previously, she’d addressed a packed crowd at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center in Fort Myers. The legend of Al Capone, it seems, still captivates the nation’s imagination.
Capone insists she’s not trying to change history or disregard her family’s crimes; what she wants to do is complete the picture.
I will not pretend to paint a rosy picture of my uncle Al, she writes. I cannot make him out to be a perfect man, or even a good man. But what I want people to know is that he was a complex man. He was human—and he had a heart. He was a son, a brother, a father and an uncle.
Her book is named for her infamous uncle, but just as intriguing is her own journey from shame, humiliation and rejection of her bloodline to ownership and acceptance of who she is.
“My children were asking me all these questions,” says Capone, who revealed her heritage only after a son learned about Al Capone in school. “That blood is surging in all of their veins. I have to do all I can to let them know their ancestors were really good people. I mean, was Al Capone a mobster? Yes, he was. Was Al Capone a monster? No, he was not.”
Dozens of murders were attributed to him and his gang: murders for which no one was ever tried. There were many accusations, most of which no one troubled to deny, that he and his cohorts practiced bribery of public officials and policemen on a large scale.
—The Associated Press, 1947
Some of my most memorable moments with Uncle Al were when my dad, Aunt Maffie and I would prepare for an evening of radio. We had a kind of ritual. We would always make popcorn first—in our own unique, Capone way. Al would bring out this big gunnysack, or burlap bag, filled with ears of popcorn…
—Uncle Al Capone
If nothing else, Deirdre Capone prompts her readers to understand how circumstances and events shaped her great uncle.
Al Capone broke the law early—and out of a desire to help his large, struggling, immigrant family. As a kid, he’d sell pilfered goods to buy groceries at a time when milk prices alone burdened a household budget.
Al Capone’s father died in 1920, leaving behind his wife, Theresa, and five children still at home. The older boys, Al and Ralph, assumed the patriarch’s duties and financial obligations.
Prohibition began, and an entrepreneurial young Capone seized the opportunity to satisfy Chicago’s thirst for alcohol and desire for defiance.
“You know, no bootlegger in the country could be in business for more than a week without the cooperation of the politicians and the police. People don’t know that,” says Deirdre Capone, who says the politics and corruption of Prohibition will factor largely into the film.
She wants readers to understand how the events of the day shaped her family, and she seeks to correct what she says is misinformation, passed along from media report to media report, history book to history book, film to film.
Al wasn’t a high school dropout; a family photo shows him in cap and gown. Syphilis alone didn’t lead to Al’s post-Alcatraz madness; the prison-administered mercury “treatments” exacerbated his decline. And, perhaps her most controversial claim, Al Capone wasn’t responsible for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a long-held family stance recently backed by journalist Jonathan Eig in Get Capone—The Secret Plot that Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster.
Deirdre Capone acknowledges the violence of the Prohibition years but also says, “My grandfather one day, he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘Deirdre, I want you to know that no innocent person was ever hurt, no child’s life was ever in danger, and no woman ever did anything she did not choose to do on her own.’”
When she thinks back, there had always been signs of her family’s double life—armed men standing guard, first-floor curtains drawn shut, her uncle’s sudden shift in demeanor when business associates came to call.
But it wasn’t until Al Capone’s death—on her 7th birthday—that Deirdre Capone began to see how the world regarded her family. “All of the newspapers came out with articles with all of the alleged things the Capones did,” she says. “I’m reading about my father, I’m reading about my grandfather, I’m reading about my uncles, and I’m reading about my aunt. And I’m thinking, ‘Wait, there’s something wrong here.’”
Her family refused to answer her questions at the time. But she soon would experience the burden of the Capone legacy.
A local newspaper “outed” her in an article about her class’ First Communion, revealing her as “Deirdre Gabriel Capone” and noting Al Capone’s family in attendance. Her classmates had known her as Deirdre Gabriel, her father’s attempt to protect her. She became an immediate pariah.
Her father committed suicide in 1950. His life had been filled with rejections: the Chicago Bar refused to admit him; Deirdre’s mother left him; he worked jobs unbefitting a law school graduate pegged as the family’s torchbearer—the firstborn of a new generation shifting into legitimacy.
His family would discover a manuscript he’d been writing, The Sins of the Father.
Deirdre’s mother had lived in
Gatsby-esque opulence, shattered when her parents lost their fortune; she spent the rest of her life chasing men who might restore her stature.
A teenage Deirdre contemplated suicide.
Deirdre’s mother ordered her to forego a college scholarship and find work. She did, at an insurance company, and did well there—until her employer discovered that her last name was Capone, not Gabriel. He fired her.
A boyfriend date-raped her, she wrote, telling her she was “damaged goods” and no one else would want her. She married him and later fled his violence.
Finally, she reconnected with a former co-worker, a man who knew her past and loved her, regardless. They moved to Minnesota and she began a new life as wife, mother and career woman.
“I was rejected so much in Chicago when people found out who I was that when I had a chance to escape, I did, and I pretended I wasn’t that person,” she says.
It wasn’t until the day her then-9-year-old came home bubbling about “gangster” Al Capone that she confronted her family legacy, reconnecting with relatives and documenting their stories.
To this day, Deirdre Capone remains cautious. She hired guards for her Chicago book appearance. “There are lunatics out there,” she explains. She’ll tell an interviewer about her career in Minnesota, but then ask that those details be left out of the article—it’s too easy to track down her family’s information otherwise. “I want to keep my married name out of things.”
She butts heads with “gangster-ologists,” her term for those obsessed with her family and the alleged falsehoods they spread. She’s gotten lots of good reviews, but some criticism, too, from people accusing her of “cashing in” on the family name and questioning the veracity of a 7-year-old’s memories.
But Capone believes she is accomplishing what she set out to do.
“I want my ancestors to be proud of me,” she says.