SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. I'll bet ever Chicagoan has a story like this. You're somewhere in the world and someone asks you where you're from. When you say Chicago, instead of saying President Obama, Oprah or Michael Jordan, they train their fingers like a Tommy-gun and say: Chicago, Al Capone!
More than 60 years after his squalid, inglorious death, this powerfully built man with two long scars on his left cheek is still perhaps the most famous criminal who ever lived.
Jonathan Eig, a former writer for�The Wall Street Journal�and author of best-selling books on Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, has written a book about Al Capone's life and crimes, and the federal effort that brought him down, "Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster."
Jonathan Eig joins us from our studios in Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. JONATHAN EIG (Author): Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Help us understand how big Al Capone was in the world.
Mr. EIG: He was huge. He was on the level with Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh. And it was because he came along in the '20s when celebrities were just in love with the spotlight, and Capone was the first and really the only criminal who decided that he wanted to be famous too, and he embraced celebrity.
SIMON: He called his criminal enterprise The Outfit. How did it operate? How did it make money?
Mr. EIG: It was very loosely organized. We have this image now of him as this overlord who was in control of every bar, every casino, every speakeasy and brothel in Chicago. But in fact it was a very loosely organized operation. And that was in many ways the key to his success. He didn't try to micromanage.
He let the bar owners, he let the gambling house operators do their thing and collected his portion. And his big job was to make sure everybody stayed happy. So paying off the cops, paying off the courts, making sure that his guys didn't go to jail - he was very good at that.
SIMON: How smart was Al Capone?
Mr. EIG: His IQ was 95. He was of average intelligence, at least on that metric. But I think he had a real gift for organization, and I think he was a terrific people person, very gregarious, very well liked. This is not the popular image we have of him, but in fact he was a lot of fun to be around. I think that was really more the key to his success than his intellect.
SIMON: But when you say he was a people person, I mean he killed people too.
Mr. EIG: Yeah, he killed people too. That's part of being a people person. It's just the dark side of it.
No. He really went to great lengths to engage people and to build a fraternity around him. That's how he survived in this business. And he really did try to keep the rival gangsters at peace. And when - of course when he couldn't, then he took care of business, and that's part of being a good businessman too, when you're in Capone's racket.
SIMON: St. Valentine's Day massacre, 1929, there were seven people slaughtered in a North Side garage. It was thought to be Capone's strike against the Bugs Moran gang and it's often credited as being the event that - the outrage was so great, it drove the federal prosecution effort to finally put him behind bars. You have some new information in this book.
Mr. EIG: That's right. I've always been suspicious. It doesn't make sense for Capone to have done this. In fact, the Feds were already breathing down his neck. It also doesn't make sense that he would have gone after Moran in such a dramatic way and missed Moran. Moran was not killed.
So I came across a letter in the FBI archives that offers just a completely new theory. This letter suggested that one gangster got knocked off. His cousin came after the guys who did it. And in his rage he just - he killed everybody on the scene. I think everything about it that I was able to check out is supported by the facts.
SIMON: Now, I believe, wasn't it Bugs Moran that said - only Capone kills like that?
Mr. EIG: Yeah...
SIMON: Which he would have wanted the federal strike force to go after Capone for that.
Mr. EIG: That's right. What better way to take out Capone than let the Feds do it? You know, Moran would have been able to expand his turf dramatically. But even the cops and even the Feds knew that Capone didn't do it. And a part of the problem was that there was a lot of suspicion that the cops may have been in on this hit. And that's why the investigation never went anywhere. And that's why eventually we just came to blame Capone just by force of his sheer reputation.
SIMON: You say that Eliot Ness and the Untouchables should've been called the Inactives.
Mr. EIG: Yeah. Ness was really more of a nuisance to Capone than a serious threat. The real guy in charge of the investigation was George E.Q. Johnson. He was the prosecutor, the U.S. attorney for Chicago. And he was getting orders from the president, Herbert Hoover, that he wanted Capone in jail, whatever it took.
Ness never came up with any evidence that was useful in prosecuting Capone. All he did was really break up a few stills and raid a few brothels, but really never made an impact.
SIMON: And who developed - which I think is an idea that's hallowed even to this day - emulated even to this day - the idea that instead of trying to get Al Capone on the most flagrant, dramatic crimes, like murder and for that matter bootlegging, just get him on taxes?
Mr. EIG: Yeah, the credit for that goes to George Johnson. He tried it out on some of the other gangsters in Chicago. He tried it out on Capone's brother, Ralph, and put him away at Leavenworth for three years. And it was really the only chance they had against Capone, and they had real mixed feelings about it. They were worried that they'd be laughed at, that the government would be mocked for taking down this notorious criminal, this obvious killer, and getting him on nothing more than a tax charge.
So it was a very interesting decision, very important decision, to go after him. And the Justice Department today still refers to it as the Capone Method.
SIMON: You make the case in here that Al Capone, who could have afforded the best legal counsel in the world, might have been mis-served by his attorneys. They might have been suckered by the government.
Mr. EIG: I think they were suckered by the government, and I think that Capone never saw it coming. He hired the guys who he usually hired for his criminal defense work. These guys knew the courts, they knew Chicago, they knew how to play the game, they knew who to bribe and how to take care of juries, but they didn't know anything about tax law. And I think Capone did not see the severity of this tax case and he did not imagine that he could possibly go away for so long.
He ended up being sentenced for 11 years. And Capone figured these guys'll make a deal for me. That's what they're good at. And when it turned out that you couldn't deal with the government in this case, Capone was in big trouble.
SIMON: He hated that nickname, Scarface.
Mr. EIG: You wouldn't like it very much either.
SIMON: Well but, well, yes, that's true. But on the other hand, I don't have scars on my face. And wasn't he in a business where it would rather be good advertising to have scars on your face?
Mr. EIG: Yeah, but you have to understand, I mean, look at the way Capone dressed. He wanted to be seen as a businessman, and he really believed that he should be seen that way, and the scars really bugged him. He would go to newspaper editors and beg them to airbrush his photos and to at least have the photographer shoot him from the other side, and he would say, how do you think my mother feels when she sees me called Scarface in the newspapers?
SIMON: Does the media bear some responsibility for Al Capone's prosperity by building him up into such a big figure?
Mr. EIG: Well, the media certainly made him famous, made him infamous, and I think the media's responsible for his legend and why it continues to intrigue us so much today. Capone courted the media. He loved these reporters. He loved giving interviews and reporters loved him right back. And then you've got, even in Capone's lifetime, even in the early '30s, movies made in which he's clearly the star of the show. You know, they're clearly basing these movie characters on his life.
So very quickly he could see that the public was becoming obsessed with him.
SIMON: What is the nuance that's been missed for decades as far as you're concerned?
Mr. EIG: I think Capone was a complex man. I think that he was a two-bit thug really who almost accidentally found himself in this position of power and extraordinary wealth and made the decision that he would try to do it in a business-like way and would try to go public with his activities. And that was a terrible mistake. You know, he should have, like the other two-bit thugs, he should have remained quiet about his illegal activities.
But it was a human error and he was a human being. And I think that, you know, I discovered a lot of new papers and a lot of Capone's own letters. I talked to his family members and I think what emerges is that he was a very complicated person, and I wanted people to understand that he was not the character that you see in the movies.
SIMON: Jonathan Eig - his new book, "Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster." Thanks so much.
Mr. EIG: Thank you.
SIMON: And you can read an excerpt of Jonathan's Eig new book on our website, NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.