Author: Dierdre Marie Capone

Publisher: Recap Publishing
ISBN: 978-0982845103

Fans of the Godfather film saga – or merely attentive observers of pop culture – are no doubt familiar with Don Corleone’s iconic veiled threat: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” It’s one of the most famous lines of movie dialogue in cinematic history. Mafia movie buffs might be surprised, however, to find that the very same line was uttered five decades before Marlon Brando ever memorably mumbled it in moviegoers’ ears.

The originator of that phrase was actually Al Capone, who was inspiring big-screen gangster portrayals before the Godfather’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, was even born. I learned about that line, and countless other fascinating tidbits about Capone’s private life, from his grand-niece’s new book, Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story from Inside his Family. Author Dierdre Marie Capone – whose grandfather Ralph Capone was once Public Enemy No. 3 when brother Al was Public Enemy No. 1 – has written an eye-opening work that doesn’t seek to glorify her uncle as much as showcase a softer side – if the inspiration of such violent films as “Scarface” can be said to have a softer side.

Dierdre Capone – who spent much of her life living under the name “Diedre Gabriel” to avoid the persecution that accompanied her famous ancestry – was quite young when she actually got to know her grand uncle (whom she simply calls “Uncle Al”), and the glimpses of the head of the Chicago outfit are surprising, to say the least. The Al Capone of her young remembrance (she was seven years old when he died) is playful, kind-hearted, supportive, affectionate, and generous. The sepia-hued scenes of large family gatherings at Capone’s suburban home are more Frank Capra than Frank Costello (the most powerful mob boss in America, once upon a time). It’s the memory of these visits, with Uncle Al singing opera as he stirs the spaghetti, that served as a hedge against the public battering young Dierdre received for being part of the Capone Clan:

I could never reconcile the frightening images the newspapers painted of them with the warm-hearted people who teased and joked with me at Sunday dinners,” she writes.

The gangland boss we meet in the pages of Uncle Al Capone has been diminished in both physical and professional stature by his seven years in Alcatraz. The author makes a good case that Capone was abused in prison by officials who “medicated” him for syphilis – with the real intention of rendering him “ineffective” upon his release so that he would never reclaim his position as the kingpin of the Chicago underworld. It worked, apparently. While not quite docile, Capone’s post-Alcatraz years find the once-feared Prohibition-era honcho wandering around his modest home, often unable to remember family members’ names and frequently speaking in near-silent and unintelligible whispers.

It’s hard to feel sorry for a man with Capone’s pedigree, but Dierdre Capone successfully raises questions about whether the former Public Enemy No. 1 was, in fact, guilty of much that posterity has charged him with. In a well-researched chapter about the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” – the cold-blooded gunning down of seven gang members allied against Capone’s “Chicago Outfit” – the author presents new evidence that seems to point strongly away from Capone and in the direction of some crooked cops.

To her credit, she also regularly acknowledges the Al Capone that brutalized his rivals and did whatever was necessary to rise to the top of a very tough food chain. Her Uncle is no saint. But even she is surprised when she finally tells her teenaged children who their great-great uncle was. As she braces for the backlash, one of her children excitedly blurts out “Cool!” It’s an amusing scene that captures well the lifelong ambivalence the author has wrestled with, haunted by the Janus-like spectre of her loving Uncle Al.

Uncle Al Capone is a welcome and necessary addition to the lengthy shelf of books about this larger-than-life figure. And though it might not recall that most famous line from the Godfather, it could stir echoes of something else Don Corleone says, later in the movie, when he’s giving advice to singer and Hollywood-wannabe Johnny Fontane: “A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

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