Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, by Dierdre Bair***

caponeWhat is it about mobsters that draws our attention?  National Book Award winner Deirdre Bair takes on America’s most famous mobster, Al Capone, and examines the myths and legends that have sprung up in the time since his death. I thank Net Galley and Doubleday for permitting me the use of a DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The book is available to purchase now.

Alphonse Capone was the first child in his large family to be born on American soil. His family was terribly poor. To steer him toward employment after he had left school, his father purchased a shoeshine kit for him so that he could begin his pursuit of the American dream; Al had other ideas, and his first racket was begun at age 16, shaking down other shoeshine boys as part of his very own protection racket. He was mentored by a man named Torrio, a mobster of the old school. Later Torrio would move his business to Chicago, and once New York became uncongenial, Al’s family sent him out there to join him.

The biography is intended to examine Capone’s life primarily from the vantage point of those near and dear to him; some of his grandchildren are still alive, and I gained the impression that the book was initiated by them. It is obvious from the start that the brutal killings—at the apex, Chicago saw a murder every day—and other vicious acts of retribution over what were sometimes small or even imaginary slights, are soft pedaled and his family life is emphasized.

I guess it’s all a matter of what you’re looking for.

Capone had an organizational genius, and since his entire empire was an unofficial one, he became the embodiment of capitalism unfettered. Bair tells us that the Harvard School of Business uses his business plan, or aspects of it, as part of the curriculum. And had the US Supreme Court not ruled in 1927 that income derived from illegal sources is still taxable income, chances are outstanding that Capone would never have gone to prison. He surely would not have found himself on Alcatraz Island without access to quality medical care; one wonders, however, whether having him live longer would truly have been desirable.

In fact, relatively speaking, I almost feel moved to thank the Bloods and the Crips for their restraint. Well, almost.

Capone was once called “The most shot at man in America,” and Bair examines the stories that are told or that have been written about him. For the diehard aficionado of all things Capone, hers is a must-read. For those with a more general interest looking to read just one book about him, I suspect that one of the many other biographers Bair quotes may be a better bet; it’s hard to say, though, because as Bair points out, after Capone’s death from pneumonia related to syphilis, his wife Mae burned all of his letters and other papers left behind, knowing that private business can quickly become public when one is sufficiently famous. And though Capone loved the limelight and even courted it, wearing flashy clothing and ostentatiously bestowing large gifts on total strangers at times, Mae was a private person. So there aren’t many primary sources to tap, when it comes down to it.

Nevertheless, I found myself highlighting in blue (which is the color I use when I see problems with a galley) the many times I saw the literary version of a flow chart drag down the pace:  “…according to rumors”, “…what may have happened”, and similar catch phrases, along with the menu of choices of what may have happened here, there, everywhere. I think that as a reader just looking for one definitive biography, I would have been happier to see the actual facts that are known. Many of them are riveting! For example, when it became clear that rivals sought to kill him, Capone had his home remodeled to accommodate a machine gun turret. His dining chair had a bullet proof back, as did the windows of his car. There are a lot of fascinating little details that are unquestioned in their veracity, and these are the places where my interest is piqued.

Second to Capone, by far the most interesting character is his wife Mae. Mae was lace curtain Irish, and intermarriage between the two still very distinct cultures was unusual. As I read of the things she has done to keep her family together and herself sane, particularly during Frank’s decline after his final illness began to affect his thinking and motor skills, I am truly impressed. The fact that ultimately it is she, and not a male family member or associate to whom Capone’s men come for business decisions once Frank can’t do it speaks volumes about her intelligence and talent.  I might like to read more about Mae Capone.

For those with an interest similar to mine, my recommendation would be to read this book if you can get it at your library or access it inexpensively, but barring deep pockets or strong interest, I wouldn’t pay full jacket price.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, by Robert Matzen****

missionjimmystewartIn Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, Robert Matzen provides an engaging, compelling memoir that focuses primarily on Stewart’s time as an aviator during World War II. Thanks go to Net Galley and to Goodknight Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review.

The book begins with Stewart’s childhood in a small Pennsylvania town. His is a close knit family with a strong military tradition. An outstanding student, he is educated at Princeton and falls in love with theater one summer. He hits the road for Hollywood to fulfill his dream.

Because of the title, I am taken aback at the amount of celebrity gossip that is included in the first portion of the biography. Matzen wants us to know that Stewart used his skinny-awkward-young-man routine as a sort of foreplay to work his way between the sheets with one well known actress after another; he lists many of them. I could have lived without this part, but maybe you’ll enjoy it. If like me you are really only interested in the military aspect of it, skip the Hollywood part at the start and pick it back up when he enlists. Eventually this is what I did.

Once there, the story is fascinating. Stewart resolutely straight-armed studio efforts to keep him in the USA or use him to entertain troops, as some actors that are drafted chose to do. He angers a studio head who actually tells him, “You’ll never work in this town again”. He decides he is going to do his part like any other man, apart from the fact that he had always wanted to fly and now has the money for a private plane and flying lessons. Once he is actually in uniform, he is able to become the aviator he has dreamed of being as a youngster.

As Martzen unspools Stewart’s story, which had to be difficult to research given Stewart’s resolute refusal to discuss that period, I am instantly engaged. I had known at one time that the planes were not heated back then, but hadn’t fully appreciated the dangers and challenges posed by the cold alone once in the air. A man could suffocate if he didn’t regularly break the ice off of his mask. Men could and did lose body parts to frostbite.

The stories of the men that would eventually serve under him as he rises in rank, not due to strings pulled by authorities but as he has wished, by merit and leadership capability, are also both interesting and poignant. Reading the way the pilots name and decorate their planes, how individual aircraft with idiosyncrasies that make them handle differently so that the pilots strongly prefer to fly their own ships, is interesting, and  reading the personal details and in some cases, the deaths of these men is wrenching in some places, poignant in others.

When Stewart has completed his military service, he looks at least ten years older than he is. He’s seen a lot. If he returns to Hollywood, there’s no chance he will play the same roles he used to do. He stalwartly refuses to exploit his time in the service by making World War II films, which are enormously popular, and for a long time, his phone doesn’t ring. He’s sleeping at his parents’ house in his old childhood bedroom, wondering what will happen. But in time he hears from Frank Capra, who has an idea for a picture “based on a story titled ‘The Greatest Gift,’ about a man from a small town who wishes he had never been born. Jim was the only actor in Hollywood whom Capra considered for the role.”

Despite the sense of alienation he experiences with his return to the other-worldly, glitzy city after his gritty, intense experience in the war, Stewart is glad to be back, and he plays what will become an iconic role, that of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He credits Capra with saving his career, and is overjoyed to be back:

“He was engaged in something magical again, something to interest people in the art of living, rather than the art of dying.”

The book also discusses Stewart’s lifelong friendship with Henry Fonda, and his marriage. We get a brief overview of the peacetime lives of the surviving members of Stewart’s first crew.

If it were up to me, I would remove all of the somewhat jarring photos at the end of the book that show Stewart alongside one actress after another, and I’d replace them with photos and maybe diagrams of the planes we hear so much about. A map here and there wouldn’t hurt, since we follow his flight paths and it’s sometimes hard to visualize where these places are. I used Google, but would like to see these included as part of the published memoir, perhaps in the center, where they’re most relevant.

I recommend this biography to fans of Stewart’s, and I recommend most of this book to those with an interest in military history.  The book is available to the public today, October 24, 2016.

The Big Change: America Transitions Itself 1900-1950, by Frederick Lewis Allen***

thebigchangeamericatr2.5 rounded up. The Big Change was a National Book Award finalist back in the day as well as a New York Times bestseller. I was invited to read and review it now that it’s being released in digital form; thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media. I’ve read and reviewed more than 50 titles for this publisher, and they’ve been wonderfully tolerant when I have written less than glowing praise for a book such as this, whose shelf life is well and truly over. This title is available for purchase now.

Allen’s book is written as a popular history. For a lot of people that makes it more accessible than a more scholarly approach would. As for me, I appreciate a citation, and I read those notes to see where the author gets his information. If he’s citing other secondary sources, the obvious thing to do is go read the secondary sources instead. If he’s done some real work, puttering from one obscure regional library to another in order to peruse their rare books, original diaries of heroes long gone, and so forth then I know I have found a researcher who can do me some good.

But for those delving into this period for the first time, this is in most regards a sound overview of the period in question, kind of like a contemporary history 101 for white men. Allen covers the turn of the century, when capitalism was unchecked and unashamed; The Progressive Era and World Wars I and II; the Depression, and the postwar boom. He devotes some of his space to the huge labor struggles and mentions the IWW (International Workers of the World, or ‘Wobblies’). The uses a friendly, readable tone and if there had been any women or people of color anywhere, anywhere, anywhere (other than a quick nod to suffrage) I might have found another star. Or half a star.

Having said that, I should also point out that Allen was not especially conservative or reactionary in comparison to other historical writers during the 1950’s, which is when he wrote and published this. In fact, anyone that did include women in a more than passing manner, or that included people of color, was considered a radical by many. Most academics would have laughed at them. So it’s all about context; some best sellers of the past, such as the Pulitzer winning Bearing the Cross, David J Garrow’s biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, just get better with time; others, like this title, have a more limited shelf life.

I’d recommend this title to those with a special interest in the time period, but only as supplementary material.

Florence “Flo” Kennedy: the Life of a Black Feminist Radical, by Sherie M. Randolph***

Florynce Flo KennedyFlo Kennedy was a force to be reckoned with, dismissed by a portion of mainstream Caucasian America as a kook, yet far too clever, too cagey, and too damn smart to be wished away by those that wanted to defend the racist, sexist status quo. When I saw that a memoir of her life was up for grabs at Net Galley I requested a copy immediately, and then took a long time to finish reading it. Part of my tardiness is a stubborn dislike for the PDF format, and so I apologize to University of North Carolina Press and my readers for being so slow; yet a small part of it was the surprisingly dry quality of the memoir. Given the subject, I had expected this biography to set my hair on fire.

Though she was new to Randolph, according to the introduction, Kennedy was no stranger to those of us in the Boomer generation. Her audacity, her wit, and her raw courage that at times bordered on recklessness made for great theater and fascinating press coverage. Raised by parents that taught her not “to take any shit” long before the Black Power movement or even the end of Jim Crow, Kennedy pushed the margins. She studied, worked, and fought her way into Columbia Law; she defended famous individuals like Billie Holliday and Stokely Carmichael, and she did it with style.

By far the most significant part of her legacy was the leadership she demonstrated in bringing together the women’s movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s with the Black Power movement. As a young woman sending out my own tendrils into the larger world apart from high school and my parents’ home, some of the most influential feminist speeches given were by Kennedy and Gloria Steinem, and sometimes they appeared together. I never got to see them in person, but it didn’t matter that much, because I knew what they had written and what they had said, and soon I was attending meetings of NOW, the National Organization for Women, which was the leading women’s rights organization in the US before their split over women in the military later in the 20th century. Because of women like Kennedy and Steinem, I fundraised my fare to national marches on the Capitol for women’s right to choose whether to reproduce, and to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment.

So I owe Kennedy a great deal.

Kennedy’s confidence and controlled rage positively crackled; she made headlines and was often seen on the evening news. Once when I told a classmate that I wanted to support a female candidate for president of the US, he told me that if I was going to vote for a protest candidate, I should shoot for the moon and vote for Flo Kennedy.

He had a point.

I don’t agree with everything Kennedy said or did, particularly her suggestion that rather than expending great effort to end the US war against the Vietnamese people, Americans should focus their energy toward supporting Black owned businesses. Say what? But nearly everything else she did was so vastly ahead of her time that it made me gasp in awe.

I understand that a memoir produced by a university press is generally going to be scholarly in nature, and that’s one reason I request works like this that are associated with such reputable sources. But a scholarly treatment doesn’t have to drone. By arranging a few of Kennedy’s livelier quotes up front and at chapter beginnings and endings, she might receive the treatment she deserves, instead of being consigned to the dustbin of history a mere decade, give or take a year, after she wore a tee shirt reading “I had an abortion” during her most senior years.

So although I know Randolph is new to Kennedy and probably also has some academic parameters within which she has to work, I still feel that Flo’s memoir should reflect her verve and character to a greater degree.

Nevertheless reader, if you care about women’s rights and the rights of African-Americans, if women’s history and African-American history hold meaning and importance for you, I think you should read this memoir anyway, because as of this writing, it’s really the only memoir of Kennedy that’s available. You can find some of her speeches in feminist collections, but no one else has tackled this woman’s life, and so until and unless something better comes along, you should get this and read it. Because a dry, somewhat conservative treatment of Kennedy is better than nothing.

The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: A Story of Marriage and Money in the Early Republic***

theremarkableriseofelizajumelEliza was born in a brothel, but over the course of her lifetime became a very wealthy woman who took substantial joy in rubbing shoulders with the bourgeoisie in the USA, and in getting as close as she possibly could to the royal family in France. This scholarly biography is her story. Thank you to Net Galley and Chicago Review Press for the DRC. The book will be for sale November 1.
Eliza Bowen moved to New York at an early age and shed her last name and identity, realizing that socially and economically, she had nowhere to go but up. Her ambition was limitless, and her intentions entirely fixed upon her own well being. She married Stephan Jumel, a wealthy Frenchman living in the USA, and set to work spending his fortune. No home was too grand for her tastes, and once she had the place, she set to work making improvements beyond ordinary repairs and redecoration. Her husband trusted her business acumen sufficiently to put real estate in her name in some instances, and this was nearly unheard of during the period in which they lived.
When the Jacobins and Napoleon had been defeated and the Bourbons were back on the throne, Jumel wanted to go home and stay there. His wife had other plans. After his death, she married the notorious former vice-president Aaron Burr. The marriage was short-lived, and they divorced after only about a year of marriage.
The documentation and research Oppenheimer has done is excellent, once her story really gets rolling. The initial ten percent or so, during which Eliza’s predecessors and early life are covered, is almost entirely surmise, and so we constantly read “might have”, “probably”, and finally, “…we can only speculate.” Given the opportunity, I would edit that out completely. The story stands without it, and so it really is unnecessary filler. My recommendation to the reader is to skim up to the point where she meets and marries Jumel.
Eliza Jumel is not an appealing individual, and since the nature of Oppenheimer’s narrative is expository, she makes no excuses for Eliza’s avaricious and sometimes unprincipled behavior. The woman was more than a survivor; she was a predator. But Oppenheimer has been thorough in providing us with a picture of her climb, financially and socially, and she is meticulous both with details and documentation.
Jumel’s life story isn’t a particularly enjoyable read, but for particular aspects of research, mostly topics steeped in women’s history within the US, it is a very useful resource. Scholarly and well documented, students of women’s history in the US will benefit from it.