Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: Al Capone and His American Boys: Memoirs of a Mobster's Wife

Al Capone and His American Boys: Memoirs of a Mobster's Wife Al Capone and His American Boys: Memoirs of a Mobster's Wife by William J. Helmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a little strange to think of this as Bill Helmer’s book. (For what it’s worth, I’ve met Bill a couple times and we have a handful of mutual friends.) The truth is, most of this book is written by Georgette Winkeler (a name I’ve always spelled “Winkler”) the widow of Gus Winkler, a Chicago gangster I spent a fair bit of time looking into several years ago.

The simple fact of Georgette’s text is hard to believe. There were more “tell-all” gangster narratives in the 1930s than popular memory recognized; it wasn’t until later gangster histories created a context for things like Dutch Schultz’s lawyer Dixie Davis’s memoirs that later scholars could begin to tie them into a more consistent narrative of organized crime. Still, the idea that a gangster widow would write a book-length account of her life – and that she would name names – is a real surprise. I hadn’t heard of the account until Helmer brought it out, and I’ve done my share of digging.

So, the existence of Georgette’s account makes this worthwhile without anything else. Hearing even her choice of words goes a long way toward showing a forgotten side of life in that moment. If Georgette has a thesis (at least a thesis beyond presenting herself as largely innocent and Gus as the victim of the Italians under Frank Nitti) it’s that the Capone “syndicate” (her word) was a fairly big tent. She charges that Gus got into the syndicate as part of Capone’s team of “American boys,” tough bank-robber sorts whom he found use for in running his gangster operations.

She sees Gus’s death as part of a pattern in which the “dagoes” – fueled in part by ethnic loyalty – got rid of the “American boys.” (Jack “Three Fingers” White was killed around the same time as Gus, for instance.) It’s an intriguing thesis: the end of Prohibition meant a tightening of the guard, and it also meant a more distinctly ethnic makeup. I suspect we’d see something similar post-World War II when the Syndicate took out, among others, Dago Mangano; at a glance I’d guess the “Italian” syndicate became more Sicilian than it had been. (That’s just a guess, though; many non-Italians remained important then: Jack Guzik, Gus Alex, and Murray Humphreys among others.)

Anyway, as interesting as that is, it’s also hard not to get distracted during the long, self-serving accounts. I really enjoyed only a couple of chapters here – particularly the ones around the killing of Ted Newberry – but I pressed on through the whole books for the occasional nugget of information or striking expression.

Bill Helmer is responsible for the apparatus that surrounds this. He inserts a handful of chapters between Georgette’s in order to clarify her story and give more historical background to it. My concern there is that while Helmer knows this material very, very well, he’s also more a reporter/raconteur than a historian. He gives as fact his own favorite theories – such as that Fred Burke was a chief gunman at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre or that Fred Goetz killed Frankie Yale. I’ll credit those as plausible, but they aren’t settled. Helmer has done substantial research to prove them elsewhere, but it’s troubling to find them asserted as fact in a setting like this.

Bottom line: this is a remarkable document, but it doesn’t open all that much new ground. It’s amazing that, almost 90 years later, we’re still finding relevant new material about Al Capone’s world, but this is not at all the place to start with that history.

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