For biographer Deirdre Bair, author of “Al Capone: His Life, Legacy and Legend,” the idea for a book usually begins with “a question of something I want to pursue.”
“That happened with the Capone book but in a bit more roundabout way,” the National Book Award-winner says by phone from her home in New York.
Given Bair’s previous work — on Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Carl Jung and New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg — her focus on Capone surprised her friends and colleagues.
“Every time I talked to people and said I was writing about him, I can’t describe the looks of shock or confusion on people’s faces,” says Bair, whose Capone book goes on sale Tuesday.
Bair credits a friend at Pace University in New York with setting the project in motion. The woman’s brother was a lawyer for a Milwaukee family named Capone and was eager to learn the truth about family lore that a relative was a son of Capone’s born out of wedlock, and they wanted to find out more about the gangster himself.
That led Bair to the library and books on Capone.
“I realized that everybody had something different to say about this man,” Bair says. “No one was telling a consistent story.
“The most surprising thing I found was that his reign as the top mobster in Chicago was so brief. He was on top of his world for five short years. And yet here we are, almost 80 years later, and his name is known all over the world.”
I told her about a parent telling me decades ago not to let strangers on a trip to Europe know we were from Chicago: “Say we’re from Illinois or simply the Midwest.”
Bair’s response: “I have spoken to people from Chicago who shared the exact same story that happened to you. One young man from Chicago stands out for me. He asked, ‘Why can’t we get over people taking their hands and forming a Tommy gun and then making that rat-a-tat sound of the machine guns going off?!’ ”
Bair’s book includes plenty of stories about Capone’s mob activities. But she says her main interest was producing a more personal memoir of the man and his family.
“He was so young — just 25 years old — when he took over the Outfit,” she says. “By the time he was 30, he was off to prison, and his life and his health was in decline.”
Capone died at 48 in 1947 of syphilis.
Bair says he clearly was very bright — until syphilis reduced his mental capacity to that of a child.
“I interviewed so many people who I call, with great respect, ‘gangster-ologists’ — those who have made a serious study of crime as part of our cultural history. They all have said that Capone could have been the head of a corporation if he had the opportunities that Italian-Americans — at that time — were deprived of.”
Of special interest to Bair was Capone’s wife, Mae.
“When I got into contact with her granddaughters, I discovered she had burned all of her papers and letters before she died,” she says. “She didn’t want anyone to write anything salacious about her relationship with her husband. This is such a loss. That woman led her life in such a way that she could have given us such insight into the condition of women at that time in our country — and not just women married to mobsters.
“The way that woman conducted herself with dignity and restraint was truly admirable. There were times when she was so poverty-stricken in her later years. People would go to her and offer her huge sums of money to write about her marriage to Capone. But she never said a word. She was such a dignified woman.
“Yet her granddaughters tell great stories about her — revealing she was witty and funny and great to be with. A very loving woman who was very demonstrative with her affection. My one regret about the book is that I don’t have her letters or journals. But they are gone forever.”
Deirdre Bair will talk about and sign her book at 7 p.m. Nov. 2 at Anderson’s Bookshop in LaGrange and at noon Nov. 3 at the University Club of Chicago, 76 E. Monroe St.