Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Book Review: 'Dillinger's Wild Ride' & The Mythos Of The Last American Outlaw

Stranger, stop and wish me well/Just say a prayer for my soul in hell/I was a good fellow, most people said/Betrayed by a woman all dressed in red.
When the legendary Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he famously replied "Because that's where the money is." While the prolific robber carried a Thompson submachine gun and also said that "You can't rob a bank on charm and personality," he never shot anyone and claimed before his death in 1980 that his weapons were never loaded.

John Dillinger was another kettle of fish.

Better known at the height of the Great Depression than any American other than
Franklin Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh, Dillinger left a trail of over a dozen dead policemen, civilians and gang members and had divested banks of over a hundred thousand dollars in the years 1933 and 1934 (or about $2 million today).

Dillinger became so notorious that the city of Chicago was compelled to form a Dillinger Squad made up of 40 marksmen, while J. Edgar Hoover staked his reputation and that of his agency (soon to be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation) on bringing down Dillinger, who was finally shot dead by G-men outside a Chicago movie theater after his landlady ratted him out.

While Sutton had style and wit, Dillinger had nerve, cool and athleticism (he earned the nickname "Jack Rabbit' because of the way he leaped over counters) that
enthralled a public bitter about the breakdown of its banks and other economic institutions, rampant unemployment, foreclosures and breadlines.

"Dillinger did not rob poor people," wrote one citizen in a letter to the Indianapolis Star. "He robbed those who became rich by robbing the poor. I am for Johnnie."

The public's faith in law enforcement also was shaken, and this somehow made
Dillinger an even more compelling figure. Although other criminals of the era, including Bonnie and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and of course Al Capone, were even more violent, Americans had a special soft spot for him.

Enough books have been written about Dillinger to fill a small library. They range from standard biographies (mostly boring) to psychological analyses (he never got over the loss of his mother at age 3). But Elliot Gorn takes a different tack in Dillinger's Wild Ride: The Year That Made America's Public Enemy Number One, which in an exquisite sense of timing was published just before the summer release of the hit movie Public Enemies, in which Johnny Depp plays Dillinger.

Gorn seeks to explain how the mythos of Dillinger as the last American outlaw (as opposed to gangster, a term that seems to be reserved for Mafiosi and inner city drug dealers) was created and succeeds admirably in a spare 200 pages not counting another 46 pages of footnotes. The lack of padding is welcome.

* * * * *
Born and raised in Indiana, John Herbert Dillinger spent most of his brief adulthood in prison for his first felony arrest, the botched stickup of an elderly small-town grocer with an uncanny resemblance to his own father who would later sign a petition to have him paroled after he vowed to go straight. He was released from the state penitentiary at Michigan City in June 1933 at age 29.

The 13-month crime spree between his release and death included springing his buddies from the penitentiary, bank
robberies across the Midwest, being arrested but escaping in a shootout, robbing more banks, being arrested yet again but breaking out of jail with a carved wooden gun, escaping in another shootout, humiliating authorities by dropping by his father's farm right under their noses for dinner (chicken and coconut cream pie, his favorites), and then getting his face surgically reconstructed in preparation for a train robbery.

After his death, tens of thousands of people viewed his body at the Chicago morgue, a funeral home and attended his burial, while a cottage industry in books and articles sprang up claiming that Dillinger faked his own death and was alive and well on an Indian reservation in Oregon, Hollywood and myriad other places.

Gorn writes that Dillinger's life was portrayed as "an age-old American story: rural virtue and small-town honesty succumbing to urban vice," and more than one commentator noted that it ended in Chicago, the nation's most corrupt city.

The trouble with the story is that Dillinger grew up in Indianapolis and moved to tiny
Moorestown, Indiana ("just a wide place in the road," as a New Yorker scribe put it) when he was 17, but Johnnie remained a cocky big-city lad, his cap pulled to the side and the bill pulled down over one eye just like the young felons in motion pictures.

What, asks Gorn, if hard times had never come? What if
Dillinger's father was a prosperous farmer and upon his parole found a woman, settled down and raised a family?

"Certainly his letters from prison express longing for the domestic ideal of home, wife, and kids," the author writes, "but it is all more than a little hard to believe. There was an edge to Dillinger's personality, something more than mischievousness, less than sociopathic . . . it is hard to imagine Dillinger simply rejoining the straight world."

Besides which, a life of crime presented opportunities during the Great Depression such as natty clothes, expensive cars and easy women, that walking the straight and narrow simply did not.

* * * * *
Dillinger's crime spree owed less to his smarts, although he was no dummy, than the fact the outlaws of the era had better weapons, faster cars and most state police forces were small. The predecessor to the FBI also was undermanned, utterly inept at surveillance and frequently undermined by J. Edgar Hoover, who already was earning a reputation for political infighting and treachery.

An Essex Terraplane Eight, Dillinger's favorite ride, would leave a six-cylinder Chevrolet police car in the dust, although it guzzled gas and would have to be refilled every 100 or so miles. Police sometimes would be left dead in their tracks if roofing nails were thrown onto the road during a pursuit.

Some policemen, as well as prison guards, also were corrupt, and the men with badges could be just as violent.

In December 1933, Chicago cops raided an apartment
believing they had cornered members of Dillinger's gang and gunned down three men with no connection to the outlaw, who at the time was swimming, fishing and llounging about in Florida with several of his pals. Then in April 1934, federal agents thought they had cornered the Dillinger gang at the Little Bohemia hunting and fishing lodge in northern Wisconsin, shooting three bystanders and killing one. Dillinger escaped after jumping from a second-floor window into a snow bank, while Baby Face Nelson killed one fed.

As 1934 began, Dillinger was declared to be "Public Enemy No. 1," a distinction previously held by only Al Capone and one other gangster. And in a first, two of Dillinger's gun molls became the first women to be on the Chicago Crime
Commission's Top 10 list.

After a brief side trip to Chicago and a bank job in which a police officer was gunned down -- the only cop killing laid directly at Dillinger's feet -- he and girlfriend Evelyn "Billie" Frechette drove out to
Tuscon, Arizona where gang members had rented a house and one by one were been nabbed by alert police. The pair were arrested late in January without a shot being fired.

The news media went nuts.

"Hard riding, fast shooting men of the desert range country today flung down a challenge of death to the John Dillinger gang of hardened desperadoes," rhapsodized the International News Service, while a New York Times editorial evoked "the great open spaces of Zane Grey and Hopalong Cassidy" in declaring that the Tuscon police had combined modern detective work and "the old frontier style, with victory decided by the quickness of the draw."

Interviewed by reporters in his jail cell, Dillinger opined that "I've been in tougher spots than this. It's about ten to one we'll get out of this little mess," and urged the
local citizenry to vote for the sheriff in the upcoming election because the arrests were evidence of his ability.

While the Tuscon collar was a triumph for law
enforcement, it had the unintended effect of humanizing Public Enemy No. 1, who bantered easily with reporters and remarked that "I guess my only bad habit is robbing banks. I smoke very little and don't drink much."

In Gorn's words, Dillinger had become "an existential hero," while reporters focused less on "the wages of sin than the joy of the chase."

The outlaw was wanted in several states, but Indiana won out. He was renditioned to the jail in the town of Crown Point instead of a more secure prison, where he cooled his heels through February while continually joking that he planned to escape. He did just that on March 3, some nine days before his trial, using a fake gun carved out of wood from a washboard and blackened with shoe polish. Just like in the movies.

Indeed, one studio rushed to complete a screenplay about Dillinger entitled A Man Without a City. But the Hays Commission, charged with cleaning up Hollywood and making movies wholesome again, stepped in and decreed that he not be put on a pedestal.

While Hoover and other lawmen fumed and raged, Dillinger and his gang resumed their reign of terror.

"To date, there are still 12 states in which Dillinger has not been seen in the last 40 hours," wrote famed Hearst newspapers columnist Arthur Brisbane after the botched raid at the Wisconsin lodge. "If police officers should meet Dillinger, and
not have their revolvers and bullet-proof vests taken from them, that would be news."

Humorist and syndicated columnist Will Rogers noted the success of the feds at picking up Dillinger's women. The problem, he wrote, was that Dillinger always managed "to keep at least two women ahead of 'em."

* * * * *
By July 1934, many Dillinger gang members, including the entire gang from the Michigan City breakout, were dead, and it was now the turn of a 31-year-old man that many Americans embraced as a Robin Hood.

Despite numerous false sightings, Dillinger had disappeared for two months during which he underwent plastic surgery that did
less to alter his famous visage than the glasses, mustache and dyed black hair that he now wore. There was a $10,000 bounty on his head, about five times what an average family earned in those bleak years.

He had a new friend, Anna Sage, a prostitute turned brothel keeper who offered Dillinger a room in her apartment on Chicago's North Side that had a locked closet where he kept the
tools of his trade. One of her tenants was Polly Hamilton, a waitress and part-time hustler who became Dillinger's steady companion.

Dillinger and the remnants of his gang planned one big final heist -- the robbery of a
mail train and then flight to Mexico.

But unbeknown to the outlaw, Sage had a big problem: The Romanian immigrant had been busted on federal
prostitution charges and was going to be deported, so she ratted out her tenant to federal agents in return for vague promises of clemency. She said that she, Dillinger and Hamilton would be attending a show at the Biograph movie theater on the evening of July 22 and she would be wearing an orange skirt and white hat.

With a small army of feds surrounding the theater, the trio took in Manhattan Melodrama, a surprise hit of that summer.

Gorn describes the last moments of Public Enemy No. 1:

At 10:20 p.m., patrons began emerging from the theater. [Federal agent Melvin] Purvis stood by the ticket booth, waiting, looking right and left, the crowd enveloping him, an unlit cigar in his mouth. Suddenly, just a few feet away strode Dillinger, Polly Hamilton on his left arm, Anna Sage beside her. In a prearranged signal to his men on the street Purvis lit his cigar. Many of the agents could not see Purvis through the crowd, but [Charles] Winstead and [Clarence] Hurt were ready. As the throng streaming south on Lincoln Avenue thinned a bit, Dillinger walked right past them. They fell in behind, joined by Agent Ed Hollis, who had been standing beside a parked FBI car. According to reports given by federal agents, Dillinger turned, saw the three men in suits, and knew. He crouched, broke free of Hamilton and Sage, and strode forward toward the alley, his hand reaching into his pocket, pulling a gun. No words were spoken, though Purvis later claimed that he called out to Dillinger to halt. Their guns ready, Winstead, Hurt and Hollis fired six shots at the fleeing man. Two bullets grazed Dillinger, another struck him on the left side. The fatal shot entered his neck, pulverized his brain, and exited below his right eye. He pitched forward a couple more steps, fell face down on the pavement in front of the alley, muttered a few unintelligible words, and died."

IMAGES (From top to bottom): A young Dillinger with his beloved sister Audrey; Dillinger, about age 10, on a visit to the country; Dillinger (far left) enlisted in the Navy but soon went
AWOL; Dillinger had a thing for dark-skinned beauties like Evelyn "Billie" Frechette; A Chicago policeman points out bullet holes in Dillinger's abandoned Terraplane after a high-speed chase; Dillinger was chummy with Crown Point Sheriff Lillian Holley and Prosecutor Robert Estill; He made good on a vow to escape from the jail in Crown Point; Dillinger dropped in on his family for Sunday dinner in April 1934 right under the noses of the police; Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin; J. Edgar Hoover; Anna Sage, the "Woman in Red"; Crowds outside the Biograph shortly after Dillinger's death; Thousands came to view Dillinger's body in the Chicago morgue.

No comments: