EDITOR'S NOTE: When Al Capone gave this interview to Mr. Vanderbilt, he was facing trial for evasion of the federal income tax law, with the prospect of several years in prison if he should be convicted. What was going on in the mind of this self-imposed dictator from the underworld? Was he sobered, deflated, as a man naturally would be in such circumstances? On the contrary, as Mr. Vanderbilt shows, he was coolly holding forth on the affairs of the nation, telling the President of the United States what to do and naming his possible successor, and — to crown the effrontery of it — denouncing grafters and swindlers. The interview is published as an astonishing and salutary object lesson in underworld mentality aggrandized by prohibition riches, sensational publicity, and the arrogance of a gangster, swollen with power."
"Us fellas has gotta stick together."
We were seated, Al Capone and I, in a large spacious office in the southeast corner of the fourth floor of the Lexington Hotel at Twenty-second and Michigan, Chicago. It was after 4 P. M. The day was Thursday, August 27. And this was the year.
Below us, on the sidewalks, cops and plain-clothes men bristled. Their light artillery was very much in evidence. Gangster hangouts had been brushed clean time after time during the past twenty-four hours. Hotels and apartments had been entered and raided. Pat Roche wanted the king, and wanted him badly. And Pat was the state's attorney.
Someone had been kidnaped. His name was Lynch. He published a race-track tip sheet. Rumor had it his captors demanded "250 grand" for his release. Believing that Al Capone might know something about it, the Chicago police had asked the king to help them find him. His Majesty had graciously acquiesced; and it was not long before Lynch was found. Nor had he been obliged to pay a nickel's worth of ransom.
Al Capone does not tolerate some kinds of rackets, and kidnaping is one of them.
He leaned a bit farther back in his comfortable office chair and lit, for the seventeenth time, his chewed Tampa cigar. We had been talking for more than an hour.
"This is going to be a terrible winter," he went on. "Us fellas has gotta open our pocketbooks, and keep on keeping them open, if we want any of us to survive. We can't wait for Congress or Mr. Hoover or anyone else. We must help keep tummies filled and bodies warm.
"If we don't, it's all up with the way we've learned to live. Why, do you know, sir, America is on the verge of its greatest social upheaval? Bolshevism is knocking at our gates. We can't afford to let it in. We've got to organize ourselves against it, and put our shoulders together and hold fast. We need funds to fight famine."
Could I be hearing correctly? Was I in my right senses? Here, in front of me, in the bay of a window, behind a long, large teak desk, sat the most feared of all our racketeers. Much taller than I had imagined, and much broader; a fellow with a winchlike handshake, a banker's bay window, and the winning smile of all the Latin races. And yet, instead of the usual line of talk that emanates from gentry of his kind, he had been giving me a discourse the like of which it had never been my fortune to hear.
He went on:
"We must keep America whole, and safe, and unspoiled. If machines are going to take jobs away from the worker, then he will need to find something else to do. Perhaps he'll get back to the soil. But we must care for him during the period of change. We must keep him away from red literature, red ruses; we must see that his mind remains healthy. For, regardless of where he was born, he is now an American."
Boys were shouting extras in the streets below. Al "Brown," as he likes to call himself, got up from his chair and walked over to the south side of the room. He drew from a cabinet a pair of field glasses, raised them to his eyes, and read slowly from an afternoon sheet's headlines: "Pat Roche Confident He Will Soon Have Capone Under Arrest."
He smiled broadly at me. "Pat's a fine guy," said he quietly, "only he likes to see his name in print a bit too often."
And, thought I, "If Pat really was in earnest about arresting you he could do it in a jiffy."
He practically answered the thought: "I guess I'm like you, Mr. Vanderbilt: I get more blame from the crowd for things I never do than praise for the good I do.
"The news gang are forever riding me. Seems as if I'm responsible for every crime that takes place in this country. You'd think I had unlimited power and a swell pocketbook. Well, I guess I got the power all right; but the bank book suffers from these hard times as much as anyone else's.
"My pay roll is about as big as it ever was, but the profits have done their share of dwindling. Say, you'd be surprised if you knew some of the fellas I've got to take care of."
I could have answered that I wouldn't have been surprised at anything, but I held my peace. Al Capone is not the usual type of gangster who has risen to a high place. He is a capable organizer and politician.
At thirty-two he has about him the most perfectly oiled machine this country has ever seen. He is as powerful in Chicago as any Tammany boss ever was in New York. To do the many things he must do daily, he has a pay roll in excess of $200,000 a week.
At this writing the Capone machine has yet to meet a defeat. Just how can a man of his youth hold together the kind of organization he has built up? I asked him. His reply came without hesitation:
"People respect nothing nowadays. Once we put virtue, honor, truth, and the law on a pedestal. Our children were brought up to respect things. The war ended. We have had nearly twelve years to straighten ourselves out, and look what a mess we've made of life!
"War legislators passed the Eighteenth Amendment. Today more people drink alcohol from speakeasies than passed through all the doors of all the saloons in America in five years before 1917. That's their answer to law respect. Yet most of those people are not bad. You don't classify them as criminals, though technically they are.
"The mass feeling that prohibition is responsible for a lot of our ills is growing. But the number of lawbreakers is increasing too. Sixteen years ago I came to Chicago with forty dollars in my pocket. Three years afterward I was married. My son is now twelve. I am still married and love my wife dearly. We had to make a living. I was younger then than I am now, and I thought I needed more. I didn't believe in prohibiting people from getting the things they wanted. I thought prohibition an unjust law and I still do.
"Somehow I just naturally drifted into the racket. And I guess I'm here to stay until the law is repealed."
"Then you believe it will be repealed?"
"Certainly," was his quick reply. "And when it is I'd be out of luck if I hadn't arranged to do business elsewhere. You see, Mr. Vanderbilt, prohibition forms less than thirty-five per cent of my income."
His next statement fell like a thunderbolt.
"I believe Mr. Hoover may make the text of his December message to Congress a suggestion that the nation's legislators raise the percentage of the alcoholic content of liquor. That will be his best card for renomination. Besides, you know he has always called the Volstead Act 'a noble experiment.'
"In time, though, people won't tolerate even that. They'll demand a return to normal drinking; and if they exercise enough pressure they'll beat the Anti-Saloon League and the industrialists who have waxed fat and wealthy at the expense of thirst.
"The law will be repealed. There will be no further need of secrecy. I will be spared an enormous pay roll. But as long as the act remains in effect and there are people left who will continue to break the law, then there must be positions for persons such as I, who find it devolves upon us to keep the channel open.
"People who respect nothing dread fear. It is upon fear, therefore, that I have built up my organization. But understand me correctly, please. Those who work with me are afraid of nothing. Those who work for me are kept faithful, not so much because of their pay as because they know what might be done with them if they broke faith.
"The United States Government shakes a very wabbly stick at the lawbreaker, and tells him he'll go to prison if he beats the law. Lawbreakers laugh and get good lawyers. A few of the less well-to-do take the rap. But the public generally isn't any more afraid of a government prison sentence than I am of Pat Roche. Things people know about amuse them. They like to laugh over them and make jokes. When a speakeasy is raided, there are a few hysterical people, but the general mass are light-hearted. On the other hand, do you know of any of your friends who'd go into fits of merriment if they feared being taken for a ride?"
Did I? That was one question I could answer, and quickly.
On the wall behind the king was a picture of Lincoln in a cheap frame. He seemed smiling benevolently down. A bronzed paperweight of the Lincoln Memorial statue of the Great Emancipator was on the royal desk. A copy of the Gettysburg Address adorned another portion of the wall. That Capone admired Lincoln more than any other American was easy to see.
I asked him how he felt about the 1932 elections.
"The Democrats will be swept in on a record vote," he declared. "The masses will think they'll get relief from the depression that way. I know very little about world finance; but I don't think the end of the depression is going to come like that. I think it will take longer. A series of circumstances will bring about a relief, if we don't let the Reds try to bring it about before.
"Owen Young has the best chance, in my own humble estimation. He's a swell guy, and they ought to let him get it. If not, then Roosevelt will; and I think Roosevelt has enough sense to make Young his Secretary of the Treasury. Roosevelt's a good fellow, but I'm afraid his health is pretty shaky, and a leader needs health."
Capone's na´vetÚ was charming. He did nothing for effect; and I am sure he wasn't trying to show off for my benefit.
Four days before I had been sitting in my Nevada ranch house. My Sicilian secretary, Peter Marisca, had brought me a telegram that had been mislaid earlier in the day. It read: "Appointment arranged in Chicago Wednesday morning at 11. Call my office on arrival." It was signed by a well known Mid-Western attorney. I had just had time to pack some bags and catch a late night train east.
Reaching Chicago Wednesday, I read of the kidnaping of Publisher Lynch, and of the Chicago police's bid to Capone for his help. Nevertheless, I called the attorney who had sent me the wire. Capone was in consultation with his counsel and could not see anyone.
Late that evening I purchased an early copy of a morning paper. Headlines told of Lynch's return home, and of Pat Roche's order for Capone's arrest. It was intimated that the king knew entirely too much about the cause of Lynch's sudden kidnaping.
All hopes of seeing Capone fled instantly. I had developed a bad cold in my head, and I went to bed.
Early Thursday morning there was a telephone message: "Mr. Al Capone's secretary says it will be entirely all right for Mr. Vanderbilt to come to his office this afternoon at three."
Peter Marisca didn't deliver it because he thought someone was playing a practical joke! Yet he told it to me as an aside that day at luncheon at the Drake; and I nearly burned my throat with the mock turtle.
And so here I had come through cordons of police and government agents. Down in the lobby of the Lexington we had entered an elevator, in which a colored boy as glum as glue had taken us up.
In the hallway a well upholstered young chap had been waiting. He was dressed in the lightest green suit I think I have ever seen. And he lost no time in asking me whom I wanted.
"I have an appointment with 'Mr. Brown,"' I said.
"That guy with you?" He motioned to Pete. I replied that he was. We moved down the hall and into a private suite of rooms. Pete stayed outside to talk his native tongue with any number of other Sicilians.
During the interview I was brought back from my surmises by a question Capone put to me. "In your talks with big men throughout the world," he was saying, "what have they to offer as a solution for the present depression?"
"Frankly," said I, "I've heard so many solutions, I feel as if none of them really knew anything. I think they're stumped."
"Not stumped," said Al. "They can't all get together and stick to any one thought. They lack concentrated organization. Isn't it a peculiar thing that with one of the world's greatest organizers as our chief executive we lack organization more now than ever in our history?
"The world has been capitalized on paper. Every time a fellow had a new idea, they'd increase the capital stock — give themselves so much cash and their stockholders so much paper. The rich got richer; the stockholders speculated with the paper. Someone found out it paid to keep a rumor factory going. Someone else interested women in gambling on the big board. The world was wild.
"Amalgamations took place. The more clever a fellow was with turning paper recapitalizations into cash, the greater became his vice-presidential titles. Young men who ought, many of them, to be resting behind the bars of penitentiaries for stealing paper rose overnight in the world of prosperity. Our entire prospectus of living turned topsy-turvy.
"Crooked bankers who take people's hard-earned cash for stock they know is worthless would be far better clients at penal institutions than the poor little man who robs so that his wife and babies may live. Why, down in Florida, the year I lived there, a shady newspaper publisher's friend was running a bank. He had unloaded a lot of worthless securities upon unsuspecting people. One day his bank went flooey. I was just thanking the powers that be that he'd got what was coming to him when I learned of another business trick that would make safe-cracking look like miniature golf.
"The crooked publisher and the banker were urging bankrupt depositors who were being paid thirty cents on the dollar to put their money in another friend's bank. Many did so; and just about sixty days later that bank collapsed like a house of cards too.
"Do you think those bankers went to jail? No, sir. They're among Florida's most representative citizens. They're just as bad as the crooked politicians! I ought to know about them. I've been feeding and clothing them long enough. I never knew until I got into this racket how many crooks there were dressed in expensive clothes and talking with affected accents.
"Why, when I was held the other day for evasion of federal taxes I nearly got myself into a fine pickle. Certain officials wished to make a bargain with me. If I'd plead guilty and go to jail for two and a half years they'd dismiss the charges they had against me. A pretty penny had to be paid, but I thought that that was better than the strain of a long-winded trial. A day or so before the bargain was to be struck, though, I learned that someone was going to go to the Appellate Court and that there'd be a fly in the ointment and they'd have me in Leavenworth for ten and a half years. So I decided I could be just as foxy, and we entered a plea of not guilty, and when the case comes up we'll see what we will see.
"A little while ago in one of the Chicago newspapers it said that a local millionaire manufacturer had been found to be some fifty-five thousand dollars in arrears with his personal-property tax. A day later it was printed that this had been printed in error, and that the situation had been satisfactorily cleaned up.
"If Mr. Hoover's government wants me to explain my federal taxes I shall be very glad to do so. I think I could enlighten him and several other officials a considerable bit, and any time they need any sensational matters to talk about I shall have them ready to give out.
"Graft," he continued, "is a byword in American life today. It is law where no other law is obeyed. It is undermining this country. The honest lawmakers of any city can be counted on your fingers. I could count Chicago's on one hand!
"Virtue, honor, truth, and the law have all vanished from our life. We are smart-Alecky. We like to be able to 'get away with' things. And if we can't make a living at some honest profession, we're going to make one anyway."
It was growing late. The setting sun's ruddy light enlivened the red-and-gold fancy plaster walls of his office. It intensified the dark-red window shades. The large moose's head on the wall; the stuffed fish and game; the short army rifle — all seemed resplendent in afternoon's final burst of glory. The big old fashioned phonograph case should perhaps have opened of its own accord to play some triumphant march.
"The home is our most important ally," Capone observed. "After all this madness the world has been going through subsides, we'll realize that, as a nation, very strongly. The stronger we can keep our home lives, the stronger we can keep our nation.
"When enemies approach our shores we defend them. When enemies come into our homes we beat them off. Homebreakers should be undressed and tarred and feathered; as examples to the rest of their kind.
"There would be very little need for your home town, Reno, Mr. Vanderbilt, if more men protected their homes. When the prohibition law is repealed there'll be less desire for birth control. Without birth control America can become as stalwart as Italy. With an American Mussolini she could conquer the world."
The door opened quietly behind me. Peter and "Mr. Brown's" secretary were still in conversation. Al greeted Pete and they had a few words together in Sicilian.
"Remember, Mr. Vanderbilt, us fellas has gotta stick together this winter," he repeated. "Last winter I fed about three hundred and fifty thousand persons a day here in Chicago. This winter it's going to be worse. I think we both speak the same language; and I think we're both patriots. We don't want to see them tear down the foundations of this great land. We've got to battle to keep free. Good luck. I'm glad I met you."
The iron study door swung to. My most amazing interview was at an end.
Publication Date: October 17, 1931