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The Road to Perdition

THE OUTFIT: The Role of Chicago's Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America, By Gus Russo, Bloomsbury: 552 pp., $35

July 28, 2002|LAURENCE BERGREEN | Laurence Bergreen is the author of "Capone: The Man and the Era."

For students of the gangster life, the chief satisfaction of Gus Russo's enormous chronicle, "The Outfit: The Role of Chicago's Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America," will be the lavish attention paid to the Chicago mobsters who came after the heyday of Al Capone. Russo demonstrates that Capone's successors, though less storied than that 1920s icon, were equally colorful and eccentric and that their dealings in a post-Prohibition world were vastly more labyrinthine and sophisticated.

Chicago civic boosterism has long held that the city's lawless days, when the machine gun ruled and politicians belonged to racketeers, was strictly a Jazz Age aberration, but as Russo makes abundantly and embarrassingly clear, organized crime persisted in Chicago for decades. Once Capone and his mentor, Johnny Torrio, the father of American corporate crime, laid the groundwork, succeeding generations of gangsters built and maintained the Outfit, as the remarkably durable, one-size-fits-all racketeering organization came to be called. The Outfit insinuated itself into Chicago's infrastructure and achieved a legitimacy that Capone and his associates could only imagine; its influence reached Las Vegas and Hollywood, but it remained a quintessentially Chicago institution. Russo convincingly demonstrates that the road to perdition lasted at least until the 1960s.

This idea, which Russo drives home with grim zeal, is one that today's civic leaders would rather forget, as I learned when I was at work on my biography of Capone. In the course of my research, I went to see one of the city fathers, a man whose trophy-filled office was a monument to himself. "What's a nice boy like you doing writing about gangsters?" he challenged. "Why don't you write about Chicago's museums, symphonies and parks?" Nevertheless, in spite of his, and others', protestations, Chicago's reputation for inspiring an amazing variety of gangster activity stubbornly clings to the city.

In contrast to recent books about crime, which emphasize the warped sensibilities of the criminals themselves, "The Outfit" is a throwback to an earlier era of crime writing, the hairy-chested, comprehensive, now-it-can-be-told indictments compiled by writers like Hank Messick, Virgil Peterson and Ovid Demaris. Russo had access to "eighty-seven cubic feet of documents" generated by the U.S. Senate's 1950-51 committee inquiry into organized crime led by Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. (One of the ironies of organized crime is how much material concerning its supposedly secret machinations is in the public record, thanks to FBI wiretaps and the Freedom of Information Act. Would that we knew as much about the inner workings of the White House as we do about various sit-downs among Chicago hoodlums.)

With his attention to detail, Russo is at his best when he patiently deconstructs the careers of such Outfit figures as the demonic hoodlum Willie Bioff ("an evolutionary malfunction"), who terrorized the motion picture industry; Sam Giancana, perhaps the most reckless figure in a book filled with sociopaths; and especially Murray "The Camel" Humphreys, the Outfit's mastermind, who was in many ways a more influential and certainly shrewder criminal than his mentor, Capone. I have never read a better, or more exhaustive, account of how these men built their empires and how they lost them. (Most gangster stories end in tragedy, as "The Outfit" demonstrates over and over.)

But Russo gets into trouble when his assumptions run too far ahead of the facts. This book is by no means the first to link Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, to bootlegging and to various schemes to manipulate the 1960 presidential campaign in his son's favor. Russo cites every bit of evidence that he can muster to support his contention that Kennedy and the Outfit conspired to influence the voting, but the case, while thought-provoking, remains largely circumstantial. Nevertheless, the moral passion behind the author's account of that controversial election is impressive.

I wish I could admire Russo's style as much as I do his substance. Reaching for tough-guy eloquence, he trips all over himself: "Torrio guessed that Capone was a train wreck just waiting to happen and decided to bail out and hitch his wagon to an idea that dwarfed even the Torrio-Capone Syndicate: an affiliation with New York gangsters Meyer Lansky, Ben Siegel, and Lucky Luciano." Anecdotes are related with a singular lack of flair. I was surprised to learn, for example, of Humphreys' curious fascination with producing home movies; The Camel even made a home movie at Alcatraz, of all places, "sarcastically dubbing the track with the popular song 'Hail. Hail, the Gang's All Here.' " I wanted to know more; but the author seemed so preoccupied with getting out his data that he neglected to suggest what it all means.

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