His Life, Legacy, and Legend
By Deirdre Bair
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
395 pp. $30
Reviewed by Bill Savage

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The life story of Al Capone is unrivaled in Chicago history, and, perhaps, American history. How did an ill-educated bouncer from Brooklyn become not just a powerful crime boss but also one who fascinates us generation after generation?

Deirdre Bair's new book, Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, is the latest to attempt to answer this question. Her book distinguishes itself from its competitors through her access to descendants of Capone's large family. Their memories and family stories are added for the first time to the Capone narrative.

These stories have tremendous potential to deepen our understanding - but they risk adding another unverifiable ingredient to the already bubbling cauldron of legend. In fact, Bair's focus on Capone's family life, marginalizing details of his criminal endeavors, is unbalanced. She pays scant attention to his legacy, the ongoing history of organized crime since he helped create the Chicago Outfit. Bair never fully narrates, much less explores, the moral dimensions of the bloodshed wrought by Capone's men and their enemies. She does nod to the more famous killings of Capone's professional life, and the gangland murder-a-day average of 1925. But dropping the names of famous victims is not enough.

Bair's dominant image of Capone is of a flawed but devoted husband, loving father, generous brother, and family man who just happened to have made his millions of dollars in the brutal rackets of Chicago and beyond. He still awaits the biographer who can fully untangle, and balance, the complexities of his life.

This review originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.