Tuesday, November 08, 2011
Under The Spell Of Public Enemies
There’s something more than slightly romantic about the American gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s that transcends similar characters of almost any era, either before or since, but it’s not difficult to understand what it is. There are several facets that gangsters of that era possessed that others didn’t; they had cool nicknames for one. You have to admire people who were described in the newspapers with colourful names like Dutch Schultz, Bugs Moran, Machine Gun Kelly, Creepy Karvis, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Jelly Nash, Jake The Barber, Doc Barker, Scarface and so forth. Not everyone liked the name they were handed, rumour has it that Floyd so hated his nickname that, when Melvin Purvis stood over him, after shooting and fatally wounding him, and asked, “Pretty Boy Floyd?” he spat back, “My name is Charles Arthur Floyd!” and promptly dropped dead. Even if the story is a falsehood, spread by the FBI of the time, as many stories were, it’s just so good not to accept as fact.
At the time the American media, much like the American public, were getting tired of the standard news fare of the time, that being the depression, high unemployment, a recently ended war that had cost millions of lives and so forth. Both the media and the public were demanding, without realising it, a diversion, something different. They wanted a change and they got it – a battle to the death, a chase, mystery, bloodshed and much more. They wanted to hear stories of loose women, devilishly handsome men such as John Dillinger (who, it is reported, had an appendage that could have given John Holmes a run for his money – said appendage may or may not still exist, in a jar somewhere) who could just as easily charm money from people as rob them. Even the more homicidal of the villains, such as Baby Face Nelson who, when you look at it, was only one step away from being a psychopathic serial killer, garnered attention. You can argue, probably successfully, that they gained attention for all the wrong reasons, but for an exciting period of time they were everywhere, and when I say everywhere I’m not jus' whistlin' Dixie there. Names like Dillinger, Nelson, Floyd, Melvin Purvis and J Edgar Hoover were household names worldwide by 1934, and their exploits were reported in newspapers almost on a daily basis. Australia, despite having our own unique brand of gangster, most famously Squizzy Taylor, went along with the ride as well.
The gangsters captured the imagination and kept it because they were charismatic. They weren’t faceless killers, they were very upfront killers. And, especially in the early 1930s, most people could relate to the story of a person brought up dirt poor, on a farm, facing the iron hand of the law, treated like crap and finally breaking out to rob a bank. That some of the criminals of the time did a Robin Hood, gave money back to their communities or stole and destroyed leases for properties, only enhanced their overall appeal. It also helped that crooks, such as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker – Bonnie & Clyde to you – came from those kinds of communities where everyone was related to each other, thus they could move about easily and not worry all that much about eluding capture. There is a flip-side to all of this though, and that was the fact that, more often than not, these people were cold blooded killers of police and innocents alike. For that reason while some still gaze upon them with a certain romanticism, others see them as dirt who deserved to be hunted down like wild dogs and slaughtered. Make your own mind up.
The life of the Public Enemies was also going to be a short and violent one. Some accepted this without hesitation, others, like Alvin Karpis, became acutely aware of their mortality as events unfolded and attempted to avoid their fates, to no avail. Some were borderline geniuses, others, like Machine Gun Kelly were borderline simpletons, but all shared one thing in common – the publicity machine that the FBI and J Edgar Hoover rapidly became. Hoover’s FBI did as much to publicise the exploits of the Public Enemies as anyone else, including Hollywood and the newspapers. Hoover wanted scalps and he got them, both within the criminal fraternity and also his own organisation, where many were sacrificed in Hoover’s climb to absolute power, including the legendary Melvin Purvis, who’s only sins, it would appear, was to be photogenic and articulate. The newspapers and cameras loved him; he was able to string a sentence together and was as good looking as they came. Hoover politically assassinated Purvis and eradicated his name from the FBI records to the extent that the department was ordered to ignore Purvis’s tragic demise. Fortunately this stance died and was buried with Hoover, and the department now revere Purvis as a man with vision, an agent who was a cut above the rest.
Don’t bother with the fiction that is the movie Public Enemies, as it's delightfully inaccurate which was a massive shame as the truth remains far more interesting than the fiction that Michael Mann gave us. Track down the book instead, and then, if you’re so inclined, start digging about for more reading material – there’s plenty out there. You’ll soon find yourself trapped in a world that you’ll wish you were present to see, and you’ll probably envy those who were there, who met Dillinger, or Nelson, or Purvis, those who spoke to them or loved them. However thanks to the beauty of a stunning book, and easily obtained literature, these people live on, and will continue to live on for decades to come, for those names are immortals. And don’t think for a second that any of them would be disappointed with that!
In the meantime, have a read of the original Public Enemies. This book was published in 1935 and was on sale via a speaking tour in 1937 given by Evelyn 'Billie' Frechette, one-time gun moll of none other than John Dillinger. It was a fall from grace for Frechette, going from an exciting life on the run, to jail and then spruking her story at various carnivals around the country. According to a FBI memo, Frechette, "...gives a general discource on her association with John Dillinger and answers questions put to her by the audience." It must have hurt a lot to answer questions about the Lady In Red (who actually wore orange) who led Dillinger to her death - and wasn't that fun! Once the FBI had killed their man, they reneged on their promises to Ana Sage, the said Lady, and promptly deported her.
This copy was signed by Frechette herself, and no, it's not my copy, this one belonged to J Edgar Hoover. According to contemporary reports, Frechette wrote the book herself whilst in jail for harbouring Dillinger. I have no idea about the veracity of that claim, but, if it is true, then it just makes the story all the more enthralling.