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An analysis of Depression-era bank robbery and its most notorious figures recounts the stories of such individuals as Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger, and Baby Face Nelson, discussing the factors that influenced the period's crime rates, the formation and early work of the FBI, and the contributions of J. Edgar Hoover. 125,000 first printing.
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Bryan Burrough is the coauthor of Barbarians at the Gate and the author of Dragonfly and Vendetta. He is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Torremolinos, SpainAugust 26, 1979
In a tourist town on the white-sun Spanish coast an old man was passing his last years, an American grandfather with a snowy white crew cut and a glint in his turquoise eyes. At seventy he was still lean and alert, with high-slanting cheekbones, a sharp chin, and those clear-framed eyeglasses that made him look like a minor-league academic. He spent much of his time holed up in his cluttered garage apartment, watching BBC footage of the Iranian hostage crisis on a flickering black-and-white television, surrounded by bottles of Jack Daniel’s and pills and memories. If you met him down on the beach, he came across as a gentle soul with a soft laugh. Almost certainly he was the most pleasant murderer you’d ever want to meet.
It was sad, but only a little. He’d had his fun. When he’d first come to Spain ten years before, he still knew how to have a good time. There was that frowsy old divorcée from Chicago he used to see. They would go tooling around the coast in her sports car and chug tequila and down their pills and get into these awful screaming fights.
She was gone now. So were the writers, and the documentary makers, the ones who came to hear about the old days; that crew from Canada was the worst, posing him in front of roadsters and surrounding him with actors in fedoras holding fake Tommy guns. He’d done it for the money and for his ego, which had always been considerable. Now, well, now he drank. Out in the cafés, after a few beers, when the sun began to sink down the coast, he would tell stories. The names he dropped meant little to the Spaniards. The Brits and the odd American thought he was nuts, an old lush mumbling in his beer.
When he said he’d been a gangster, they smiled. Sure you were, pops. When he said he’d been Public Enemy Number One—right after John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and his old protégé Baby Face Nelson—people turned away and rolled their eyes. When he said he and his confederates had single-handedly “created” J. Edgar Hoover and the modern FBI, well, then he would get bitter and people would get up and move to another table. He was obviously unstable. How could you believe anyone who claimed he was the only man in history to have met Charles Manson, Al Capone, and Bonnie and Clyde?
Few in Torremolinos knew it was all true. In those last years at Terminal Island in the sixties he’d taught Manson to play the steel guitar. He’d been at Alcatraz for twenty-one damp winters before that, leaving for Leavenworth a few years before they closed the place in 1963. In fact, he was the longest-serving prisoner in the history of The Rock. He’d known the Birdman and that gasbag Machine Gun Kelly and he’d seen Capone collapse into one of his syphilitic seizures, flopping around on the cafeteria floor like a striped bass on a cutting board.
In his day he’d been famous. Not fifteen-minutes famous but famous-famous, New York Times-page-one-above-the-fold famous. Back before Neil Armstrong, before the Beatles, before American Bandstand, before the war, when Hitler was still a worrisome nut in a bad mustache and FDR was learning to find the White House bathrooms, he was the country’s best known yeggman. Folks today, they didn’t even know what a yegg was. Dillinger, he liked to say, he was the best of yeggs. Pretty Boy Floyd was a good yegg. Bonnie and Clyde wanted to be.
And today? Today he and all his peers were cartoon characters, caricatures in one bad gangster movie after another. You could see them on the late show doing all sorts of made-up stuff, Warren Beatty as some stammering latent homosexual Clyde Barrow, Faye Dunaway as a beautiful Bonnie Parker (now that was a stretch), Richard Dreyfuss as a chattering asshole Baby Face Nelson (okay, they got that right), Shelley Winters as a machine-gun toting Ma Barker, a young Robert De Niro as one of her sons. To him they were all ridiculous Hollywood fantasies, fictional concoctions in a made-up world.
At that point the old man would just shake his head. As he sat on his couch at night, sipping his Jack Daniel’s and popping his pills, what galled him was that it had all been real. It had all happened. Not in some fantasy world, not in the movies, but right there in the middle of the United States, in Chicago, in St. Paul, in Dallas, in Cleveland.
And the truth of it, the actual true facts, was all but lost now, forgotten as totally as he was. Dillinger, Floyd, Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker: He had known them every one. He was the last one left alive. He had even outlived Hoover himself.
He leaned over and reached for a bottle of his pills.
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