Cooking Gravy with Al Capone: Q + A With Deirdre Marie Capone, Al's Niece
"Your word is your bond. And family is everything."
Deirdre Marie Capone was the last person born with the Capone surname. Her family was so misunderstood, the more research Deirdre did, the more she discovered how sullied her family name was. Yes, Al Capone had money. But he shared it. Her father was a lawyer, but the Chicago Bar Association wouldn't allow him to practice due to his family connections. He ultimately took his own life. Deirdre's grandfather took her under his wing, and she promised him her book, Uncle Al Capone, would not be written until all the original family members had passed away. This kind of respect was known as omerta.
Prohibition started in 1920. Women were bobbing their hair and shortening their skirts. Jazz was coming into being. Everything revolved around the consumption of alcohol. Now all of a sudden, the government banned the transportation and consumption of it. People in rural areas could build their own stills and make their own alcohol, but other people in the cities could not. They relied on somebody to provide it. Deirdre's family called it a business, priding themselves on providing top quality alcohol. "Nobody ever went blind. Their livers never burst open." They thought they were providing a service, and they were. But they made too much money, and they were Italian. Businesspeople didn't like them.
We drank Templeton Rye cocktails one afternoon at Newport Beach's A Restaurant just before her appearance at Hi-Time Wine Cellars. Deirdre discussed how Prohibition was not evil, but the abuse of it was.
Tell us about a side of Uncle Al that only you, his niece, knew. There's one story that's not in my book that would describe Uncle Al well. I was with my father at Al's home in Miami, and they had a huge saltwater pool. They didn't filter or add chlorine to it. I jumped in, and when he picked me up out of the water, I can still see his face. He kept laughing and laughing. He laughed so hard he started choking. I must've made the most unbelievable face, because I've never been in saltwater before. It startled and stung me.
When Geraldo opened his safe in the 80's, did you know there wouldn't be anything inside? The producer of the show called me and wanted me to be a part of it. I knew there was nothing there. I laughed.
Did Al ever cook? Yes, he did, and I helped him. Mainly, it would be the gravy. We'd stir the pot together. The building of lasagna or making of the meatballs was the women's responsibility. But the cocktails, the toasting at the table was all him.
Do you think some of the choices he made were out of a desire for power, or do you think in his mind his intentions were justified? Al was only one of only a dozen people who did the same thing. They all had their territories. Al never reached out to try and get another territory. He had the Cicero, near-South area, and that's all. He was quoted as saying, "We don't have to fight with one another. There's enough business for all of us."
So many people thought he had the entire city of Chicago, and he did not. I think he had the best operation, and they were jealous of him. He never went and bought stuff from a still in the South. He went to Canada and the Bahamas and got the best.
When my father discovered Templeton (Rye), they couldn't produce it in quantities that could be put in all the speakeasies. All the guys had a bottle in their homes. I don't know if he was actually buried with the good stuff, but I'm not gonna dig him up to find out. It was the very first brown spirit I ever had. I think I was 15 or 16. He took out a glass and measured it with his two fingers and added a teaspoon of water. That's how we would drink it. We didn't have ice back then.
If you could ask your uncle anything today, what would you ask? I would ask him if he would grasp the opportunity he had in the 20's again. And I think he would say yes.
His mother and father immigrated to America. His father came first via Canada, went to Brooklyn and found a place to live. Then he sent for his wife. She came over, went through Ellis Island with two little boys in tow--one of which was my grandfather. She was pregnant with her third son, Frank. They settled in Brooklyn, and she got pregnant again with Al. Al was her first child that was conceived and born in America. So all of their dreams about "The American Dream" were in him.
Have you ever seen any movies depicting your uncle's life? The only one that I thought ran pretty parallel to my family's story was the first Godfather movie. I thought that was very well done; that they did a good job of depicting what we were about: the gatherings, the way we referred to each other, etc.
The only other example I can think of has to do with Sonny going to the same Catholic school as Desi Arnaz. They got to be friends. Desi married Lucille Ball, and she wanted to make a two-part television program called The Untouchables. They were going to refer to Al Capone. Actually, it was going to be all about Al. My family got very upset about it, especially Sonny. Lucy knew it would set Desilu Productions off on a course that would be fabulous.
I remember sitting in the living room of my aunt, being told to write down the number of times there was any reference to Al. At the last minute, they switched the focus to Frank Nitti. That's how Nitti got to be known as the enforcer. There was no reference to Al Capone, but it got Hollywood interested in this icon.
Would you've ever considered following in your uncle's footsteps? Women couldn't at that time. My husband would've taken the opportunity. Considering the opportunities Italians had in those days, which were nothing. You couldn't be a doctor or lawyer.
How do you want the world to remember Al Capone? Number one: My uncle was a son. A very proud, good son. He was also very proud to be a father. Was Al Capone a mobster? Yes, he was. Was he a monster? No, he wasn't.
What thoughts do you have regarding food and beverage, as it relates to your family? I would like to see a return to family meals. Food to us was communion. It was the same thing as going to church. We could share things. We knew each other. We burp and spill and do everything together, and it was fine. It was your family. I'd love to see society come back to some of those values. Start from scratch and cook a meal. Even if you burn it, it doesn't matter. Try. My job was to set the table. I was so little, my seat had telephone books on it. But I was there at the table.
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