Capone relative who lived in Bensenville tell of his softer side

 
 
Updated 10/23/2011 7:34 PM
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  • Despite the infamous gangster's reputation, Al Capone was a convincing enough Santa in 1946 to fool his great niece, Deirdre Marie Capone.

    Despite the infamous gangster's reputation, Al Capone was a convincing enough Santa in 1946 to fool his great niece, Deirdre Marie Capone. Courtesy of Deirdre Marie Capone

  • Wearing her Uncle Al Capone's straw hat and brandishing one of his Cuban cigars, Deirdre Marie Capone clowns around with the infamous gangster at his Miami home. Deirdre, now 71, says she wrote a book that shows Capone's softer side.

    Wearing her Uncle Al Capone's straw hat and brandishing one of his Cuban cigars, Deirdre Marie Capone clowns around with the infamous gangster at his Miami home. Deirdre, now 71, says she wrote a book that shows Capone's softer side. Courtesy of Deirdre Marie Capone

  • Al Capone died in 1947, but he still casts a shadow over Chicago and his survivors.

    Al Capone died in 1947, but he still casts a shadow over Chicago and his survivors.

  • Former Bensenville resident Deirdre Marie Capone has written a book about her Uncle Al Capone, an infamous gangster known as Public Enemy No. 1. While Deirdre acknowledges that her great uncle and her grandfather, Ralph, broke the law, she says the gangster treated her well. Al Capone taught her to swim, ride a bike and play the mandolin, she says.

    Former Bensenville resident Deirdre Marie Capone has written a book about her Uncle Al Capone, an infamous gangster known as Public Enemy No. 1. While Deirdre acknowledges that her great uncle and her grandfather, Ralph, broke the law, she says the gangster treated her well. Al Capone taught her to swim, ride a bike and play the mandolin, she says. Courtesy of Deirdre Marie Capone

  • Deirdre Marie Capone

    Deirdre Marie Capone Courtesy of Deirdre Marie Capone

  • Deirdre Marie Capone

    Deirdre Marie Capone

  • Looking a bit like the photo of gangster Al Capone hanging above him, Dominic Capone of Bloomingdale celebrates a business deal with Las Vegas restaurateur Nico Santucci, right, to launch a line of pasta sauce based on Capone family recipes.

    Looking a bit like the photo of gangster Al Capone hanging above him, Dominic Capone of Bloomingdale celebrates a business deal with Las Vegas restaurateur Nico Santucci, right, to launch a line of pasta sauce based on Capone family recipes. Courtesy of XPO ENTERTAINMENT

Hurt, petrified and unable to even draw a breath, the girl looked up and into the blue eyes of Al Capone, America's most infamous gangster. Capone lifted her off the ground in his powerful arms.

"Are you OK?" he asked.

After Capone dried the girl's tears and explained how a fall while climbing a tree knocked the wind out of her, he took her by the hand, walked her into his house, brought out his mandolin and sang her a lullaby in his soft, soothing tenor.

"That's the Uncle Al I remember," says Deirdre Marie Capone, 71, a former resident of Bensenville and Elmhurst, who has collected her memories in a new book, "Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story From Inside His Family."

The FBI's Public Enemy No. 1, Capone actually was Deirdre's great-uncle. His older brother Ralph "Bottles" Capone, Public Enemy No. 3, was Deirdre's grandfather.

Deirdre has fond memories of staying with Uncle Al in his home at 7244 S. Prairie Ave. in Chicago, and in the Capone family summer digs in Wisconsin, where she recalls being tucked into bed by a prostitute.

Lots of authors have written about Al Capone, but "they never knew him," Deirdre says.

"I saw him cry, and I saw him laugh," she says. "He would snort when he laughed, and he couldn't catch his breath."

Ravaged by his prison stint in Alcatraz and his treatment for syphilis at the Terminal Island prison in California, Capone was in a Baltimore hospital in 1940 when Deirdre was born in Chicago.

"Aunt Mae and Uncle Al did send my parents a beautiful layette and crib," says Deirdre, who kept the handwritten card as well as two telegrams sent to the hospital hailing "a baby girl, new life, new love and a new happiness."

While stories about Capone accurately depict him as a victim of dementia when he left prison in 1939, Deirdre says her Uncle Al improved during his retirement at his home in Miami, where he taught her to swim in his saltwater pool. Uncle Al taught her how to ride a bike and play the mandolin at his Chicago home. Many of her best memories of the man came when they were together at the Capone cabin in Mercer, Wis., about 375 miles north of Chicago, where they gathered around the radio to laugh at Red Skelton and eat Uncle Al's famous popcorn. Once, he took her outside to see the stars and shine his car's spotlight on a herd of deer.

"Deirdre, some people use spotlights to kill deer. That's unfair," she says Capone, a hunter, told her. "It's something you should never do, nor should you ever associate with anybody that would harm an animal unfairly."

"These were the kind of messages I grew up hearing from the Capones," Deirdre says.

Her life would change in the month after Al Capone donned a Santa suit during the Christmas of 1946. On Jan. 25, cleared for exercise by his doctors, Capone finished a swim at his Miami home and dropped dead from a massive stroke.

"Al Capone died on my seventh birthday," says Deirdre, whose friends never suspected she was related to a mobster.

"My dad enrolled me in Catholic school and, in order to protect me, he enrolled me as Deirdre Gabriel," she says, explaining that Gabriel was her great-grandfather's first name and her father's middle name. But on Mother's Day, when she made her first communion at St. Philip Neri Parish, a Chicago newspaper noted that the entire Capone clan turned out for "Deirdre Capone."

"Two weeks later, every boy and girl was invited to a girl's birthday party -- except me," Deirdre says. "I used to get invited. All of a sudden, nope, no more. They don't want their kids to play with me. I understand that, but it hurt."

Her father and brother committed suicide, Deirdre says, in part because of their inability to escape from the stress of the family's mob ties. After graduating from Aquinas High School, Deirdre found a job with an insurance company and, once again, paid the price for being a Capone.

"After you were there six months, you got a free life-insurance policy, and it had to be in your real name," she says, recalling how the company fired her immediately to avoid any appearance of being tied to mobsters.

"I hated being who I was so many times in my life," Deirdre says. "It was terrifying."

Her first husband was a mob-wannabe, and he abused her, she says. After the couple divorced, an older Capone relative politely asked if Deirdre would prefer that her ex-husband were dead. She declined and reconnected with the man who has been her husband ever since. In a strange coincidence, her husband's uncle married the sister of a man killed in the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago. Deirdre now has four adult children and four grandchildren.

"We're a good family," she says, noting her only brush with the law was a speeding ticket.

She sells her book on Amazon and during visits to The Gangster Museum of America in Arkansas, Alcatraz and other prisons. Deirdre also has a Facebook page, a Twitter account and unclealcapone.com.

She isn't the only Capone with suburban roots making money off Al's legacy. Bloomingdale resident Dominic Capone, who bills himself as a "reputed grandnephew" of the late mob boss, owns Capone's Restaurant and Pizzeria in Lombard. This week, he launched a line of pasta sauce based on his Capone family recipes that will be offered at caposfoods.com and at celebrity restaurateur Nico Santucci's Capo's Restaurants in Las Vegas.

"I have fun with it," says Dominic Capone, 35, who also is an actor who has portrayed Al Capone and other mobsters in movies, documentaries and an R. Kelly video.

Al Capone's violent mob life has fueled many movies and still haunts some people. While her grandfather assured her that no "innocent person, child or woman" was killed during the mob activity, Deirdre says, "of course" Al Capone broke laws. But she says he also set up soup kitchens for the poor, promoted black musicians, dreamed of buying the Cubs and integrating baseball, was generous to people who showed him kindness and was a very nice uncle.

"I wanted the chance to tell the world that he was a human being," Deirdre says.

"If I don't write that story, nobody else can."

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