Edited by Andrew Chesler and H. Amanda Robb
Reviewed by Martin Kich
In a 1934 letter to Henry Ford, Clyde Barrow wrote: "The Ford has got ever [sic] other car out there skinned and even if my business hasen't [sic] been strictly legal it don't hurt eny thing [sic] to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8." There may be a somehow charming, a somewhat awkward, and a purely American naivete in this notorious killer's feeling compelled to compliment the manufacturer of his getaway car of choice. Or it may be that Barrow--who was well on his way to becoming, at least briefly, as recognizable as Ford--was trying to find some sort of fuller common ground with the Famous, some sort of fuller understanding of fame.
In fact, at the time the letter was written, the Ford Motor Company, like most of corporate America, was not doing especially well, and Barrow might very well have been more widely appreciated than the man who, in the public mind, had gone from being the iconic Inventor of the Assembly Line to a puzzling amalgam of the plain-living Yankee tinkerer, the aloof robber baron, and the Fascist sympathizer.
By a weird coincidence, in 1934, John Dillinger also felt compelled to write to Ford: "You have a wonderful car. Been driving one for three weeks. It's a treat to drive one. Your slogan should be, Drive a Ford and watch the other cars fall behind you. I can make any other car take a Ford's dust." If Clyde Barrow was on his way to becoming "famous," Dillinger had already become the most widely known American outlaw since Jesse James. Not surprisingly, then, his letter seems more arrogant, more knowingly ironic, than Barrow's.
This book, subtitled The 1001 Most Bizarre Things Ever Said by History's Outlaws, Gangsters, Despots, and Other Evil Doers, is full of remarks that are memorable, whether for their bald truthfulness or their wry awareness or their shrewd glibness or their brutal sarcasm. And a great many are as unintentionally thought-provoking as the excerpt from Barrow's letter to Ford. It is not that these calloused, sinister, and truly terrifying figures have been repositories of sensitive observations about the nature of American society and culture. Rather, it is the case that they have often spoken with us in mind--that is, they have taken into themselves the peculiar celebrity that we have bestowed on them and, in doing so, they have revealed much about that very strange relationship.
In some cases, even the most tight-lipped of these criminals have contributed to the lore from which the grandly corrupt and, in that sense, mythical dimensions of their careers have been shaped. For instance, in describing his background, New York mob leader Frank Costello once commented: "Other kids are brought up nice and sent to Harvard or Yale. Me? I was brought up like a mushroom." (The Horatio-Alger story has perhaps never been given a more grimly or scatologically colorful turn.)
When called before a Federal grand jury, Chicago hitman Fiore "Fifi" Buccieri responded to questions about his brother Frank's relationship with a former Playboy centerfold and about the expensive horse which Frank had given her, by saying garrulously: "I take the Fifth on the horse and the broad."
And Chicago mobster Charles Dion O'Bannion remarked dryly of the intimidation of witnesses against any of the competing mobs: "We have a new disease in town. It's called Chicago amnesia."
But, for the most part, the myth-builders have been the underlings, the enemies, and even the prosecutors and the targeted victims of these killers. A pointedly anonymous mobster once said of Frank Costello: "If you're writing a book about how nice a guy Frank was, don't put too much in there about the twenties." Another anonymous mobster said of Giacomo "Fat Jack" DiNorscio: "He's been crazy all his life. He's not just, you know, a little funny. He's really nuts." And Philip Leonetti, a Philadelphia underboss turned mob-informant, tried at one point to explain himself to his interrogators: "We're not crazed killers, at least I didn't think we were at the time."
In the end, the gangsters both inspired the movies and were probably inspired by them. After failing to kill his rival Jack "Legs" Diamond for the umpteenth time, bootlegger "Dutch Schultz" exclaimed, "Can't anybody shoot that guy so he won't bounce back up?" And, after this was reported to him, Diamond asserted with what turned out to be much more bravado than foresight: ""The bullet hasn't been made that can kill me."
This is the sort of book that you can dip into at random. The quotations are, for the most part, worth quoting. Unfortunately, the book's format is not equally effective or attractive. The quotations are organized under subject headings that are more often arbitrary than definitive or systematic. And the quotations are presented on the page, much like xeroxed newspaper clippings, in all sorts of font types and sizes. Something between these messy-looking pages and the precise columns of minute print in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations would have been much easier on the eyes.