I was fresh out
of the Army and recently married when a fire broke out in the two-story house
in Indiana Harbor, where we rented rooms. We had gone to a movie that evening,
my wife Rose and I—it was Claudette Colbert in Imitation of Life—and by the
time we got back the building was gutted. Most everything we owned had been
burned to ashes, maybe a couple of thousand dollars worth of stuff, a tragedy
for an ex-staff sergeant earning about $125 a week as a roller in a steel mill.
But one of the possessions that hurt me most to lose had no dollar value. It
was a faded snapshot of a big, beefy man with a golf club in his right hand and
his left hand around the shoulders of a 12-year-old boy. The boy was me. The
man was Al Capone. And the scene was Burnham Woods golf course, 18 miles south
of Chicago, where I caddied for Al for almost four years.
Earlier that year
of the fire—1947—I was among the few mourners at Al's funeral in Chicago where
the family moved his body from Miami. He had been out of Alcatraz eight years
when he died. I don't suppose his passing grieved many people. Society
remembered him as the original Public Enemy No. 1. I didn't have any illusions
about that side of him either. But I remembered another side and I mourned him.
I wanted him somehow to know I was there because, as a boy, I never had a
better friend. Nobody had ever treated me or my family with such kindness.
In 1924, when I
was 8, we moved from South Chicago to the little town of Burnham, which then
had a population of about 800. The Torrio-Capone gang had been spreading into
the suburbs for some time and in and around Burnham they had taken over quite a
few breweries and opened half a dozen roadhouses with gambling, girls and
booze. The gang had the full cooperation of the mayor, Johnny Patton, a jaunty
character whom I never saw without an expensive cigar in his mouth. The
newspapers always referred to him as the "Boy Mayor" because he had
been operating a saloon of his own since the age of 14. He owned the biggest,
fanciest house in Burnham, catercorner from our poor shack on Green Bay Avenue.
He also operated the golf course where I caddied for Capone. At the time I went
to the same grade school as his kids Jimmy and Frances.
My father was a
railroad engineer and my mother hired out by the day as a housekeeper. They
earned hardly enough between them to support their big family and all of us
kids had to work while still in school. There were three other boys besides me
and three girls. My oldest sister, Ida Mae, nicknamed "Babe," was the
beauty of the family, with her jet-black hair, violet eyes and trim little
figure, and it was Babe who brought Al Capone into our lives.
A city official
gave me my first job a few months after we settled in Burnham. He was a man
with a good many outside interests. One was a barbershop and I shined shoes
there for a dime until he told me he was closing the shop. What he really did
was convert it into a speakeasy. He said I could keep the shoeshine stand and
the equipment. So I ran home to fetch the handcart I had won for selling
subscriptions to the Chicago American, loaded everything onto it, and hauled it
over to the Arrowhead Inn, Burnham's biggest, flashiest roadhouse. The chief of
police moonlighted there as a bartender. I asked the manager, Frank Hitchcock,
to let me set up my stand by the entrance. "Sonny," he said, "this
ain't no place for a kid to hang around." I couldn't see why and begged for
a chance to make a little extra dough. He finally agreed and I went right to
My very first
customer was short and pasty-faced with real small feet. For the 10� shine he
handed me a $1 tip. I learned later he was Johnny Torrio, who still headed the
gang, with Capone the second-in-command. The next year he quit the country
after a rival mob nearly killed him, leaving Capone the boss. Most of my
customers were gangsters, though I didn't recognize any of them as such right
away. There were Machine Gun Jack McGurn, an Italian in spite of his name,
good-looking in a dark, snaky kind of way, a snappy dresser and smooth
dancer—the girls were crazy for him—and Fred (Killer) Burke, who lived right
behind our house for a while. A huge bear of a man with thick eyebrows and a
bushy mustache, he seemed a friendly sort until you looked at his eyes. They
were small and black and mean. Five years later McGurn and Burke took part in
the St. Valentine's Day massacre ordered by Capone.
The pride of
Burnham was its nine-hole golf course, started in 1924 and finished in 1925.
Our house stood directly opposite, and in addition to shining shoes I would
sometimes wait in line by the clubhouse with a lot of other kids for a chance
to caddie. It meant picking up maybe another dollar or two. My sister Babe, who
was then 16, found work there, too, as a waitress in the clubhouse restaurant.
One night she came home waving a $10 bill. "Guess who gave it to me?"
she said, all wrought up. " Al Capone!" Mom hit the ceiling. "You
never go there again, you hear," she said. "You're going to quit that
It seems Capone
and Johnny Patton had dropped in that afternoon 10 talk business over a cup of
coffee. This was Capone's first visit. The idea of waiting on him rattled Babe
so much that she spilled steaming coffee all over his white suit. He jumped up,
yelling at her, and she almost fainted. But suddenly his whole manner changed.
"I'm sorry, kid," he said, smiling and putting his arm around her.
"I didn't mean to scare you, but that coffee is pretty hot." He told
her he was planning to play golf at Burnham at least twice a week. When he
left, he slipped her the $10.
Babe was too
excited at the idea of meeting Capone again to pay any attention to Mom. She
went straight back to the clubhouse the next day. I was standing in the caddie
line when she sent a shaver to me with a message to go to the restaurant where
somebody wanted to talk to me. I went there and for the first time saw Capone
in the flesh. He was wearing a white silk shirt with his monogram, no tie, gray
plus fours and a belt with a diamond buckle, and he was surrounded by his
gangsters. There were Burke and McGurn and somebody they called Banjo Eyes
because he looked like Eddie Cantor—I never did learn his real name—and a
short, fat guy with heavy jowls, Jake Guzik, who from his slob looks I never
would have taken for the business brains of the gang, Capone's right-hand man.
He had a nickname, Greasy Thumb, that supposedly came from the days when he was
a waiter in some Levee dive, such a sloppy waiter that his thumb kept sliding
into the food.
"Kid, I need
a good caddie," said Capone. "Your sister here tells me you're very
good. Think you can carry all those clubs?" He pointed to a golf bag as
tall as I was, leaning against the wall. I told him sure I could. "Let's go
then," and he marched out to the first tee, followed by the gang. They made
up a foursome—Capone and McGurn against Burke and Guzik, with a bet of $500 a
hole. Capone teed off first. He fetched the ball a whack that would have sent
it clear down the fairway, only he hooked it and it curved way off to the left
into a clump of trees. I scrambled around on all fours for about 10 minutes
trying to find it, scared to death Al would lose his temper and hit me or maybe
shoot me, but all he did was grin, pat me on the head and call me Kid.
"It's O.K., Kid," he said. "So we lose a stroke, that's all. Just
gimme another ball." And I thought: "He can't be as mean and rough as
he's cracked up to be."