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Book Reviews

Historic Photos of Chicago Crime: The Capone Era, The Bush Tragedy, Ten Cents a Dance, and 19 Purchase Street

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Historic Photos of Chicago Crime: The Capone Era by John Russick. (Turner Publishing, $39.95).
    The faces of Capone era gangsters in the Chicago underworld of the 1920s were diverse for their time: “Bugs” Moran, Earl “Hymie” Weiss, Dean O’Banion and the immortalized “Scarface” Al Capone all symbolized the ruthless gangsters that ran the speakeasies of the 1920s and controlled businesses during the hard times of the Great Depression. Prohibition opened up a new market for these men who already controlled gambling and prostitution. It also forged odd alliances with the ordinary citizens who did not want to give up their liquor. The gangsters themselves most often had wives and families of their own. Romanticized memories of nightclubs and the music of Louis Armstrong override the realities of racial and gender inequalities, greed and gang violence. In fact, the Charleston was inspired by an all-black musical revue, Runnin’ Wild. Women in Illinois were granted the right to vote in 1914, but universal suffrage was not passed until 1920. With the rise of the Great Depression, underworld figures opened soup kitchens in a city that was hit hard by economic collapse. Historic Photos of Chicago Crime, compiled by Chicago History Museum curator John Russick, captures the rise and fall of these infamous characters in the context of the social movements and circumstances of the times. The stark black-and-white images tell stories of Chicago’s colorful past and show us the real faces behind the lore.—Marilyn Soltis
 
The Bush Tragedy by Jacob Weisberg. (Random House, $26.00).     As if we needed another remembrance of what a disaster this presidency has wrought, Weisberg paints an engaging history of the Bush and Prescott families and describes the disfunctional intersection of two wealthy families—a stuffy blueblood brood and another that bucked social conventions and discretion. According to Weisberg, “Bush’s inflexibility is rooted in the old family drama.” Weisberg writes that Bush’s desire to develop a foreign policy different than his father ultimately led to his invasion of Iraq. And Rove played his part: “The younger Bush intended to place his trust only in those, like Rove, whose devotion to him seemed absolute. Bush tested the proposition by treating Rove as a kind of surrogate younger brother, who would take his abuse and play dead on command.”
—Paul Allen
 
Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher.(Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2008, $16.95).
     In the poor Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1940s, young women had two ways of making money—the back-breaking labor in  meat packing plants or as taxi dancers where a simple swing around the dance floor with a lonely man paid ten cents a dance. Taxi dance halls were popular around the country from the 1920s until after World War II, even though they still exist today in most major cities. In this novel published for the teen market, the book offers anyone a rare glimpse into the life of young women in the 1940s on Chicago’s South Side, where they longed for freedom but were imprisoned by the social mores of the Catholic parishes that governed the second generation immigrants. Some were forced to lead double lives in order to support parents and siblings but motives were not important. Discovery meant being cast out of the family in disgrace—no matter how innocent the employment. Even though the job did not involve prostitution, it was a gray area no “decent” family could allow. The author, veterinarian Christine Fletcher, was inspired to research and write the novel by family secrecy involving her great aunt Sofia. The family immigrated to New York from Sicily when Sofia was 15, and within a year, Fletcher’s grandfather declared her dead to the family. It was only years later after her grandmother died that her mother admitted Sofia had been a taxi dancer and mob mistress in New York, dying at age 36. She created the character of Ruby Jacinski in Chicago— faced with the glamour of great jazz, beautiful clothes and a way to feed her mother and sister versus the numbing reality of hard labor for little compensation. It is a story of survival that resonates today.—Marilyn Soltis
 
19 Purchase Street by Gerald A. Browne. (Berkley Books).
    This book has it all—the Mob, crooked Wall Street investment bankers (can one draw a distinction between the two these days?), an unlikely hero and heroine and one billion in small bills. Drew Gainer’s life is turned upside-down with the questionable death of his sister Norma. Her association with the Ivy League, Wharton-schooled, Fortune 500 folks who reside at 19 Purchase Street are in question. Gainer and ex-model girlfriend Leslie are determined to piece the puzzle together. Slowly they begin to comprehend what they are up against and the deadly consequences of their possible failure. Set to the backgrounds of Paris, Zurich and New York, the author’s storytelling is completely convincing. From page one, the reader is drawn in and along for the ride. With an intriguingly convoluted plot that all comes together at the all-too-soon conclusion, this novel is impossible to put down. 19 Purchase Street is a pulsing, sophisticated drama of greed and crime. Who cons whom? The stakes are incalculable and the winner takes all… maybe. The book is stylishly written, one of the best novels of crime and intrigue ever written. Browne is a master storyteller at the top of his game.—Skip Perina
 
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Published: June 24, 2008
Issue: Summer 2008 Urban Living