Hollywood's been known to dramatize even the most dramatic of real-life narratives. So of course the real Eliot Ness wasn't nearly as dashing as Robert Stack or Kevin Costner (although maybe he was).
He wasn't a G-man; he never carried an FBI badge. Nor was he the lawman who brought the tax case that put away America's most famous mobster, Al Capone — even though the Capone case made him a household name. But he was a genuine pioneer of modern police work.
Ness eventually left Capone and Chicago for an even bigger challenge in Cleveland, where he fought corruption and instituted what was then called "scientific policing." And while he was, yes, untouchable when it came to corruption, women were a different matter. The man who helped save two cities from being overwhelmed by crime had trouble saving himself.
Douglas Perry's new book is Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero, and he tells Scott Simon that Ness got the go-ahead to form the Untouchables and go after Capone due to some good, old-fashioned Chicago nepotism.
"His brother-in-law was in charge of the Chicago prohibition office, and helped him get hired. But you know, he was part of the first wave of Prohibition bureau agents who were actually somewhat qualified."
On Capone's fame
He was huge. He was as big as the Kardashians, particularly in Chicago he was front page news, he was out on the town in the nightclubs. He was always dressed so nice, he always had a nice smile on his face for the news photographers, he always had a nice quote. He was better known and more popular than anyone who wasn't a Chicago Cub.
On whether Ness enjoyed his high-octane Capone capers
Absolutely. It gave him a rush, it gave him real rush that stuck with him. He had a depressive personality, he had a hard time kind of getting to highs — and he didn't know why, I mean, people then didn't understand depression or what it was. Even when the press was hailing him, he kind of felt like a failure, that was kind of inherent in him. And when he smashed through those doors with his men, and saw those brewers, their shock and their desperate attempts to escape, it gave him a rush — he chased that rush ever since. He loved it. Even when he became a high-up administrator, he insisted on being a man out in the streets, doing his own investigations.
On bringing crime down in Cleveland
The first thing he did was attack corruption. It was arguably the most corrupt police force in the country ... and Ness came in, he was 33 years old, he had kind of the arrogance of youth coming out of his success in Chicago, he said right out of the gate, he was going to find out which officers were on his team and which were not, and he was going to get rid of every traitor in the police department, and he was going to go out and investigate it himself. People were shocked. People could not believe he wasy saying these things. Ness, he helped invent the modern police force. He was a huge proponent of what was then called scientific policing — if you're a fan of CSI, Ness was into that stuff before there was even an FBI lab.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Hollywood dramatizes, so the real Eliot Ness maybe wasn't the lawman who brought the tax case that put away America's mobster, Al Capone, but he really was untouchable by corruption. Women? That's another story. But the man who helped save Chicago and later, Cleveland, from being overwhelmed by crime had trouble saving himself.
Douglas Perry has written a real story of the man, not the movie character - "Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero," and it is compelling, complicated, sad and inspiring. We asked Douglas Perry how young Eliot Ness, with little investigative experience, became the man who took on the biggest figure in organized crime.
DOUGLAS PERRY: You know, he was part of the first wave of Prohibition Bureau agents who were actually somewhat qualified, you know. Through the first half-dozen years, to get into the Prohibition Bureau, you needed a politician's OK. And the first group were mostly temperance activists who had no law enforcement experience, or they were the nitwit nephews of congressmen. And it wasn't until about the middle of the 1920s that the federal government started to realize, this isn't working; we need some real lawmen in here.
SIMON: I doubt that most Americans would be able to name an organized crime figure. They're just not the household names they used to be. There are pockets here and there. How big was Al Capone, though, in these days?
PERRY: Oh, he was huge. He was as big as the Kardashians, particularly in Chicago. He was front-page news. He was out on the town in the nightclubs. He was always dressed so nice. He always had a nice smile on his face for the news photographers. He always had a nice quote. You know, he was better known, and more popular, than anyone who wasn't a Chicago Cub.
SIMON: Ouch. You describe a moment in the book, I'm going to take as definitive - Eliot Ness and the Untouchables put a battering ram on a truck and smashed into a warehouse on South Cicero, in Chicago. I'm wondering if in that moment, Eliot Ness discovered that he enjoyed the excitement, the risk, the thrill of police work in a way that he hadn't understood in kind of more desk-bound duties.
PERRY: Absolutely. It gave him a rush. It gave him a real rush that stuck with him. He had a depressive personality; he had a hard time kind of getting to highs, and he didn't know why. I mean, people then didn't understand depression or what it was. Even when he was, you know, the press was hailing him, he kind of felt like a failure. That was just kind of inherent in him.
And when he, you know, smashed though those doors with his men and saw those brewers, their shock and their desperate attempts to escape, it gave him a rush that - he chased that rush ever since.
SIMON: We'll note he became public safety director in Cleveland when it was a huge and wide-open town. And he brought crime down, didn't he?
PERRY: Oh, he absolutely did. And Ness came in; he was 33 years old, and he had kind of the arrogance of youth and coming out of his success in Chicago. He said right out of the gate he was going to find out which officers were on his team, and which were not; and he was going to get rid of every traitor in the police department, and he was going to go out and investigate it himself. Ness - he helped invent the modern police force.
SIMON: You have an insight into him in this book; where you say that Eliot Ness was no good at intimacy in marriage, but he was very good at intimacy with strangers.
PERRY: For a guy who was very shy and insecure, he was good in front of large groups. But yes, he had trouble in his marriages. He was married three times. He cheated on all three of his wives even though by all accounts, he loved all three of his wives - and he loved being married. It's interesting, again, everyone who knew him really liked him. He had a great sense of humor, he was always pleasant, he always seemed to be kind of up. But he couldn't maintain that. I think it was a struggle for him in his public life to present this persona and it would kind of crash on him, in his private life.
SIMON: He ran for mayor of Cleveland after the war, and didn't come close. If you count Capone and then the years of success in Cleveland as his war, did he have the problem of a lot of war heroes who were soldiers, in adjusting to civilian life?
PERRY: I'm sure there was some of that. He moved into business because he wanted to make money. He and his third wife adopted a child and he thought, you know, I need to make real money. And he very quickly was bored. None of it really engaged him. And so...
SIMON: It's not like riding a battering ram into one of Al Capone's stills.
PERRY: Exactly. Meaning, the bottom line, you know, it leaves something to be desired.
SIMON: By the time he died drinking too much, depressed - I guess I'm struck at the end by the fact that Eliot Ness may not have been the matinee-level hero that Brian de Palma or the TV series lionized. But he was a good man - I'll leave marital stuff out of it - and a good lawman.
PERRY: He was a good man. He deserves to be well-known. I think he's one of the most influential lawmen of the 20th century. But he's misunderstood. The Untouchables was early in his career, and it was far from the highlight. He was absolutely incorruptible. You know, he drank, he cheated on his wives. Maybe some people will prefer the mythical Eliot Ness, the Hollywood Eliot Ness. But I don't. I prefer my heroes to be human, and he was human.
SIMON: Douglas Perry - his new book, "Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of An American Hero." Thanks so much for being with us.
PERRY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.