Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Review of “Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero”

Douglas Perry’s “Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero” is a riveting biography of the man who cleaned up Chicago bootlegging, took on the mob in Cleveland and battled venereal disease among soldiers during World War II.

Eliot Ness “Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Herowas the real thing. Working as a federal Prohibition agent, he led a bold campaign against bootleggers in Chicago and helped send Al Capone to prison. His “Untouchables” really did crash into illegal breweries with a battering ram mounted on a truck.

Ness had a “soft, indistinct face,” writes Douglas Perry in his new biography of the lawman, and “a sadness in his eyes, even when he was smiling.” He stood about 6 feet tall, with a lithe, athletic build and conveyed a sensitivity that many women found irresistible.

Ness understood public relations and took care to nourish his legend. When he captured contraband liquor, he invited newspapers to send over cameramen with no cameras. He sent them back with their camera cases filled with booze. Predictably, he got good press — too good for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a zealous media hog who declined Ness’ overture to join the bureau.

The end of Prohibition put the Untouchables out of business. Ness went to Cleveland, arguably even more corrupt than Chicago, where as director of public safety he cleaned up the police force and took on the mob.

As in Chicago, he was involved in car chases and shootouts with bad guys. But Ness was interested in more than just dramatic heroics. In Cleveland, he instituted an innovative traffic-safety program that reduced the death rate, and he worked with youth gangs to steer them away from criminal activity.

In World War II, Ness went to work for the government on reducing the incidence of venereal disease among soldiers by suppressing prostitution. He sent hundreds of prostitutes to training camps to learn vocational skills. He himself had no aversion to sex and alcohol. He was an all-night party animal who liked the ladies and drank more and more as the years passed.

The author may have spent too much time in creative-writing class. He describes Capone’s chief brewmaster as “stocky, cow-faced, with a wide pessimistic mouth like a dried-up old nun.” Nonetheless, Perry has spun a riveting tale.

Thanks to Hank H. Cox.

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