So a few days ago I finally had a chance to watch the first episode of AMC’s The Making of the Mob: Chicago. Since this year’s season is set in Chicago and follows Al Capone, I figured I’d start reviewing the episodes here, and maybe set a few facts straight while I’m at it. Unfortunately it’ll take me a bit to catch up (they’re on episode 6 as of tonight), but hopefully these posts will still be interesting to you all.
E P I S O D E O N E : A R E V I E W
First off, let me say I was pretty impressed by the first episode of Making of the Mob: Chicago. In spite of its flaws, this show has way more to offer regarding actual history than I expected from a cable TV show about the mob. While this may sound harsh, one need only sit through a few godawful mafia “documentaries” full of “experts” to understand the level of schlock inherit in anything made about the mob for public consumption. Part of this is thanks to Hollywood and TV. Thanks to shows like The Sopranos, the public expects a certain level of violence, glamour and drama regarding the mob, or for mob guys to act a certain way—and if that means forgetting or distorting facts for the sake of entertainment, so be it. While that’s fine for entertainment purposes, if you want to actually learn about any of the real history behind this stuff, that usually means you’re out of luck. So, I found it refreshing that Making of the Mob: Chicago generally toned things down in favor of presenting Al and his world in a more nuanced historical light.
Given the numerous Capone luminaries the producers consulted while making this show, however, I shouldn’t be surprised. The interview clips in this episode alone were practically a Who’s Who of Capone scholarship. Laurence Bergreen, author of the popular 1994 biography Capone: The Man and the Era, was prominently featured. So was Jonathan Eig, author of Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster (2010). John Binder, former professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, author of The Chicago Outfit, and consult for numerous History Channel programs about Al, also made an appearance or two. Even Robert Lombardo, who’s authored numerous scholarly works about organized crime, got to put in a word or two about Torrio’s brothels. And Dierdre Capone, Capone’s niece and one of the few people still alive who knew Al personally, was featured more than once within the episode. There was one rather glaring exception from this roster, however: Richard Lindberg, noted Chicago crime author. According to the Tribune, the producers “blew it” by not contacting him, and I’d have to agree: the man has written over 20 books about Chicago crime, and they are all excellent. Regardless, they’ve got an impressive group of experts going so far, and maybe we’ll see more as the series progresses.
Fact or Fiction? Big Jim Colosimo
Thanks to these notable contributors, much of what they say in the show regarding Al’s early years squares more or less with what I’ve read. However, there is one major flaw with this episode that I’d like to point out, because it makes me sad. The way they portray Big Jim Colosimo is totally wrong.
Don’t believe me? Well, read on! 🙂
To begin with, let’s get a look at the real Big Jim. Here’s a nice photo:
Rather debonair, no? Check out that mustache! He’s a pretty snappy dresser, too. I like his hat, and the cane lends a touch of elegance. You can see somewhat where his nickname comes from, too: he’s big, sure, but not fat—more broad-shouldered and stocky. And he looks confident, too. Confident and rich.
Basically, he looks nothing like this guy on the far left:
Now let me be clear: I’m not knocking Andre King on his performance. He’s fine. It’s the writers and producers I disagree with—because not only does Mr. King not even have a mustache (!), the personality he portrays and the facts the producers attribute to Colosimo don’t fit with the real Mr. Colosimo at all.
To begin with, Big Jim wasn’t called “big” because of his size. He earned that nickname due to his jolly personality and lavish spending habits. An affable, outgoing, and friendly sort, Big Jim was “a popular, jolly extrovert” who “positively broadcast ambition”—a strong presence that only became intensified as he moved up in the world (Schoenberg 41).
Jim started his underworld career as a poor street sweeper for the city’s sanitation department in the 1890s. A natural born leader, Colosimo managed to organize his fellow Italian sweepers into a series of social and athletic clubs—clubs that voted in local elections (Bilek 38). This brought him to to the attention of Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and John “Bathouse” Coughlin, the corrupt alderman of the First Ward who’d made Chicago’s notorious red light Levee district legally possible. In exchange for Italian votes, Kenna and Coughlin made Colosimo a precinct captain of the First Ward. They also hired him on as a collector for protection fees from the scores of illegal gambling joints, saloons, and brothels they allowed to operate within their ward.
But even when he was shaking folks down, Big Jim was well-liked, particularly among madams and prostitutes. His visits, whether for business or please, “unfailingly cheered…[(the prostitutes)] with his playful yet courteous badinage,” according to Capone biographer Robert J. Schoenberg (42). Colosimo enjoyed the ladies of the night so much, he even married one: Victoria Moresco, a Sicilian madam with a brothel on Archer Street, became his wife in 1902. Together, they established a series of bars, brothels and gambling houses throughout the Levee District. Big Jim was particularly well-known for keeping scores of cribs, cheap rooms with a rotating cast of whores. He also helped form a highly profitable white slavery ring.
In spite of his vice business, however, Colosimo saw his popularity skyrocket with the city’s elite when he opened Colosimo’s Cafe at 2126 South Wabash in 1910. A lavish nightclub featuring a world-class chef, good wine, and famous entertainers like opera singer Enrico Caruso, the Cafe quickly became a popular nightspot for the rich and powerful of Chicago, criminal or otherwise. “Patrons came to drink at the renowned mahogany-and-glass bar, and to eat in its dining room, whose walls were covered with green velvet and gold filigree,” wrote Laurence Bergreen in Capone: The Man And The Era (Bergreen 81). “Beneath chandeliers made of solid gold, racketeers mingled with society figures and famous performers. Colosimo adored the opera, and his pal Enrico Caruso regularly patronized the cafe, as did Clarence Darrow, the distinguished lawyer, and a good part of the city’s power elite” (Ibid). Once it obtained national renown, any given night would see a mix of “sporting figures, big businessmen, collegians, gangsters, journalists, politicians, the rich, the chic, the famous and the infamous, the tourists”—plus pimps, whores, thieves, and all manner of criminal riffraff (Kobler 39). Law-abiding folks relished the scandal of heading into the notorious Levee District for a bit of nightlife, and the underworld welcomed them with open arms. Big Jim himself was something of an attraction, too: “He had a verve, a a bluff, a zesty Southern Italian humor,” wrote John Kobler in Capone: The Life and Times of Al Capone (Kobler 40) that drew people to him. “A big, fleshy man, he would move with ursine tread from table to table, gesticulating grandly, charming the women and amusing the men, ordering champagne and cigars on the house” (Ibid). Big Jim loved playing host, and his patrons loved him for it.
Besides playing host, Colosimo’s other great love was showing off his massive wealth. A flashy dresser with a penchant for “swan white…immaculate linens,” Big Jim had a particular taste for diamonds (Kobler 40). Herbert Asbury, in his seminal work Gem of the Prairie, sums up Colosimo’s love affair with diamonds pretty well:
“His massive figure, clad in snow-white linen and a suit of garish checks, blazed with diamonds. He wore a diamond ring on every finger, diamond studs in his shirt front, a huge diamond horseshoe was pinned to his vest, diamond links joined his cuffs, and his belt and suspender buckles were set with diamonds. He bought diamonds by the hundreds from thieves and needy gamblers, and cherished them as other men cherished books and paintings. He carried them in his pockets in buckskin bags, and spent most of his leisure time playing with them, pouring them from one hand to another or heaping them in little piles upon a black cloth” (312).
When he wasn’t obsessing over his diamonds, Colosimo was being driven around the city in one of his two limousines, each with a uniformed chauffeur, visiting his sumptuously appointed houses full of servants and “bronze and marble statuary, deep rugs, yard upon yard of unopened books bound in full morocco, rare coins” and other wonders (Kobler 40). All this wealth came from a combination of brothels, gambling, and saloons, which netted him an estimated income of $50,000 a month, a ludicrous amount of money during the early 1900s (Bergreen 81). Handing out $1,000 bills to down-on-their-luck gamblers was nothing for this man (Kobler 40).
By the time Capone showed up on the scene, Colosimo was the most powerful vice lord in the city. Having survived the collapse of the Levee vice district, he’d managed to rule Chicago’s underworld “for a longer period than any other one man in the history of the city” (Asbury 312). With so much power and so many people at his disposal, threatening people physically, as he does in Episode One to Al of all people, would be completely unnecessary—and it wasn’t really his style, either. Though he was considered by many to be little more than a brute “without honor or decency,” he was more personable than the AMC show gives him credit for (Ibid). Big Jim was the kinda guy who threatened with a smile and cheery words, not brass knuckles like AMC depicts. When Chicago’s notorious Everleigh Sisters were attempting to revive their famous club, Big Jim came by to give them an ultimatum like any other vice lord—but he did it by making them spaghetti:
“Take it or leave it, tell ’em,” Big Jim said, setting down enormous, reeking bowls of what looked like bloodied worms. “Pitch in,” he added, a faint warning now lacing his tone, and it was clear he meant more than just the spaghetti. The sisters choked down their pasta. Their guest filled the room with his hulking presence and cheery patter, but they felt very much alone (Abbott 267-268).
This is a far cry from slipping on a pair of brass knuckles and going to town on Al Capone.
But why threaten anyone at all when you’re not forbidding anything?
Unlike what Episode One depicts, nothing I’ve read said that Big Jim specifically forbid Torrio and Capone from getting into bootlegging in his name. In fact, most of my sources claim the opposite was true. Lloyd Wendt’s classic Lords of the Levee claimed that Big Jim was involved in bootlegging from the start: “Prohibition had added to Big Jim’s enormous wealth…He was the leader of the Italian community that had promptly and profitably gone into the alcohol-cooking business, and his gangsters were beginning their control of the wholesale bootlegging rackets” right around the time he was killed (Wendt 341). John Kobler claims that Colosimo “neither opposed or actively supported the proposal [to get into bootlegging]. Content as long as he received his share of earnings from…Torrio…he left him free to act as he thought best” (Kobler 69). Schoenberg also notes that Jim was “already into bootlegging—in a safe little way” as well (Schoenberg 61). While Big Jim might have dragged his heels when Torrio suggested they expand,he never outright forbid anything.
AMC is correct, however, in pointing out that Big Jim had become complacent over time. Whereas guys like Torrio saw an immense opportunity to consolidate wealth and power in Chicago via a vast city-wide network, Big Jim was content to run his famous Cafe and spend time with Dale Winters, the hot young wife he’d divorced Victoria for. He already had tons of money, friends, and power—why seek out more?
His new wife Dale Winters didn’t help much, either. A twenty-five year old singer, Winters first met Colosimo when she auditioned for his club—and vice lord fell for her hard. Soon he was spending all his time swanning her about town, neglecting his underworld compatriots and business “in favor of the artists and the swells from uptown,” riding on horseback with her through city parks, and encouraging her singing with voice lessons and tutors (Kobler 66). In March of 1920, two months before his death, Colosimo “divorced his wife and business partner, Victoria Moresco, and within three weeks he and Dale Winter were wed…The courtship, divorce, and May-December marriage were the talk of Chicago…Colosimo, old, fat, and hopelessly in love, was vulnerable” (Bergreen 82). Distraced by his wife, Big Jim’s vice empire had become a tempting target, and his lack of interest in Torrio’s deals “encourage[d] the jackals to turn on the lion and divide up his kingdom” (Kobler 69).
Just who those “jackals” were, though, is more a matter of debate than what AMC presents. To begin with, Frankie Yale wasn’t considered a suspect until much later in the investigation. Their first suspect was actually his ex-wife, Victoria Moresco, who was said to be upset with the divorce proceedings. While this lead never bore fruit, a more likely alternate suspect may have been the Black Hand. Not only did Big Jim have a history of being hit up for payments—it was the reason he’d hired Torrio to begin with—he also managed to piss them off more directly. Here’s the story a “friend” of Big Jim told the papers:
“Several years ago a gang of Black Handers used to frequent his place. Jim knew what theri game was, but so long as they did not molset his firends he let them alone. They demanded $2,000 from an Italian who was a friend of Colosimo. Big Jim told them to lay off. They threatened to blow up the man’s home. The night they were going to get the $2,000 as they supposed, another gang waited for them under the Rock Island subway, a few blocks from the saloon. Three of the Camorra were killed. From that night Colosimo was a marked man” (Kinsley H1-H2).
There are accounts that Torrio may have also killed some Black Handers while acting as Big Jim’s bodyguard (Kobler 47). This may have given them a solid motive for revenge—but if they did kill him, it seems highly unlikely that they would leave his body still covered in diamonds.
Though most historians today agree that Frankie Yale was the one who really pulled the trigger, not all agree that Torrio hired him to do the deed. Interestingly, Laurence Bergreen—whose interview clips AMC relied on heavily for the section on Colosimo’s murder—never actually said that Torrio hired Yale to off Big Jim in his book, Capone: The Man and the Era. Rather, he felt that Yale was, as a hit man, “far too prominent to kill on commission” and had instead “murdered Colosimo to satisfy his own expansionist goal of ruling the Chicago vice trade” in an attempt to “destabilize” the Chicago vice empire from afar (Bergreen 84). With Big Jim dead, reasoned Bergreen, Yale could easily step into his shoes.
Of course, as we all know, that’s not how things went down. Torrio took that role up and eventually passed it onto Al, who held the reins of Chicago crime until his conviction in 1931. But given the rest of Big Jim’s colorful history, I thought it was a shame that AMC reduced his role to that of a stereotypical mob boss, rather than showing him as he was: one of the last lords of the Levee, a holdover from an earlier time in Chicago crime.
Overall, I enjoyed the first episode of Making of the Mob: Chicago. More than anything, I was pleased to see AMC showing Al in a more sympathetic light. I appreciated that they took care to emphasize how Italian immigrants struggled to find work during those times thanks to widespread prejudice and crushing poverty, making crime a viable career alternative for many. They also highlighted how devoted Al was to his family, even attempting to “go straight” in Baltimore as an accountant. Whatever else you may say about Al, it becomes pretty clear in reading about him that he cared deeply for his family, and it’s nice to see them use this to humanize him, rather than just writing him off as a violent, remorseless killer.
Personally, I can’t wait to see where this series goes next! 🙂
WHERE TO WATCH:
If you live in America, have cable, and get AMC, you can catch it on Monday nights at 10/9 central time. Otherwise, you can stream the episodes as they appear here on AMC for free.
Do you watch AMC’s The Making of the Mob? What did you think of Episode One? What do you think of the series as a whole? Please comment below! 🙂