One of Deirdre Capone’s fondest memories of her great uncle is him standing in the kitchen, a pinny tied around his waist, teaching her how to cook spaghetti.
She recalls: “He said, ‘You’ll know it’s done Deirdre’, and he’d pick up one noodle and throw it against the wall. ‘If it sticks, it’s done, if it slides off it’s not done yet’. He loved to cook.”
As her surname suggests, Deirdre’s great uncle was America’s most infamous gangster, Al Capone.
Deirdre, now 80, who says she is “probably the last person on this Earth” to have properly known him, is chatting from her home in Florida as the latest movie about her beloved “Uncle Al” is released on Netflix this week.
British actor Tom Hardy stars in biopic Capone, complete with heavy prosthetics and plenty of characteristic violence, blood and gore.
But Deirdre, who turned seven the day Capone died following a stroke in January, 1947, paints a sweeter picture and reveals the ruthless gangster had a surprisingly sensitive side.
Not least that old Scarface was pretty thin-skinned about his iconic scar, which Deirdre says he got in a bar fight when he complimented a girl he met. Her brother took offence – with a knife.
“He hated the scar. He would try and hide that at all times,” she says. “It’s difficult to find a picture where he doesn’t shield it. He was very self-conscious about it.
“He didn’t like to have anything wrong with him at all, he was a perfectionist.”
So much so that there was one sure- fire way to put the wind up him.
Deirdre recalls: “If you wanted to rattle Al Capone all you had to say is, ‘Where’d you get that spot on your shirt?’ He’d be like, ‘Oh my goodness there’s a spot on my shirt?’ and he’d run to get it out. He wanted to be perfect at all times.”
Clearly image meant a lot to him. Deirdre adds: “If you see any picture of my uncle he had a white hat on.
“The reason is, he loved cowboy movies and in them the good guys always wore white hats.
“He always wore one because the media was so against him, trying to blame him for everything, so he’d wear a white hat to let people know he was a good guy. He felt victimised.”
She fondly recalls he didn’t mind his young niece asking about the scar, though. To her, he was always a good guy. “I would sit on his lap and feel it and say, ‘Does that boo-boo hurt?’”. “He’d laugh and say, ‘No, not any more’.”
It feels like there might be a tad of whitewashing going on in Deirdre’s recollections of Capone, the younger brother of her grandfather, Ralph.
Ralph was nicknamed “Bottles” for his role in the fearsome Capone bootleg alcohol empire, the Chicago Outfit, which made its fortune during Prohibition. Deirdre explains it was actually Ralph who was in charge. But he was happy for Al to be the public face.
“Al loved the limelight, loved to be out with a beautiful woman on his arm. My grandfather hated it,” she explains.
And she insists they had nothing to do with the infamous 1929 St Valentine’s Day Massacre, in which seven rival gangsters were murdered. The killings earned Al Capone the title of “Public Enemy No1”.
Deirdre also lives by the “mantra” he was a “mobster, not a monster”. She believes he never killed anyone himself, but admits he ordered killings. “There is no evidence at all of he himself murdering somebody,” she says.
“Were people killed? Of course. I equate that part of American history to the Wild West. In the Wild West if you rustled someone’s cattle or stole someone’s woman there was a price to pay.”
Deirdre is also quick to mitigate the Capones’ move into criminality as the children of Italian immigrants to Chicago. “That was the times,” she says, in a strong Chicago drawl.
In those days the Italians were the last to be hired and first to be fired. Italian boys weren’t going to be doctors or lawyers.”
She says that when she got older and read about Capone’s “alleged” activities she struggled to equate them to the sweet-natured man she knew.
Her dad gave her the surname Gabriel, his middle name, to protect her. But once it got out she was a Capone she was bullied and ostracised.
“I never was invited to parties, and if I tried to have a birthday party nobody would come,” she recalls.
In terms of knowing her uncle firsthand, she was only a child, so perhaps her rosy memories are understandable. Her mother was pregnant with her when Capone was released from jail.
Ever elusive, he’d finally been convicted of tax evasion aged 33 in 1931, and locked up for 11 years, ending with a stint in Alcatraz.
Deirdre says he despised his time in the island prison. “He couldn’t talk about it, it was so horrific,” she says.
“When I went to Alcatraz as a visitor I cried when I saw the size of his cell and conditions he had to live in.”
She adds that he was desperate to see his wife Mae and son Sonny, who
he’d moved to Florida for their safety.
The period after his release, in the last years of Capone’s life, is portrayed by Hardy in the new biopic.
According to the movie, Capone is beset with dementia, with the mental age of a 12-year-old.
Deirdre agrees that by the time he was released his mental state had deteriorated shockingly, but insists this was due to mercury injections she claims were given to him to treat syphilis.
She recalls her family sought medical help to fix the problem and by the time she was old enough to remember him, he had recovered.
“They had a big party for him when he got out, and he would come up and say, ‘Who are you? Who are you?’ He was not in his right mind,” she says. “My grandfather and Al’s wife and mother took him to this doctor.
“They leached those poisons from his body and he was fine. He did not have dementia,” she says, repeatedly.
Instead, she recalls a fun uncle who lived in a Miami Beach mansion, dripping with wealth.
“The house is magnificent to this day,” Deirdre says. “He had a magnificent yacht, chauffeur-driven limousine, he never drove, he had servants. He was high-society in Miami.
“When we stayed, whatever we wanted was ours. You never paid for dinner, the restaurants would treat you. But I never saw anyone scared of him.”
Although the family never wanted for money, Deirdre believes the myth there is a lost $100million of Capone’s wealth still potentially stashed away, the location of which died with him.
But she says she’s long since given up on finding it and cashing in.
She says: “If it’s anywhere it would be Chicago. I also believe they have a lot of dealings in Cuba. I believe a lot of money was in safety deposit boxes in Cuba. But I have to let that be now.”
Her first memory of Capone is in the giant seawater filled pool at his home.
“My Uncle Al loved to be in the pool. That house had the biggest pool of any place in Florida,” she recalls. “The bay water would come in, salt water, and little fish would swim in there.”
I try to put aside any connotations of sleeping with fishes.
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“My father said he was going to throw me in and said, ‘Hey Al, catch her’ and he did, and I went underwater for a minute. Al lifted me up.
“That was the first time I experienced being in salt water, and I must have had an unbelievable look on my face because Al picked me up, and looked at me and started laughing so hard and threw his head back.”
The uncle she knew even dressed as Santa to give presents to his staff’s children, and taught her to play mandolin and sing an Italian lullaby, though she didn’t speak the language.
She feels he was a “beaten” man, not in a melancholy sense. Simply because he wanted to give up his old life.
“He wanted to be home with his family, see his son get married and have children,” Deirdre says.
“Prison had beaten him. He just could not go through that again or put his family through that. He wanted to be at home, have his mother’s cooking, be with his son.”
Yet, when pushed, she does recall seeing a flash of the notorious Capone, just once. It happened to be while they were making spaghetti that time.
“His sister came and said ‘There’s some men at the door want to see you,’” she remembers.
“So he took off his apron, put his suit jacket on, grabbed a cigar and walked to the parlour, and I followed.
“These two men came in, started talking in Italian – they always spoke Italian for business – and my uncle had this icy, cold look on his face.
“They left and I just stood there, watching. And all of a sudden my uncle looked up and winked and he had this great big smile on his face.
“He took my hand and we walked back to the kitchen to continue cooking.
“But when I saw that look on his face I didn’t know who he was, it was scary.”