New book chronicles life of Capone’s hit man
Author Jeffrey Gusfield on Deadly Valentines
Oak Park Public Library, 824 Lake Street, Oak Park
7 p.m. April 18
(708) 383-8200 or oppl.org
More information and other events at: www.deadlyvalentines.com
Updated: April 11, 2012 3:14PM
He was just a little kid who liked to play cops and robbers. But seeing photos of Chicago’s bloody St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 made an impression on Jeff Gusfield, a Lake Zurich native now living in Chicago, the author has yet to get over.
The display also set off a life-long interest in Al Capone and his henchmen, and in particular that of Capone’s main hit man, Jack McGurn, and McGurn’s love interest, Louise Rolfe.
Gusfield’s dad was working in the advertising department for the long-gone Chicago American newspaper when he was called in for an emergency one day with young Jeff in tow. To entertain have his son while he worked, he asked his friend, the legendary Capone photographer, Anthony Berardi, to help him out.
“Here I was,” Gusfield recalls, “my brain full of Disney stuff and cops and robbers, five years old, kindergarten age. But I was reading way beyond kindergarten age and had a certain maturity. The way it went, Tony Berardi probably asked, ‘what’s the kid interested in?’ and my father retorted, ‘cops and robbers,’ and went off to do his work. So Berardi took me straight to the (newspaper’s) morgue. For some reason, he was totally comfortable showing me these photos.”
Now Gusfield, 63, is the newly-published author of Deadly Valentines, The Story of Capone’s Henchman “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn and Louise, Rolfe, His Blonde Alibi, and will speak about the book April 14 at the Oak Park Public Library.
Deadly Valentines is a new 346-page hardcover (Chicago Review Press) written in the present tense, which gives the story a fast-paced newsreel feel, and brings back to life these vivid characters from Chicago’s gangster era. The thoroughly researched, excellently written book includes plenty of black-and-white pictures, Notes and Appendix.
“After 40 years of researching all these people, I needed it to be more immediate and a little bit more intimate,” said Gusfield. “All I really cared about after all these decades, was not the criminal pursuit or the courtroom dramas, but what they were like personally. So, every time I found something that either one of them said, or a personal anecdote from someone credible, it made me realize that I needed to make it in the present, because I felt such an immediacy, from knowing everything that I know about them. I wanted it to be living history rather than pondering history.”
Gusfield’s book covers the era well, and goes beyond mere historical dates and events. He delves into the childhoods and influences of McGurn (real name: Vincent Gebardi) and jazz-age blonde bombshell, Louise Rolfe, who served as McGurn’s “alibi” for numerous crimes.
The detailed information on the developmental years for both McGurn and Rolfe provides insights into the things that motivated these infamous characters as they became adults. For example, we learn that McGurn’s Sicilian mother told him bedtime stories about Sicilian revenge, the “eye for an eye” killings done to preserve family honor. And Rolfe was a spoiled child, a daddy’s girl with a weak-willed mother who Rolfe grew to despise and disregard.
Gusfield also visited all the Capone-era sites. “I went to every building, every government building, the old criminal courts and jail building, I wanted to see it all,” he said.
He wanted to feel it too, and made arrangements at the Rock Island Arsenal to hoist and fire off a Thompson machine gun like McGurn’s.
“I wouldn’t have really understood Jack McGurn otherwise,” said Gusfield. “This gun was frightful, wholesale slaughter, death and more death.”
But Gusfield is more than proud to add his voice to Chicago lore. “I love the history, I love the people, I love the Cubs, the river, St. Patrick’s Day, there’s nothing about Chicago I don’t love,” he said. “And I feel such pride in becoming a Chicago historian, even though it’s rather focused on a small area. I am proud to be a contributor.”