Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Real Eliot Ness

Biography of an Untouchable

By David Luhrssen
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Fame usually doesn’t last forever; sometimes it even ebbs and flows. Eliot Ness, the hard-hitting Prohibition agent in Al Capone’s Chicago, was all over the newspapers in the 1920s, but by the time he died of heart attack in his kitchen, at age 55, he was as forgotten as yesterday’s papers.

This was 1957, shortly after he told his story to hack writer Oscar Fraley, who exaggerated everything in the name of dramatic license and turned a decent cop story into thumping pulp fiction. Fraley sold his biography, published months after Ness’ death, to television, where it became the long-running “Untouchables” show. Overnight, Eliot Ness became America’s most famous federal agent. As played by Kevin Costner in the hit film The Untouchables (1987), Ness received a third shot of fame.

Will there be a fourth?

Douglas Perry’s biography Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero (Viking) doesn’t explore the future of the agent’s fame, but sets the record straight about his accomplishments. In Fraley’s telling, the agent brought down a slew of kingpins through detective work and bravado, but legends inevitably attract debunkers. Some claimed Ness was an incompetent gloryhound; in his “Prohibition” documentary, Ken Burns called him “a PR invention.” Perry establishes the truth as somewhere in the middle. His Ness was brave and unassuming, an honest cop in a dishonest agency who became a thorn under the feet of bootleggers, but not the cause of their downfall. Capone was caught for tax evasion. Ness’ gangbusting was a colorful sideshow Fraley and Hollywood turned into memorable fiction.

The Ness that emerges from The Rise and Fall of an American Hero was honorable but troubled, a workaholic with a pair of troubled marriages and ironically, given his Prohibition gangbusting, an alcoholic. Fact can be more interesting than fiction.

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