Last living relative of Al Capone revisits his Miami Beach home
Last living relative of Al Capone revisits his Miami Beach home — and her bittersweet childhood memories
09/23/2012 2:46 PM
11/01/2012 1:18 PM
For Deirdre Marie Capone, a visit to 93 Palm Ave. near Miami Beach feels like being in a time machine.
Even from the street, she can see that everything is still in its place: the simple arched garage door; the lily pond with grotto; the Spanish-style mansion. The palm trees, the guest house, and, of course, the enormous swimming pool with its two-story cabana that borders Biscayne Bay.
“Boy, this brings back some memories,” Capone, 72, says as she walks in.
It has been almost half a century since her last visit. But the images are still in her mind. The beautiful house on an exclusive oval construct just a mile off Miami Beach has a special past. Her grand-uncle bought it in 1928 as a summer residence. His name was Al Capone, and each time Deirdre came down from Chicago, she would watch the king of gangsters living in retirement.
In the decades since, the house has languished, occupied but falling into disrepair. After Capone died in 1947 and his wife Mae sold the mansion, it ended up in the hands of an airline pilot named Henry T. Morrison in 1971 for $56,000. Three years ago, he sold it to Peter Corsell, founder of the smart energy company Grid Point, for $5.7 million. He finally moved out last year.
Corsell had it fully modernized and extensively furnished — and now the house and Capone’s footsteps in Miami are making a comeback. And Deirdre feels ready to revisit a part of her life with which she has struggled.
The seven-room, five-bathroom mansion was listed for sale in July for almost $10 million, and it has become a hotspot. TV stations fly in, Capone experts stop by, moneyed Russians are bidding — all looking for the stories the house has to tell about the infamous mobster who turned bootlegging into a booming business during the Prohibition era.
“I thought that we would get all these hip-hoppers,” says Jorge Alonso, the real estate agent in charge for the Douglas Elliman firm. “But for now I have been mostly dealing with people that are history buffs. One of them [a potential buyer] even looked just like one of the Sopranos!”
Revisiting Palm Island from Naples, where she has been living for 14 years, is a personal journey for Deirdre.
She is the last surviving family member born with the name Capone and one of the few who actually knew “Scarface.” For years, she tried to leave everything about her family’s history behind, including the house in Miami.
Sharing a name with the man who once was America’s most-wanted criminal was a huge burden. Her father killed himself over a manuscript about his family when she was 10. Deirdre, who for years used the name Deirdre Gabriel, got fired from her first full-time job when her identity was discovered.
She was so embarrassed over being a Capone that she didn’t even tell her children who she really was. When she finally revealed her last name to them in 1974, their reaction caught her by surprise. “They said, ‘Cool, Mom,’ ” Deirdre recalls.
Deirdre was 7 when Capone died, and she saw him in Miami only a handful of times. But as she strolls around the property, it becomes clear that her rare visits shaped her. Fascinated by how the renovation architects have kept so many things original, Deirdre walks by the old windows, the black and gold Art Deco powder room, the bronze lamps.
She notices differences, too. In the kitchen, she remembers a staircase that Capone’s black servants used. In a bathroom, she remembers a different tiling. And there is something about the family room: “There used to be two bathrooms at the end of the room, one for men, one for women,” Deirdre recalls. The real estate agent nods affirmatively.
Miami was a perfect city for Capone’s retirement. It was far from Chicago, where in the late ’20 his success was beginning to haunt him. The gambling business was promising. The Caribbean was around the corner. “Yes, I like Miami so well that I’m going to vacation here all winter,” Al said after arriving in 1928.
Capone’s life in South Florida has been accurately reconstructed in two biographies, Mr. Capone by Robert Schoenberg and Get Capone by Jonathan Eig. He settled in, living his first few weeks in numerous hotels and renting a water view Miami Beach apartment at 3605 Indian Creek Dr., a mostly abandoned building today.
In March 1928 he bought 93 Palm Ave. for $30,000 in his wife’s name. He quickly turned its pool, which at the time was the largest private one in Florida, into a swank party venue.
Deirdre stops at the pool. She knows it, too, but doesn’t remember it for the parties. It was here where she learned to swim.
“I remember it so well because this was an odd pool,” she says standing on the edge of the basin. “It had salt water, and it was connected to the bay so the water level would rise and fall. There were fish and algaes and I thought, well, is this really what pools are like?”
Today, the 30- by 60-foot, 60,000-gallon pool is still the showpiece of the 30,000-square-foot compound. Apart from replacing the salt water with fresh, the architects didn’t change anything.
Whereas Chicago historically had tried to keep the Capone story out of public focus, South Florida is capitalizing on it. Realtors are promoting the house as Capone’s former mansion in an online video. Preservation advocates in city government urged architects to retain much of the home’s original flair. In 2010, the 11th Judicial Circuit Court in Miami re-enacted Al Capone’s perjury trial, and he was acquitted. Hotels where Capone is said to have stayed present themselves as historic sites — the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables even nicknamed one of its most exclusive rooms “The Al Capone Suite.”
It’s part of how movies, biographies and TV series such as Boardwalk Empire, which returned for a second season last Sunday on HBO, have softened his image to the extent that in the collective memory, Capone is seen as sort of a Che Guevara of crime rather than a brutal criminal and Public Enemy No. 1.
“He is seen as a celebrity,” says Chicago Federal Public Defender Terence MacCarthy, who got Capone acquitted in a mock retrial there in 1990. “People tend to block out that he was a criminal who had people killed.”
Not a monster
To Deirdre, the image change has been welcome. “He was a mobster, but not a monster,” she says of her uncle. After telling her four children about her identity, she went on a mission to un-demonize him, to fight what she viewed as damaging half-truths and rumors.
She wrote a 2011 book, Uncle Al Capone, a portrait of Capone’s human side as a family man, based mostly on conversations with relatives. It is garnished with several family recipes such as “Meatballs a la Capone” and “Grandma Theresa’s Ragu.”
It was a way to come to terms with being a Capone and to help reshape the memory of him. “Some biographers thought they know more about my family than I do,” she says. “I had to correct that.”
Deirdre says she’s convinced Capone had “nothing to do with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” the brutal 1929 execution of several gangsters with Capone’s rival, George “Bugs” Moran. Many historians say the killings were orchestrated by Capone from Miami.
The biographies portray a retired Capone whose conspicuous behavior on Palm Island led to his downfall. His parties were infamous, his confidants were shady, his lifestyle was extravagant. During his trial in the 1930s, witnesses revealed what Eig calls “Capone’s extravagant spending habits:” a weekly meat bill of $250, telephone bills up to $8,400, $12 silk underwear, $275 diamond belt buckles.
Legend has it that President Herbert Hoover, who wintered in the mansion of his friend J.C. Penney across the bay on Belle Isle in 1928, just before he was sworn in, was so annoyed by Capone’s parties that he declared the arrest of the mafia boss as a top priority and pressured the Internal Revenue Service to charge Capone with tax evasion.
Eig says he never found proof for this version. “We know that they lived in short distance from each other for some weeks in 1928,” he says. “But during my research I did not see any media account from the time confirming the party story.”
MacCarthy, the Chicago defender, has another possibility he discovered while researching for the retrial: that a neighbor who objected to Capone’s lifestyle happened to be a close friend of Hoover’s.
“At the time, it was all about getting Capone — no matter on what grounds,” he says.
Whatever the right story was, it ended for good on Jan. 25, 1947. “Dropped dead here,” Deirdre says, pointed to the floor of a second-floor bathroom. It was the morning of her 7th birthday. Capone, who had suffered a mini-stroke days before, took some laps in the pool. With the help of two male nurses, he went upstairs to shower.
When he stepped out he suffered a massive stroke. “He was instantly dead,” recalls Deirdre, who had returned to Chicago only days before.
Gawkers and reporters gathered at the main gate. When a station wagon pulled off, they followed the car carrying what they thought would be Capone’s corpse.
But Capone’s brother Ralph, Deirdre’s grandfather, had pulled a fast one. The corpse was still in the house. Only later would the family secretly bring it to Chicago. “Al had a phenomenal funeral. But nobody knew that,” Deirdre says.
Her visit to the time capsule nearly done, she pauses. Her eyes stop at the inconspicuous address plate with the number “93.” She smiles. Another memory.
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