If you believe the author, in this moving and very human portrait of Willie Sutton, he was a good boy gone bad because of circumstances beyond his control; he fell madly in love with a beautiful teenage girl of a different social class and was stoutly rejected by her family. She, Bess, encouraged him to rob her dad’s company so that they could run away and get married. He was under her spell, and although they were merely teenagers, they designed a plan to do just that. It was a bad decision. They were all arrested and thus began his record and life of crime.
He is separated from the love of his life, but she is not forgotten, and for the rest of his life, he pines for Bess Endner, who has captured his heart completely. Though he tries to go straight, he is a victim, trapped by the failures of the times he lives in, the cycle of economic recessions and/or depressions and accompanying despair that came with them, all blamed on the banks and bankers, which occurred again and again to derail all his efforts to go straight. Sometimes, an odd convergence of events and people recurred at dramatic moments of his life, and they had the power to make things either better or worse for him, and often, he simply made poor choices. Eventually, he lost hope, totally gave up and truly began a dishonest life, no longer having any respect for morality or the law. A true criminal was born, one that would become a folk hero to the people, even though he willfully broke the law.
Born in 1901, he eventually spends more than half his life in prison, and when finally granted early parole and released, in 1969, he is an old man, sick, presumed to be dying, no longer a danger to society. His lawyer makes a deal with a newspaper for one exclusive interview and as the reporter and photographer take Willie on a tour of his life through the places that have influenced him, it was a nostalgic trip for me too. Born in Brooklyn, I knew well the places he visited there, and in Manhattan. I recognized the names of the bankers and the gangsters. It was like the shiny sheet of Palm Beach, but for criminals rather than socialites!
Willie, duped by criminals he thought he could trust, suffering from unrequited love, beaten by cops supposedly upholding the law, their crimes hidden from the public, given unduly harsh sentences that might not be handed down today, learned how to get his revenge against the system, that was perhaps, far more corrupt than he was. He kept his mouth closed and never told them anything. To Willie, a “rat” was the worst thing in the world and he was not a rat. Where he committed his crimes and where he hid his money were only for him to know and for “them” never to find out.
Willie was educated in prison. As a youngster, neglected at home, physically abused by his older brothers, unable to reach his detached parents, he was constantly struggling. He had to leave school after the 8th grade because they needed money. From the author, we get the picture of a young boy coming of age at time when circumstances betrayed him. Even though he had the best of intentions to live a decent life, society and its ills conspired against him. No one ever gave him the benefit of the doubt, and every chance he got died an early death because of a downturn in the economy. He was a poor Irish kid, already behind the eight ball, feeling there was no hope for his future. No matter how many times he picked himself up, fate knocked him down again.
He started out as a dreamer, moral, an alter boy, in Catholic school, and yet, there was no real guidance for him, no mentor that stood by him, through thick and thin, except those he met as a criminal or in prison. Willie’s grandfather, Daddo, was the only one very close to him, one of the few people who genuinely cared for him. He tells him stories of “the little people” of Ireland that steal for fun. They aren’t condemned, but are merely considered mischievous. Perhaps these stories also planted the seeds of crime within him and forged his life into the myth of Willie Sutton as the Robin Hood of bank robbers.
Willie disavowed violence, was affable, not quick to lose his temper, stole from banks simply because “that was where the money was”, and always tried not to hurt anyone, according to popular folk lore. Willie never cracked, never told anyone anything, never succumbed to the beatings by the police who deserved to be behind bars themselves for how they treated him, if that part of the story is, indeed, true.
The book is divided into three sections: Willie’s life before the long sentence in Sing Sing, Willies life in Sing Sing up to the breakout, Willies life after he is recaptured. The alternate print, divides the narrative in half. In italics, we travel with him, the reporter and the photographer, on an incredible journey, as Willie visits the scenes of his past. We get a glimpse of those imagined scenes, snippets of conversations with his old love, his contacts, friends and enemies, brief thoughts from all those meaningful moments of his life, good and bad. As his memories rise to the surface, the print switches to normal font and to a more detailed description of those highlighted moments. A major drawback is that it is hard to separate what is fact from fiction, real from improbable, because there is no one single truth about who was the real Willie Sutton: Willie the Actor, Slick Willie, the Robin Hood of bank robbers, the Babe Ruth of bank robbers. His story is the stuff of myths. He took his secrets with him to the grave; but the easy writing style of this author, sprinkled with occasional wit, flows so smoothly, it is a pleasure to read, and the fictionalized version of Sutton’s life is mesmerizing. Willie Sutton becomes real to the reader.