Thursday, July 19, 2012

The last living Capone plans to breathe some Carroll County air later this month.

Deirdre Capone, a grand-niece of the late Chicago crime figure Al Capone, and the only person in the family to carry the notorious last name, has scheduled a series of events in Carroll and Templeton and the surrounding area in her new role as a traveling spokeswoman for Templeton Rye Spirits.

“She’s a nice lady,” said Templeton Rye Spirits president Scott Bush. “It’s not really about Al Capone. It’s about the aura and legend of Templeton Rye.”

The author of the 2011 book “Uncle Al Capone,” Deirdre Capone, 72, of the Naples, Fla., area, will be begin her Carroll County two-day itinerary in Templeton on July 30 with a tour of the Templeton Rye Spirits distillery. There will be an evening social event at 7 in Templeton and a “nightcap” at The Still bar and restaurant.

The next day Capone will tour Templeton and rural Carroll County. She will eat lunch about noon at the Corner Station in Templeton. At 6 p.m. there will be a social and book-signing with Carroll-area residents at the Carrollton Centre prior to a 7 p.m. screening of “Capone’s Whiskey: The Story of Templeton Rye,” which chronicles the life of the liquor from its founding and the early bootlegging days under the late Joe Irbeck (described by director Kristian Day as the local “kingpin” of the rye trade) to Bush, president of the modern-day, legal incarnation of the product, TR Spirits.

Tickets to the Carroll screening and event with Capone will be $10 per person and include a TR Spirits drink, the movie and an opportunity to meet Capone. Information on ticket availability will be forthcoming, said Keith Kerkhoff, co-founder of Templeton Rye Spirits.

In a phone interview with The Daily Times Herald this week, Deirdre Capone sought to cast her family in a broader context. Carroll County should embrace its connection with Capone, who reportedly trafficked the bootlegged booze from here to Chicago and referred to Templeton Rye as his “drink of choice.”

“That’s the reason I came out with my book,” Deirdre Capone said. “I think they would be proud of the man called Al Capone. I tried to say to people, ‘Was Al Capone a mobster? Yes, he was. Was he a monster? No, he was not.’”

She added, “Was there bloodshed? Yes, there was. I kind of equate that part of our history to the Wild West. In the Wild West if you rustled somebody’s cattle or you stole somebody’s woman there was a price to pay. People got into bootlegging because people wanted alcohol.”

Did her great-uncle order people hit who were at odds with his criminal enterprise?

“I’m sure,” Capone said. “My grandfather told me with tears streaming down his cheeks, ‘Deirdre, I want to promise you, no innocent person was ever harmed. No child’s life ever was in danger and no woman ever did anything she did not choose to do on our own inside the outfit.’ And I believe it.”

Capone said she never benefitted financially from the crimes of her ancestors.

She takes issue with the media and law enforcement singling out the Capones for scorn when there were millions of Americans violating Prohibition, which was in effect nationally from 1920 to 1933.

“The people who drank (liquor) were ever as guilty as my family was,” she said. “And you know, during Prohibition, alcohol was served in the White House. To just pinpoint one person for those 13 years as being the only criminal I think is ludicrous.”

She defended her family’s history, making the case that the enterprises extended into providing goods and services for which there were persuasive arguments for legalization.

“The businesses that my family were in, you say organized crime, it was only gambling, alcohol, prostitution,”  Capone said

Capone does acknowledge her Uncle Al was identified as Public Enemy No. 1 by the Chicago Crime Commission.

“The fortunes to be made from alcohol sales during Prohibition led Capone on a vicious campaign to eliminate his competition,” The Chicago Tribune reports in a history of the family. “Capone’s reign of murders culminated in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. He often avoided conviction through jury tampering and witness intimidation, but he was finally brought to justice in 1931 on charges of federal-income-tax evasion.”
The FBI’s website ranks Capone among the more infamous criminals in American history.

“Capone had built a fearsome reputation in the ruthless gang rivalries of the period, struggling to acquire and retain ‘racketeering rights’ to several areas of Chicago,” the FBI says on the website. “That reputation grew as rival gangs were eliminated or nullified, and the suburb of Cicero became, in effect, a fiefdom of the Capone mob.”

Kristian Day, the Des Moines-based producer of “Capone’s Whiskey,” said he interviewed older residents of Carroll County and Audubon County who had were reluctant to speak with him about the connection with Chicago, Al Capone and the bootlegged Templeton Rye of Prohibition.

“A lot of people didn’t want to talk about it,” Day said. “These people didn’t look at him as a pop icon. I interviewed people who were still afraid something was going to happen to them.”

That considered, Day supports Deirdre Capone’s visit to the Carroll area.

“What I love to see is it kind of humanizes everything,” he said.

Day said the main thrust of the Templeton Rye story is about farmers and rural people from Carroll County having the pluck and perseverance to survive in devastating economic times. The Great Depression hit American agriculture well before it engulfed the full nation.

“I’m not going to say there were justified killings,” Day said. “I’d say we dealt with issues differently back then.”

Templeton Mayor Ken Behrens said members of the Templeton Rye marketing team asked him directly about the community’s reaction to the potential spotlighting of the Capone connection to their community.

He raised the matter at several recent community meetings.

“To a person everyone said, ‘It’s part of our history. We can’t change that,’” Behrens said.

In fact, Behrens said he read Capone’s book and found it interesting, although open for interpretation, because it is at odds with other history accounts of the era and family. People can reconcile that for themselves, he said.

“I don’t have any concerns or issues with what she’s doing,” Behrens said.

Bush said Templeton Rye resisted the imploring of marketing professionals who wanted to more directly connect Templeton Rye with Capone.

“There were a lot of marketing folks who wanted it to be all about ‘Capone’s Whiskey,’” Bush said. “We think there is a lot more to the story.”

Bush noted there is no imagery of Al Capone associated with major marketing of TR Spirits.

“It’s fair to say from Day One we’ve kind of walked a tightrope with how much we wanted to develop and pursue the Capone angle with Templeton,” Bush said

But through Deirdre Capone the link with the Chicago crime family will play a larger role in marketing.

Capone recently joined a Templeton Rye representative in San Francisco where she helped promote the whiskey on Alcatraz, a one-time home to her great-uncle. She’ll be speaking at a Chicago event on Dec. 5, the anniversary of the end of Prohibition. Visits to Los Angeles and other cities as a brand spokeswoman are likely.

“I’m proud to be associated with Templeton,” Capone said.