Review: Deadly Valentines by Jeffrey Gusfield

Published by Chicago Review Press
Released April 1, 2012
368 pages
Where I got it: E-galley received from publisher via NetGalley
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Publisher’s description:

Almost before the gunsmoke from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre cleared, Chicago police had a suspect: Jack McGurn. They just couldn’t find him. McGurn, whose real name was Vincent Gebardi, was Al Capone’s chief assassin, a baby-faced Sicilian immigrant and professional killer of professional killers. But two weeks after the murders, police found McGurn and his paramour, Louise May Rolfe, holed up downtown at the Stevens Hotel. Both claimed they were in bed on the morning of the famous shootings in the Clark Street garage, a titillating alibi that grabbed the public’s attention and never let go.
Deadly Valentines is one of the most outrageous stories of the Capone era, a twin biography of a couple who defined the extremes and excesses of the Prohibition era in America. McGurn and Rolfe influenced popular culture tremendously and drew the interest of the entire country. McGurn was a prizefighter, a professional-level golfer, and the ultimate urban predator and hit man who put the iron in Al Capone’s muscle. Rolfe, a beautiful blonde dancer and libertine, was the epitome of fashion, rebellion, and wild abandon in a decade that shocked and roared. Every newspaper in the country followed their ongoing story; Hollywood copied their hipster speech. They were the most spellbinding subject of the new jazz subculture, an unforgettable duo who grabbed headlines and defined the exciting gangland world of 1920s Chicago.
The story of Jack McGurn and Louise Rolfe, two lovers caught in history’s spotlight, is more fascinating than any fiction. They were the prototypes for eighty years of gangster literature and cinema, representing a time that never loses its allure.

My grandfather grew up in Chicago in the late 1920s and 1930s. He once described how he would play gangsters as a little boy, until the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Then it just got too real, and too scary. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre went down in history as the epitome of the violence of the bootlegger wars, and had a lasting effect on the country. Al Capone was one of the central figures involved. However, I didn’t know much more than that going into this book. Now I can say that I have a good grasp of not only the Massacre, but the people behind it and the general atmosphere of the day.

Gusfield seems to have a conflicted view of Jack McGurn in Deadly Valentines. On one hand, McGurn was a ruthless killer, a general in Al Capone’s crime outfit who would not hesitate to kill. Gusfield doesn’t shy away from that fact. But he also seems to admire McGurn. He often focuses on McGurn’s athletic prowess, first as a boxer and later as a golfer. He also is sympathetic to McGurn’s desire to kill the men who gunned down his step-father. Through Gusfield’s narration, we are presented with a well-rounded hero/villain. Gusfield isn’t nearly as kind to Louise Rolfe, who is presented as a manipulative, selfish jazz baby. It’s a little funny that the man who killed countless people during the Prohibition bootlegger wars comes across as so much more likable than his “blond alibi.”

Overall, Deadly Valentines is very readable. There are photographs throughout the book of the characters who are in play. Squeamish readers should be warned that there are crime photographs of people who have been shot to death. The names can get confusing at times, but that’s because criminals presented used so many alibis and nicknames. Gusfield did a pretty good job keeping things together from that point of view. Sometimes he made some assumptions and guesses in the narration, rather than sticking straight to the facts. He addresses this and his reasons and method for doing it, but I think strict history buffs still might take issue with it.

If you’re at all interested in the history of Prohibition, Al Capone, the Great Depression, the Roaring Twenties, or the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, this is a book you’ll want to read.

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