In Print: who was Eliot Ness? | Calendar | Chicago Reader

In Print: who was Eliot Ness? 

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Eliot Ness occupies a heroic place in the popular imagination. With bravery, honesty, and blazing tommy guns, he single-handedly brought down Al Capone.

Or so goes the myth. The reality, of course, is less clear-cut, though in many ways it's more interesting. A south-side native, Ness was indeed honest, regularly turning down bribes. But his band of "untouchable" agents was little more than an annoyance to Capone's illicit empire. Prosecutors would never try Scarface for bootlegging, so it was left to the tax man to bring him down.

In 1934, at the age of 30, Ness left Chicago after being assigned to the Treasury Department's "alcohol tax unit" for southwestern Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, an area known as the "moonshine mountains." A year later he was named the Director of Public Safety in Cleveland, where he exposed massive corruption and ties to organized crime in the police and fire departments. Ness ran for mayor of Cleveland in 1947 but was defeated by an almost two-to-one margin. Then came a remarkable decline. He lost his position as board chairman of the Diebold Safe & Lock Company and was forced to take a low-end sales job. Over the years he held down a variety of other jobs, including bookstore clerk and traveling salesman for a frozen-food company. Eventually he and his third wife settled in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, where he worked for a struggling start-up that had developed a method of watermarking checks for security purposes. He died of a heart attack in 1957 at age 54, deep in debt and a heavy drinker. His widow couldn't afford to bury him, and his ashes were stored in a garage in northern Ohio for the next 40 years.

In his final years Ness lived "about two blocks from my front yard," says Paul Heimel, who grew up in Coudersport, where his family ran a couple of weekly newspapers. While writing an article on Ness, Heimel discovered there were no biographies of the crime fighter. The more he learned about Ness the more convinced he became that his story was an important and neglected part of American history. But after completing his own Ness book, Heimel ran smack into the myth.

The publishers he approached were interested, he says, but with a catch. "My agent told me the major publishers insisted on greater drama. They wanted the raids on Capone's breweries to be more exciting--maybe a little gunfire here or there." Ness had never once fired his gun in the line of duty. "They also wanted the breakups of Eliot's first two marriages to be more eventful--maybe a little infidelity and a fight or two thrown in for dramatic effect."

Heimel refused. He then formed his own publishing company, Knox Books, and Eliot Ness: The Real Story came out in late 1997 in a press run of 7,500 copies. He'll be promoting the book here this weekend, the 70th anniversary of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre.

Ness himself was partly responsible for the myth. In 1955, he met Oscar Fraley, a sportswriter for UPI in New York. Fraley convinced him that a book about his adventures in Chicago would be a best-seller. The pair collaborated on a manuscript, but Ness's memory was spotty. Egged on by Fraley, he began to embellish. "It was only out of desperation, most of it financial, that Eliot consented to Fraley's plan to glorify his Chicago experiences," Heimel says. Ness died before the book, The Untouchables, was published. "And Oscar went away laughing all the way to the bank, while Ness died deeply in debt, never knowing that the book would lead to such a massive and lasting legend."

The Untouchables wasn't a best-seller, but it did inspire the TV series starring Robert Stack as Ness. At first the show's producers drew heavily on events in the book. But after the series became a hit, they were forced to make things up. Stack's portrayal was "more gritty" than the real Ness, according to Heimel, who interviewed Stack for the biography. "I think he feels a little guilty now."

Heimel calls the 1987 movie with Kevin Costner "almost complete fiction." David Mamet said his script was "inspired by" the Ness-Fraley book, though Heimel says "even that was a stretch." Scenes like the baby carriage rolling down the stairs at Union Station, or Ness tossing Capone henchman Frank "the Enforcer" Nitty off a roof, never happened.

Now Heimel would like to discard the myth. "Eliot deserves it," he says. "He became famous for the wrong reasons. Today he's thought of as a glory hound or a fabricator. But a series of significant accomplishments has been lost--Ness fought for the public good through police work, and he was very effective. In that sense, The Untouchables is a true story."

After completing the book, Heimel helped organize a memorial service. Ness's ashes were scattered on a pond, and a memorial stone was unveiled in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, close to two of the city's other prominent sons, President James Garfield and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. Heimel delivered the eulogy.

Heimel will discuss Eliot Ness: The Real Story this Saturday from 4 to 5 PM at the Barnes & Noble bookstore at Webster Place, 1441 W. Webster (773-871-3610), and from 8 to 9 PM at the Barnes & Noble in Skokie's Old Orchard Shopping Center (847-676-2230), where he'll be joined by Wayne Johnson, chief investigator for the Chicago Crime Commission. On Sunday Heimel will appear from 2 to 3 PM at the Barnes & Noble in Evanston, 1701 Sherman (847-328-0883). --Chris Larson

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Eliot Ness in 1936 photo by Corbis-Bettmann; Robert Stack in "The Untouchables".

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