Al Capone as Allusion

With more kinds of media today, and their increasing penetration and saturation of our lives, we have more celebrities more quickly, more widely and better known than ever before. Even so, not many transcend "mere" celebrity to become allusions.

It's not enough that their names are immediately familiar to nearly everyone—like those of movie stars and sports figures. To become an allusion, someone's name must stand for some particular something, good or bad, that virtually everyone instantly associates with that name. And everyone must agree on what that something is, assuring a particular reaction at the mention of the name, bare of any further identification or explanation about who the allusion is or what the allusion means.

On a recent legal reality TV show, the anchor summarized a featured murder trial by calling the defendant a "Jekyll and Hyde," then referring to him and his victim as "Hatfield and McCoy." You now know everything about the nature of the crime except the gorier details. The lawyer for a sprinter, banned from the 2004 Olympics for steroid use, complained that his accusers were "resorting to McCarthy-like tactics." Thomas Jefferson once lamented that some who had been "Sampsons in the field, Solomons in councils" were now betraying their country by backing the Jay Treaty. He might have called them "Benedict Arnolds" but didn't.

You get the idea about allusions.

Marilyn Monroe is an allusion; Madonna never has been. Neither has "J. Lo"—despite what that almost universally recognizable shortening of her name says about her celebrity.

George Washington is. It must be a singularly un-ambitious head of a Third World state, with an exceptionally chintzy PR budget, who cannot arrange to have himself called "The George Washington of his country" in some American medium. No other president has become an allusion because no other presidential name evokes in all minds one particular reaction.


Hitler and Attila are allusions; Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein never were. A radio talk show host, recently quarreling with the Administration's stated reasons for attacking Iraq, said "As bad as Saddam Hussein was—basically Hitler—he wasn't an immediate threat"


Allusions do not need allusions to clarify their meaning. Among lawbreakers, Jack the Ripper and Robin Hood are allusions; John Gotti—the media's last nominee as "the Godfather"—is not. But notice that "The Godfather," though fictional, is. Tony Soprano, though, is not.

Al Capone certainly is.

For all his celebrity, he did not attain allusion status until two months before being shipped off to Atlanta Penitentiary. Up to then, Capone had remained an ordinary (if extraordinarily well-known) celebrity, a creature of the headlines, his name used only in stories directly about him-not allusively, as comment on someone else. Then, in March 1932, a London Evening Standard cartoon showed French premier Pierre Laval and foreign minister Aristite Briand, feet on the table, Briand barking into a phone, "Wassat? Some guys muscling in on our territory. Bump 'em off, kid, bump 'em off." The cartoon's caption tagged the French "The Al Capones of Europe." An allusion was born.


Capone is useful as allusion because so universally recognizable as The Criminal, personified. Call someone "a regular Al Capone" and we know what you mean. At the same time, "Capone" as allusion is rich and complex, not limited like, say, "Robin Hood," which conjures almost exclusively stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Capone became the principal symbol of Prohibition lawlessness; but he equally stood for lawbreaking with jauntiness and style. As George V. Higgins put it in his novel, A City on a Hill, "We're so hungry for classiness now, we'd eat up Capone if the guy wasn't dead." That was a somewhat backhanded compliment, contrasting Capone with all these drearily vulgar Watergate scoundrels. But Higgins didn't need to explain that if he had to contemplate lawbreakers, he preferred one with some elan. The allusion said it all.


In the movie, "State of the Union," the character played by Spencer Tracy said, "I thought I could hijack the Republican nomination, I became an Al Capone of politics."


When Imelda Marcos returned to the Philippines and faced arrest, her lawyer scoffed at the government's allegation that she had failed to file income tax returns. "They can't get her on the more serious charges," he said, "so they're trying to get her the way the U.S. government got Al Capone." That prosecution had occurred 60 years before. But the lawyer knew that everyone—in Manila and around the world—would know what he meant.

So did a letter-writer to the Los Angeles Times, who, to express dismay at news that a convicted murderer had gotten hold of the jury's names and addresses, penned an impassioned, "Shades of Al Capone." So do enough others that one Chicago criminal defense lawyer, Julius Lucius Echeles, took to clipping examples. "Amazing," Mr. Echeles once remarked, "how often his name is used to spice up a story."

Who knows? Given today's educational trends and the debate over what should be included in the canon, the day may come when there is only one name that writers and speakers dare allude to with perfect confidence that their entire audience will get their point.

Al Capone may become America's last allusion.

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