When it comes to Route 66, particularly the original alignment of 1926, there’s no getting away from the Prohibition Era or Al Capone. It’s just a fact. Therefore, we consider it completely acceptable to pass along the following tidbit about Capone’s second home.
Ever wonder what Al Capone’s Florida getaway looked like? Well, now you can see it online, because the house is on the market (again: second time in less than a year, and it was on the market for more than a year before that) – and thanks to real estate website Curbed Miami, there are lots of pretty pictures of the villa and grounds. Things must be improving for the super-rich (or not), because the property sold 10 months ago for $7.43 million, and the current owners are now asking a cool $8.45 million; then again, two years ago the asking price was just under $10 million. The estate, which hasn’t changed all that much since Capone’s widow sold it during the 1940s, includes gardens, a large swimming pool in back, and a permanent cabana house that backs up to the dock where Capone berthed his yacht.
Capone bought his tidy estate at 93 Palm Avenue on the very posh Palm Island in Miami Beach in 1928 to escape from the feds in Chicago. They had begun to seriously investigate him for income tax fraud and Prohibition violations and wanted to drag him in for questioning. Rather than make himself available, Capone headed for Florida, where he had illegal gambling interests in both dog racing and horse racing.
Because the good people of Dade County weren’t very welcoming of well-known hoodlums and because he didn’t want to tip off the IRS, Capone had to buy the property for cash through an intermediary (who was promptly hauled in for a chat with local police once the identity of the real buyer became known). The villa and grounds had previously belonged to Clarence Busch, a member of the extended Busch brewing family of St. Louis who then built himself another house just down the street (yes, we mean Anheuser-Busch, the folks who gave you Budweiser, Michelob and their light counterparts). The very same family whose titular head at the time, August Anheuser Busch, Sr., swore for years that he’d never done business with Capone in any way during Prohibition – then later recanted. Tsk, tsk, Augie: did you really think we believed you the first time?
The Florida house pleased Capone’s wife immensely – she, the painfully shy Mae Coughlin of Brooklyn, NY – as it was the first house the couple lived in without Al’s ever-present and dominant mother, Theresa. The Palm Island villa was a house that Mae could truly, finally call her own, and she furnished it accordingly, which is to say lavishly. To put it kindly, Mae had ornate tastes but not necessarily the best taste, and Al gave her a huge budget. Still, it was all hers … for a while, anyway.
In Chicago, Mama Capone lived with the couple in their two-flat at 7244 S. Prairie Ave. in the Grand Crossing neighborhood. Theresa ruled the roost and did all the cooking for Al, the other Capone brothers who lived in the building, and his sister Mafalda (until she married John Maritote, brother of Capone henchman Frankie Maritote, aka Frankie Diamond, and moved out). Whenever the clan gathered for a family dinner or event, they typically spoke only their harsh Neapolitan dialect, so that poor Mae never understood anyone and felt isolated in her own home, often retreating to her bedroom and only coming out for the meal itself, then vanishing again. Mae didn’t even own the two-flat outright: she had to share it with Theresa, whose name was also on the deed (Al preferred to leave his name off it). That did not happen in Florida, where Mae was in charge and where she raised their son Albert Francis, aka Sonny. Note: Ralph Capone’s granddaughter Deirdre Marie Capone told author Jonathan Eig (Get Capone, 2010) that Sonny was Al’s son but not Mae’s; rather, Sonny’s mother was a paramour of Al’s who died during childbirth, and Al’s mother Teresa arranged for Al to marry Mae, whom she knew from church, so that the child wouldn’t be motherless and Al would have a quiet, unassuming, devout young woman for a wife … but that’s another story for another time.
Capone, of course, was convicted of tax evasion in 1931 and was sentenced to 11 years, eight of which he served – mostly at Alcatraz, where nobody owed him any favors and his notoriety bought him no influence. It was a far cry from Palm Island, where Mae had to get by with help from Al’s brothers while he was gone.
Alcatraz was also where Capone began to go ga-ga. Capone was paroled in November 1939, less for good behavior than for the fact that the dementia resulting from his syphilis was sufficiently advanced. Following his release, Mae and brother Ralph took him first to Baltimore for treatment, which didn’t cure him by any means but did alleviate a few symptoms, then home to Palm Island, where he swam in the pool, sat in the sun and generally had a much quieter life than ever before, despite the severity of the dementia.
Al Capone died at the Palm Island house in 1947 from pneumonia and cardiac arrest (the complications of a stroke a few days earlier, from which he awoke for a short time); his demise was slow enough that there was time for family and friends to come down from Chicago and say their goodbyes properly in the few days before his death. Then it was back to Chicago for the burial.
Unfortunately for Mae, the Chicago Outfit – by then led by Frank Nitti – didn’t have a retirement plan, and Al hadn’t left Mae much of an inheritance. Although he’d been rolling in dough for years before going to prison, Al had never put much away for a rainy day. He didn’t trust banks and thought that insurance companies and stockbrokers were all crooks (okay, so he wasn’t that far off, but still: no savings? Not smart). Suddenly, Mae was without money. She was eventually forced to sell the Palm Island villa and move herself and Sonny into a smaller home on the mainland, where she ran a restaurant for many years.
Needless to say, the villa has seen some interior renovation and redecorating over the years – it has a chic, modern kitchen now, for example – but very little change outside. Judging by the photos, it looks neat and cute as a button these days. And a lot less baroque inside. Take a gander online while you can.
Unit next time,
your tour guide, Marie