”Sutton is the first multigeneration bank robber in history, the first ever to build a lengthy career--it spans four decades. In his heyday Sutton was the face of American crime, one of a handful of men to make the leap from public enemy to folk hero. Smarter than Machine Gun Kelly, saner than Pretty Boy Floyd, more likable than Legs Diamond, more peaceable than Dutch Schultz, more romantic than Bonnie and Clyde, Sutton saw bank robbery as high art and went about it with an artist’s single-minded zeal. He believed in study, planning, hard work. And yet he was also creative, an innovator, and like the greatest artists he proved to be tenacious survivor. He escaped three maximum-security prisons, eluded cops and FBI agents for years. He was Henry Ford by way of John Dillinger--with dashes of Houdini and Picasso and Rasputin. The reporters know all about Sutton’s stylish clothes, his impish smile, his love of good books, the glint of devilment in his bright blue eyes, so blue that the FBI once described them in bulletins as azure. It’s the rare bank robber who moves the FBI to such lyricism.Willie Sutton
Willie “The Artist” Sutton stole an estimated $2million dollars over the span of his forty year career and spent more than half of his adult life behind bars. J. R. Moehringer takes us from his childhood until his death. The story is told from the vantage point of Willie Sutton aged 69 on the day he is released from prison and as his memories unfold the reader is allowed to ride shotgun
with Sutton as he guides us through his career. One thing that really struck me is that just before World War One the United States was in a depression and then experienced several more depressions long before the Great Depression of the 1930s. Willie was one of those guys born in an Irish borough, achieving only an 8th grade education, and every time there was even a slight downturn in the market he was among the first group to be let go from his job. The disparity between rich and poor was a wide chasm and he and his friends, growing up barely able to keep food in their mouths, were well aware of the disadvantages. The uneven playing field that people, by dint of birth, found themselves fighting against their whole lives is the same rigged machine that exists today. The rich just keep getting richer, the middle class is shrinking, and the poor are losing all hope of climbing the rungs to prosperity.
Willie has a natural animosity towards the banks and the Wall Street tycoons. The name Rockefeller rarely leaves his mouth without being preceded and followed by a handful of expletives. It is beyond ironic that when Willie gets the call that he has been pardoned in 1969 it is Nelson Rockefeller that secures his release. "Death stands at your door, hitches up its pants, points its baton at you--then hands you a pardon."
New York loved Sutton, thought of him as a Robin Hood character because he used guile rather than violence to rob banks. He meets a doorman who happens to be a fan. ”Three greatest Willies in New York, my old man says--Willie Mays, Joe Willie Namath, and Willie the Actor.”
Willie loves New York and spends most of his life, while not in prison, in the city. He casts a jaundiced eye on his own relationship with his home city. ”New York, he says. No matter how many times you see it, you never quite get over how much it doesn’t fuckin need you. Doesn’t care if you live or die, stay or go. But that--that indifference, I guess you’d call it--that’s half of what makes the town so goddamn beautiful.”
Willie was a lifetime reader, a fact that endeared him to me. He started out reading Horatio Alger books because they were predictable and reassured him that if he worked hard he would eventually succeed. After being laid off numerous times regardless of how well he performed his duties it didn’t take him long to realize that Horatio Alger was selling a load of crap.
While in prison he discovered the series of pamphlets produced by E. Haldeman-Julius about every subject under the sun.
They raised his familiarity with subjects to the point that he was comfortable reading the regular editions of Cicero, St, Augustine, Bronte, and one of his favorite authors Proust. For a man marking time, obsessed with time, Proust was a natural fit for a man stacking every hour in prison. The police knew that Willie liked books and after one of his escapes bookstores were on the list of sites to be staked out. Yep that would be me, FBI’s MOST WANTED JEFFREY DEAN KEETEN
snagged at a bookstore.Like John Dillinger, cops liked to be photographed with Willie Sutton.
Sutton was in love with one girl for most of his life. A girl named Bess Endner was the object of his affection. A girl not only unattainable, but existing in a life of security and wealth so far removed from Sutton that the air was too precious for him to breath. The bisection of fantasy and reality that surround his relationship with Bess are difficult to unravel. A reporter who spent most of his professional career following the exploits of Willie Sutton finds himself hitting inconsistency not only in his “relationship” with Bess, but with details regarding Sutton’s criminal career.
How many of the contradictions in Sutton’s memoirs, or in his mind, were willful, and how many were dementia, Reporter doesn’t know. HIs current theory is that Sutton lived three separate lives. The one he remembered, the one he told people about, the one that really happened. Where those lives overlapped, no one can say, and God help anyone who tries. More than likely, Sutton himself didn’t know.”
Willie lived long enough to control his own legend. His most quoted line that I had heard, but couldn't have attributed to Sutton is; "Willie, why do you rob banks?" He was asked by a reporter.
"Because that's where the money is." He famously replied.
I know he looks harmless lady, but that little old man is a notorious bank robber.
I was absolutely transported by this book. It is a book of many layers, sprinkled with politics and a clear eyed view about crime. It gives us an extensive overview of the risk versus reward of the profession. There is philosophy. ”Whenever an Indian is lost or sad, or near death, he goes and finds the place of his birth and lies down on top of it. Indians think that gives a man some kind of healing. Closes some kind of loop.
And hookers with a heart of gold. ”Her touch is surprisingly gentle, and skillful, and Willie is quickly aroused. She drags her rich chestnut hair up his chest, across his face, like a fan of feathers. He likes the way it feels, and smells. Her hair soap, Castile maybe, masks the room’s other baked-in scents. Male sweat, old spunk--and Fels?”
There are hardboiled statements straight out of Chandler or Hammett. ”A safe is like a woman. She’ll tell you how to open her, providing you know how to listen.”
There are beatings by cops, there are narrow escapes, unexpected kindnesses, soul tearing betrayals, and hair raising robberies. The book delivered exactly what I wanted; and best of all, even though this is a novel, Willie Sutton really existed.
I worked as a loan officer in a bank for a year and interesting enough they had to do a back ground check on me, my father, and my grandfather before I could go to work there. I had these visions of sitting there before the bank president. He looking at me over the top of his bifocals and saying "we are so sorry Mr. Keeten, but there was this little incident with a bank in Oklahoma back in 1936." I was as it turned out hired, but there was a small part of me rooting for my grandfather, who I never knew, to have done something nefarious. After experiencing how banks think about their customers, talk about their customers, and screw the people most in need with higher interest, maliciously so, I probably have more sympathy for guys like Dillinger and Sutton than I should. I've always had an adage to get away from untrustworthy people and I couldn't leave the banking business fast enough. On a moral scale I'm not sure much more than a sheet of paper with a financing degree separates most bankers from a bank robber.
Watching my father deal with banks, especially through the 1980s farming crisis, I learned pretty quickly there are no rules. The friendly grin you see one day from a banker can turn into a shark smile the next day. Believe me, there are reasons why the banking industry is heavily regulated and I can assure you they spend a lot of time trying to figure out ways to bend the rules to their advantage. I didn't experience finance on the epic scale that is Wall Street, but what I observed on the smaller scale made it pretty easy to project what was going on further up the food chain.