Monday, March 17, 2008

John Dillinger & Me

I have an addiction. It's difficult to admit, especially because it's so odd, but I can't help myself. I'm a bit obsessed with John Dillinger. Yeah, the gangster from the 1930s. I come by it honest enough; my dad shares my fanaticism. He, of couse, inspired mine. (My dad is nearly impossible to buy gifts for. He doesn't need much, and what he does, he buys on his own. This year for Christmas, I think I got him his favorite gift ever: a John Dillinger Zippo lighter. He still raves about how much he loves it.) I read Dad's paperback copy of John Toland's Dillinger Days to death. It sits on my bookshelf today in pieces. The cover is stained, and the pages are falling out, but I'll never get rid of it.

When I was in high school, the biggest paper I ever wrote was about Dillinger and the mystery surrouding his death. While history records him as being killed by the FBI in front of the Biograph theater in Chicago on July 22, 1943 (after seeing Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable and William Powell), there's a large group of true believers who think that it was a set up and instead of Dillinger, the real victim was a small time crook from Milwaukee named Jimmy Lawrence. The theory is fueled mainly by Dillinger: Dead or Alive by Jay Robert Nash As with every conspiracy, there is just enough information to make the claim credible: wrong eye color, a heart condition, missing scars. In the 1960s, a man in California wrote letters to the newspapers claiming to be Dillinger. But, the FBI staked its reputation on Dillinger's death (his deathmask hung on the wall outside of J. Edgar Hoover's office for years), so they won't even address the issue; I wish they would. How hard would it be to do a little DNA test in this day and age?

I used to be sold on the conspiracy, but now I'm not so sure. After reading Dillinger: The Untold Story by G. Russell Giradin and seeing some of the autopsy photos, I do believe that it was poor Johnny who was shot in the back by the FBI. Dillinger was the FBI's first Public Enemy Number One, but the only federal crime he ever committed was driving a stolen car across state lines. Another sign of my illness? When Jesse and I were dating, we went to Chicago. We visited the Biograph, and I made Jesse lay face down in the alley next to it so I could take his picture in Dillinger's death pose.


Part of my fascination with Dillinger I'm sure comes from his links to Wisconsin. His girlfriend, Billie Frechette, was a Menominee Indian who lived about 20 miles from here. Dillinger was also rumored to have buried some of his bank robbing spoils near Billie's home. When I was little, my dad would take a metal detector and search the yard telling me we were looking for Dillinger's treasure (Dad, I still don't know if you were just messing with my head). In Gangster Holidays by Tom Hollatz, he talks of going into bars in Shawano, and an oldtimer in nearly every one had a story about drinking with Johnny. Dillinger and his gang (including Baby Face Nelson) had a shoot out with the FBI in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin at the Little Bohemia Inn. The lodge still exists, and there's a small museum up there with all of the luggage that Dillinger and the gang were forced to leave behind as they fled. (They got away. The FBI killed 2 CCC workers and shot another) On my list of things to do before I die is have supper up there and see the museum.

So why am I bringing all of this up today? Filming started in Columbus, Wisconsin today on Johnny Depp's new movie Public Enemy about, you guessed it, John Dillinger. My brother-in-law lives there, so my in-laws took pictures this weekend of the changes the filmmakers are making to the city to make it ready for th e1930s. Depp would not be my first choice to play Dillinger. When I saw Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James... I practically jumped up and down in my seat. That is John Dillinger. I hope that Depp doesn't play Dillinger in the fey style of most of his other characters. But it couldn't be worse than the 1973 movie starring Warren Oates, and yes I own it!

I love this T-shirt. I absolutely have to get my hands on one of them!

7 comments:

Jesse said...

Thank you for admitting to the world that this is a family of freaks! I really appreciate it... :P~

Jeff Martens said...

Thanks--this confirms some things my father, who grew up in Shawano County, said about Dillinger.

zeeter3@hotmail.com said...

I must say that it is nice to see someone with a more rabid fascination with Dillinger than I have. When I heard the movie was coming out I was elated. And while Depp is one of the more underrated actors, I agree that he wasn't perfect for the role. To his credit and that of the directors, he played the character much more realistically than previous actors had. While he may have been a hero to some, Dillinger was still a crook and this movie indicated that he could be violent at times. All in all I enjoyed the picture, though I wish they hadn't painted Purvis in such a good light. And I think that Brad Pitt is a bit too smug for the role of Dillinger.

nightlite said...

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Anonymous said...

What did you think of the movie? I am newly obsessed since I saw Public Enemies with Johnnie Depp. I thought he did a pretty good job at mimicking his mannerisms. Although there were some inaccuracies, it made me want to research the real John Dillinger.

Anonymous said...

I came across this by looking up Brad Pitt as John Dillinger because I believe that he is a better look-a-like than Depp. I came to this while watching Inglorious Bastards. He was more thicker in the face which was good. But you have to admit that Warren Oates is the best look-a-like (this oppinion is based on looks, not charactor). Purvis was always miscasted in my oppinion. Christian Bale was just a hot actor hired to sell the movie. If they really wanted to be accurite, they would have casted Jeremy Davies (Upham from Saving Private Ryan). Agreed?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting Christy....I have become a litle fanatical myself on the subject of Dillinger. Part of Public Enemies was filmed at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, IL. Which is about 7 miles from where I grew up in Oswego, IL. Oswego being the final resting place of Dillinger's "right hand man," John "Red" Hamilton. I have read about 4 books and rummaged through a number of old newspapers to read the 1933-34 stories of what happened as it happened. Very interesting.
Thanks....