Born in the squalid Irish slums of Brooklyn, in the first year of the twentieth century, Willie Sutton came of age at a time when banks were out of control. If they weren’t taking brazen risks, causing millions to lose their jobs and homes, they were shamelessly seeking bailouts. Trapped in a cycle of bank panics, depressions and soaring unemployment, Sutton saw only one way out, only one way to win the girl of his dreams.
So began the career of America’s most successful bank robber. Over three decades Sutton became so good at breaking into banks, and such a master at breaking out of prisons, police called him one of the most dangerous men in New York, and the FBI put him on its first-ever Most Wanted List.
But the public rooted for Sutton. He never fired a shot, after all, and his victims were merely those bloodsucking banks. When he was finally caught for good in 1952, crowds surrounded the jail and chanted his name.
Blending vast research with vivid imagination, Pulitzer Prize-winner J.R. Moehringer brings Willie Sutton blazing back to life. In Moehringer’s retelling, it was more than need or rage at society that drove Sutton. It was one unforgettable woman. In all Sutton’s crimes and confinements, his first love (and first accomplice) was never far from his thoughts. And when Sutton finally walked free–a surprise pardon on Christmas Eve, 1969–he immediately set out to find her.
Poignant, comic, fast-paced and fact-studded, Sutton tells a story of economic pain that feels eerily modern, while unfolding a story of doomed love, which is forever timeless.
Born in Irish Town in Brooklyn, Willie never quite fit into his own family. His father was a taciturn blacksmith at a time when automobiles were starting to become the rage, and Willie’s brothers had an unaccountable hatred for their younger sibling. Willie was smart and sensitive but came of age during some parlous economic times and considered banks and bankers the symptom of life as a rigged game. Moehringer also depicts Willie as a hopeless romantic who falls deeply in love with Bess Endner, daughter of a rich shipyard owner. After the brief exhilaration of a robbery at the shipyard, abetted by Bess, Willie and his cronies are caught and sentenced to probation, and thus begins a life on the outside of social respectability. By the 1930s, Willie is the most famous bank robber in the country, known in part for his gentility and the way in which he approaches his craft. He’s never loud or violent but instead devoted to artful disguises and making clean and quiet getaways (hence his nickname, the Actor). Not everything works smoothly, of course, for he’s incarcerated for many years, but he ironically becomes something of a folk hero for breaking out of several prisons. His final release, at Christmas in 1969, following a 17-year stretch in the slammer, has him retracing his past in the company of a reporter and photographer. Moehringer cleverly presents the antiphonal voices of Willie in the present (i.e., at the time of his release) and Willie in the past to give a rich accounting of his life, including his love for the works of Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Freud, Jung and Joyce. Whatever else you can say about Willie, in prison he got an excellent education. – Kirkus Reviews
After the global financial crisis hit in 2008, Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer was so angry at banks, he says, he decided to write about the people who rob them — in the form of fiction, since he’s not an economist.
“I thought it would be healthy to live vicariously through a bank robber at that moment that bankers were ruining the world,” Moehringer tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.
In his first historical novel, Sutton, Moehringer writes from the point of view of Willie Sutton, whom he calls the “greatest American bank robber.”
Stealing from scores of banks over three decades without ever firing a shot, Sutton began his career in the late 1920s at a time of soaring unemployment, bank panics and depressions.
He was known as a “Robin Hood figure” and an “anti-societal force,” Moehringer says. Growing up, Moehringer says, he remembers people “speaking about him with curious admiration — they always mentioned Sutton with a nod of the head and a wink. [Read the full article...]
He Knew Where the Money Was, and He Usually Took It - ‘Sutton,’ by J. R. Moehringer, a Fictional Biography
The New York Times Book Review – October 9, 2012 (Excerpt)
There are two ways to read “Sutton,” by J. R. Moehringer: as a third-rate novel with a deep and crippling cornball streak, or as a loose and journalistic speculative biography of a famous bank robber. Either way, you lose. But you lose less if you decide to read it as semi-true biography. You can at least enjoy the ragtime shuffle of the author’s better sentences.
The bank robber is Willie Sutton, the man famous for supposedly saying, when asked why he held up banks, “That’s where the money is.” Sutton robbed dozens of them during his four-decade-long career. He also escaped from three maximum-security prisons, prompting frantic manhunts, and became a folk hero in the process. His dapper Irish good looks didn’t hurt. When young, he somewhat resembled Jack Kerouac. [Read the full article...]
Gentleman Outlaw - ‘Sutton,’ by J. R. Moehringer
The New York Times Book Review – November 2, 2012 (Excerpt)
Historical fiction might disappoint for lots of recondite literary reasons, but some imaginative re-creations just can’t live up to their real-life originals. Paradoxical and elusive, the bank robber Willie Sutton would appear to be a ready-made candidate for a smart, kaleidoscopic novel along the lines of T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Road to Wellville,” Don DeLillo’s “Libra” and James Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential,” or even for a crafty biopic with the chameleonlike spirit of Todd Haynes’s “I’m Not There,” in which six actors play aspects of Bob Dylan.
Within the annals of 20th-century crime, Willie Sutton was everywhere and no one, at once a “Top 10 Most Wanted Fugitives” celebrity, eventually sought after as a talk-show guest by Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin, and yet also a cipher, capable of disappearing for years in plain sight as an orderly at a Staten Island hospital and passing his final days in a Spring Hill, Fla., chop house. He acquired the alias “Willie the Actor” for his propensity to knock off banks and jewelry stores while costumed in police, post office and messenger uniforms rented from theatrical shops along with fake mustaches and other disguises. His targets, he said, saw “only the uniform and not the face,” but as his fame grew, Sutton turned to plastic surgery. [Read the full article...]
THE BLEEDING HILLS A Novel by Wilfried F. Voss
I have fought a good fight,
I have finished my course,
I have kept the faith. - 2 Timothy iv. 7
The Irish War is officially a part of history, but not for Finnean Whelan, an IRA veteran of almost 40 years. British Intelligence has produced evidence that he is the mastermind behind a conspiracy to assassinate the First Minister of Northern Ireland. For Whelan this is not only a mission of revenge, but marks the beginning of a journey into the past and the return to the one true love: Ireland. [More...]
We are the only country that makes guns, including military-style assault weapons, available to anyone who wants to buy them. This is not freedom. It is a tyranny of death and destruction — a tyranny of which the National Rifle Association is proud. The Washington Post
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