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Book Author: J.R. Moehringer

SUTTON by J. R. Moehringer: Book Review

Could Sutton refer to anyone but Willie Sutton, bank robber extraordinaire?  Google “Willie Sutton,” and you get nearly four million hits.  His life has been the subject of a television episode on “Gang Busters” in 1952 and a documentary entitled “In the Footsteps of Willie Sutton” in 2011.  And now his life has produced a book, and an excellent one it is.

Sutton opens on Christmas Eve, 1969, when Willie was pardoned and released from Attica Correctional Faculty where he had been serving a fifty year sentence.  His unexpected release caused, in the author’s words, “a media frenzy,” but Willie granted only one interview.  J.R. Moehringer states in the Author’s Note that the published interview was a superficial one, and this book is his attempt to write what he thinks happened, or wishes had happened, on the day of the interview.

Willie was born into a poor Irish-American family, the fourth of five children, in 1901 in New York City.  According to the book, he was brutalized by his two of his older brothers, and that’s when he learned, at a young age, not to “squeal” or “be a rat,” the worst possible things one could do or be in his neighborhood.  Forced by family financial woes to leave school after the eighth grade, Willie turned to crime after he was let go from a series of dead-end jobs due to the Great Depression.  Starting out robbing jewelry stories, Willie soon was living the high life in a fancy hotel, dressing like a gentleman, eating in New York City’s finest restaurants.

The story is told both “in the present,” that being Christmas Day, the day after Willie leaves prison, and flashbacks to the past, when Willie thinks about his life.  He makes the two newspaper men, referred to only as the Reporter and the Photographer, drive all over the city so that he can relive his life in chronological order.

The romance in Willie’s life was Bess Endner, the daughter of a wealthy New York family.  When Willie was eighteen and Bess was sixteen, the two began a Romeo-and-Juliet romance that ended, as it could only do, badly.  The two of them, plus a friend of Willie’s, stole $16,000 from Bess’ father’s safe and fled to Massachusetts in an unsuccessful attempt to get married.  For the rest of Willie’s life he was haunted by his memories of Bess and the life they could have had together.

J.R. Moehringer has written a fascinating novel about a man who, as they say, needs no introduction.  Sutton, like Dillinger and Capone, doesn’t even need a first name to be identified; his incredible robberies, which netted him more than two million dollars over his lifetime, made him famous, or infamous, in the annals of twentieth-century crime.

All the characters in Sutton jump out from the novel’s pages:  Willie’s brutal brothers, his indifferent parents, the beautiful Bess, and the myriad accomplices who either remained loyal to Willie or betrayed him.  This is a beautifully written book, with its look into the heart-breaking poverty that many faced, even before the Depression, and Willie’s attempts to find happiness by accumulating immense wealth.

Mr. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, doesn’t have a web site, but there are many articles about him and this book on the Internet.

Special thanks to Lorry Diehl who recommended Sutton to me.  Lorry is the author of four books about Manhattan, her home town.  You can read more about her at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.