The Dead Sea Scrolls of John Dillinger

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The tale of a long-lost account of one of America’s most notorious criminals, a struggling ad man, and the contributing editor at Playboy who brought the story to light.

This week, Michael Mann’s newest film, Public Enemies, opens nationwide. It will do well for two reasons: John Dillinger and Johnny Depp. Dillinger, of course, played the part of a Depression-era Robin Hood, robbing banks and stealing hearts from 1933 to 1934. (Depp, even on a site as avowedly anti-pop as this one, needs no introduction.)

So let’s say you see Public Enemies. Let’s say, before or after, you decide to learn more about “the real Dillinger.” Your obvious play is to read Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies, the carefully reported book used by Mann and his screenwriters. It’s a good book, and right now you can even read a copy graced by the smoldering, submachine gun-toting Depp. But I don’t think it’s the book for you. Burrough, you see, covers not only Dillinger but five other gangs, turning in 600 pages so complex they include a cast of characters and series of numbered maps. It’s a book that’s synthetic, not sexy, and there’s a better way to experience Dillinger—through a bizarre, largely forgotten book, a book with its own fascinating backstory.

It’s a story worth telling at length.

draft_lens2381777module13494487photo_1232144828wanted-dillinger1As a struggling ad man in 1930s Chicago, Russell Girardin would occasionally bump into Louis Piquett, Dillinger’s crooked lawyer. Dillinger didn’t need a lawyer—he generally escaped before a trial could occur—but Piquett also helped him launder money, locate hideouts, and even procure the services of a hack plastic surgeon.

After Dillinger’s death in 1934, Girardin convinced Piquett to help him write “Dillinger Speaks,” a popular series of syndicated newspaper articles. Girardin then embarked on the time-honored tradition of turning those articles into a book. He signed a contract with Putnam (now part of the Penguin empire), but ended up having to ax the whole thing because he couldn’t reach an agreement with the series’ original syndicate.

So Girardin’s manuscript sat on a shelf in his North Chicago home—sat there until William Helmer, a contributing editor at Playboy, rediscovered the “Dillinger Speaks” series in 1987 while researching his cultural history of the Thompson submachine gun. With the help of some other Dillinger junkies, Helmer tracked down Girardin. Now a frail man in his eighties, Girardin enjoyed the chance to talk about Dillinger, and, before Helmer left, Girardin showed him the manuscript.

Helmer immediately pronounced it “a Dead Sea Scroll to Dillinger historians.” Encouraged by Helmer, Girardin went back to the book, elaborating on a few points and adding some notes. On August 28, 1990, barely a week after giving Helmer the final batch of notes, Girardin suffered a stroke, dying a month later. But Helmer stuck with the project, and Dillinger: The Untold Story came out in 1994, more than fifty years after Girardin gave up on the original project.

It is, as they say, worth the wait. From the first sentence of the original 1935 preface—which, like the rest of the book, Helmer urged him to leave untouched—Girardin provides an immediate, out-of-breath perspective: “The very name John Dillinger cannot be spoken without myriad headlines coming to mind.” Yet the book bristles with research. Girardin interviewed Dillinger’s father and sister, in addition to various bank presidents, journalists, and police officers, and much of his material comes from Art O’Leary, Piquett’s gofer-slash-grunt. (At one point, Dillinger planned to write his own memoirs and dictated material to O’Leary in “six or seven conferences.”)

9780253221100Most of all, though, Girardin’s book is a fantastic read. Where Burrough (and all the others who’ve written about Dillinger) rely on his true-crime narrative, Girardin has a secret weapon: his crazy 1930s style, ornate and alliterative, very precise, very stilted, at times almost biblical. You might not read it all at once—you certainly don’t want to read it all the time—but, here, it matches its subject perfectly. It’s a seven-layer literary dessert.

Let me give you a sampler. On Mooresville, Indiana, where Dillinger grew up, Girardin writes: “Located on the top of a gentle slope, the town sleepily scatters its ramshackle buildings over the hillside”; on Dillinger’s plastic surgery, handled poorly enough that, at one point, his heart stopped beating: “He bled profusely, so that the bed was soaked, and the doctors were much hampered by his violent vomiting”; on the gang’s final robbery, which disintegrated into a wild shootout: “The force of the shot creasing his skull was enough to knock [Homer Van Meter] off his feet. He fell to his knees, but Dillinger’s powerful arms shot forth, seized him by the collar of his coat, and dragged him into the car”; on Martin Zarkovich, the corrupt cop who helped the “woman in red” betray Dillinger: “His relationship with Mrs. Sage was commercial as well as amatory, for the connection between the madame of a dive and a police officer was mutually advantageous”; finally, on Dillinger’s death: “John Dillinger was shot down from behind, with no attempt worthy of the name made to capture him alive.”

It’s pretty clear that Girardin is sympathetic almost in spite of himself. When he writes, “It must be remembered that the authorities firmly believed they were dealing with perhaps the most dangerous criminal of all time,” it feels like he’s reminding the writer as much as the reader. Still, he managed to write an accurate and reliable book. Burrough trusts it in his own footnotes, and the FBI’s official records, which were kept confidential until the 1980s, confirm much of its story.

Of course, one question remains: why did Girardin sit on his manuscript for so long? I emailed Helmer about this, and he suggested that, initially, Girardin moved on because of the contract squabble and a healthy bit of fear. (“There were still a number of outlaw friends of Dillinger on the loose.”) Even as time passed, Helmer said, “Girardin didn’t figure Dillinger would acquire such notoriety as he did following the publication of [John Toland’s] Dillinger Days in 1963 and the subsequent movie [1973’s Dillinger].” But why not cash in on that notoriety? “Girardin was an ad man, not a writer.”

Well, he’s enough of a writer for me, and his book’s time-capsule tone only helps. Girardin’s text runs to only 250 pagesand that’s with the pleasant fluff of his prose—and it provides the stylized, intimate encounter with Dillinger that a first-timer needs. (Apparently Depp agrees.) Indiana University Press includes 37 fascinating photos and illustrations with the book, and right now they’re selling it for $14 as part of their “Intellectual Stimulus Package” sale. So if Public Enemies (or anything else) piques your interest in John Dillinger, Girardin’s found manuscript is the place to start.


Painting by Virginia Giordano


Craig Fehrman is a grad student and writer living in New Haven. You can find more of his work here. More from this author →