Bryan Burrough, Public Enemies

This interview first published on Feb 26 2008:

I can't begin to tell you what a great guy Bryan Burrough is! Truly one of the nicest authors I've had the pleasure of visiting with!

BB: First off, thanks so very much for the opportunity to chat with you and your many, many readers. You've got a fascinating site, full of good people and thoughtful observations. I'll do my best to answer your questions, plus any others that might come up. Karen, here's what I have so far. I'll try to finish later.

I really appreciate that he's offered to continue our dialogue  as time goes on! Bryan! You're the best!

 There are a ton of people out there who didn't grow up hearing parents and grandparents talk about living during the depression, bank failures, soup kitchens, etc. Can you speak a bit about why you think the times affected the way people literally embraced and cheered for Dillinger and some of the others?

It's so hard for people raised in recent years to understand what people went through during the Depression. The level of poverty, the level of hopelessness, there's just been nothing like it in America ever since. People thought it was the end of the world, and in a way it was. The world people had come to know, the America they had come to know, was simply gone. In its place was a world where all hope seemed lost, where there was simply no sense that the country would ever go back to what it had been before.

At times such as that, people look for hope wherever they can find it. In some small way, Dillinger and his criminal brethren gave hope to millions of Americans that there really was a way to fight back. People weren't just depressed, they were angry. Very, very angry. And the John Dillingers of the world seemed to be acting out the nation's anger. Dillinger never hurt most Americans. He hurt the banks. And that's what people wanted. They wanted a way to show the wealthy and the powerful how hurt they were, how lost, and Dillinger, who seemed like an exceedingly nice bank robber, became a symbol of fighting back.

The kidnapping and subsequent death of the Lindbergh baby caused a change in Federal law, can you tell us how that affected the new FBI and how it affected the gangs? Why did it make a difference for law men?

The Lindbergh Law, which gave the FBI responsibility for tracking down interstate kidnappers, gave the Bureau its first chance to engage with criminals the country actually cared about. Until its passage, the FBI had never really accomplished anything of note; most Americans had no idea it even existed. The Lindbergh Law made the FBI relevant. Engaging with armed kidnappers transformed the Bureau into a far more professional outfit than it had been, much to the consternation of criminal gangs. For years criminals like Machine Gun Kelly had only hick sheriffs to deal with. In 1933, for the first time, the Kellys of the world found themselves facing a federal police force with seemingly unlimited resources that could track them across state lines. For the first time, there was no real place for criminals to hide. That was the genius of the FBI.

You grew up in Texas learning of crime sprees of Bonnie and Clyde through your Grandfather. You have a friend who's great uncle was murdered by Clyde. This story is in your roots. How did your grandfather brought in to be involved with the Barrow gang? Did he live to read your book or know of your research?

BB:My grandfather, John Vernon Burrough, was drawn into the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde in a very peripheral way, as a deputy sheriff in rural Northwest Arkansas who manned roadblocks set up to apprehend the Barrow Gang at several points in 1933 and 1934. I can remember him telling me how frightened he and his buddies were at the time, wondering what they would actually do if that car coming over the rise had Clyde Barrow behind the wheel. Would they be brave enough to shoot? Would they be killed? The Barrows whisked through Northwest Arkansas on a regular basis. Much to his relief, my grandfather never came face to face with them. But they remained very real to him, even in later years. John and my grandmother Mildred knew two people Clyde killed in Arkansas. They knew their families well, and I can remember how both of them would grow silent sometimes when I brought up the subject for the umpteenth time. Clyde wasn't a symbol to them. He was a murderer, and a frightening one at that.

While we are speaking of Dallas' own thugs and original drive by miscreants, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, these were pretty low level hoodlums. Clyde was a murderer and Bonnie ended up with Clyde out of boredom. Do you think they would have been important enough to be a part of your book, had the 1967 movie not been made?

Thats a great question. Bonnie and Clyde certainly loom large in the American consciousness, almost solely because of that movie. Without it, they would be forgotten today. Still, theirs was a fascinating story, and I imagine it would have remained good enough to make it into the book, although, as you point out, they were very peripheral figures in the overall federal War on Crime. Hoover never thought they were important enough to seriously track.

In 2004 you did an interview for Booknotes with Brian Lamb, while talking about the 1967 film BONNIE AND CLYDE, Mr Lamb asked you "Why do movies change the facts? You replied " Because movie makers have stories that they want to tell. If you want to tell the facts, you make something called a documentary.
Mr. Lamb then asked; "So they don`t have a responsibility to the truth?" and you answered: "It`s great when you get -- if you get movie people in that discussion, they will inevitably come around to the explanation that they believe that their idea serves as the spirit of the truth. One of the great examples would be the movie -- an FBI movie, "Mississippi Burning," which showed the deaths of the three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi. The facts were not correct. But I remember listening to the director say that it serviced -- it was true to the spirit of the story. And I think that`s inevitably what you find."

My question is, how do you hope that Michael Mann and his movie makers stay "true to the spirit of the story'? What do you wish for people to say about your story? Did or do you have any script input?

I've read the script, and while I shouldn't say anything about it, I will say I like it. I didnt have any input, nor did I expect to. That's not the way these things work. Obviously, there's always going to be a different viewpoint between a nonfiction writer and a moviemaker. In my experience, what you hope in these situations is that a filmmaker sticks as close to the facts as possible. In this case, I think you will see a movie that not hews close to the spirit of the book but the historic facts. In fact, I think this may end up being the most factual of any Depression-era gangster movie ever made. Did I use the word `facts' enough for you?

Johnny Depp's been cast as Dillinger, what do you think he could or would bring to the role of John Dillinger?

The key to the real-life Dillinger, what made him a `special' criminal, was his likeability, his charm. Whatever you thought of what he did in life, and he did kill at least one man, there was no denying his charisma. Mr. Depp has that in spades.

What intrigued you about John Dillinger?

His accessibility. Unlike some of his peers, you could get a sense of who John Dillinger actually was. Part of this was the fact that Dillinger was the only major Depression-era criminal who was arrested, and allowed to give press interviews, during his crime spree. So unlike Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, one can not only view footage of the real Dillinger, but read his words. So not only did he have charisma, it was a charisma you could see and feel. If not for the interviews he gave at Crown Point, I'm not sure Dillinger would have been so well-liked by the public.

When researching Dillinger, who was the closest person to him that you were able to interview?

No one, really. I mean, this was seventy years ago. The one person who was present during much was this, who I did interview at length, was Melvin Purvis's secretary, Doris Rogers. She gave invaluable insights into the FBI agents, and to a lesser extent the criminals.

While reading PUBLIC ENEMIES, I got the feeling that not only was your book a comprehensive telling of that 20 month crime wave, but that you also had another purpose. Perhaps an homage to the FBI men that Katherine Kelly termed "G-men"? Why?

Well, first and foremost, you just want to tell an important story accurately. To the extent I had secondary aims, yes, I wanted to shine some light on the FBI agents, because by and large none of them had ever received any credit for what they did at the time. They were the real heroes here, not Dillinger. Sometimes that gets lost in the telling.

Recently in Vanity Fair you said you were still "feeling like a fifth grader at a Hannah Montana concert." How's that feeling holding on? :))

Oh, golly. You know, Karen, I've sold probaby two dozen books and Vanity Fair articles to Hollywood, and I've had exactly one made into a movie, 1994's ``Barbarians at the Gates,'' made for HBO. At this point, I'd just be thrilled to see a movie actually made. But to see it being made by Michael Mann, with people like Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, well, that's really just too much to ever hope for. I've been surprised by how emotionally involved I've gotten, how exciting it all is. For instance, I'm still floored that they're calling the movie ``Public Enemies.'' I had always assumed they would call it something else, and I guess they still could. Right now, though, it just feels like I'm kind of floating through this. I'm surrounded by dozens of friends and family members who are as well. I guess we're going to have a big party here in New Jersey when (and if) the movie comes out. That'll be fun.

The Kansas City massacre happened trying to free one man and he was killed as well as many others. What happened there and what did the FBI learn from this?

I think what happened there, and I didn't get into this in my book, was that at the moment the gunmen yelled for the lawmen to freeze, one of the lawmen's guns went off. The assasins panicked and opened fire. This was the theory in a great book you could pick up, ``The Union Station Massacre,'' by Robert Unger. I do think Verne Miller was accompanied by Pretty Boy Floyd that day, a contention I lay out in Public Enemies.

The first car I bought for myself in the late 1970s was a Chevy with a huge V8 engine. Ahh those were the days. That car moved. Many people today don't understand the power behind a V8. My dad grew up in rural area in the depression and used to use the term "good dirt roads" all of the time and I didn't understand what that meant until I actually saw and drove on a "good dirt road". How did the vast number of new good roads and fast cars aide or encourage the 20 month crime spree? What all was happening then to help their ease of movement?

As I say in the book, the crime wave of 1933-34 was really the result of technology outstripping the legal system. The bad guys had V-8 engines and Thompson submachineguns, while many lawmen were still toodling around in hand-cranked Model T's with ancient pistols. It took a while for the lawmen to catch up, and when they did, it was pretty much curtains for the bad guys.

Alvin Karpis. Probably the least known of the group, served the longest time in prison, ghost wrote two autobiographies and died in Spain in 1979. You approached the widow of his ghostwriter. You've said that because of that you were able to "uncover tons of new stuff"...what new stuff? What was the best bit in your opinion?

Yes, I managed to read more than a thousand pages of interviews Karpis gave around 1969. They brimmed with new insights into the gang's inner workings, including incidents where Karpis interfaced with the Chicago Mob and Baby Face Nelson. The new material didnt change the broad outlines of his story, but allowed me to tell it with much more nuance than before.

Little Bohemia. 1 FBI agent and 1 civilian killed. 0 criminals captured or killed. Good grief. Not great numbers. What went wrong with what should have been easy? Head 'em up... move 'em out.

Little Bohemia was the result of inexperience, haste and a woeful lack of planning. These poor FBI agents had no idea what they were walking into, and once they found themselves confronted by armed gunmen, they had no idea what to do. What resulted was a comedy of errors -- a comedy, that is, excepr for the fact that men were killed.

Melvin Purvis. Now there's a story. Good guy, young, eager. I got the idea that you liked him. What can you tell us about Purvis? Is history treating him fairly?

I loved Purvis as a character. An extraordinarily good man, earnest, hardworking, well-intentioned, but way, way, way out of his depth when pitted against John Dillinger. Purvis had never been trained for this. He was only 29, for pete's sake. His Achilles heel was his obvious love of publicity, which ultimately led to his departure from the FBI in 1935. History, at least the movies, has generally been kind to Purvis. In fact, I daresay Public Enemies is the first retelling of events to suggest that Purvis was so overmatched. What you have to say about Purvis is that he always gave his best, but in the end his best just wasnt good enough. It's sad that, having been hounded by Hoover for years after his retirement, he ultimately committed suicide. His family always blamed Hoover for that.

The Chicago mobs were pretty much ignored by Hoover, Purvis and the FBI. Why the immunity?

Well, the easy answer is that the FBI had no obvious jurisdiction for fighting the Chicago Mob. That was up to the Chicago police and, at times, the Treasury Department. The truth is that the FBI had a devil of a time tracking down Dillinger, a single bank robber. Hoover had to have known his men simply weren't ready to take on a whole mob.

Speaking of Chicago mobsters, why does most of the action seem to be in St. Paul and not Chicago?

Great question. St. Paul, it turns out, was the capital of Midwestern crime during the 1920s and 1930s, and for a simple reason. It was something called ``The O'Connor System,'' named after the St. Paul police chief who started in around 1908. Basically, the St. Paul cops made a deal with criminals: As long as they didn't commit crimes in St. Paul itself, they would be left alone. As a result, St. Paul became a safe haven for scores of bank robbers, including Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Alvin Karpis, the Barkers and Machine Gun Kelly. FBI files actually indicate it was a top St. Paul cop who initiated the Barker-Karpis gang's two major St. Paul kidnappings.

It's been 5 years since you wrote PUBLIC ENEMIES, if you were to write it today is there anything you would add, change, leave out?

Oh, golly. Well, the book is awfully dense, especially the early parts. I committed the sin of falling in love with the subject matter, which happens. In fact, the manuscript at one point was far longer. On my editor's urging, I cut it by a full 25 percent to make it move faster. I know it's not the easiest read in places, but all in all, I wouldn't change a thing. I've written four books and just finished a fifty, and this was by far my favorite. I wish I could write it again!

We are grateful to Bryan, who continued to be available to us for questions. We thank him!

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