Shot in the Back r i , ILLIN GER S KILLERS natu arrally do not wish it thought that his death was simply an execution. It must be remembered that the authorities firmly believed they were dealing with perhaps the most dangerous criminal of all time, so claims that he resisted arrest should be weighed against evidence from past performances. When trapped in the apartment of Mrs. Longnacre at Dayton, Ohio, Dillinger made no atempt to use his guns. When challenged by police in Tucson, Arizona, he was carrying a machine gun but surrendered without a struggle. When surprised by a Chicago police car while with O’Leary in the park, he would have submitted to arrest if confronted by guns. In other words, Dillinger showed no desire to die and surrendered peaceably on all occasions when he felt resistance to be futile. This makes it hard to believe that upon leaving the Biograph, finding himself outnumbered and surrounded on all sides, he would have attempted to use his pistol knowing it would mean certain death. However it came about, John Dillinger was shot down from behind, with no attempt worthy of the name made to capture him alive.” from Girardin’s narrative BOOKS & THE CULTURE Saint John of the Double Cross BY ROD DAVIS DILLINGER: THE UNTOLD STORY By G. Russell Girardin with William J. Helmer. 368 pp. Blomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press. $27.50. IKNEW THERE was something odd about longtime Observer contributor and Playboy senior editor Bill Helmer when he tried to get me to join the “John Dillinger Died For You Society.” It wasn’t that I bought Molly Ivins’ old characterization of Helmer as “loopy”which is like Clayton Williams calling Bill Clements “out of touch”but what is one to make of a Texas exile who has taken it upon himself to become the nation’s leading expert on a Chicago, Prohibition-era killer? I had further qualms. Helmer’s UT master’s thesis under the late Joe Frantz was on the Thompson submachine gun \(later published as The Gun That Made the and as a sculptor Helmer had created an entirely new oeuvre from melting and cutting guns into objets d’art. I’m using all this French as a way of getting to how some writers become intrigued, even obsessed with the commen’ tary the criminal makes on society. From way back, even before Genet was canonized and La Femme Nikita reshot with Brigid Fonda and Deconstruction invented during an all-night drunk, the French have been fascinated with rule-breakers. Not that Helmer is French; but, if one tries to understand Jerry Lewis and Derrida, one must try to understand a Dillinger nut. I think I finally do. A near-fluke, partly posthumous collaboration, Dillinger: The Untold Story, provides not only what it claimsunique, primary source history, but also a wryly subversive commentary on the eternal, infernal interplay between law and lawbreaker. Finally, I think that maybe Helmer isn’t so loopy; that Dillinger’s violent, nasty, brutish and short career in the 1930s is every bit as important to U.S. history as anything his white collar descendants, the S&L crowd, ever pulled off in the ’80s. I misstate that. There’s almost something to admire in Dillinger. At far less public expense. His two-year “reign of terror,” 1933-35, netted less than $300,000. The S&L guys who never got gunned down in cold blood in the presence of their girlfriendsas was Dillinger’s fatestole up to $500 billion. This is not to say. Dillinger was a saint, or even a Robin Hood \(though he did on at least one occasion destroy loan records in a bank a time, not completely out of sync with the mores of nascent capitalism and deepening Depression. As one of his many girlfriends remarked, “Johnnie’ s just an ordinary fellow. Of course he goes out and holds up banks and things, but he’s really just like any other fellow, aside from that.” Assiduous collector of Dillinger lore that he is, Helmer might have remained nothing more than a perverse fan except for a chance meeting in the summer of 1990 with G. Russell Girardin, a retired Chicago advertising executive. Once a confidante of Dillinger’s lawyer, Louis Piquett, Girardin had not only written a series of weekly accounts in 1936-37 for the Hearst newspapers on Dillinger’s exploits, but had put together his own Dillinger biography, based on contacts with Piquett and numerous others, including Dillinger himself. The 600page, onion-skin manuscript had lain on a shelf for more than 50 years because Girardin ran into a legal tangle with Hearst over publication rights. Helmer persuaded Girardin of the importance of the document”a Dead Sea scroll to Dillinger historians.” They began to work on it together. At Helmer’s insistence, the original manuscript was left unrevised, with updates in the form of lengthy footnotes and appendices. They further decided to break the biography into five segments, each introduced by a commentary by Helmer. The book thus reads like two: the punchy, terse style of ’30s journalese in the Girardin narrative, and Helmer’s analysis of the surprisingly profound impact of the Dillinger era on the U.S. legal system. In another twist of fate, Girardin, in ill health, died in September 1990, leaving the project to be completed by Helmer and his editors over the next several years. At first I thought the no-revision strategy a mistake. I wished for much more Helmer and much less Girardin, but in time I found the latter’s matter-of-fact assembly of detailsa quaint, violent soap operato be compelling. Because of lawyer Piquett’ s deep involvement in Dillinger’s workhe even helped smuggle in a wooden gun for the gang’s infamous jail break at Crown Point, IndianaGirardin’s glimpses are equivalent to a documentary made by a reasonably adept home video aficionado. Dillinger might’ve liked the metaphor. Not long before he died he wanted to make a movie entitled, “Crime Does Not Pay.” It didn’t, of Rod Davis is a former editor of The Texas Observer and now lives in Dallas. 18 JUNE 17, 1994
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