John Dillinger and I go way back.
When looking for a job in 1970, I was a lot like Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie. A curious gal from a small Midwestern town, I trudged up and down Chicago's Michigan Avenue carrying my newspaper clippings from office to office. I was dressed for success in my smart blue coat, stockings, sensible pumps, and gloves. The only thing I was missing was a pill-box hat. Mostly I think the editors who interviewed me only looked at my legs.
My last appointment that day was at The Chicago Literary Times.
Up the elevator, down the hall, into a small, messy office. Before I could say anything, a man wearing a pin-striped shirt and suspenders swiveled his chair around, jammed his elbows on his desk, and looked me square in the eye. "Hi," he said, in a Jimmy Cagney voice, and paused dramatically—"I'm Jay Robert Nash." He wore his hair 20s style, oiled and parted down the middle; he had a little mustache. I'd never seen anything like him before in real life. I introduced myself, straining for a confident assertive tone. Didn't matter. This interview wasn't about me.
Mr. Nash swiveled his chair back around and pointed behind him to a book cover tacked to a bulletin board. "Know who that is?" he snarled. The yellow and red book cover screamed, "John Dillinger, Dead or Alive?" I was about to guess right, when Nash proudly barked: "John Herbert Dillinger!"
"They all think he's dead and he's not! And I proved it," said Mr. Nash in his gangstery way. "They shot some other podunk out by the Biograph and fobbed off the fool as him. Special Agent Melvin Purvis hadda prove himself to Hoover, 'cause the FBI's Enemy Number One was givin' 'em da ditch. Sucker broke outta a two-bit hooskow in Clown Point, Indiana and the heat was on."
"Too bad you didn't come in last week," he said, "I had a receptionist, but she got herself knocked up and I already replaced her."
"Thank you very much," I said. "Here are my clippings and resumé if you need any writers." Out the door, down the elevator. I walked back onto Michigan Avenue thinking that Nash kind of resembled the Dillinger photo on his bulletin board. I was truly in Chicago now.
CUT TO: 42 years later. These days, to me, Mr. Nash and Mr. Dillinger both kind of look like Sen.Ted Cruz. Now one of them has more than 23 books for sale on Amazon; one of them is gone but not forgotten; and some people consider the other one a new Public Enemy Number One.
I was reminded of Mr. Nash when I recently visited one of our area's most arresting concessions, the Sheriff's House and Jail in Crown Point, Indiana, from which John Dillinger escaped in 1934.
We got a tour of the House and Jail along with Jake Oakman of the Indiana Tourism Department. It's an architecturally important second Empire building which incorporates popular 1890s features like the Mansard roof. The rusty jail cells in the rear, in contrast, reveal peeling paint and red-brick walls exposed by cracked and falling plaster. It's kind of creepy back there. Even when it was up to date, it must have been an awful place to be.
After the tour, some of the foundation's board members stopped by and they tossed around some ideas for making the Old Sheriff's House and Jail more of a tourist destination. A law enforcement museum? More rehabilitation? A snazzier gift shop? A beer and pizza joint?
I came to realize that, even though there's a museum about him outside of town, in Crown Point any attraction focusing on John Dillinger is curiously controversial. We all seem to know the name, along with Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, Pretty Boy Floyd. Johnny Depp even played Dillinger in a movie shot in Crown Point a few years back. Doesn't it make sense for people to exploit the place where he was incarcerated and from which he daringly escaped? Especially since it's such a nostalgic trip back into the time when many of our parents and grandparents lived?
Checking around, I realized that controversy surrounds much more than John Dillinger's death. Murder charges against him are disputed. Claims that he was the "Gentleman Gangster" are challenged. A lot of people disagree about how he escaped from the Crown Point jail.
Parents and grandparents remember those dark days and knew people who were hurt or killed in the area's many bank robberies. They don't want these Depression-era "rock stars" celebrated in any way.
But there's still that great old jail and sheriff's house where Johnny Depp played John Dillinger in the 2009 movie, "Public Enemies." I have one idea how get more people to visit that fabulous old building. Stay tuned.