To scenes of speakeasies, girls in cloche hats wearing pearls and bootlegging and the staccato sounds of rat-a-tat-tat, Renee Rosen takes us into Jazz Age Chicago and the 85th anniversary of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in her latest book "Dollface: A Novel of the Roaring Twenties" (New American Library $15).
But unlike most stories of this era, Rosen doesn’t dwell on the men who ran the warring factions but on their gun molls—the gangland sweeties who up until now usually stayed in the shadows, as she tells the story of Vera Abramowitz, an 18-year-old who recently left home to work in Chicago. Determined not to lead the desperately gritty life of her mother, Vera is first hired as a “typewriter,” the name given to women who spend their days typing. But an evening modeling job where she gets dolled up, dressing in elegant gowns to showcase jewelry, is the first step to the glamorous wealthy life she so desires.
She snags two wealthy suitors but both are mobsters and what’s worse for her, they belong to rival mobs—Bugs Moran’s North Side Irish and the South Side Italian gang run by Al Capone.
“It was the time of the Chicago Beer Wars,” said Rosen, a Chicago resident who spent 10 years immersing herself in both the big and small events of the era including such minutiae as how much a gallon of gas cost and price of a loaf of bread.
Named one of the “best historical novels of 2013” by the Historical Novel Society, Rosen’s descriptive fast paced novel hurls us towards the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre where the rivalry between the two mob factions ends in a blood bath in an unheated brick garage at 2122 N. Clark Street. Though Moran wasn’t among the seven murdered in a barrage of more than 90 bullets (Capone wasn’t at the scene either, he was conveniently vacationing in Florida), with the loss of his gang, he no longer could vie with Capone for control of Chicago.
“Only Capone kills like that,” said one gangland observer at the time.
Despite the ultra-violence of the time, Rosen also emphasizes what made Chicago and the Roaring ‘20s who met with Capone’s grandniece as part of her research.
“The 20s were such a magical time,” she said. “It was very violent too, but it was also a great time for women. I think of it as the first sexual revolution in that women could finally vote, they could smoke, drink, go out on their own, have jobs and weren’t confined by long skirts as they were in previous generations.”
As for gun molls, we only see them peripherally in the literature and movies of that time. Who knows the name of the actress James Cagney smashed in the face with a grapefruit in The Public Enemy (May Clarke) or the seductive mobster’s sister in the original Scarface (Ann Dvorak)? The one we most likely are to remember is Myrna Loy in Manhattan Melodrama as she goes from gun moll of Blackie, a gangster played by Clark Gable to the wife of the upright William Powell who went on to become governor in the film.
"It’s good to be able to tell their story,” said Rosen.
For more about Dollface, visit reneerosen.com