You simply cannot tear your eyes away from the pages embellishing the life of William, Willie, “The Actor” Sutton, one of America’s most nortorious bank robbers. J.R. Moehringer has gifted us with a fine, fine, fine piece of storytelling.
Sutton is J.R. Moehringer’s vision (or “wish” for him as he states in the Forward) of the life and times of Willie Sutton as we follow him on the “nickel tour” of his life.
Nothing has panned out for me. As a kid I thought I would grow up to be happy. And good – I thought I’d be a good person, Bess. But I’m as bad as they come. The judge said. No no no. You’re a good man who’s done bad things.”
On Christmas Eve 1969, Sutton was released from Attica after serving approximately 17 years. He was in poor health and by this time had spent many, many years in various prisons (and escaping from them as well). He did time, first in Sing Sing, then Dannemora, Eastern State in Pennyslvania (the first US penitentiary) and Attica, to name a few. The story is told from Moehringer’s perspective of what he thought occurred upon his release and from what transpired after Sutton’s lawyer agreed for him to spend Christmas Day with one reporter and one photographer to take them on a tour of his most famous crime scenes. The story that gloriously unfolds is, as I mention above, a pure gift of storytelling. A work of literary beauty. Seriously.
It’s Christmas Day, 1969: Much to the reporter’s dismay, Sutton takes them on a tour that begins all the way back at the location of his childhood home. Sutton was the fourth of five children, and the youngest boy. He was subjected to intense brutality at the hands of his older brothers and his main hang around, true to him always gang was two other boys from “Irishtown” in Brooklyn. (No one gave much thought or credence to those Irishtown boys. They were all good-for-nothings)
And, so begins a time when you will find yourself completely and whole-heartedly immersed in this wonderfully spun tale of Sutton’s life. You need to make sure you set aside a large part of your day because you will not want to put this book down. Chapter after chapter of fantastic story telling. From Sutton’s survival of sibling brutality, to his one and only, Bess, whom he forever spends the remainder of his life thinking of, to the first of his robberies, to his escapes, all the way until the final days of his life. In between the pages of Sutton you will read of an intense infatuation and love for his girl, Bess, to times when he suffers some of the worst police brutality, the kind of which no person would ever survive, to 18 months spent in isolation during one jail term…. On and on as this wonderful, wonderful gift is unwrapped by you.
During one stint in Eastern State, Willie holds a job typing up notes from the prison psychiatrist (now wouldn’t that be an interesting job?) and the “Shrink” sums up much of Sutton’s life and story quite nicely:
“So then. The alienation from the mother and father, the sibling abuse, the grim poverty of your early years, the simultaneity of your life span with a series of the most violent economic convulsions in history, it all created an uncommonly dangerous and potent witches’ brew. By the time you came of age you were very likely to go down the wrong path, to have a great deal of trouble controlling your impulses, but my God, Willie, add to all that the convergence of your first crime with overpowering first love – that sealed it. We don’t know if criminal natures are born or made, but you were certainly shaped by some extent, to a large extent, by external events, and by an environment that rendered criminality all but inevitable. Now what makes you different, what makes you more dangerous than other men in this institution is your first-rate intelligence….cunning. All of which makes you highly appealing, seductive, charismatic, to accomplices, to casual observers, to newspapers, even to some of your victims…..But no one will evewr pay more dearly than you Willie, you, because you still don’t think yourself a criminal. You see yourself, or portray yourself which amounts to the same thing, as an honest person who happens to have committed crimes.”
I eagerly encourage you to grab a copy of Sutton today. Spend your weekend immersed in Willie “the Actor” “Slick Willie” Sutton’s tale. You will most certainly and most definitely not be disappointed. Wrap it up and put it under your favourite bookworm’s tree this Christmas. It will surely become their very favourite gift.
After a frustrating trip for the reporter and the photographer (but a fabulous trip for us) the reporter concludes that Willie has led three separate lives: The one he remembered, the one he told people about, the one that really happened. Where those lives overlapped, no one can say, and God help anyone who tries. More than likely, Sutton himself didn’t know.
What else is cooking in the works Mr. Moehringer because I need more from you!