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Monday, October 8, 2012

Moehringer's novel cracks vault on robber Willie Sutton

J.R. Moehringer, author of the historical novel 'Sutton,' did a lot research on this Starbucks -- the site of a Mob shooting in 1957, when it was a barbershop. Dan Loh for USA TODAY

J.R. Moehringer, author of the historical novel 'Sutton,' did a lot research on this Starbucks -- the site of a Mob shooting in 1957, when it was a barbershop.

Dan Loh for USA TODAY

J.R. Moehringer, author of the historical novel 'Sutton,' did a lot research on this Starbucks -- the site of a Mob shooting in 1957, when it was a barbershop.

NEW YORK -- The bloodstains are long gone. No historic plaque marks the spot where gangster Albert Anastasia, the boss of Murder Inc., was gunned down in a barber's chair in 1957.

But author J.R. Moehringer knows what happened here, in what's now just another Starbucks at the corner of 55th Street and Seventh Avenue in midtown Manhattan. But once, as he pictures it, "blood was splattered everywhere, bones and hair mixed up on the floor."

VIDEO: Author J.R. Moehringer talks 'Sutton'

Now, he says, "people are ordering their lattes, (annoyed) if they don't get their skim milk."

Moehringer learned about Anastasia's execution doing research for his historical novel, Sutton (Hyperion, $27.99, on sale Tuesday), about the legendary bank robber Willie Sutton.

In real life, Sutton, who died at 79 in 1980, was "one of handful of men to make the leap from public enemy to folk hero," Moehringer says, and "perhaps the most literate criminal in American history." (His FBI file noted that he "read classics.")

Sutton's connection to the 1957 shooting is complicated. And to Moehringer's surprise, the shooting also involves Moehringer's own mother. But first, a little background:

Moehringer, 47, is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Los Angeles Times and author of the best-selling 2005 memoir The Tender Bar, about growing up without a father but with a barroom full of father figures. Among the book's admirers was tennis star Andre Agassi, who got Moehringer to co-write his best-selling 2009 memoir, Open.

In 2008, at the height of the financial meltdown, Moehringer was seeking a subject for his next book. He got interested in banks as "the architects of the apocalypse" and says his anger at "unrepentant bankers" got him thinking about bank robbers.

That got him thinking about Sutton, an eighth-grade dropout who read Tennyson and Dante and stole an estimated $2 million from banks from the late 1920s to the early '50s. He escaped from three prisons, including New York's infamous Sing Sing, yet still spent nearly half his life in jail, which Moehringer says "gave him a lot of time to read."

Sutton, who was pardoned by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller on Christmas Eve 1969,

contended that he never carried a loaded gun. He was famous for saying, "No one gets hurt," and in retirement, he appeared in TV ads for a Connecticut bank, endorsing its credit cards. ("Now, when I say I'm Willie Sutton, people believe me!") He also wrote two memoirs, which, Moehringer notes, contradict each other.

One was titled Where the Money Was, which comes from Sutton's legendary quip. ("Why do you rob banks?" he was asked. "Because that's where the money is.") Sutton later said a reporter made up the quote, but as Moehringer says, "With Willie, you never know."

After a month of research, Moehringer realized the truth about Sutton's life was too elusive for a biography: "He was a trickster. Whatever he did, you'd end up with five versions of the truth to chose from."

So his book became a novel. Moehringer calls it "a deeply fictional work, set in a ruthlessly factual construct." He says he even hired a fact checker to help get the details right.

Nearly all of the novel's characters, including the rich Bess Endner, the love of Sutton's life and his first accomplice, are real people. But except in the case of court transcripts and other records, Moehringer invented their conversations. He says, "I blew air into the flames."

He also learned that it wasn't true that no one got hurt, as Sutton liked to say.

In 1952, five years after escaping from a Philadelphia prison, Sutton was spotted on a New York City subway by Arnie Schuster, a 24-year-old clothing salesman. He told police, who captured Sutton.

Three weeks later, Schuster was shot to death outside the Brooklyn home he shared with his parents. By all accounts, Moehringer says, "Arnie was a sweet, innocent kid."

Sutton was never directly implicated in Schuster's shooting, which Moehringer says remains one of "New York's biggest cold cases."

Later, Mob informant Joe Valachi said that Antastasia, who hated "squealers," ordered Schuster's killing. But that violated Mafia protocol against needlessly killing "civilians." And that, in turn, led to the Mob hit on Anastasia at the barbershop that's now a Starbucks.

A year into his work on the novel, Moehringer says he mentioned some of his research to his mother, Dorothy Moehringer, who, it turns out, knew all about Anastasia's murder.

"I was there," she told her surprised son.

Not exactly, but nearby. Seven years before Moehringer was born, Dorothy was a 19-year-old secretary at the offices of Columbia Records, around the corner from the barbershop.

One of her co-workers was in the barbershop when two gunmen entered. He escaped unharmed and ran back to work. Moehringer says his mother still vividly recalls "the terror in his eyes."

Moehringer's mother had never told him the story before.

"You think you choose the subjects of your books," he says. "But sometimes, in ways you don't know, the books choose you."

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