Review by: KEN KORCZAK
Think of some of the most incredible achievements of human ingenuity – the construction of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the digging of the Panama Canal, landing a man on the moon …
… well, after reading AL CAPONE AND THE 1933 WORLD’S FAIR I’m tempted to put what the city of Chicago pulled off in the depths of the Great Depression right up there with some of the most stunning accomplishments in human history.
At the very least, I had no idea about what an extraordinary undertaking Chicago’s Century Of Progress was, how enormous were the odds against its success, and how this event should today be viewed as a pivotal achievement that shaped the future of our country.
Not only did Chicago find a way to fund a multi-million (billions in today’s dollars) fantasy project when the American economy was gutted and on its knees, it did so while de-fanging the most organized, entrenched and deadly crime syndicates America had ever known – the murderous empire of Al Capone.
The confluence of ridding Chicago of Capone with the creation of the 1933 World’s Fair makes for a narrative so rich, intriguing and full of plot twists and turns, this work of historical fact is as much fun to read as an work of audacious creative fiction.
All that’s needed to create an absorbing, fascinating book to tell the story is one of America’s hardest working writers, and preferably a Chicago-based author with excellent gut feel for the soul of the Windy City — enter WILLIAM HAZELGROVE.
I’ve read six or seven of this author’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, and I’ll say this is his best work to date.
In Al Capone and the 1933 World’s Fair, Hazelgrove finds a rhythm on the first page and proceeds to weave together a gigantic amount of information – including the biographical stories of the real people who lived these events – into an enthralling narrative that makes for a mesmerizing whole. Its historical fact transformed into compelling entertainment.
While giving us the overall scoop, Hazelgrove deftly highlights key characters of the era, from the people integral to building the World’s Fair from the ground up, to those individuals who found their lives pivoting around Chicago’s mind-blowing party of the century.
Among the most fascinating was Sally Rand, the small-town Missouri girl who found early fame in Hollywood silent films, only to be washed out of Tinsel Town at the advent of the “talkies.” Rand’s lisp abruptly jettisoned her career as a film star. She retained her most potent weapon, however – great physical beauty and an uncanny aura of sensual sexuality that made leering at her lithe body an irresistible draw for a nation of sexually repressed men.
Rand would ride her famous feather dance to future fame and fortune. It was her semi-legal, glorified peep-show at the 1933 World’s Fair that made it possible. It’s pure Americana: Even a washed-up starlet’s tawdry burlesque shtick illustrates a central element of the American Dream — absolutely anyone can rise from rags to riches to become “somebody,” and a self-made success.
With a certain matter-of-fact, blunt irony, Hazelgrove points out – that’s what Al Capone did too!
Finally, Hazelgrove’s take on the Chicago World’s Fair provides us with an overarching sense of sociological context and a greater appreciation for the lasting implications the Century of Progress delivered for American society – but he does so without lecturing his readers, or resorting to preachy opinionating about what (or should) make America the great social experiment it is.
Yes, certainly, I have some quibbles with this book, but these pertain to a bit of dicey editing here and there and some problems with fact checking (what year did Sally Rand die?) – however, these are minor factors that don’t meaningfully detract from what is an overall fine and fascinating read that I can strongly recommend.
NOTE: Here are some of my other reviews of William Hazelgrove books:
Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS
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