"Life is a play and we all play a part:
The lover, the dreamer, the clown..."
-- Laugh, Clown, Laugh
Leprechauns, it is said, are a dichotomy. Charming imps; they are jokesters of
tremendous levity; they are elusive; if nabbed by a mortal they yield to him or her their
private pot of gold. But, folklore warns, dont ever -- ever! -- get on ones
cross side, for an opened Pandoras Box awaits you if you do.
This Jekyll/Hyde nature might well describe one of Irelands own lusty sons, born
near Chicago, but bearing, nevertheless, all the impulsiveness of a leprechaun. Behind his
Celtic blue eyes, his ruddily scrubbed-clean cheeks, his who-gives-a-damn grin and a rich
Irish tenor singing voice, a killer lurked.
Those who first met Dion OBanion in his flower shop or on the streets of his Near
North Side stomping grounds found an amiable, good-natured young gentleman who would doff
his hat to ladies and slap men on the back with a cheery, "Nice to meet ya,
swell fellow!" (He habitually called strangers "swell fellows".) He would
give to the poor without pause, he attended church on Sundays, abhorred prostitution and
never hesitated to roll up his shirtsleeves to help where help was needed among his
neighborhood. He never drank, even though he peddled the best beer in town.
But, like the fabled leprechaun, a savage within him would manifest when tickled.
In his interesting review of the 1920s, Only Yesterday, historian Frederick
Lewis Allen summarizes OBanion: "...a bootlegger and gangster by night, a
florist by day; a strange and complex character, a connoisseur of orchids and of
Chicagos Chief of Police in the 1920s, Morgan A. Collins, attributes at least 25
gangland-related murders to Dion OBanion (although he never formally listed them.)
His figure is probably not overstretched. Having learned at an early age that violence
works best to get what you want, OBanion controlled the richest and most politically
smart powerhouse wards in the city, and he managed to hold onto them despite the envy and
lust of two men who usually got everything they went after, Johnny Torrio and Al Capone.
Even in leisure, OBanion wore three guns -- .32 calibers -- on his person. He had
his suits especially made with three hideaway pockets to conceal his armament. If he and
"the lads," his crew, went out nights in their tuxedos (he believed in fashion
and in presenting a prosperous image), all chambers were fully loaded.
There is a theory sustained by some that, since he started out life as an altar boy
without an apparent evil side, his "bad side" came out roaring after a youthful
accident left him limping and embittered. But, if there was disdain there, he never showed
it. He kidded constantly, loved a practical joke, and kept the city in stitches by his
playful antics. To newspapermen, he was the ultimate in colorful press. Once, when
questioned by a reporter about his gangs dubious activities, OBanion insisted
in his ever-rhythmic Irish verse that, "Were just a couple of businessmen
without the high hats."
According to William Schofield, his legitimate partner in the floristry, OBanion
never exhibited a tinge of ill humor with his customers nor in any of the business
dealings. He sang while he worked, teased and wore a smile around the clock. Viola, his
wife, said his favorite evening past-times were reading classic novels and playing the
Victrola; he never angered; he was the epitome of the devoted husband.
While these and many other testimonies differ far-range from his image as a gangster,
and while they obviously defy policeman Collins statement that he was a killer, all
their views -- good and bad -- are probably unbiased and accurate. By all evidence, Dion
OBanion was a man of many faces, at least two overarching personalities: the saint
and the sinner.
He was the model by which Warner Brothers so-many-times afterward
used to create their cinema gangsters, the screaming reality of a
James Cagney portrayal.
A leprechaun with a pot and heart of gold -- and with a machine gun.