Friday, March 08, 2013

Where the Money Was - Willie Sutton

Where the Money Was

By Willie Sutton with Ed Linn

Book Review

By Richard E. Noble

This is a fascinating tale. But even before I get into the story of Willie, I must pay tribute to Ed Linn. The influences of a professional writer are all over this book – and I say that in a positive way. The story line, the editing, the sentence structure, the characterization, the plot development, the embodiment of the image, the conscious manipulation of the reader – obviously undetected by the other reviewers who all feel as though they were sitting in Willie’s lap all through the book. A great job that I must credit Mr. Linn for, even understanding Willie’s potential for genius. This is Willie’s only book. If Willie had gone on to write several other books, I may not have been so bold as to credit Mr. Linn so lavishly. But this book is too good to have been written by a one time writer who has expressed nowhere to have had an interest in writing.

Ed Linn gets no credits in this book other than the three words … with Ed Linn printed on the cover. Mr. Linn assisted other greats like Leo Durocher and Bill Veeck in the same type “autobiography.” He has also written a biography of one of my favorite sports greats, Ted Williams, The Hitter. Ed was also a very successful sports writer and journalist. So giving Ed Linn his due, I will move along to Willie Sutton.

Despite the heroic nature of the book Willie Sutton was an admitted professional criminal. He loved robbing banks. “Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I’d be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that’s all.”

Willie admitted that he was never responsible for the famous quote that is the title of this book. His supposed answer to the question of why he robbed banks … because it was Where the Money Was. He credits that infamous quote to some unknown creative journalist.

Willie spent the majority of his life breaking into or out of someplace. He was a thief. He is credited with being the greatest bank robber in American history – but yet he spent over half his life in prison. He spent all of World War II trying to tunnel his way out of one prison. Willie may have won each individual battle but he certainly lost the war.

There is something psychologically strange in the accolade that Willie was the greatest bank robber ever. I would suggest that the greatest bank robbers in all of American History are more prominent characters who never set a foot inside a prison. J.P. Morgan, for example, or John D. Rockefeller Jr. or a long list of many of the prominent heads of our present collapsed banking system who are still knocking down millions in bonuses and paychecks. Willie’s whole career only grossed him 2 million. That is peanuts in today’s world of professional white collar bank robbers. I suppose that I could qualify that boast by saying that Willie Sutton was the greatest, modern day, blue collar bank robber in American history.

Willie expresses much this same attitude regarding the reciprocal justice of his craft. He said that he felt no guilt in robbing banks because banks robbed people all the time. This is true but in our present “no fault” banking system if Willie were robbing banks today, he would still be robbing us and not “them.” But back in the good old days he was probably getting more from “them” than from us. So we will bow to that old time wisdom.

Willie’s story is like a reverse Buddha. The Buddha left his castle and saw poverty and suffering and felt the need to lie down in the middle of it and feel the pain. Willie was born into poverty and the hard times of the twenties and thirties and saw wealth and good fortune and wanted to relax in the middle of it all and feel the joy.

It didn’t seem to work out all that well for the Buddha or for Willie. Both of these heroes traveled a bitter road of self abuse in the name of enlightenment.

There was something flagrantly lacking in Willie’s criminal nature. He really didn’t get away with anything. He robbed and paid for it. Willie didn’t want to be rich and famous it seems to me. He wanted to be infamous and notable. And so he was.

He was a tough little cookie who had the desire to show those who controlled things that he understood their game and was capable of sticking it all in their face. Whether he was successful or not, is difficult to determine.

Willie paid for his stance and his crimes but he won the respect of the bad guys and the good guys alike. Willie took the road less traveled, there is no doubt. And in a strange backasswards way he won the respect and admiration of the public audience. This book does a great job in painting that picture. He is made out to be a Robin Hood. But, as he says, he stole from the rich and kept it. Well, not exactly … he stole from the rich and spent it.

There is a lot to learn from reading this book. We learn about crime, prisons, criminals, murderers, petty crooks, cops – crooked and dedicated, and the system. But we learn even more about the human condition. Willie was a thinker and much of his angst comes through to the reader in the pages of this book.

The book has a happy ending. Willie makes his final break and busts out of Attica via hard earned legal expertise gained from reading law books while in prison, coupled with his hard earned street smarts and with a lot of help from his friends and admirers. One can also not discount Willie’s luck and as he boasts on the final page – his craft in devising a plan. Willie lives happily ever after – for eleven years anyway. He finds work helping banks with their security and touting for a credit card company. He also becomes an advocate for prison reform.

I don’t know if this book is still in print, but it is worth the hunt to find a copy. I feel like I know Willie and he is a confused but treasured buddy from my past.

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