By early 1956, Eliot Ness looked haggard and careworn, hardly like a man who would soon become a national icon. Ness was an executive at a low-rent printing business, hitting the road and meeting clients with the firm’s top salesman, Joe Phelps, whose big personality tended to push Ness into the background. Except when Ness opened up about his incredible days as a young government crime fighter going after mobsters during the 20s and 30s.
Phelps, a likable Irish backslapper, would coax Ness to share those tales. Like the night at the Waldorf Astoria, in New York City, when they crossed paths with sportswriter Oscar Fraley, a former high-school classmate of Phelps’s.
“You’ll have to get Eliot to tell you about his experience as a Prohibition agent in Chicago,” Phelps said, introducing the two. “He’s the guy who dried up Al Capone. Maybe you never heard of him, but it’s real gangbuster stuff. Killings, raids, and the works.”
The heady setting added to the moment: the Waldorf bar, dappled with light from the overhead chandelier; the knowledge that a few months earlier, Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III held their engagement party on the premises. As the rounds of drinks multiplied, so did the stories.
Fraley, who referred to himself as Fearless Fraley in his syndicated sports column for United Press, had never heard of Ness, then age 53 and a decade his senior. And America, by 1956, had all but forgotten him. But Ness’s name and image had once saturated the Chicago media and claimed their share of national attention alongside his nemesis Capone, the country’s most powerful Mob boss. The “gangbuster stuff,” with which he regaled Fraley and Phelps, went back 30 years, when family connections had helped land him a role as a federal agent. Prohibition—the government’s crackdown on the distribution and sale of alcohol in the Roaring 20s—meant new avenues of power and wealth for organized-crime syndicates.
Capone had such a stranglehold on bootlegging in the Midwest, and his tactics got so ruthless (he’d ordered the gruesome St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, wiping out a gathering of rivals), that he became Chicago’s original public enemy number one. And Ness—young, clean-cut, University of Chicago–educated—headed up a squad charged with weakening Capone’s resources. They fitted a five-ton truck with a streetcar rail as a bumper and used it to smash through brewery walls. Ness would put on a leather helmet, carry a sawed-off shotgun, and give the orders to move in.
Capone had tried to persuade Ness and his team to back off by offering eye-popping bribes. But when Ness and most of his men refused, they earned the nickname “Untouchables”—a label that proved catnip to the press. (In 1931, Ness and company finally got Capone locked up for tax evasion. He served seven and a half years and died of a heart attack in Palm Island, Florida, in 1947.) The Untouchables became overnight heroes. Ness even served as a model for Dick Tracy, the 1930s comic-strip detective. But soon the Depression deepened, and the G-man’s fame crumbled, sure as newsprint.
That night at the Waldorf turned the tide. Ness had long toyed with the idea of teasing out a memoir. Fraley, rarely at a loss for words, sat speechless as he listened to the saga. Phelps chimed in: “Why don’t you let Fraley write that book for you?”
Ness and Fraley’s true-crime memoir, titled The Untouchables, a jaunty potboiler, was published the following year. It was optioned by Desilu Productions, the company of Hollywood power couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. In 1959, CBS aired a two-part Untouchables special, starring iron-jawed Robert Stack as Ness, and it made such a ratings splash that it was repackaged for movie theaters as The Scarface Mob. (Capone’s face was crisscrossed with slashes from a speakeasy brawl.) Stack, who found his signature role (and an Emmy) in Ness, explained how he saw the character: “He doesn’t wear special clothes, or carry a fancy gun, or limp . . . He’s just a guy facing death without heroics.”
Later that year, ABC launched The Untouchables as a series (for a time it was the second-most-popular program on television, after Gunsmoke), and for four seasons Stack, as Ness, went after a rogues’ gallery of gangsters. In the process, Ness’s reputation was revitalized. His role in nabbing criminals was aggrandized. And his persona—in those few precious years between the Communist Red Scares and John F. Kennedy’s assassination—came to represent doggedness, the rule of law, and incorruptibility (the very antidote to Capone, who served as a stand-in for the Soviet menace).
Meanwhile, the paperback version of the Ness-Fraley book sold more than a million copies and shocked even its publisher, Kitty Messner, who had recently released another unforeseen sensation, the scandalous Peyton Place, a novel about small-town sex and duplicity that spawned a movie and a television series. (In 1987, The Untouchables was adapted into a stylish, propulsive movie directed by Brian De Palma, earning four Oscar nominations and re-introducing Ness, portrayed by Kevin Costner, to yet another generation. Robert De Niro played a sinister Capone. “I don’t see this as history,” the film’s producer, Art Linson, says today. Instead, The Untouchables, in his view, was “like an opera trying to let you have a sense of feeling. The horror of gangsters. And the romance of gangsters. The love-hate relationship . . . The affection was for the mythology.” The film’s success would also lead to a well-regarded 1993 TV revival, developed by Christopher Crowe, who, the year before, had written the screenplay for The Last of the Mohicans.)
And yet, for all the exhilaration that audiences have mined from The Untouchables over the past 60 years, the backstory to the original best-seller is virtually unknown, a tale of last-ditch dreams and desperate re-invention. It is a drama about Ness and Fraley’s tense collaboration and the unraveling of their unlikely bond, which would ultimately help destroy Eliot Ness.
After Prohibition wound down and Capone was put away, Ness was only 30. His promising career path wobbled. He thrived as Cleveland’s public-safety director, then stumbled through a failed run to be the city’s mayor. In between, he took a wartime job in Washington, D.C., overseeing reforms to halt venereal disease in the military. Philip Porter, an editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer during Ness’s time there, would reflect on what seemed to many his strange slide into obscurity: “Ness was like Alexander the Great. He ran out of worlds to conquer too early in life.”
After two failed marriages to raven-haired beauties, he tied the knot with a third, Betty Seaver, with whom he adopted a son, Bobby. Relocating to tiny Coudersport, Pennsylvania, Ness got in on the ground floor of a pocket-size start-up called North Ridge Industrial, which was touting its new technique for printing watermarks on checks and stationery to prevent fraud and forgery.
“He always had a smile for me,” says country music performer Natalie Phelps, whose father had introduced Ness to co-writer Fraley. “But I remember him as super-down. He was not a joyful person . . . He was at a real low point in his life.”
From time to time, Ness, after a few Cutty Sarks, would slip into his old Capone tales at Coudersport’s Old Hickory, a tavern in the basement of a picturesque inn. But most of the locals didn’t buy it. Fred Anderson, a school principal back then, later remembered wondering, “If this guy did all these things, why is he driving this old car?”—a beat-up 1952 Ford convertible with torn upholstery. The multiple marriages and frequent career changes had left Ness barely scraping by.
All the while, however, Ness kept what he called “the Box” right there by his desk at the printing firm: a cardboard file overflowing with scrapbooks of news clippings, shorthand notes from wiretaps, investigative reports, and fan mail. From his office window, he would look out at his snow-globe town and ponder how to give new life to his old stories.
Ockie Fraley said that writing, for him, was “sort of like taking dope.” His six-day-a-week “Oscar’s Corner” sports column was a perpetual fix. And he supplemented it by writing sport-instruction books. When he died, in Florida in 1994, obituaries noted that Fraley had received his journalism degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Fraley, however, didn’t go to college. Which brings up something worth knowing about him: Ockie Fraley was a liar.
His actual start in journalism—after his mother died in a sanitarium and his father abandoned him—came delivering newspapers. And it’s nearly impossible to authenticate Fraley’s countless colorful stories from his days as a beat reporter. Did he really place out-of-order signs on every telephone booth in a hotel lobby, the better to call in a scoop before his rivals? Did he really use ersatz Swedish (“Gut dag I ban iz vadder”) to land an interview with heavyweight contender Ingemar Johansson in his dressing room? What we do know is that Fraley married Mary Eastlack, his high-school sweetheart. But he began philandering and it soon escalated. After he left Mary and their two girls, she became despondent. One night in 1944, she joined some girlfriends on a joyride, which turned into a drag race. Their vehicle crashed into a restaurant, killing Mary, then 28.
Fraley then married Mary Ann Sekerak, who soon discovered that Fraley was cheating on her. When she became pregnant, he insisted she have an abortion. She’d had enough. Mary Ann, age 41, went to her family’s home in Cleveland and hanged herself.
In 1950, Fraley moved in with his new wife, Dot, in Huntington, Long Island—along with two daughters from his first marriage. While the personnel had changed, Fraley’s lifestyle didn’t. One day, says his youngest daughter, Trish Tothill, “I went to [his United Press] office and I asked for Ockie, and the guy looked me up and down, like you undress somebody. And he laughed, and he said, ‘I know what you want Ockie for.’ I said, ‘He’s my father’ . . . The guy’s mouth just dropped open.”
Ness decided to join forces with Fraley. In early 1956, without a book contract or publisher, they started banging out a manuscript. In no time, they settled into a rhythm. Fraley would drive in from Long Island to sleepy Coudersport, taking a room on the third floor of the boxy red-brick Hotel Crittenden. The pair would get their breakfast at a diner called Mackey’s, where local businessmen gathered each morning.
As they got to know each other, Fraley was charmed by Ness, who proved to be the straight arrow that his stories made him out to be. Ness, in turn, was impressed by how briskly Fraley was pulling stories out of him—and organizing them. The odd couple walked the streets of conservative Coudersport: broad-shouldered Ness in a tailored suit, his gait causing him to rock side to side; wiry Fraley in a slightly frayed sport jacket. They would repair to the hotel bar or to Fraley’s room to huddle and brainstorm. (Ness had a habit of compulsively chewing his fingernails and, on occasion, would relieve the tension by practicing jujitsu moves, a skill set he’d acquired during his U. of Chicago days.) For research, Ness would sift through old papers while sitting on his living room floor, listening to Eddy Duchin albums. Whenever possible, Ness and Fraley consulted what they found in the Box. But they also relied on Ness’s own lengthy notes. With a bottle of vodka in one hand and a pen in the other, Ness would scrawl anecdotes and half-remembered conversations on the pages of a a corporate check ledger. Then Dorothy Wilkinson, Ness’s office manager, would type up his recollections (correcting his poor spelling). Her husband, Lew, would sit nearby, admonishing, “Eliot, now, you know that didn’t happen.” Ness would shoot him a gray-eyed glint from underneath his sagging lids.
Between their sessions, Fraley would return to Long Island and peck with two fingers on his upright typewriter, cigarettes burning in the ashtray. Based on a few chapters, he soon secured a contract with Julian Messner, Inc. It included a thousand-dollar advance for each of them. Kitty Messner—the famously stylish book agent of the era, who specialized in popular fiction—saw potential for the crime exposé, but her team pushed back on the title. The Untouchables? With Ness’s squad now a distant memory, it wasn’t clear that the phrase would evoke anything except the caste system in India.
Fraley, nonetheless, assured Ness they would make a bundle. “I could use it,” Ness replied, already thinking about how a windfall could pay for college for his young son. And as the chapters piled up, interest expanded. Coudersport resident John Rigas, now 93, recalls seeing Ness one day at Mackey’s in the spring of 1957. As Rigas tells it, Ness walked over to Rigas’s booth, his face beaming: “He said, ‘John, I have great news: I think we’re going to get a TV contract.’ But I was still skeptical.”
Ness might have tried rounding up some of his squad to fact-check his memories, but time and geography divided them. And so the frustrations set in as several of his yarns lacked detail or coherence or credibility. Occasionally, he seemed to blank out. Trying to sort through the scenes—some conflicting, some overblown—Fraley got testy. Ness stomped around the hotel room, exasperated, snapping at Fraley that he needed some air, and grousing, “The hell with it.” At times, both men must have wondered whether they’d even complete the manuscript. Ness also had reason to fear external hurdles. He knew that the F.B.I. and its imperious boss, J. Edgar Hoover, had been upset when Ness’s accomplishments had been lionized, sometimes upstaging the bureau. (“Beware of Ness,” Hoover had scribbled at the bottom of one internal communiqué in 1943.) Indeed, Ness—who harbored suspicions that Hoover had maneuvered to thwart Ness’s mayoral run in Cleveland—may well have suspected that Hoover had the wherewithal to quietly quash the book deal.
There were other perils, too. One of Ness’s adversaries was a Cleveland-area serial killer called the Mad Butcher, who had decapitated a dozen or so victims, apparently while they were still alive. Ness zeroed in on the chief suspect: Dr. Francis Sweeney. And although the murders stopped once Sweeney was institutionalized, he was never tried for the crimes—nor would he leave Ness alone. He took to sending threatening postcards. One was addressed to “Eliot-Am-Big-U-Ous Ness,” its sentences spinning off into cryptic fragments. Unnerved, Betty Ness began to resent the whole idea of resurrecting her husband’s past.
When Ness showed the postcards to Fraley, he began to realize that a book revisiting “those deadly days in Chicago,” as he later put it, could raise the ire of many a mobster. One of Ness’s old targets, for instance, was Capone’s brother Ralph, who maintained ties with the Cosa Nostra. And one of the hit men they were writing about, John Giannoni, remained at large. (Rumors survive to this day that Ness had first moved to Coudersport to hide from gangsters, and today one of the townspeople swears that Ness, whenever entering Rudolph’s Tavern, would position himself on a barstool where he could see everyone who entered.) Though the co-authors didn’t know it at the time, Hoover’s F.B.I. was actively keeping tabs on Ness. And while the Capone family later chose to hit the producers of The Untouchables with a defamation suit (which would be thrown out of court), there were whispers of a contract out on the life of Desi Arnaz, one of the show’s masterminds for ABC. Hit man Jimmy the Weasel later said so in a courtroom testimony.
Ness began to have spells. He passed out at church one day. He nearly collapsed at a P.T.A. meeting. In 1957, his doctor told him he had valvular heart disease and urged him to avoid stress and exertion. Paul W. Heimel, who 20 years ago became the dean of Ness researchers when he published Eliot Ness: The Real Story, believes Ness may not have told Betty about his condition. That suggests Fraley—who would push his collaborator to dig deeper into his psyche for juicier details—was probably kept in the dark as well.
As the manuscript drew to completion, one narrative flourish proved a bit unconventional, to say the least. Ness and Fraley decided to insert Betty—Ness’s third wife—into the story as the young Prohibition agent’s girlfriend, even though the two had met years later. (In 1961, novelist Fletcher Knebel, reporting for the Des Moines Register, asked Betty about this strange choice. She lightly blamed Fraley. But it’s also easy to imagine Ness doing so as a way to flatter and appease his anxious wife.)
Accounts diverge. Some have Ness trying to back out of the book, furious that Fraley was twisting the facts. In others, Ness, though uncomfortable, went along willingly because he was desperate to have the book succeed. Still others insist that Ness was the driving force behind any embellishments in The Untouchables narrative.
As Ness and Fraley hatched The Untouchables, Ness had a more immediate criminal plot on his mind. His boss at the printing firm, George Frank Shampanore—the bulldog-like founder of North Ridge—told their colleague Phelps that he didn’t plan to apply for a patent on their watermarking technology, because an application would risk revealing the system’s secret formula. He said that he’d promised the C.I.A., the State Department, and the Pentagon to keep the formula under wraps while the government waited for “a number of units for field use, [made] out of magnesium, so that they could burn them up if they were about to be captured.” In fact, there was a padlock on the room in Coudersport where they stored their printing machinery.
Ness would have to turn investigator one last time. He discovered that Shampanore—whom Fraley later described as “a cheap kind of hustler who used [Ness] as a front man”—actually intended to bankrupt the company and buy back the equipment on the cheap. Shampanore fled to Texas, leaving his fellow executives in the lurch, and vowing, “I’ll blow the thing up and wash it down the sewer before I see the other crowd”—Ness included—“get control.”
The company’s technology, it turned out, didn’t prevent fraud. It was a fraud. And the reason Shampanore didn’t want to submit paperwork for the patents was simple: they’d already been rejected. The special chemical in their “formula”? Household wax.
Ness and Phelps were soon scrambling to rescue the doomed company that many people in Coudersport—and across their working-class Pennsylvania county—had invested in. Families were on the verge of having their finances wiped out, the Nesses among them. For Ness, his collaboration with Fraley had become more than a book. It was a lifeline.
Fraley was facing his own shaky situation. He would later reminisce that he’d spent his advance for The Untouchables “on slow horses and fast women.” The quip retains a darker reality for Trish Tothill, who lived through periods when their home-phone numbers were unlisted while her father eluded the bookies. The sportswriter, truth be told, had his own plans: to move on from Dot and the kids—for good. While Ness was desperate to steady his family’s fortunes, Fraley was plotting to upend his.
In April 1957, their friendship fraying under the pressure, Fraley finally mailed Ness the completed pages. Then, after a few weeks of reading and reviewing the final proofs of the book, Ness walked into his kitchen for a glass of water and collapsed. Like his onetime foe Capone, 10 years before, Ness was dead of a heart attack.
Eliot Ness would never see his book published or its adaptations turn him into a household name. Today, we know that coronary disease, like Ness’s, can create a vicious cycle. Ness’s strenuous attempts to fill in details for Fraley may have put strain on his heart, triggering further memory loss, and so on. By telling his story, in essence, Ness may have been paving the way to his grave.
When Ness’s assets and liabilities were tallied, his estate was approximately $8,000 in debt. The suddenness of his death raised questions—and competing narratives. Eventually it was said that Ness died minutes after finishing his reading of the manuscript, as though his chronicled life had stolen his real one. Rumors of suicide also circulated. Fraley added his own fanciful account, claiming he was actually inside Ness’s house, reading the proofs alongside his co-author. “He keeled over right next to me,” Fraley told The Miami Herald.
Ness was gone, but the book’s thunderous success catapulted Fraley’s writing prospects, launching two sequels and a sequence of crime titles. Soon came another personal re-invention. Fraley left Dot and married his fourth wife, Genie, with whom he had another son, Tim. And if Ness, in trying to unify the disjointed fragments of his life, had shoehorned Betty into The Untouchables, Fraley took the opportunity to begin erasing his family from his life story. The names of his first three wives have rarely, if ever, been revealed; in one interview, he referred indirectly to Dot (third wife) as his first, and Genie (fourth wife) as his second. His daughters were absent even from his obituary.
It’s tempting to latch onto a sentiment Fraley conveyed in an early letter to Ness, found among North Ridge’s papers after the company was dissolved. “I did a helluva lot of research to check facts and figures,” he wrote, before advising, “Don’t get scared if we stray from the facts once in a while. We’ve got to make a real gangbuster out of this thing and after all, we have literary license.” Fraley’s general disregard for honesty and his arguable role as more ghostwriter than co-author empowered him. For 37 years, he rode The Untouchables juggernaut, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars and bankrolling his golden years in Florida as a magazine publisher.
David Mamet, whose script for The Untouchables was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award in 1987, was once asked at a screening of the movie if he believed what Fraley and Ness wrote. “I don’t believe anything anymore.” The halo of uncertainty and misinformation that surrounds The Untouchables phenomena—the book itself, which has quietly slipped out of print, and more so its dramatizations—has contributed to a backlash over Ness’s legacy. Three years ago, opponents blocked a federal building in Chicago from being named for Ness. “He was afraid of guns and barely left his office,” griped one ex-I.R.S. agent at a hearing over the issue.
Much of The Untouchables can never be verified nor disproved. But there is a surprising coda that is only now coming to the surface. The most up-to-date Untouchables scholarship involves meticulous comparisons of the book with archival material and newly digitized primary sources. And if the new generation of Ness buffs agree on anything, it is the degree of authenticity in Ness and Fraley’s original text—an accuracy that is far more impressive than has been recognized. The authors, by and large, appear to have been telling the truth.
Just as complicated is the status of The Untouchables as an intellectual property. The rights to the book and its spinoffs fall under an old copyright law, and are blurred by the diffuse nature of the Ness estate and his heirs (which, at this point, consist of distant cousins) and by Fraley’s many obfuscations about his children during his lifetime. Hollywood attorney Marc Toberoff—who helped the heirs of comic-book pioneers Jack Kirby and Jerry Siegel, as well as the family of Roots novelist Alex Haley—recently began tidying up the rights to The Untouchables. For the first time, due in part to the reporting for this article, Trish Tothill, long shielded from her father’s royalties, may see some of the profits from reprints of the book and future adaptations. (Repeated attempts to reach Fraley’s sons were unsuccessful.)
For the movie version, Brian De Palma filmed some sequences in Montana, the sweeping landscapes standing in for the Canadian border where Ness’s squad intercepts a liquor shipment. Film crews weren’t far from Tothill’s home, in Sun River. She had broken the family pattern of abandonment, eventually adopting eight children in need. By this point, she hadn’t seen her father since she’d passed through Florida 10 years before; she would not see him again before his death. In that final encounter, a housekeeper answered the door of Fraley’s expensive island residence in Fort Lauderdale. When Tothill announced herself, the woman stared her down and said, “Mr. Fraley doesn’t have a daughter.”
Still, witnessing the excitement of the Montana location shoot, Tothill couldn’t help being proud of his accomplishments. At a bridge on the Missouri River, she watched the crews and extras dressed as Mounties waiting for unseen smugglers. “I really wanted to call [my father] and tell him because I was so excited about it. But I didn’t call because I knew I’d end up crying when I got off the phone.”
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