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My grandfather shot Dillinger: A Chicago newspaper memoir

Crowds gather outside the Biograph Theatre, holding up newspapers announcing Dillinger's demise -- just six months after Sol Davis's scoop.

By Kevin Davis

Kevin Davis is a Chicago writer who has a bit part as a crime reporter in "Public Enemies." His wife, the actress Martie Sanders, plays the cashier at the Biograph. This memory first appeared in City Talk magazine.

On a cold January day in 1934, my grandfather shot John Dillinger. Sol “Dixie” Davis steadied himself in front of the notorious bank robber, aimed his Speed Graphic 4-x-5 camera and took a picture. Dillinger, who was handcuffed and under police guard, let him take a few more photos and then said enough. “Taking these pictures’ll drive me screwy,” Dillinger said.

Dillinger was not in a good mood. He and members of his gang had just been captured in Tucson, Ariz. My Grandpa Sol, a photographer for the Chicago Daily Times, was riding in a plane with America’s most wanted fugitive. He got a tip that police were bringing Dillinger to Chicago and would stop in St. Louis to change planes. He drove down to St. Louis to get on that plane, and bought up all the empty seats so no other reporters or photographers could get on.

“Mr. Dillinger,” Sol said as he walked up the aisle after the plane took off.

“Whaddya want?” Dillinger barked.

“I’m the only cameraman on the ship. I want a break.”

“Whaddya want?” Dillinger asked again.

“I want some pictures.”

“All right, kid, go ahead and shoot.”

Sol shot pictures and chatted with Dillinger about his arrest. Dillinger complained of a headache. Sol got him some aspirin and water. By the time they arrived in Chicago, they had developed a pretty good rapport, and Dillinger spoke freely.

The result was an exclusive front-page story and photos in the Daily Times and one of the great scoops of Chicago journalism. The details and dialogue of that encounter came directly from my grandfather’s newspaper account on Jan. 31, 1934.

Sol Davis was a photojournalist during the glory days of Chicago newspapers, a real-life character in that romanticized era of rough-and-tumble, trench-coat-wearing, fedora-sporting reporters who scurried around town chasing gangsters, celebrities, politicians and coppers. It was an era that inspired three generations of Davises to become journalists.

My grandfather, my father and I were seduced by the news business, by the idea of making a living witnessing life as it unfolds, by having permission to go places, talking to people and asking questions that no one else could and then sharing it with others. We were addicted to a life of heightened existence, to the adrenaline of being summoned at a moment’s notice to rush to the scene of a big story, of facing impending deadlines and seeing our stories or pictures in print the next morning. There was nothing like it then or now.

Sol Davis, a Russian immigrant, was the first in the family to become a newsman. He started out as a copy boy at the Chicago Journal and later worked at the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Herald and Examiner, the New York Daily News, the Chicago Daily Times and the Chicago Sun-Times.

As a photojournalist he had a front seat to some of Chicago’s biggest news stories and newsmakers, taking pictures of gangsters like Al Capone, celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Charles Lindbergh, Rudolph Valentino and Shirley Temple, and sports figures like Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth and Ben Hogan. In 1928 he risked his life to get pictures of a shootout between Chicago cops and train robber Charles “Limpy” Cleaver. He covered a flood in Cairo, Ill., and helped rescue children. He covered the Cubs, White Sox and Bears.

Sol Davis loved life and loved the newspaper business. He was a sharp dresser who went to work wearing beautiful suits with crisp, monogrammed shirts and ironed hankies. He got haircuts and manicures every 10 days and wore a tilted fedora. He stayed out late and sometimes would be gone for days. He had hundreds of unpaid parking tickets from leaving his car in the middle of the street while chasing news, and he had hundreds of pals, from cops to hooligans.

When my father was a kid, my grandfather would take him around the city while on assignment. They’d go to baseball games, boxing matches, crime scenes, racetracks and bookie joints. My dad had the time of his life hanging out with his dad. “I wanted to be like him. I wanted to live in that world,” my dad told me. “I was totally enamored of the business.”

My grandfather made one phone call and got my dad a job as a copy boy with the Tribune. My dad loved it. He would hang around the newsroom long after his shift, just watching and listening as reporters and rewrite men worked the desk. When he was in the Army, my father was features editor of the base newspaper at Fort Bliss, Texas, and had a bullfighting column. He later worked at Chicago’s renowned City News Bureau and as a reporter for the El Paso Herald Post. His true passion, however, was fiction writing, and he eventually got out of the news business.

The ink that ran in my grandfather’s and father’s veins pulsed strongly through mine. I wanted to get out there to see life and write about it too. When I was a teenager my dad showed me yellowing newspapers and brittle old prints of Grandpa Sol’s famous pictures, which fired my imagination. Our apartment was always filled with newspapers, magazines and books. I read as much as I could, imagining myself reporting and writing. “If you want to write,” my father often told me, “you’ve got to read.”

When my dad worked at home as a freelance journalist and novelist, I used to hear him clattering away on a 1928 Underwood Standard typewriter, surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke and jazz playing in the background. He and my mom would throw parties where other writers and journalists gathered, telling stories and talking late into the night. I would hang around and listen. I wanted to be like them.

So I became a newspaper reporter. I worked in Florida and later in Chicago as a freelance journalist, living the kind of life I had imagined, and, in many ways, beyond. I covered everything from zoning-board meetings and political campaigns to plane crashes and multiple murders. I’ve been on assignments at the White House and in Beverly Hills, inside Chicago’s public-housing projects and amid burning and looting in the streets of Miami. Being a journalist took me places most people have never seen.

Journalism has evolved since the days my grandfather was running around town with his Speed Graphic. I come from a generation inspired by Woodward and Bernstein, journalists who questioned our government and those institutions that long escaped public scrutiny. For me, journalism became an opportunity to expose injustice, give voice to the voiceless and make a difference.

I never got to know my grandfather, because he died when I was 3 years old. We would have been great pals. I wish he had been around when I was a young reporter so we could have traded stories and shared our love of being newsmen. I turned out a lot like him, and I became a lot like my father too. The three of us were linked by a passion to observe the human condition, to live intensely, to be storytellers and to be part of something larger than ourselves. My grandfather captured the world through pictures; my father and I through words. Something stirred our souls and made us do it. I don’t think we could have done anything else. I think Grandpa Sol would be proud.

See Roger Ebert's interview with director Michael Mann here.

Expanded transcript here.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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