Authors: J. R. Moehringer
Copyright © 2012 J.R. Moehringer
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On the Road
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, copyright © 1926 by Ezra Pound, © Estate of Ezra Pound. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. and Faber and Faber, Ltd.
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Sutton / J.R. Moehringer. — 1st ed.
1. Sutton, Willie—Fiction. 2. Brigands and robbers—Fiction. I. Title.
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Cover photograph (top) by Richard Jenkins
Cover photograph (bottom) by Byron Company / MCNY
Author photograph by ABC / Donna Svennevik
First eBook Edition
Original hardcover edition printed in the United States of America.
For Roger and Sloan Barnett, with love and gratitude
After spending half his life in prison, off and on, Willie Sutton was set free for good on Christmas Eve, 1969. His sudden emergence from Attica Correctional Facility sparked a media frenzy. Newspapers, magazines, television networks, talk shows—everyone wanted an interview with the most elusive and prolific bank robber in American history.
Sutton granted only one. He spent the entire next day with one newspaper reporter and one still photographer, driving around New York City, visiting the scenes of his most famous heists and other points of interest in his remarkable life.
The resulting article, however, was strangely cursory, with several errors—or lies—and few real revelations.
Sadly, Sutton and the reporter and the photographer are all gone, so what happened among them that Christmas, and what happened to Sutton during the preceding sixty-eight years, is anyone’s guess.
This book is my guess.
But it’s also my wish.
I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true
THE HUNTING OF THE SNARK
He’s writing when they come for him.
He’s sitting at his metal desk, bent over a yellow legal pad, talking to himself, and to her—as always, to her. So he doesn’t notice them standing at his door. Until they run their batons along the bars.
He looks up, adjusts his large scuffed eyeglasses, the bridge mended many times with Scotch tape. Two guards, side by side, the left one fat and soft and pale, as if made from Crisco, the right one tall and scrawny and with a birthmark like a penny on his right cheek.
Left Guard hitches up his belt. On your feet, Sutton. Admin wants you.
Right Guard points his baton. What the? You crying, Sutton?
Don’t you lie to me, Sutton. I can see you been crying.
Sutton touches his cheek. His fingers come away wet. I didn’t know I was crying sir.
Right Guard waves his baton at the legal pad. What’s that?
He asked you what is it, Left Guard says.
Sutton feels his bum leg starting to buckle. He grits his teeth at the pain. My novel sir.
They look around his book-filled cell. He follows their eyes. It’s never good when the guards look around your cell. They can always find something if they have a mind to. They scowl at the books along the floor, the books along the metal cabinet, the books along the cold-water basin. Sutton’s is the only cell at Attica filled with copies of Dante, Plato, Shakespeare, Freud. No, they confiscated his Freud. Prisoners aren’t allowed to have psychology books. The warden thinks they’ll try to hypnotize each other.
Right Guard smirks. He gives Left Guard a nudge—get ready. Novel, eh? What’s it about?
Just—you know. Life sir.
What the hell does an old jailbird know about life?
Sutton shrugs. That’s true sir. But what does anyone know?
Word is leaking out. By noon a dozen print reporters have already arrived and they’re huddled at the front entrance, stomping their feet, blowing on their hands. One of them says he just heard—snow on the way. Lots of it. Nine inches at least.
They all groan.
Too cold to snow, says the veteran in the group, an old wire service warhorse in suspenders and black orthopedic shoes. He’s been with UPI since the Scopes trial. He blows a gob of spit onto the frozen ground and scowls up at the clouds, then at the main guard tower, which looks to some like the new Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland.
Too cold to stand out
, says the reporter from the
New York Post
. He mumbles something disparaging about the warden, who’s refused three times to let the media inside the prison. The reporters could be drinking hot coffee right now. They could be using the phones, making last-minute plans for Christmas. Instead the warden is trying to prove some kind of point. Why, they all ask, why?
Because the warden’s a prick, says the reporter from
, that’s why.
The reporter from
holds his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. Give a bureaucrat this much power, he says, and watch out. Stand back.
Not just bureaucrats, says the reporter from
The New York Times
. All bosses eventually become fascists. Human nature.
The reporters trade horror stories about their bosses, their editors, the miserable dimwits who gave them this god-awful assignment. There’s a brand-new journalistic term, appropriated just this year from the war in Asia, frequently applied to assignments like this, assignments where you wait with the herd, usually outdoors, exposed to the elements, knowing full well you’re not going to get anything good, certainly not anything the rest of the herd won’t get. The term is
. Every reporter gets caught in a clusterfuck now and then, it’s part of the job, but a clusterfuck on Christmas Eve? Outside Attica Correctional Facility? Not cool, says the reporter from the
. Not cool.
The reporters feel especially hostile toward that boss of all bosses, Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He of the Buddy Holly glasses and the chronic indecision. Governor Hamlet, says the reporter from UPI, smirking at the walls. Is he going to do this thing or not?
He yells at Sleeping Beauty’s Castle: Shit or get off the pot, Nelson! Defecate or abdicate!
The reporters nod, grumble, nod. Like the prisoners on the other side of this thirty-foot wall, they grow restless. The prisoners want out, the reporters want in, and both groups blame the Man. Cold, tired, angry, ostracized by society, both groups are close to rioting. Both fail to notice the beautiful moon slowly rising above the prison.
The guards lead Sutton from his cell in D block through a barred door, down a tunnel and into Attica’s central checkpoint—what prisoners call Times Square—which leads to all cell blocks and offices. From Times Square the guards take Sutton down to the deputy warden’s office. It’s the second time this month that Sutton has been called before the dep. Last week it was to learn that his parole request was denied—a devastating blow. Sutton and his lawyers had been so very confident. They’d won support from prominent judges, discovered loopholes in his convictions, collected letters from doctors vouching that Sutton was close to death. But the three-man parole board simply said no.