Friday, August 03, 2012

“Baby Face, you got the ugliest little baby face...”

In 1957 my dad took me to see a Mickey Rooney movie, Baby Face Nelson. I was very impressed on the ride home when Dad told me about his memories of those gangster years, following it faithfully in those Depression-era newspapers. Bank robberies, Tommy guns shooting up the town, Model A Fords outracing the cops! Wow. I thought, “What a great story.”

Once home Dad let me use his old manual typewriter and I one-finger typed out the first page of a story called “The Baby Face Nelson Story.” I was ten years old and I had a short attention span. I wrote the first page, then abandoned it, leaving in the typewriter, and relocated to the couch to watch Zorro on TV. Mom found my literary effort within minutes of me leaving it. I wasn’t smart enough to take it with me, or hide the evidence. She waved the page in my face. “You won’t be writing any stories about criminals,” she told me in her no-nonsense way. She took my deathless prose and tore it into quarters and threw it in the waste can.

I can still remember — sort of — the first line or two of my Baby Face bio: “Lester Gillis, the real name of George Baby Face Nelson waited for the FBI to come get him with his tommy gun at his side.”

Later on I asked her why she was so upset and she told me, “Because Baby Face Nelson killed my cousin, Sam Cowley.” She told me the story of how she and her mother, in 1934, driving their old car, had traveled the 115 miles from their home in Central Utah to Salt Lake City to attend a memorial for the slain FBI man, Cowley. Because of a flat tire (common in those days) they nearly missed the memorial, but found someone in time to fix the tire and make the service.

They aged differently in those days. Cowley died when he was 35, but looks much older.

Samuel P. Cowley had been engaged in a shootout with Nelson. Cowley and his partner were killed on the scene by Nelson. Baby Face, with seventeen bullets in him, lasted a short while. He died in a bed, but was found the next morning, naked, dumped in a ditch.

 The other day I watched the Johnny Depp movie, Public Enemies. on disk. I like the movie, although the chronology is wrong. The movie makers have Nelson getting killed before Dillinger, right after the shootout at Wisconsin’s Little Bohemia Lodge. Nelson escaped that night and outlived Dillinger. Upon Dillinger’s death Nelson was declared Public Enemy Number One.

Here’s a clip from the noirish 1957 Mickey Rooney movie, directed by Don Siegel.

I’ve never checked on my mother’s genealogy to find out what branch of the Family Tree Sam Cowley sits on. Coincidentally, both Sam Cowley and my mother currently have the same address, Wasatch Lawn Cemetery in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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