A Novel Concept

Moehringer Tackles Famed Bank Robber in Arresting Historical Novel

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By Michael Malone

J. R. Moehringer tells the story of infamous bank robber Willie Sutton in the novel “Sutton,” detailing his life, from his boyhood in the slums of Brooklyn, to his time in various prisons, and ultimate release at age 68.

Sutton was sprung from Attica Correctional Facility on Christmas Eve in 1968, and had agreed to spend Christmas Day with a newspaper reporter and a photographer. To be sure, just about every newspaper, magazine, talk show and news program wanted Sutton to sit with them, but he agreed to give one paper, the New York Daily News, the exclusive.

The novel juxtaposes Sutton, roaming New York City with the reporters in ‘68, with peeks back at pivotal times in his life. On Christmas, the man known as Willie the Actor, because he sometimes dressed in costumes before robbing a bank, takes the two press guys, known as Reporter and Photographer, on a tour of New York City. The tour included his birthplace in a Brooklyn ghetto known as Irish Town, the glittering street where his first love Bess lived, Times Square, where he saw all that was possible for mankind, Yankee Stadium and some of the various banks he knocked off.

The flashback scenes make up a much larger part of the book than the reporter tour. Slick Willie is charming. He is exceedingly well-read, articulate and intelligent and he’s good with people. He is also one heckuva thief, stealing an estimated $2 million (in modern-day currency) across his career. Sutton also broke out of prison three different times!

It is no wonder, then, that Sutton became a beloved folk hero.

Moehringer has done his research, and spins yarns in the parts the research doesn’t quite cover. In the Author’s Note, he said the newspaper article crafted from Sutton’s day with the reporter was “strangely cursory, with several errors – or lies – and few real revelations.” What truly happened across Sutton’s preceding 68 years, he adds, “is anyone’s guess,” and the book is his own guess.

Moehringer tosses around some fun terms from the lexicon of a Depression-era thief. A box man is a safe cracker. A taxi girl is a lady for hire. A glim drop was a scam involving a guy who lost an expensive glass eye. A speak is a speakeasy and a wheelman is the driver of the getaway car.

Moehringer, of course, wrote the dazzling memoir “The Tender Bar,” about growing up fatherless on Long Island and finding family in the bar near his house, known as The Dickens. The book came out in 2005. George Clooney directed the 2021 film, and Ben Affleck played J. R.’s uncle Charlie, a bartender at The Dickens who becomes a father figure, albeit a non-traditional one.

More recently, Moehringer was the ghost writer on “Spare,” the controversial memoir from Prince Harry.

Sutton’s New York City tour – he visits Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island, but alas, no Queens – builds up to a visit to the home of Arnie Schuster, who was murdered not long after spying prison escapee Sutton on the subway and turning him in.

In a flashback, Sutton visits a Times Square brought to its knees by the flagging economy.

What a damn shame, Sutton says. This used to be one of the most magical places on earth. Right there was the BOND Clothing sign. All over the world people knew that sign, BOND–in big red letters. When you came to Times Square from another borough, or from Timbuktu, you could count on the trolley cars looking like great big loaves of bread, and the BOND sign being–right–there.

Sutton is not the most reliable of narrators. What his role was in Schuster’s murder is never thoroughly explained, and Moehringer drops a bit of a doozy toward the end, when Sutton visits the posh former home of Bess, chats with his beloved’s granddaughter, and his relationship with Bess proves to be not exactly what he’d said.

The book offers a compelling look at life in New York during the Great Depression, and the challenges facing an ex-convict. Sutton busts his butt trying to find legit work, but frequently finds out that robbing banks is the best option available to him.

Sutton keeps a good sense of humor through it all. Looking out upon the George Washington Bridge, he tells Reporter and Photographer about his old pal Eddie being shot by police.

Was anyone else in the car with Eddie, Mr. Sutton?

Sutton lights the Zippo, touches the flame to his Chesterfield. Eddie’s girlfriend, he says. Nina. She threw herself across Eddie’s body. That’s love for you. She got a finger shot clean off. She wrote to me in the joint for years. Her letters were tough to read.


Illegible. She had four fingers.

Sutton spends chunks of time in Westchester. He does time at Sing Sing starting in 1923, where he learns to garden alongside imprisoned newsman Charles Chapin. In between prison stints, he works at Greystone, as Untermyer Gardens was known at the time. He had sought out a man named Funck who was looking to hire a gardener.

“Samuel Untermyer,” Funck says. “Big-shot lawyer. You ever heard of his house up in Yonkers?”

“Sutton” came out in 2012. Reviews were mixed. My book has a giant sticker with “Heather’s Pick” on the cover, but I’m not quite sure who Heather is. The New York Times said the present day/flashback structure “prompts a rapt contrast between Sutton’s nostalgic reveries and his taciturn, vacant present. Yet in nearly every scene, Moehringer slights the contradictions, surprises and weirdness of Willie the Actor’s life in favor of a tired rich girl/poor boy tragedy of thwarted love.

Sutton died in 1980. I learned a lot about the guy from reading Moehringer’s novel, and found him to be a highly entertaining character.

Journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children.

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