Baby Face Nelson: Childlike Mug, Psychopathic Soul
Following the Sunset
There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball,
and that is to have either a clear conscience, or none at all."
— Ogden Nash
Lester Gillis, three-time loser, drew one year to life for the attempted Chicago heist. His sentence began in February, 1931. After being packed off to Joliet Penitentiary, twenty miles southwest of Chicago, news had come that he had been fingered by a witness as the lone thief who robbed the Wheaton establishment; that hearing would take place later in the year. If found guilty, his lawyers glumly estimated, he might be slapped with as many as 25-30 years behind bars. At age 23, the future looked bleak for Lester Gillis.
Helen, now his wife, visited him frequently. Crime historians believe that she may have been involved in his break from the law a year later — at least, as the driver of the getaway car. On the morning of February 17, 1932, Lester boarded a commuter train, shackled to a plainclothes detective, bound for the Wheaton Civic Building for his much-postponed pre-trial hearing on the jewelry heist there. In session, he learned that the actual trial was set for April. On the return trip to Joliet, at a suburban stop, he feigned nausea and told the bodyguard he needed to get to the bathroom. The detective frowned, warned his charge not to make any false moves, and unlatched the handcuffs which bound the two men together.
"You can accompany me, but I'd like a little privacy to vomit," Lester smirked.
"I plan to accompany you, Gillis," the other glowered. "Stand up, and cut the wisecra—"
He never finished. Lester sprang from his seat, fists orbiting, and sent the gumshoe across the laps of a couple seated across the aisle. By the time the policeman regained balance, Lester had hightailed out of the car and had jumped onto the station platform below. Now, as the detective looked, the escapee raced down an embankment and lithely onto the hood of a waiting sedan. The car shifted from position and sped away, Lester aglee on the running board.
Only months later did law enforcement agents recover his footsteps via a series of auto thefts, beginning in Chicago and continuing through to Reno, Nevada. The suspect who briefly lived there and worked there in a succession of odd jobs was accompanied, said a landlady and a co-worker, by a small, squeaky-voiced, pixie girl whom her fella called his "million dollar baby". But, by the time agents traced his whereabouts, however, the fugitive had again vanished — probably to wind up in California.
The police had known for a long time that many a Midwestern outlaw managed to lose himself there, protected from the law by Sicilian mob boss Giuseppe (Joe) Parente. As his fee, Parente utilized their respective talents as bodyguard, bootlegger, safe cracker, gunsel or driver.
California was, to the Chicago-born Gillises, something out of a story book. Helen thrilled to be so near to Hollywood that churned out so many of the movies she had seen at the Tivoli movie house back home. Settling in Sausalito to be near Parente's mobster family (as the police predicted), they took up refuge in one of the gumbah's hideaways. In their leisure, the couple strolled Sausalito's sunny lanes, marveling at coconut-colored skies, azure waters, palm trees, Spanish-style bungalows and 80-degree weather in February.
"California lies wide and luminous and empty...between the high Sierra and the sea," wrote American Mercury journalist George P. West in the 1923. "Horizons are not miles but counties away, and between distant mountain sky-lines the land, lustrous and radiant in pastel shades of blue and green and golden brown, swims in warm sunlight. California (claims) a climate of semi-tropical friendliness that robs the mere business of sustaining life of its rigors and leaves energy free to whatever other tasks the spirit may conceive."
Presumably, Lester had come to Joe Parente looking for a job. His credentials were good, having worked for the Capone mob — no doubt, Joe had him checked out — and his lightening-quick abilities to fight. The boss used him in several facets, everything from bodyguard, to bartender at one of his speakeasies (the name given to saloons operating against the Volstead Act), to lowly parking valet at his posh nightclubs. The boy from Chicago with the big dreams despised the subservient latter position, but kept his usually cocky mouth shut and did what he was told. Parente recognized his ambition, appreciated his buttoned lips, and eventually rewarded him with a promotion to higher status — that of a bootlegger — providing he continue to serve in the lower capacities when called upon.
In the meantime, Lester adopted an alias, George Nelson. The name came from, according to crime historian Richard Lindbergh, "a prize-fighter he admired". Lester insisted that his peers, as well as Parente, refer to him from now on with that pseudonym. Sausalito's Police Department History website states that Lester "fooled Sausalitans in the early 1930s. Most never suspected that the town's new bartender and parking attendant was a dangerous gunman and ringleader of a local bootlegger operation."
Bootlegging meant selling Parente's booze, and at profit prices to suckers wanting to get drunk quick. It meant spreading the wholesale far and wide throughout Sausalito and across the county to every saloonkeeper, party provider and underground shipper within reach. The beer market was competitive with other robber barons vying for the same territory and, as Chicago had been before Capone eradicated his rivals, Sausalito — aye, indeed, California — was sometimes the scene of bloody gang warfare. Often these rat-a-tat-tattings came as a result of one mob interfering on another's tally of speakeasies.
Lester and several cohorts would pull up in front of a known "speak," shuffle in and ask to see the proprietor. Without formal introduction, ensuing dialogue would usually run as follows:
Lester: (smiling broadly) Hey, Mac, starting Monday, we're moving twenty cases of Antiquaries Oval into your joint. We'll make like shipments every subsequent Monday.
Bar owner: Huh? Who are you? What ya' talking 'bout? Where ya' from?
Lester: I said: You're gonna sell our booze here — our booze and nobody else's. Got it, Mac? Hey, what's your squawkin'? We're given ya' a break. Ten bucks a barrel.
Bar owner: Wait—wait a second! I don't need no more hooch than what I got now.
Lester: 'Course ya' do! We've been casing this joint. It does good turnover. Why, on Saturday night it's the cat's pajamas!
Bar owner: But—but—ten more barrels!—that's too much beyond what I already got!
Lester: You're not hearing me, Mac. You're not gonna sell the Irishman Duffy's booze no more — and if the Mick squawks, ya' let us know...'kay? Peaches? There, now ain't that simple? We'll see ya' Monday, nine sharp, and get some of your guys to help us unload the barrels.
Bar owner: I—I dunno. I don't even know where you guys're from. What am I gonna tell—
Lester: By the way, that's a cute little brunette wife ya' got living there at your house at (pulls out a piece of paper, reads from a note he's made) 17 East LaBrea Boulevard. A shame if one day she just up and disappeared, wouldn't it?
Bar owner: (sweating now, staring in disbelief) I'll s-s-see ya' Monday.
Lester: (patting the man's cheek): You're a good man...(turning to his own men) Didn't I say, boys when we walked in here that Mac here was a good egg?
If the scorned mobs retaliated against Parente's intrusions, Lester, the pint-sized King Intruder, was always on hand to fight back for his boss. He led his sluggers point-blank and gladly shot it out with anyone willing to take him on. He would strike from nowhere, out of the shadows, it seemed, with all the force the devil could give any one mortal. And, certainly, where muscle ended, machine gun and pipe-bomb stepped in. Rivals had no idea where this George Nelson had come from, but they had to admit: He was terror on two legs.
Usually joining Lester on his forays was mob hanger-on John Paul Chase, a husky, blonde, good-looking and none too bright errand boy for Parente. He idolized Lester Gillis, watched his every move and was completely loyal to the little bantam.
Of Chase, FBI files relate that he "was born December 26, 1901, lived most of his life in California. He attended school through fifth grade, then worked at a ranch near San Rafael...(He) later worked in railway shops for four years, first as an office boy, then as a machinist's apprentice. In 1930, Chase became associated with a liquor smuggling operation." Chase and Lester, says the report, became close, and the former would introduce the latter to other pals as his half-brother.
In their respite between jobs, the duo shared dreams of something better than helping to make Joe Parente richer. While figuring out what that something might be, they acquainted a pair of gunmen currently under Parente's employ who, like they, yearned for the quicker and much more plentiful dollar. One was Tommy Carroll, a former boxer now adept with a machine gun. The other was Eddie Green, a bank marker whom author Jay Robert Nash describes as a "'jug maker' — the man who picked and scouted a bank marked for robbery". Both Green and Carroll had at one time robbed banks throughout the prairie states — sometimes alone, sometimes with other gangs — but were presently in-hiding from Midwest authorities.
While they recalled their experiences as highway bandits, Lester sat mesmerized. The team spoke of the loot they had grabbed by the sacks full that made his jewelry shop fiascos blush in comparison; they spoke of skin-of-their-teeth getaways that pumped his blood just to hear of them. But, the real siren call was John Dillinger, the bandit king for whom they both had performed stick-ups.
Dillinger was a legend in his own time. Handsome, devil-may-care, this desperado from Mooresville, central Indiana, had robbed more banks than any of his contemporary imitators, including Alvin "Old Creepy" Karpis and even the Ozark Mountains' smiling "Pretty Boy," Charles Arthur Floyd. Considered the Jesse James of the 20th Century, he and his hand-picked outlaws (the best few in their trade) knocked over banks throughout Indiana, Ohio and Illinois with the color, gallantry and abandon that weave storybooks.
These tales of adventure pricked Lester's growing discontentment with living life as a California saloon slugger. Parente, though an ally, was becoming wearisome. While Lester had taken the new name of George Nelson — a name that he thought would arouse no controversy — Parente adopted an annoying habit of calling his youthful-mugged protégé "Baby Face," after the popular song of that name. If tending bar at one of Parente's clubs, for instance, the boss would wave Lester over, introduce him to his Sicilian cumpari as Baby Face Nelson, then, for the bar's amusement, burst into the said song with the zest of an Enrico Caruso performing the aria from Aida.
"Baby face, you-a got the cutest little-a baby face,
There is-a not another one-a to take your place..."
And Lester had to glide along with the teasing like he really enjoyed it. (When Parente laughed, everyone laughed!) Until one day when he, wife Helen and John Paul Chase packed up the Nelson auto and pointed its hood ornament east toward the Midwest. Lester had made up his mind to be a bank robber like John Dillinger. He already vividly pictured the headlines in his smoking brain: GEORGE NELSON TERRORIZES THE HEARTLAND.
In pursuing and eventually realizing his goals, however, Lester would inadvertently realize something else that he hated. The name "Baby Face" would never leave him. It would haunt him to the day that Baby Face Nelson was six feet under.