The table at the front window of The Righteous Room isn’t particularly roomy — it seems most people try to commandeer the booths in the back for their after-shift drinks. But the window seats do offer a decent view of Ponce de Leon Avenue. Or “Ponce.” That’s what everyone in Atlanta calls it.
It’s 1996. You’ve just finished shutting down the kitchen at Eats — the nose-tickling smell of jerk chicken clinging to your clothes — and you and your co-workers dodged the late-night exodus of Olympic sightseers to get to this new bar down the street. From the window seat, you can watch folks in costume leaving the latest midnight screening of “Rocky Horror” at the Plaza Theatre next door, the MARTA buses barely slowing enough to pick up whoever might be waiting there at the battered bus stop sign at the corner of North Highland, couples and cadres of friends and loners alike pushing through the narrow entryway to the Majestic Diner. You can watch all of this happening, and across the street — across Ponce — the Briarcliff Summit building looms over the whole scene.
Your friend Matt catches you, between swigs of High Life or whatever’s cheapest on draught that night, staring at that red brick building across the street. He asks if you know anything about that place. You do not. He draws your attention up to the top floor, where the plain red brick is replaced with yellow stucco, the square windows now crowned with brightly decorated arches. More colorful details stretch from end to end like edging on a birthday cake. He points, and he is now leaning across the middle of the table, telling you to look up at the very top of the place.
Ringed by the smoke of half-stubbed cigarettes, he tells you:
What you don’t know — what nobody knows yet — is that your friend Matt Monroe is a damn liar.
If you’ve heard this story before, you may have heard it told differently. You may have heard that Al Capone used to rent the whole top floor of the Clermont Hotel, the home of Atlanta’s beloved Clermont Lounge. You may have been told that he stayed at the Bonaventure Apartments a block off Ponce across from Freedom Parkway. Or maybe that it was the Briarcliff Summit, and he dug tunnels under the street to the Highland Inn. Maybe some guy — a friend of a friend — heard that Capone used to live at the Georgian Terrace way up on Peachtree Street across the street from the Fox Theatre. And he drank in nearby bars. And he was out on furlough. Or he bribed his way out of the U.S. Penitentiary down on McDonough Boulevard. Or he was still running the mob from inside the prison. The stories seem to be mixed and matched from this grab-bag of details. But the “guardhouse” on the roof of the Briarcliff Summit is probably the genesis — nondescript, two blank windows, festooned with antennas and phone lines.
“I was like ‘Wow! I had no idea,’” Maggie White says, her voice filled with mock wonder. When she tells me her version of Matt’s story, one tiny detail she adds is that Capone’s residency at the Briarcliff took place while the gangster was “in hiding.”
Maggie is one of the founders of Young Blood Boutique, a shop on North Highland that sells indie-made goods, but back in 1995, she was a student, studying sociology at Georgia State University. She and Matt lived a block from each other on Ponce and spent a lot of time on Maggie’s front porch at the corner of Penn Avenue, cracking each other up and watching johns from the suburbs pick up transvestite prostitutes on what was still a fairly wild corridor of the city. The Atlanta Eagle — the city’s oldest leather bar — isn’t far away. The Olde Spaghetti Factory was across the street, and the Department of Corrections’ Transitional Center is just across Argonne, past the Krispy Kreme. Maggie says Matt’s lies were always just normal enough to be believable.
“He loved a good tall tale,” she says, “and usually I was sharp enough to see through it.” Usually.
“I’ve passed that story on to two, three dozen people at least,” says Maggie, sitting on a couch in a well-appointed front room a couple blocks off Moreland Avenue. “And who knows how many people they’ve passed it along to.”
Monroe worked as a cook at Eats, but he also occasionally tended bar at the Local, today a hipster magnet standing across the street and a few doors down from the Clermont Hotel. If the Briarcliff Summit was an obvious setting for a fib about Capone while sitting down the street at the Righteous Room, the Clermont — with the famous strip club in its basement — was an even easier one from the front porch of the Local.
Opened in 1924 as an apartment building, the Clermont Motor Hotel would have had rooms on offer to Capone should he have dropped by. The building is a big brick box crowned with a triangular radio tower that glowers over Ponce. Junkies and exotic dancers stayed there alongside working class folks. The filthiest punk rocker in history, the late GG Allin, stayed there and wrote a song about it a few months before he OD’d and died in 1993. It’s the kind of place where one would expect to find an infamous gangster. And it was Capone’s supposed move into the Clermont that took this scrap of urban lore to the presses.
“The Clermont Hotel went up for sale [in 2012], and a couple news articles appeared about it,” says Doug Monroe, “and they included the sentence: ‘Urban lore has it that Al Capone once lived in the Clermont Hotel.’ And the Associated Press picked it up, and I found it on WSB’s website, and the Atlanta Business Chronicle had it. And my son was laughing about it because about 20 years earlier, he made the story up for fun.”
Doug is, of course, Matt Monroe’s dad. He’s written for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and he’s former senior editor of Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s free weekly paper. He’s a contributor to Atlanta Magazine. He’s been writing about the South for a long time. As he tells me about these legitimate news outlets reprinting this tall tale his kid conjured up, he giggles with a fatherly mixture of glee and pride.
“I got very tickled by it,” Doug says. He tells me he’s been in the news industry his whole life, and he chuckles again, searching for words. “He just made it up as a prank,” he says, “and people have embellished it.”
A few perspectives of Ponce de Leon Ave. Photos via Special Collections Department, Pullen Library, Georgia State University
Embellished and absorbed it, really — from the aforementioned media mentions to actual history books. Sharon Foster Jones’ 2012 chronicle of the street, “Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon Avenue,” includes a number of mentions of Capone. In addition to the Briarcliff and the Clermont, Jones writes that he was also rumored to have stayed the night at the Woodruff Inn, which once stood on the corner of Ponce and Myrtle Street (right around where Matt Monroe used to live, it ought to be mentioned). It was around this time that I first heard the story. Celebrating Jones’ book release, the Atlanta Preservation Center put together a walking tour of Ponce de Leon. It was led by Paul Hammock, the center’s director of education. A clutch of about 25 folks met behind the Paris on Ponce antique shop and walked toward Moreland Avenue. Along the way, Paul talked about all manner of history — the natural spring buried somewhere under the Sears building, later City Hall East, now becoming Ponce City Market. The old Ford factory, now loft apartments next door to the Murder Kroger — a nickname Atlantans are somehow able to imbue with affection. The avenue is full of accepted fabrications. Freedom Parkway hits Ponce down the street from the Clermont and remains a kind of reminder of the Interstate bypass it very nearly became. The story goes that dedicated citizens of Inman Park and Poncey-Highlands stopped construction by lying in front of bulldozers. Only, according to Danny Feig-Sandoval, the neighborhood’s “roadbuster emeritus,” bulldozers never actually rolled into the area. Folks did chain themselves to trees in Goldsboro Park and perch atop the pilings at Moreland Avenue where an overpass was begun, but lying in the mud in front of machinery is just one of those embellishments that has sort of become fact.
When we had trekked all the way down to the Briarcliff Summit, Paul dropped the story on us. You can listen to it yourself.
There were some skeptical laughs, but that’s just it — they were laughs. One explanation for why the Capone story has weathered this decades-long game of Telephone is that it’s an entertaining thought — an infamous kingpin wandering around the Poncey-Highland neighborhood and drinking in downtown speakeasies.
“What defines an area?” Paul Hammock poses the question to me in the meeting room at the Atlanta Preservation Center’s office — the remains of an antebellum mansion in Grant Park which has been preserved and rebuilt from the ground up. “What gives it its flavor? A lot of parts of that are these urban legends, this oral history. It’s this shared knowledge. It gives a place a sense of community, I think.”
Ponce has seen a number of changes. The long-standing Plaza Pharmacy, where parents of young children knew they could run for late-night remedies, is now an Urban Outfitters, right next door to the Righteous Room. Hammock tells me a story about how when the owners sold the pharmacy, they looked for but never actually found the key to the front door, since it was open 24 hours. The railroad bridge which used to bring deliveries directly to the Sears building is now a pedestrian bridge and part of the Beltline transportation and park project. Even with all this stuff gone, people remain who have not been entirely priced out of the neighborhood. Capone’s place, the Briarcliff Summit — also known as the 1050 Building — has been weathered by time and economics. Over the course of the 20th century, it went from housing luxury apartments, to being a hotel, to middle-income residences, to Section 8 housing. The guts may have changed, but the facade remains relatively untouched, giving you a sense of what the place looked like back when. The old Sears is becoming transformed into Ponce City Market — an entire city block of retail and loft apartments that will command rents in the thousands. But as pretty as the city tries to make Ponce, the most nationally renowned attraction on the avenue is still the city’s oldest strip club, featuring a woman whose claim to fame is crushing beer cans between her pendulous breasts.
Communities are constructed from a lot of things. People, obviously, but also ideas and stories. And even as the welcoming grittiness of the place is slowly scrubbed away, the idea of Ponce de Leon, the story the street tells, itself becomes more convoluted and indelible, like a glass of red wine spilled onto one of the starched white tablecloths at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, soaking in until its mark cannot be washed out. This city has burnt to the ground on a few occasions. So it’s only natural that in our Resurgens — as is the motto on the city seal — we choose to rewrite our history a little. Or at least scribble notes in the margins. So if Al Capone wants to live there too, that’s just fine. Al Capone isn’t going to try to open a trendy new bistro or drop a mixed-use development on top of Fellini’s Pizza.
“I always thought it was really funny to fool people.”
Matt Monroe is sitting across from me in a booth at the Majestic Diner, the Briarcliff Summit standing tall behind him, just over his shoulder. “And the reason was that I had been fooled royally by a good friend of mine.”
Matt is now a lawyer living in Philadelphia. Matt used to play bass in a punk band. With his shaved-bald head, spectacles, the sleeve of tattoos hidden under a button-up shirt, the lawyer thing actually becomes the funnier half of the contrast. On tour with his band back in ’95, his childhood friend Jason pointed out semi trucks they kept passing on the highway. Big orange ones, 18-wheelers, with SCHNEIDER spelled out on the back doors.
“Jason tells me, ‘Well you know, they’re Schneider’s trucks. That’s John Schneider,’” better known as Bo Duke. “‘He took all this money that he had from ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ and invested in a trucking company.’”
An interesting factoid, entirely plausible.
“I did a lot better at Trivial Pursuit,” Matt tells me, “than I did at academics, so I kind of glommed on to those kinds of interesting little facts and filed them away for later.” Matt went around telling this story, repeating this “fact”: Well you know, that’s the guy with the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ money, whenever one of those big orange trucks would happen by.
He told it one night to some out-of-towners. The members of Sweep the Leg Johnny, a Chicago rock band, were crashing at the apartment on Myrtle Street.
“They were staying with us and we were talking about road stories,” Matt remembers. “I tell them the whole ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ story and then I look over in the corner, I see Jason laughing at me.”
Matt likens that moment to the final scene in “The Usual Suspects” after Chazz Palminteri's customs agent lets Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint walk free, only then to take in the names and faces on the cork board behind him, connecting all the dots and realizing, too late, that he has been had.
“I was the dupe the whole time!” Matt exclaims there at the Majestic. “The color drained from my face.” He was simultaneously humiliated and impressed, thinking, “Wow, that was really great.”
Soon after, Matt was crafting his own plausible little fibs. One regarding the origin of the name of the Reynoldstown neighborhood: Burt Reynolds, obviously, dubbed so while the actor was in town filming “Sharky’s Machine.” The capper to the story was that Reynolds was given the key to the city by mayor Andrew Young.
“I don’t think Andrew Young was even mayor at that time!” Doug Monroe exclaims, “but then he heard someone a year later telling someone else that story in line at Eats.” Did you know that Reynoldstown is named after Burt Reynolds? And if that patently ridiculous story can gain traction, it is hardly surprising that his follow-up would later get picked up by history books, by walking tours, and by the AP.
“It felt like my greatest accomplishment at that point!” Matt says, shaking with laughter.
Before anyone thought to write it down, the story grew through word of mouth, with legions of Matt’s hapless customers, friends, and bandmates spreading the story like a virus. Maggie White may have been wise to some of Matt’s antics, there on her porch, but not this time. Years later, after they’d moved from Ponce, and in Matt’s case from Atlanta, it was Maggie’s turn to have a “Usual Suspects” moment. Listen to Maggie, Matt and his dad Doug tell their versions of how that conversation went.
“Being fooled by the story becomes a story itself,” Matt says. Hearing this tale come back to him, expanded and mutated, was all the more satisfying for Monroe.
“I’ve heard crazy things come out of it, like there are tunnels coming [from] underneath the Clermont Lounge going up to the Highland Inn and stuff like that,” stuff that Matt feels makes the story better, and makes him wonder if other people have gotten better at telling the story than he is. He also points out that the story did its growing up in the mid-’90s, before everyone was on the Internet, before Snopes and Wikipedia. But the story has been making the rounds for long enough that you can Google it now.
“And it comes up as lore,” Matt says, “and so it’s almost self-verifying.”
The other thing that comes up if you Google “Al Capone” and “Atlanta” is a date: May 4, 1932, the day the syphilitic gangster was put on an armored rail car under heavy guard and sent from Chicago to Atlanta to be imprisoned in the U.S. Penitentiary — an imposing facility on the southeast side of the city. He would serve the first two years of an 11-year sentence there. I bring this up to Matt, that Capone had actually been here in Atlanta — how that made the story that much more plausible. Listen.
Having this revealed to him only seemed to delight him more.
“Why not?” he laughs. “If he’s wielding so much influence in the prison, why wouldn’t he be able to get out?”
The only time it can be certain that Al Capone ever got out of the Atlanta Penitentiary is on Aug. 19, 1934, when prison guards came to his eight-man cell in the night to put him on a train bound for California, for San Francisco, where he’d take a boat to the newly opened Alcatraz.
As is often the case, the reality is far less glamorous than the legend. Among the first things that happened to Capone upon his arrival in Atlanta was his first official diagnosis of syphilis, followed by three weeks of quarantine. He was stripped of his fine suit and silk underwear for standard-issue denim and put in a cell with seven other cons. Red Rudensky was a safecracker on the outside and a one-time affiliate of Capone’s organization through Detroit’s Purple Gang; inside their shared bunk, the two became fast companions. Rudensky later wrote in his autobiography, “Atlanta would soon strip Capone down to the bare essentials — mainly guts and patience — and if he didn’t have one or the other he’d be in trouble after his high living and days of czarship.”
Capone went with patience. He worked 44 hours a week in the shoe shop, sewing and repairing leather. He corresponded with his family. The czar-like influence he once wielded in Chicago was here reduced to a small cadre of prisoners — associates of Red’s — who would guard and protect Capone.
Prohibition had flooded the federal penitentiary system with bootleggers. When Capone arrived in Atlanta, the prison was about 1,000 men over capacity. And many of these were Southerners, moonshiners, now joined by the biggest bootlegger in the world. According to Lawrence Bergreen’s book “Capone, The Man and the Era,” many convicts jeered when Capone arrived. They were none too impressed by this rich gangster who got off the train wearing silk pajamas, allegedly smuggling cash in a hollowed-out broom handle. Though he may have been a celebrity crook on the outside, Capone was not a popular man in the Atlanta Pen. Rudensky described “grubby, two-bit nonentities” who would shout, “Where’re the booze and broads now, fat boy?” Fearing his friend would crack under the pressure, Rudensky’s crew put a couple of Capone’s hecklers in the infirmary with cracked ribs and broken jaws. That sent the message, and life inside got less physically dangerous for the mobster after that. But rumor put him at risk all the same.
Jeers in the yard turned into whispers, carrying tall tales. The sight of Capone surrounded by Red’s posse led to rumors of preferential treatment. Snitches claimed he was using his largesse to bribe the screws, that he was allowed to wear his silk pajamas, that he was smuggling drugs into the prison. The rumors, which would later turn into romantic stories, prompted an FBI investigation.
Among the most fantastic of these stories was that Capone would hit a tennis ball over the wall of the yard, which would immediately return from the other side, now full of narcotics. Investigators called out all these claims as “ridiculous in the extreme,” and that rather than being the boss he had once been, he was now the victim of extortion attempts, threats, and in danger of “death and bodily harm while at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.”
But for a warden, rumors are bad for business and Warden A. C. Aderhold hastened Capone’s departure. When the guards came for Capone, one of them called out, “You’re going to the Rock, Al. A nice long ride to Alcatraz.” The inmate leapt at the guards, furious, screaming, “You’ll never take me out of here!” A fight ensued – the single altercation Capone was responsible for while there. Red Rudensky jumped in to help his friend and was knocked unconscious. When he woke, Capone was gone.
We tell stories to entertain ourselves. A pitcher of beer lasts longer when we are engaged in conversation; muggy nights sitting on a front porch on Myrtle Street don’t feel quite as oppressively hot when we can crack each other up or draw each other in with a good story. It’s a way of laying claim to a history — to a city — which we’re only borrowing for a while. Tell a good story and you own it, holding the past and the present in rapt attention for a moment. Atlanta’s front porches and barrooms are full of storytellers and as a result, embellishments and accepted fabrications and outright lies line Ponce and all the streets of the city like so much Stone Mountain granite curbing. When Matt Monroe was splitting pitchers with his friends at the Righteous Room in 1996, the idea was there was no idea. He was just passing time pulling one over on his friends. It is in looking back that we apply meaning.
"I mean, if you go drink at the Righteous Room,” Matt Monroe says, “you look across the street. That’s the coolest thing if you think that you’re in the same place where Al Capone was at that point, 70 years ago. And to lose that is to lose a little bit of the magic.”
It must be acknowledged that in this story, we are working with a series of unreliable narrators, of whom Monroe is only the latest. I imagine it may drive older Atlantans crazy to hear him claim an urban legend. Whoppers about Capone date all the way back to the mobster’s original stay here, and could only have grown since then. On the walking tour, Paul Hammock mentioned a bar on Park Place which stood across the street from the Candler Building downtown. The place was demolished last year and Georgia State is building a new College of Law on top of it, but way back when, the owner would boast that Al Capone was a customer. That “little bit of magic” has been around for a while — always longer than you think, always before your time.
In our booth at the Majestic, I ask Matt what the role of myth is in a city. It’s a big public radio question, perhaps a little too big for its britches, but Matt answers it well before the waitress interrupts his train of thought.
It’s a way that we have faith in something.
This generation of Atlantans is used to losing. Hell, the entire idea of the South “rising again” would be nowhere without the idea. But now, we find ourselves unable to unite as a region. We can’t get together on transportation. Those in power and those with money have shipped our baseball team to the suburbs and our college radio station to oblivion. Even as Ponce and the rest of intown Atlanta forge connections through the Beltline and a new streetcar, we are watching as rents skyrocket. And this brief grasp on progress and a collective identity proves to be just as tenuous as it ever has been. Atlanta is fractured, Atlanta is difficult.
When Capone arrived at Alcatraz, he became prisoner 85. The syphilis continued to attack his brain and destroy his faculties. Al Capone lost big. So reserving him a room or five here for him on Ponce seems like the least we can do. But the urban legend is not and hasn’t really ever been about Capone. Atlanta stripped him to his bare essentials before shipping him off to a cage on a rock.
The victors get first crack at writing history, but that in no way prevents the losers and those caught in between from fucking with it, endlessly. And so Matt Monroe put Capone up in an apartment where he could hire a few guards and enjoy a night out on the town. This way, we get to tell a story about Atlanta raising someone up rather than stripping him down. We get to talk about resurgens. It’s a way that we have faith in something.