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Author Of 'Sutton' Tells San Diegans About 'Babe Ruth Of Bank Robbers'

October 16, 2012 1:14 p.m.


J.R. Moehringer, author of "Sutton"

Related Story: Author Of 'Sutton' Tells San Diegans About 'Babe Ruth Of Bank Robbers'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Political activists in America continue to call for Wall Street bankers to be charged as criminals for the 2008 market collapse. But distrust of banks and bankers runs a lot deeper in the American consciousness than that. No less alike than Thomas Jefferson said I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. And so the bank robber has often Emerged as a sort of populist criminal. Willy Sutton is the subject of a new book and first novel by J. R. Moehringer. He's also the author of the best-selling memoir, the tender bar. Welcome to Midday Edition!

MOEHRINGER: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you started this book in 2008. How much of the motivation came from the Wall Street collapse?

MOEHRINGER: All of it.


MOEHRINGER: I was working on another novel, just starting. And I was also finishing up helping Andre Agassi with his memoir. And I was watching television with just growing fury. Watching the world end, and watching not only the economy, the global economy on come to a grinding halt, but watches hundreds of thousands of people be thrown out of work. I got a call one day from my mother saying what bank is your money in? And she said you're failing. You better get over there. A day later she said, which bank did you put that money in? They're failing even faster. And as I was racing to the second bank, I was so angry, it all seemed so needless, so unnecessary, so man-made, unlike a tsunami, unlike an attack, this seemed like naked greed run amok, and as I read about it and learned that it's not just cyclical, but it's cyclical like the seasons. And it's often if not always completely man-made.


MOEHRINGER: I just thought now is the time to write about that anger. And that got me thinking about people who hate banks almost as much as I do. And that got me thinking about bank robbers, and that got me thinking about arguably the most prolific bank robber in American history, willy Sutton.

CAVANAUGH: It seems Americans have an odd fatsination with bank robbers, Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde. Why do you think that is?

MOEHRINGER: Well, for that matter, butch and Sundance.


MOEHRINGER: Certainly one of the best beloved movies ever made. And nobody even seems to mention that they're arch criminals!


MOEHRINGER: I think it's because we are asked to endure an you feel lot in this society and this system at the hands of banks that have gotten out of control. And you mentioned Jefferson, I knew that he had a sense of foreboding about banks. But I didn't know what a passionate argument this was at the start of the republic. I just didn't understand how fearful he was, he and others, that banks if they ever became too big to fail would put the country at risk of failing. And I didn't know about the panic of 1907 which struck when willy Sutton was a boy. Overleveraged banks needing bailouts, people ruined, unemployment just spiking, I mean it all sounded so impossibly familiar. And then for that matter, a postWorld War I recession? If not depression that I didn't know about that? And then 1929, and so on and so on. And I just -- I saw willy Sutton as an interesting way to view the fact that we send bank robbers to jail for 25, 50 years, and banker who is rob us get $50 million payouts. I thought that anger would be an interesting thing to explore through the life of this prolific bank robber.

CAVANAUGH: Now, if most people know anything I think about willy Sutton, it's probably from the famous answer that we all know to the question, why do you rob bank, willy? And of course he said that's where the money is. Is that an Apock fal story?

MOEHRINGER: Well, he claimed it was Apock fal. But everything he said was Apock fal.


MOEHRINGER: If he told you it was raining, you could put away your umbrella. I don't know if he was delusional or just a contrarian or a trickster figure. But he was sort of hilarious. His relationship to the truth was like his relationship to banks. Confrontational.

CAVANAUGH: He has all of these nicknames. The babe Ruth of banks.

MOEHRINGER: The cops called him that.

CAVANAUGH: The gonedy of bank robsers.

MOEHRINGER: I gave him that one.


MOEHRINGER: The gonedy of gangsters because he was nonviolent to the extent that you can be nonviolent as an armed robber. But he took great pride in the fact that he never fired a shot in all of his many heist ares and his three spectacular prison escapes that he never hurt anyone. And he thumps his chest about it in both of his memoirs, and whether it's just a lucky accident or whether it really is the result of careful planning, there's no denying that even people who were are robbed by willy Sutton couldn't help but like him. A woman who was held hostage by him in a bank robbery told the FBI that being robbed by him was like being at a Broadway show except the usher is holding a gun on you the whole time. He was just helaborsly implausibly charming.

CAVANAUGH: Why is this a novel instead of a biography?

MOEHRINGER: There's almost nothing that he left for us in his memoirs that we can believe. They contradirect each other on every detail. The newspapers of the time contradict each other. It would be impossible to guide the reader through this labyrinth of maybe this happened but it's also likely that that happened. And that would become tiresome. I just wanted to tell the best story I could about willy Sutton, and I wanted to inhabit his psyche, and I wanted to make educated guesses without stopping every three photographers to say this is the myriad of possibilities based on the known record.

CAVANAUGH: When it comes to willy Sutton, we know that he was good at what he did, we know that he -- people say that he was charming, he didn't fire a shot. But why did he actually rob banks? Was it because he actually did hate banks and bankers?

MOEHRINGER: I leave the motivations unclear. Because they are really murky. He was led into his first crime ever by his first love. So there's a love story at the heart of this become. His first accomplice was a girl named Beth Emner, they wanted to get married, her father wouldn't allow it, so they cleaned out her father's safe, and went on a lark. This was 1919. He was left with a bad record and attitude, and no way of finding work. So he turned to professional bank robbing. He saw it without having any other options. So maybe it was love, maybe it was -- I think joblessness is at the core of this book. He was a very talented guy. He had a brilliant mind. A voracious reader. I read letters that he wrote to his publishers, they're beautifully composed. If he could have found some productive means of employment, he could have really been something special. But he just got the short straw chronologically, and historically, and lived at a time when a young punk from Irish town Brooklyn couldn't hope to find work and education was not even a remote option. So it may have been joblessness, it may have been love, it may have been rage at society. I love that he's not about the money though. What it wasn't about is the money! Even though we think he got away with $2 million, a lot of it he gave away. And a lot of it he buried in parks and lots and meadows around New York. And it's still there waiting for people to discover. So you have to love a bank robber that isn't about the money.

CAVANAUGH: You do! How much of his life did he spend behind bars?

MOEHRINGER: Exactly half of it.


MOEHRINGER: So he paid terribly for his crimes. And to this day, about 20 people per day rob banks in the U.S. and the penalties are crediblily severe, even though the average attack is about $2,500. So we really -- rightly punish bank robbers severely. And I have no sympathy for bank robbers. Every time you like him in my novel, I pull the rug out from under you. I show you his edge, the hard side, the danger you put people in every time he robs a bank. I'm not trying to exonerate him. I'm trying to enlarge the rogue's gallery. I'm asking why it is that we're so we're with bank robbers, but bankers who rob us, we look the other way. People who rob us with computers, they cause a thousand times the harm.

CAVANAUGH: J. R. Moehringer will talk about and sign books at two events, at the Del Mar country club tomorrow at 11:30, and tomorrow night, Wednesday, at war wick's bookstore in La Jolla, at 7:30. It's been a pleasure.

MOEHRINGER: I enjoyed it.