My Grandfather Shot Dillinger
Reprint of a story by Kevin Davis,
Courtesy of CityTalk Magazine, WTTW-Chicago
On a cold January day in
1934, my grandfather shot John Dillinger.
Sol "Dixie" Davis
steadied himself in front of the notorious bank robber, aimed his Speed
Graphic 4-x-5 camera and took a picture. Dillinger, who was handcuffed
and under police guard, let him take a few more photos and then said
enough. "Taking these pictures'll drive me screwy," Dillinger said.
Dillinger was not in a good mood. He and members of his gang
had just been captured in Tucson, Ariz. My Grandpa Sol, a photographer
for the Chicago Daily Times, was riding in a plane with America's most
wanted fugitive. He got a tip that police were bringing Dillinger to
Chicago and would stop in St. Louis to change planes. He drove down to
St. Louis to get on that plane, and bought up all the empty seats so no
other reporters or photographers could get on.
Sol said as he walked up the aisle after the plane took off.
"Whaddya want?" Dillinger barked.
"I'm the only
cameraman on the ship. I want a break."
Dillinger asked again.
"I want some pictures."
right, kid, go ahead and shoot."
Sol shot pictures and chatted
with Dillinger about his arrest. Dillinger complained of a headache.
Sol got him some aspirin and water. By the time they arrived in
Chicago, they had developed a pretty good rapport, and Dillinger spoke
The result was an exclusive front-page story and photos
in the Daily Times and one of the great scoops of Chicago journalism.
The details and dialogue of that encounter came directly from my
grandfather's newspaper account on Jan. 31, 1934.
Sol Davis was
a photojournalist during the glory days of Chicago newspapers, a
real-life character in that romanticized era of rough-and-tumble,
trench-coat-wearing, fedora-sporting reporters who scurried around town
chasing gangsters, celebrities, politicians and coppers. It was an era
that inspired three generations of Davises to become journalists.
My grandfather, my father and I were seduced by the news
business, by the idea of making a living witnessing life as it unfolds,
by having permission to go places, talking to people and asking
questions that no one else could and then sharing it with others. We
were addicted to a life of heightened existence, to the adrenaline of
being summoned at a moment's notice to rush to the scene of a big
story, of facing impending deadlines and seeing our stories or pictures
in print the next morning. There was nothing like it then or now.
Sol Davis, a Russian immigrant, was the first in the family to
become a newsman. He started out as a copy boy at the Chicago Journal
and later worked at the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Herald and
Examiner, the New York Daily News, the Chicago Daily Times and the
As a photojournalist he had a front seat to
some of Chicago's biggest news stories and newsmakers, taking pictures
of gangsters like Al Capone, celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Charles
Lindbergh, Rudolph Valentino and Shirley Temple, and sports figures
like Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth and Ben Hogan. In 1928 he
risked his life to get pictures of a shootout between Chicago cops and
train robber Charles "Limpy" Cleaver. He covered a flood in Cairo,
Ill., and helped rescue children. He covered the Cubs, White Sox and
Sol Davis loved life and loved the newspaper business.
He was a sharp dresser who went to work wearing beautiful suits with
crisp, monogrammed shirts and ironed hankies. He got haircuts and
manicures every 10 days and wore a tilted fedora. He stayed out late
and sometimes would be gone for days. He had hundreds of unpaid parking
tickets from leaving his car in the middle of the street while chasing
news, and he had hundreds of pals, from cops to hooligans.
my father was a kid, my grandfather would take him around the city
while on assignment. They'd go to baseball games, boxing matches, crime
scenes, racetracks and bookie joints. My dad had the time of his life
hanging out with his dad. "I wanted to be like him. I wanted to live in
that world," my dad told me. "I was totally enamored of the business."
My grandfather made one phone call and got my dad a job as a
copy boy with the Tribune. My dad loved it. He would hang around the
newsroom long after his shift, just watching and listening as reporters
and rewrite men worked the desk. When he was in the Army, my father was
features editor of the base newspaper at Fort Bliss, Texas, and had a
bullfighting column. He later worked at Chicago's renowned City News
Bureau and as a reporter for the El Paso Herald Post. His true passion,
however, was fiction writing, and he eventually got out of the news
The ink that ran in my grandfather's and father's
veins pulsed strongly through mine. I wanted to get out there to see
life and write about it too. When I was a teenager my dad showed me
yellowing newspapers and brittle old prints of Grandpa Sol's famous
pictures, which fired my imagination. Our apartment was always filled
with newspapers, magazines and books. I read as much as I could,
imagining myself reporting and writing. "If you want to write," my
father often told me, "you've got to read."
When my dad worked
at home as a freelance journalist and novelist, I used to hear him
clattering away on a 1928 Underwood Standard typewriter, surrounded by
a cloud of cigarette smoke and jazz playing in the background. He and
my mom would throw parties where other writers and journalists
gathered, telling stories and talking late into the night. I would hang
around and listen. I wanted to be like them.
So I became a
newspaper reporter. I worked in Florida and later in Chicago as a
freelance journalist, living the kind of life I had imagined, and, in
many ways, beyond. I covered everything from zoning-board meetings and
political campaigns to plane crashes and multiple murders. I've been on
assignments at the White House and in Beverly Hills, inside Chicago's
public-housing projects and amid burning and looting in he streets of
Miami. Being a journalist took me places most people have never seen.
Journalism has evolved since the days my grandfather was
running around town with his Speed Graphic. I come from a generation
inspired by Woodward and Bernstein, journalists who questioned our
government and those institutions that long escaped public scrutiny.
For me, journalism became an opportunity to expose injustice, give
voice to the voiceless and make a difference.
I never got to
know my grandfather, because he died when I was 3 years old. We would
have been great pals. I wish he had been around when I was a young
reporter so we could have traded stories and shared our love of being
newsmen. I turned out a lot like him, and I became a lot like my father
too. The three of us were linked by a passion to observe the human
condition, to live intensely, to be storytellers and to be part of
something larger than ourselves. My grandfather captured the world
through pictures; my father and I through words. Something stirred our
souls and made us do it. I don't think we could have done anything
else. I think Grandpa Sol would be proud.