NPR

A View Of 'Whitey' Bulger From A Crime Novelist

New England organized crime figure James "Whitey" Bulger is shown in these 1984 photos originally released by the FBI. (AP)

We heard the claim all day after word came in that authorities had nabbed mobster Whitey Bulger. We heard that news of his capture in Boston was as big as news that Osama bin Laden had been killed.

In an interview that will air in Friday's Morning Edition, host Steve Inskeep takes that claim to crime author Dennis Lehane, who's from Boston and whose novels are based in the city.

Lehane scoffed at the suggestion.

"I hate the grandeur that's paid to it," he said. "He was a criminal who left a lot of tragedy in his wake and nothing more."

Lehane said Whitey's story is attractive because of the stunningly different path taken by his brother, William Bulger. As ABC News writes in a story today, they were two of the "most feared men in a fierce city."

Except that Whitey became the boss of Boston's Winter Hill Gang, while William became the leader of the Massachusetts state House. "He was a dominant force in Massachusetts politics for more than four decades, the powerful president of the state Senate beginning in 1978, who landed a career-capping job as president of the University of Massachusetts system," writes ABC.

But Whitey, said Lehane, was quite simply "a rat:"

He was a guy "who destroyed generations of children," said Lehane. "A guy who got innocent people killed."

But somehow Whitey's life story seemed to touch you in Boston. Lehane explains that he bought his first bottle of liquor at Whitey's store.

"The first liquor store I bought liquor at illegally when I was 16-years-old was Whitey's," he told Steve. "So everybody knew that's the liquor store you went to. Why did you go to it? Because it was run by mobsters. They don't care if you have an ID."

And everyone gets it: Mob guys are bad people. But, asked Steve, why is it that we're all so enthralled by the gang narrative?

"It tickles something in us that we believe we don't speak of, which is this idea that maybe this whole thing rigged," said Lehane. "Maybe this faith we have in governments, maybe this belief we have in the electoral process, maybe this belief we have in this idea that some people are better than others is all a lie and that a gangster at the very least is upfront about this."

Tune into Morning Edition on your local NPR station to listen to full conversation. We'll post the as-aired interview Friday morning.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Whitey Bulger holds a sizeable place in the Boston imagination. Novelist Dennis Lehane knew that name, growing up in the same community where Whitey Bulger did business.

DENNIS LEHANE: The first liquor store I bought liquor at illegally when I was 16 years old was Whitey's. So everybody knew, that's the liquor store you went to. Why did you go to it? 'Cause it was run by mobsters. They didn't care if you have an ID.

INSKEEP: Dennis Lehane went on to write Boston crime novels, including "Gone Baby Gone" and "Mystic River," which became movies. Yet Lehane says Whitey Bulger does not deserve the attention he's getting. When Bulger was captured, Lehane's phone started ringing with reporters asking for comment, and he ignored almost all of them.

You know, people have been telling us again and again that Bulger's capture is bigger news in Boston than bin Laden's death, Osama bin Laden's death. Really?

LEHANE: No. One of the reasons I've stayed away from this story, despite a rather dizzying array of offers about it, is because I hate the grandeur that's paid to it. I hate the sense that this guy was somehow larger-than-life. You know, he was a two-bit criminal who left a lot of tragedy in his wake, and he was nothing more.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about two things there, because there's the reality of the man's life, but there's also his image. How did his image get to be so large in Boston?

LEHANE: I think because - certainly because of his brother. That's what everybody's fascinated with in that story, is the fact that, you know, certainly from the outside - I hear it from Hollywood all the time - is, well, his brother, you know, a leader in the Senate. And then you have Whitey himself, who's a very brazen, very public criminal in a way that, you know, you didn't see much of post-1930s. I mean, I could see, at a dramatic level, what the hook is.

But I think where I leave the bus is when you see what this guy did to his community, when you see that he flooded the Old Colony Housing Projects - which he was supposedly protecting - with heroin. He destroyed generations of children. This was a guy who got innocent people killed. It wasn't just other mobsters. I mean, talk to the Donahue family. Talk to the Wheeler family out in Oklahoma. I mean, these are people who, with the collusion of the FBI, killed innocent human beings.

INSKEEP: And you remind us by mentioning drug use, there used to be a kind of mythology of the mafia types and organized crime types placing themselves above drug gangs. That was never really true, was it?

LEHANE: It as definitely not true in South Boston during the Bulger years, no. No. I mean, that's when the heroin came in. And then you were also talking about the other point of alleged pride was these were, quote-unquote, "stand-up guys." And yet it's very clear that Bulger was a rat for years.

So what he did was he - you know, the one thing that you can absolutely tip your hat to about Whitey Bulger - absolutely only thing I'll tip my hat to - he was an extremely shrewd human being. He was very smart.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

LEHANE: Well, he did exactly what he meant to do. He took out all his rivals. He used the FBI to do it. When the FBI wanted to control him, they realized that they couldn't, that he actually controlled them. He got a head start, that famous - the famous line, we'll give you a head start. He got out of town just before this thing blew up, and every single human being who was connected to him went down over it. But he didn't. He got to spend the next 16 years of his life in Santa Monica.

INSKEEP: Well, what do you think it says about us, collectively, that we, the public - or at least Hollywood types and people in Boston - are really, really fascinated by a character like this?

LEHANE: The gangster story is a fascinating story in general. It tickles something in us that we believe that we don't speak of, which is this idea that maybe the whole thing is rigged. Maybe this faith we have in governments, maybe this belief we have in the electoral process, maybe this belief we have in this idea that some people are better than others is all a lie, and that a gangster, at the very least, is upfront about this. I mean, anybody who can tell me the difference between a gangster and a feudal lord, I'd like to meet them, because I can't find it.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Dennis Lehane, we have found you - although you're a Boston native - we have found you in Southern California, just a few miles from Santa Monica and the apartment where Whitey Bulger was found. Since you heard the news, have you wondered if that...

LEHANE: I think that's why Whitey left, yeah. He's just like, Jesus, every time I turn around, there's an Affleck, there's Denis Leary, now Lehane shows up. He had to get out, you know? It's just enough.

INSKEEP: So, your theory is too many people who are famous from Boston moved to Southern California, and he may have practically turned himself in to get out of the crowd?

LEHANE: I think we flushed him out, yeah. He just didn't want to hear the accents anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Well, Dennis Lehane, it's a pleasure speaking with you.

LEHANE: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular