'Whitey Bulger' digs deep into gangster’s story

When Whitey Bulger was arrested in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 22, 2011, it brought to an end one of the longest manhunts in U.S. history. Nearly 82, Bulger had spent 15 years hiding in plain sight in an apartment complex with longtime girlfriend Cathy Greig.

In that time, he had reinvented himself: from a ruthless murderer and extortionist, who once ruled South Boston, to a grandfatherly figure, white-haired and nondescript.

"Whitey Bulger" is a portrait of its subject in all his complexity: devoted son and brother, vicious killer, neighborhood folk hero, anti-integration activist.

It's a terrific book - comprehensive, deeply reported, invested with an understanding of place and character, and the subtle, at times pernicious, ways they interact. This is hardly surprising; the authors, Polk Award-winning Boston Globe reporters, have been on the Bulger trail for nearly 30 years.

"(I)n his own bloody way," Cullen and Murphy write, "Whitey Bulger's life was fused with the modern history of the city. During his career he became one of its most recognizable icons. Boston is the city of John Adams, John Kennedy, and Ted Williams, but there are few names better known or more deeply associated with the city than Bulger's."

That idea, of Boston as a city in which patrician elements are juxtaposed against a strong working class, resides at the heart of Cullen and Murphy's investigation. And yet, as their book reveals, such borders are more fluid than they seem.

Bulger - who moved to South Boston in 1938 when he was 8 - may have learned that "(b)eing tough meant something in all of Southie, but especially the projects," but his younger brother Bill went in a different direction, serving for many years as president of the Massachusetts State Senate and later president of the University of Massachusetts. The same was true of Bulger's partner-in-crime Steve Flemmi, whose brother was a Boston cop.

This porousness makes it difficult to define, in any fixed way, right and wrong. Instead, as Cullen and Murphy make clear, everyone is complicit, from Bulger, who "considered himself more paternal than pathological, nothing like the other bad guys," to "two accomplished men (who) assisted in this preening self-portrait: Bill Bulger, who could never fully face what a menace his brother was, and one of Bill's proteges, FBI agent John Connolly."

Connolly became a central figure in the story as Bulger's FBI minder, who "cast Whitey as an indispensible ally in the FBI's war against the Mafia." That's right, ally; throughout his years in Boston, Bulger was an FBI informant, which allowed him an immunity he wouldn't otherwise have had.

According to Cullen and Murphy, Bulger and Flemmi, despite having killed as many as 40 people, were not only protected but abetted by agents such as Connolly and his supervisor John Morris, who alerted them to threats and accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and gifts. Connolly came from Southie and had looked up to Bulger as a child. The implication is chilling: that the bonds of community, are stronger than those of ethics or legality.

In that sense, Cullen and Murphy suggest, Bulger is a product of the streets he came from, although those streets are no longer what they were. "Southie was 98 percent white in 1970," they write; "by 2000 it was 84 percent white, and by 2010 it was 79 percent white."

Such changes echo shifts in the larger city, where "the ethnic neighborhoods that had been home to the most prominent of the city's organized crime groups - the Irish in Southie and Charlestown, the Italians in the North End - were gentrified throughout the 1980s and especially the 1990s."

They add: "If people wanted to gamble, they did so legally. The bookies were gone, replaced by state lottery machines."

This is the final irony, that for all the torment Bulger caused, the state has provoked issues of its own. Cullen and Murphy make that explicit late in the book when they detail a run of wrongful death suits against the government by the families of Bulger's victims-suits that were largely set aside.

"They talk about how arrogant Whitey Bulger was, how arrogant John Connolly was, how arrogant John Morris was" says Tommy Donahue, whose father was killed in 1982 by Bulger, acting on a tip from Connolly. "What could be more arrogant than the FBI and the Justice Department never having the decency to apologize to my family?"

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