Earlier this fall, with almost no fanfare, Beverly-based Commonwealth Editions published a new biography of Boston's archetypal politician — James Michael Curley: A Short Biography with Personal Reminiscences — written by former Massachusetts Senate president William Bulger. The ensuing lack of coverage indicates that Bulger (like Curley) is fast becoming ancient history; it also suggests that the Boston press may be paying back a politician who famously held them in disdain.
Taken as a conventional biography, James Michael Curley is a mixed bag: it's a good read, but slight and archaically boosterish (e.g., Bulger dubbing Curley "our hero"). It's neither a work of thorough scholarship, such as Jack Beatty's Rascal King, nor a journalistic life and times, such as Joseph Dineen's The Purple Shamrock.
But James Michael Curley can also be seen as Bulger's attempt, with the aid of Curley's example, to rehabilitate his own legacy — and considered from that perspective, it becomes a more intriguing text.
Bulger's world has radically changed since his sepia-tinged memoir, While the Music Lasts: My Life in Politics, came out in 1996. In 2003, testifying publicly to a congressional committee on the mishandling of FBI informants — including his sociopath-gangster brother Whitey — the verbally dexterous Bulger spoke haltingly, appeared evasive, and was continually on the defensive. The hearings generated more heat than light, but gave then-governor Mitt Romney leverage to oust Bulger as president of the University of Massachusetts. Later, Bulger's $200,000-plus annual state pension became a symbol of the perennial need for reform.
What's more, the lives of Bill and Whitey Bulger have been commodified, spawning books (Howie Carr's The Brothers Bulger, Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's Black Mass), a TV show (Showtime's Brotherhood), even an Oscar-winning film (Martin Scorsese's The Departed). Throughout the decade, in short, the formerly formidable Bulger has ceded both political and cultural control.
Bulger could have responded by writing another standard-issue memoir. His determination not to speak openly about his brother, however, would have been a huge obstacle. And even if he'd surmounted that problem, any book focused on his recent travails would have been an acknowledgment of weakness — a tacit admission that Bulger's critics can now pose questions he's required to answer.
Perhaps that's why, in James Michael Curley, Bulger has instead cloaked a personal manifesto inside a traditional biography. The press may be done making sense of Bulger's life, but Bulger clearly isn't.
Staying the course
When I first speak with Bulger about James Michael Curley, he launches into a lengthy, impassioned diatribe against the press, lambasting journalists ("men of unsleeping malevolence"). And he reads a lengthy 1989 letter to the Boston Globe, written by retired Harvard professor E. L. Pattullo, panning that paper's coverage of what became known as the 75 State Street scandal, in which Bulger's law partner Thomas Finnerty was accused of extorting developer Harold Brown. (Brown and Bulger were both later cleared by the US attorney.) As Bulger sees it, 75 State Street was a classic case of guilt by association, prosecutorial overreach, and innuendo run amok.