This week, millions of people will tune in to see how one of the most evocative tales of Mafia life comes to a close. For me, the questions raised by “The Sopranos” have particular resonance because they bring up one about my own life: How on earth did I — a journalist, a college professor, a doctor’s wife, a nice Jewish grandmother — become a biographer to the mob?
To understand my befuddlement, imagine this scene: I was teaching a class in magazine writing and editing at the Boston University School of Journalism when I was interrupted by a knock on my classroom door. There stood a solidly built, square-jawed, curly-haired, handsome mobster, newly released from prison after serving six years of a life sentence for five murders (he cooperated with the government; it’s a long story). And the look on his face was not happy. “Here,” he barked, handing me a printout of what I’d e-mailed him a few days earlier. “I gotta go.”
I glanced back at my class. Twenty seniors stared at the visitor with an interest my lectures had never generated. “The class ends in 25 minutes,” I whispered to my hulking guest. “Please sit in the empty classroom across the hall. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He looked at me with the same look I imagine he afforded the victim we’d discussed the night before — just before the victim took a “dirt nap.”
“I gotta go,” he repeated in a tone no one could ever mistake for nice.
“Yes, well, we have a deadline,” I said, struggling to keep my tone low. “We have to get some work done on that chapter today or we’re not going to make our deadline.”
He shook his head at me, as if a pesky bug were crawling in his mop of curls,and began to walk away. That’s when I, a 61-year-old grandmother, yelled after a bona fide member of the Mafia: “Get back here! I mean it. I’m not fooling around, Kevin.”
He stopped and glared at me, then swaggered into the classroom across the hall, while I asked myself for the 1,000th time: “Are you trying to die? Why on earth are you writing this mobster’s story?”
Part of the answer to that question could be found five years earlier, after I’d finished a book about Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, and my agent found me a criminal who wanted someone to write his story. His name was Eddie MacKenzie, and he was a low-level drug dealer working for an infamous Irish mobster from Boston named James “Whitey” Bulger, who was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, wanted for 19 murders. Over the next two years, I learned a lot — about drug dealers, the Medellin cartel, leg breakers and swear words I’d never known existed. MacKenzie was a pretty likable, albeit not always truthful, character, and he liked me a lot after the book, “Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob,” got reviewed in The New York Times.
So when a couple of bankruptcy lawyers called me a year later, it wasn’t exactly out of nowhere. They had come up with a way for another member of the Bulger mob to avoid wrongful-death suits: Since this guy’s major asset was his life story, he could write a book and give 50% of his profits to the victims’ families.
But when they told me that this gangster was Kevin Weeks, I was dutifully impressed. Kevin had been Bulger’s closest confidant, the only person reputed to have met with Bulger since he took to the wind 10 years earlier. With this book, I would be climbing way up the ladder of bad guys.
The only thing the lawyers did not tell me was that Kevin, still in jail and not due out for at least 18 months, hated me. Well, he didn’t really hate me, since he’d never met me. But he hated MacKenzie and despised “Street Soldier” and everything it said about him. Plus, to make the situation even more unpleasant, the last thing he wanted to do was to write his life story. He’d spent his entire adult life committing criminal acts under the cloak of darkness. Revealing his life of crime to any author, never mind a woman who had recently written a book he deemed a bunch of lies, was, he repeatedly stated, worse than remaining in jail for the rest of his life.
But his lawyers prevailed, and I pursued him with an intensity I’d never known I possessed, ignoring his crankiness and nastiness, his murderous ferocity and all-around disdain. I was determined, I have no idea why, to have my name on his story’s bookjacket.
Three years after my first meeting with his lawyers, Kevin is out of jail, the book about him — titled “Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger’s Irish Mob” — spent time on The New York Times Best Seller List and I now get birthday presents from my subject. People call us The Odd Couple, since I’m sort of slender and a bit of a fashion plate and smile a lot, trying to make people like us. Kevin is pretty bulky and doesn’t smile a lot. He mumbles when he talks and could care less if anyone likes him.
And I am a changed woman.
While the Kevin Weeks who walked out of prison appeared to have no problem turning his back on his former life of crime, things had happened to me that were making it impossible for me to return to my former life away from the mob.
There were simply too many experiences that had altered my way of thinking. For instance, I remember the day I couldn’t spend with my grandson because I had to be with Kevin, getting photos of murder sites where he had buried a few bodies. “If nothing happens to Bubbe while she’s schlepping through the marshes tomorrow,” I said to my grandson over the phone, “she’ll be able to play with you on Monday.”
As it was, something did happen to Bubbe that day. Something involving four police cars and policemen with drawn guns, a terrified B.U. student who was taking the photos, a very angry Kevin and a grandmother looking down the barrel of a gun, wondering yet again what she was doing hanging around with gangsters who have short fuses and lengthy police records. It’s a long story.
“Brutal” has been in print for two years now, and Kevin and I still spend at least one night a month hitting bookstores (to sign books, not steal them). I have met some terrifying and intriguing people during this book tour. Some like us, fascinated as they are with mob life; others hate us for making money off of criminal acts. And while I identify more with the latter than with the former, I remind myself that victims’ families are profiting from this book, an occurrence that rarely, if ever, happens in other true-crime books.
There is no doubt that I now know more about crime — about loan sharking, extortion, drug dealing, stabbings, leg breakers, the RICO Act, money laundering, bookmaking, shipments of arms, hideouts built into walls, C-4 explosives, witness protection, superseding indictments and accessories to murder — than Carmela Soprano. I have passed Crime 101 with flying colors. Hell, I could probably teach it now.
Yes, I am a bubbe and a professor and I pal around with bad guys. And my unique situation doesn’t seem about to end. A few months ago, Al Capone’s grandson called to tell me his story. And a master armored-car robber sent me his manuscript. But I’m fussy. I don’t do grandsons or robbers.
Which is okay. I can wait for the next big guy to come my way. In the meantime, I am writing a book for my grandson. It begins: “Once upon a time, there was a grandmother who wasn’t afraid of bad guys. She didn’t know why, but they didn’t frighten her as much as big bugs with lots of little legs and black spiders….”