THE BULGER MYSTIQUE|
Senate president: A mix of family, Southie, power
On the first day of school in 1948, when students spilled out of the Old
Harbor tenements in South Boston, Bill Bulger set off in the opposite
direction, walking out the back side of the project to Andrew Station where he
caught a streetcar to Boston College High School and a decade of serious
At age 14, he had made a fateful decision not to follow his friends down
Columbia Road to South Boston High School, a place where sports was king,
books stayed in lockers overnight, and a blue-collar or city job was often at
the end of the line. Instead, he took the trolley across town, driven by an
instinct that he belonged in the world of ideas and classical study.
He would go on to become one of the preeminent politicians of his time, a
state representative known for his wit and rhetoric and a Senate president
known for hard-nosed leadership. Despite his scholarly background, he has an
instinct for raw power and the legislative process that has kept him a force
at the State House for more than a decade.
Growing up in South Boston, he was the good son in a family struggling
with an unruly firstborn named James. While Bill was enjoying the good fortune
of BC High, James' lucky break was getting a suspended sentence in juvenile
court on larceny charges.
Frequently in court and never in high school, James would be nicknamed
Whitey and become a legend in his own time. Those who knew him as a teen-ager
talk about his vicious fights, wild car chases and youthful exuberance that
had a Hollywood flair.
Whitey was the kid who would drive his car off the street and onto
streetcar tracks, bombing through the upper level of the old Broadway station
as shocked passengers stared from the crowded platform. With a scally cap on
his head and a blonde on the seat next to him, he would wave and honk to the
crowd. Then he would be gone.
But the youthful hijinks turned into serious crime. In 1956, while his
brother Bill was studying Greek language and English literature at Boston
College, Whitey, his hair dyed black, was a fugitive from justice, wanted for
robbing banks around the country. The spree ended abruptly when the FBI
surrounded a nightclub in Revere. Whitey would go
to jail when Dwight Eisenhower was president and get out when Lyndon Johnson
was firing up the Vietnam War.
Yet the brothers have remained close. Whitey is the godfather of one of
Bill's nine children, and Bill got him a job as a Suffolk County Courthouse
custodian after he got out of jail in the mid-1960s.
No one can say why two brothers who share many traits would take such
vastly different paths. People shrug with sadness and say simply that Bill
went one way, Whitey the other.
UNLIKE his brother James, who was one of the toughest kids ever to come out
of the gangs around infamous Mercer Street, Bill Bulger enjoyed a Norman
Rockwell adolescence. There were all-day baseball games in the summer,
activities at St. Monica's parish during the winter, and long hours of study
by the third-floor window overlooking Logan Way.
In the summers, a parish priest used to hitch-hike with Bill and his friends
to places such as Houghton's Pond in Milton and Provincetown. Everyone
pitched in with the food. It was the kind of wholesome camaraderie that
Whitey never had. "He missed that," Bulger says ruefully.
By the time he was 12, Bill Bulger had a self-effacing leadership style
that friends remember today and recognized back then. He was not a holler guy
at second base but was elected captain of the baseball team anyway. As he grew
older, he was more manager than captain, scheduling games and making out
When he was 14, Bulger overheard a conversation that made it clear to him
that never having any homework was not such a good thing. Some of his friends
in St. Monica's religious instruction class were talking about taking exams
for Boston Latin and Boston College High School, and Bulger can still remember
the sinking feeling in his stomach. " 'Gosh, what am I doing sitting here,' "
he recalls thinking. " 'The world is going on somewhere else.' "
But while he picked scholarship over athletics in a sports-mad part of
town, he never turned his back on South Boston, a peninsula that was once a
cow pasture known as Dorchester Heights. In the beginning, it was separated
entirely from downtown Boston and the world-apart mentality persists to this
day. It is still a place where loyalty is a lifelong thing and outsiders have
to prove themselves slowly over time. When Bulger was overwhelmingly reelected
last week, the first thing he did was pay tribute to South Boston loyalty.
While the neighborhood of 30,000 has the highest percentage of long-term
residents in Boston, some say the stability has a downside, that the insular
pride of generations has put more emphasis on staying at home than in getting
ahead. Sports still gets far more attention than education does in South
Boston. Of Bill Bulger's contemporaries who went to the local high school,
only 4 percent went on to college.
Bulger grew up in the middle ground between two distinct sections of South
Boston: the heavily Irish City Point, with its sea breezes and higher
aspirations; and the more ethnically diverse Lower End with its stark box-
shaped houses with no porches that sit directly on the edge of roads leading
to the small factories along Fort Point Channel.
All the children of Old Harbor lived in a clean, neat housing project
surrounded by a park, a subway line, football and baseball fields and
basketball courts. They had victory gardens during the war, free ice cream on
the Fourth of July, and stairwells that were clubhouses, about 30 kids to a
It is there that Bill Bulger became a street-smart classical scholar, a
reasonable man you still do not want to tangle with.
But he is also a man who came to straddle two vastly different worlds --
Ward 7 and the Boston Symphony -- and, at times, is comfortable in neither. He
seems subtly imprisoned by the emotional and political boundaries of South
The dichotomy shows itself in oblique ways, such as when he is too erudite
for his audience. A retired firefighter who has lived in South Boston all his
life tells of going to a political function and hearing Bulger speak of the
Roman philosopher, Seneca, a moralist in a decadent time.
"Now Seneca to me, number one, means applesauce," said the ex- firefighter.
"There was an applesauce years ago named Seneca. Upstate New York."
At other times, Bulger seems uneasy with his background and
accomplishments, worrying that his life and times offer nothing special to
write about. "Does it make an interesting story?" he asks warily. "This
mystique business mystifies me," he says about himself. "When you've made the
trip, there's no there there."
Yet his unusual background of scholarship and mean streets has produced a
paradoxical politician who defies the ready labels of his trade, someone whose
positives and negatives reflect the ambivalence of a private man in a public
He can be a petty despot, but also a masterful conciliator.
He is a doctrinaire conservative on social issues but a tax-and-spend
liberal on anything involving the urban poor.
He is a reserved man who is transformed by a microphone into a stand-up
He is an urban populist who champions the arts and education.
He is as compassionate with elderly constituents as he is vindictive with
State House opponents.
He loves crisp debate but presides over a listless chamber that settles
issues in hushed huddles at the rostrum.
He feigns indifference to press criticism but never forgets a slight and
remembers it by name.
In short, at a time when media consultants seek sharp, simple images for
politicians, Bulger is a throwback to the defiant independence of his boyhood
hero, former mayor, governor and congressman James Michael Curley, a man whose
career was dedicated to never having to explain himself.
What you think of Bill Bulger depends on how well you get to know him.
One longtime legislator, who has held leadership positions, sees Bulger as
aloof. "He never gets to know you because he never tries. He's likable but he
has no friends. I've concluded he's a xenophobic from Southie who happens to
But George Bachrach, a former senator who unsuccessfully challenged Bulger
for the Senate presidency and was then stripped of his committee chairmanship,
offers this assessment: "I think Bill Bulger is probably the smartest, most
charming, most resourceful leader I've known."
Examining Bulger's roots and how he wields power is important in
understanding Massachusetts politics. It has not really changed much since
Bulger got out of the Army in 1955 and took a streetcar to the long gone Hotel
Brunswick to hear Curley's sad, stirring swan song when he lost the mayor's
race for the last time. Curley went down fighting, exhorting his diehard
coterie to do the same.
BILL BULGER is the son of a Depression couple whose strong sense of family
and dignity did much to shield their six children from their dire poverty.
Decades after the last Bulger had played a courtyard game called
''Relieveo" on a summer night, Old Harbor neighbors still rave about the neat,
polite children of James and Jean Bulger. They make a point of including the
oldest boy, known as Jimmy inside the project. All the trouble, they say,
well, that happened away from home.
The Bulgers were among the first inhabitants of the first public housing
project in New England and the second one built in the country. They were
among the 1,016 families who would be part of a close-knit community where
people helped each other out and everyone was broke the day before payday.
People who lived nearby envied those at Old Harbor, at least in the beginning.
The Bulger family had moved from Everett to Dorchester before going to Old
Harbor when it opened in 1938, when Bill was 4 years old and the growing
family needed a third bedroom. Three brothers would grow up together in one
room and three sisters in another.
While the project was a massive playground for the children, you had to be
broke to get into it. After a railroad yard accident when he was a young man,
James Joseph Bulger had part of his arm amputated and was not able to hold a
full-time job afterward. He worked occasionally as a clerk at the Charlestown
Navy Yard, doing the late night shift or holiday work. When it was bitter
cold, he was sometimes called to be night watchman.
Bill Bulger remembers his parents sitting on the stoop with old Mr. Fallon
from across the street, talking about Charlestown, where his mother grew up
and his father worked when he could. The talk was of the "neck," the ''point,"
the "valley." "My God," says Bulger, "the place is about a square mile and
they'd talk about it like it was an entire country."
His father's hard life began in the jammed immigrant tenements of the North
End, just as the waterfront neighborhood was shifting from a predominantly
Irish enclave into a raucous refuge for those escaping the unemployment and
famine of southern Italy in the mid-1880s. He had but one sibling, a sister
who became a nun and lived in New York.
After working at railroad and shipyard jobs, the senior Bulger married in
his 40s, exchanging vows with a Charlestown woman half his age, a sunny,
attractive person known as Jean but baptized Jane McCarthy. Her parents had
come from Cork City in Ireland shortly after the turn of the century. Her
father was killed in a shipyard accident when she was a young girl, making her
no stranger to hard times by the time she met her husband.
No one has a bad word to say about Bill Bulger's mother. In good weather,
she was always outdoors talking to neighbors and she knew the first names of
all her children's friends, which included about half the project. While she
was unflaggingly pleasant, she also had a certain shrewdness about her. She
could be very direct, and no one fooled her for long. Most people say that
while Bill shared his father's interests, he is really a subdued version of
But if the father kept to himself and carried his private burdens with
taciturn dignity, he was not a man without a point of view. He was a New Deal
Democrat and an admirer of James Michael Curley, a contemporary who dominated
Boston politics for nearly half a century.
A short man who wore glasses and combed his white hair straight back, he
would walk by Columbus Park or Carson Beach, smoking a cigar, a coat hung over
the shoulder of his amputated arm, a newspaper folded in his back pocket. If
he recognized one of Bill's friends, he would talk effusively about current
events. One of them recalls: "I was 17 years old, worried about playing ball
and going to the drive-in. I'd meet him and say 'Hi, Mr. Bulger' and he would
start talking about politics, philosophy, all this stuff."
"My father," says Bill Bulger, "was a big fan of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In his view, unions stopped capitalism from devouring the common people, and
FDR adjusted the system to save the working man. He felt very strongly about
Bill Bulger is intensely private about family matters, deflecting most
specific questions about his parents, saying he does not even want their
memory in the public domain. "It's an odd feeling I have about my parents. You
think about it and get bluesy. I didn't do enough for them. I was 30 when he
died. . . . We didn't talk the way we could have. When you think back, you
feel selfish. I wish there was more to tell, that there were more shared
moments. You don't know it and the moment passes. You think it's a permanent
arrangement, you can catch up whenever you want, and then it's gone."
In a slow, measured manner, he recalled how his sister's husband, a son of
South Boston who graduated from West Point in 1949, was killed in Korea two
years before Bulger enlisted in the Army, in part, to be eligible for the GI
bill so he could finish Boston College. The war was still on when he joined
in 1953 and his parents were tight-lipped with worry when they took him and
some friends to South Station for the train to Fort Dix, N.J. His father, then
nearly 70 years old, followed him down the aisle of the train, surprising his
son who thought he had left his parents back on the platform.
"I thought, 'What's this?' You know how kids are. My father, and this
was unusual for him, he took my hand and said, 'Well, God bless you, Bill.' I
remember it because it was quite a bit more than my father was inclined to
say. It's one of those things that stop you, that you remember. You wish you
said more yourself."
BEFORE Bulger's life was consumed by commuting to school, homework and
working at Karp's market, he led a carefree life at the project that had
everything a kid would need. Since everyone was poor, there was never any
stigma attached to being at Old Harbor, at least not until you got out into
On a summer day, he and his best pal, Joe Quirk, used to play baseball from
morning to dusk. After supper, the "Pirates" around Logan Way would play
''Relieveo" into the night until, one by one, they were summoned home by
shouts from open windows. When it was overcast, Bulger and Quirk would
sometimes set off for exotic places along downtown Boston's waterfront or deep
into Dorchester in search of matchbook covers for their collection, with
glitzy nightclub ads much more valuable than flaps showing Bromo Seltzer
Before high school, Bill Bulger's life was an urban version of Huck Finn
drifting down the Mississippi River, with one of his greatest coups coming in
the early evening when he got Ted Williams' autograph outside Fenway Park. All
his friends had Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky, but no one could get near enough
to the moody Williams to even ask -- except the cherubic Bulger. Even though
Williams had been tossed out of the game that day, he inexplicably stopped his
car for the blond-haired kid holding out a penny pad of paper. ''Are you a
boo-er?" he asked gruffly, reaching up to the car's visor to get a pen, giving
Bulger lifelong status at Old Harbor.
Bulger's fascination with the churlish, independent slugger continues to
this day. He empathizes with having 35,000 people on their feet cheering and
hearing the one fan in the crowd who is sneering. "He would hear one booer in
the whole park, the poor guy, and it would be the one guy he was trying to get
a message to." After a pause, he concedes finding it difficult to follow his
own advice about ignoring critics.
When he was 14, Bill Bulger went from never taking a book home from the
Hart School to staggering up Logan Way under a book bag that would dominate
his life for the next decade. While friends played stickball outside, the
Bulger boy would be up by the third-floor window, hitting the books. He was
disciplined without being a monk about it, self-conscious about not becoming
known as an egghead. Nonetheless, some kids took to calling him the "beam"
because, come dusk, the desk light by the third-floor window snapped on and
usually stayed on quite late.
By his sophomore year at BC High, he only had to share his room with his
younger brother Jackie. Whitey was now in the Air Force when he was not AWOL
in Oklahoma City or in county jail in Great Falls, Mont., as a suspect in a
Whitey would muster out of the service shortly before Bill entered Boston
College in 1952. In the next few years, Whitey would be acquitted of several
minor larceny charges in Boston before going on the road with some
accomplices, robbing banks in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Indiana before
being convicted in 1956 and going to jail for a decade.
In 1948, at a time Whitey was being charged with assault, Bill was working
after school at John and Mary Karp's meat market, hustling to make the $37.50
he needed each term for tuition. He would entertain the Karps with his stories
and songs. "I was always quite bold about singing," he says.
When Bulger asked John Karp about the price of baloney, the butcher would
ask with mock indignation how come Bill could remember the names of all those
girls who walked by and the words to all those songs and never the price of
meat. "The words never change, Mr. Karp," he would tell him. "But you can't
keep up with the baloney around here."
WHEN HE WAS in his early teens, Bulger remembers the neighborhood's
astonishment when a father left one of the families, how it was a matter of
gossip for days, and how the neighbors rallied to the mother left with the
The sense of community at Old Harbor, now known as the Mary Ellen McCormack
project, was so strong that it was viewed as a place more South Boston than
South Boston, a city within a city. Today, as in most public housing in the
city, the family unit has totally changed. Nearly 90 percent -- or 877 of
1,006 families in the project -- are headed by a single parent. Drug use,
while less common than at other projects, is a persistent problem.
Says Bulger in retrospect: "I've often thought we were so rich. If you
went to the best boarding school in America, you would find all sorts of
youngsters who were, compared to us, quite impoverished. They had parents who
cared little, who may have given them the impression they were being
warehoused. We all knew that someone cared mightily about us. . . . You could
get schmaltzy about it."
Not that there wasn't trouble to be found in South Boston. Seven blocks
from Logan Way was the heart of darkness, Mercer Street, with its gangs who
fought with belt buckles and worse. Whitey Bulger was as tough as any of them.
While he was not a bully, it did not take much to cross him. He was a
ferocious fighter with fast hands and a hair-trigger temper. Around Old
Harbor, he was given a wide berth when he strolled the project, asking younger
kids to punch him in his washboard stomach so he could laugh about it.
Despite profound differences, the brothers remain simpatico, sharing an
incisive intelligence and drive that have put them at the top of their
divergent worlds. In some ways, both turned away from conventional paths in
South Boston. Bill focused on classical studies and thought hard about being a
priest before choosing law school and then politics; and Whitey eschewed the
mundane life of working for the city or on the assembly line at Gillette, in
favor of dodging the law.
More is known about Bill's road to success. He is remembered by classmates
at Boston College for his diligence and wit, which served him well as the only
English major in Rev. Carl Thayer's honors course in Greek. The crusty Jesuit,
who remains a friend and admirer of Bulger's, had the small class translate
250 lines a night and he always found Bulger prepared, hopelessly smitten with
the language, ideas and speeches of Demosthenes and Pericles, who talked of
honor before gold. "And these men were pagans," Bulger says.
After his freshman year, Bulger decided to go into the Army, primarily for
the GI bill educational benefits that could help him through Boston College
and into its law school. Father Thayer warned him it would be nearly
impossible to pick up the Greek after a two-year hiatus, but Bulger told him
he always finished what he started. And so he did.
Bulger joined a small study group at the law school and all but one of them
made law review. For three solid years, it was a monastic grind of incessant
study. He remembers being amazed to overhear other students talk about what
was on the Jack Paar Show the night before. When did they study? he wondered.
As he finished his second year of law school, two major decisions loomed:
Should he run for the House of Representatives in the footsteps of Jimmy
Condon, an old-school pol for whom Bulger had worked in several campaigns? And
when should he and Mary Foley get married?
She had been his only real girlfriend since the day he first saw her on the
SS Steel Pier, a cruise ship to Provincetown, when he was a junior at BC High.
He remembers seeing her dancing with other girls on the top deck and how her
hair was wet. He asked her to his senior prom the following year, and she
asked him to the Gate of Heaven prom when he was a freshman at Boston College
in 1953. Her mother and father were born in Ireland and ethnic to the core; if
something broke in the house, her mother would throw salt all over the place
to ward off bad luck. Mrs. Foley slipped Bill a couple of dollars when he
picked Mary up for the prom.
It would be a long, intermittent courtship, with study coming first and
then a hitch in the Army, but Bulger called her first thing when he got home
from Texas and, though she was not home for several calls, her mother from
Galway knew her daughter's heart. "I know she wants to talk to you," she
stressed to Bulger, stopping short of saying "keep trying."
Bulger calls the period between 1955, when he got out of the Army, through
1960, when he first got elected, the "Big Years." So much happened --
college, law school, marriage, first election -- and the time seemed so
endless, quite unlike the stream of years that has carried him into middle
He and Mary Foley got married in July 1960. A few months later, he entered
politics, running for the Massachusetts House seat being vacated by another
Old Harbor resident, Joseph Moakley, now a congressman filling the shoes of
the most famous South Boston politician of them all: John McCormack.
The Bulgers had a child in just about every year of the 1960s, having the
ninth in 1974. He washed the kitchen floor once a week, made corned beef hash
from scratch once in a while, and walked the babies at night, reading a book
over their shoulder at 4 in the morning. "Mary worked harder during the day
than I did," he says.
It was Bulger's longstanding rapport with the elderly that carried him to
his first electoral victory. His easy way with them was the first
manifestation of a public persona. Ken Joyce, a law school classmate and
professor at the University of Buffalo Law School, says old people loved
Bulger because he listened.
Even as a young teen-ager, says Joyce, he was able to joke with older
people and listen to their troubles and extrapolate some wisdom from their
experiences. He was the only one who could handle a gruff old Scotsman named
Bill McAuliffe who had a horse stable on Devine Way near the project.
McAuliffe would rail at the boys for using his barn as a backstop for their
stickball games and everyone would take off when he came storming around the
corner. But Bulger would stay and say, now Mr. McAuliffe, the barn is not
going to fall down and it's such a little ball. The next moment, Bulger would
be inside the barn getting a tour and lecture on saddles and the right way to
ride a horse. "Oh," Bulger says, "I could have gone to the UN in those days."
But it was the mothers of the project who would pay political dividends
when Bulger first ran for office. His campaign was staffed by a handful of
astute friends and the mothers of Old Harbor who got to know him well growing
up, running up the street with a white altar boy's surplice flowing over his
shoulder as he headed off to St. Monica's Church for a funeral or a wedding.
The mothers stuffed envelopes and spread the word.
Bulger had learned the mechanics of running and the voting pattern of the
district by working for the only incumbent left in the district, the
redoubtable Jimmy Condon, a mentor of sorts and a nice guy who got elected by
taking busloads of kids out to a farm he had in the country. Bill Bulger
wanted to be a Jimmy Condon who talked about issues.
His father, then 76 years old, did not think it would be possible, warning
him that he would be little more than an errand boy for demanding
The elder Bulger was also concerned that the election would be a referendum
on his oldest son Whitey, who was then in Alcatraz, halfway through a nine-
year term for bank robbery. He was worried that there would be a smear
campaign and that the neighbors might turn their backs on the Bulgers.
The anxiety heightened when the tail end of a hurricane sent violent
rainstorms throughout New England the day before the election, leaving trees
and lines down around South Boston. But the disarray cleared into a washed,
bright day that brought out a heavy vote.
It was a resounding triumph for Bulger, with Old Harbor leading the way,
easily giving Bill Bulger one of the two seats sought by the field of 16
candidates. Bulger got twice as many votes out of the project as anyone and
almost topped Condon as the top vote-getter. "That was a very pleasing part of
it," Bulger says. "The people who knew you best were voting most heavily for
They had a small gathering of campaign workers at the headquarters on
Preble Street, a corrugated newspaper stand that did little more than keep
workers dry on rainy summer nights. His father was at the party, making a rare
appearance. He even had a glass of beer outside the house. He took a hearty
drink and looked directly at his son with approval.
The neighborhood had spoken.
This story ran on page 1 of the Boston Globe on 9/18/1988.
© Copyright 1988 Globe Newspaper Company.