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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Looking Back At An Unlikely Acquaintance With Whitey Bulger

Here & Now Guest:

  • George Kimball, former Boston Herald sports columnist

Film poster for ''The Friends of Eddie Coyle."

Film poster for ''The Friends of Eddie Coyle."

The cultural impact of reputed Boston mob boss and FBI informant James “Whitey” Bulger spans far and wide.  Think of the movie “The Departed” and books written by the late great crime novelist, George V. Higgins.

Higgins’ book, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” was made into a film that was released in 1973. It tells the story of Eddie Coyle, a gunrunner in the Boston mob, who was also a police informant, like Whitey Bulger.

When actor Robert Mitchum, who played Coyle in the film, came to Boston to prepare for the performance, the actor met up with Bulger, according to former Boston Herald sports columnist George Kimball.

“At the time, Bulger’s public image was that of an eccentric but essentially harmless version of Robin Hood,” Kimball wrote in the Boston Globe. “But Higgins, aware of how ruthlessly dangerous Whitey could be, tried to convey his apprehension to the actor.”

After our story aired, we heard from listener Bill Doncaster, who sent this photo and note.

(Courtesy of Bill Doncaster)

(Courtesy of Bill Doncaster)

I don’t think Mitchum ever met with Whitey. I do know that Mr. Mitchum met with Howie Winter, Bulger’s rival in the Winter Hill Gang, because someone sent me a picture, don’t know who.

George Kimball said Whitey and Mitchum would have been introduced through Alex Rocco, who’d live a bit of a life as a hood. That part is true — but Rocco escaped the “life” to Hollywood in ’62 — and Whitey was still in jail. That’s Alex Rocco getting the kiss from Howie Winter — Mitchum’s in front.

My production company, Stickball Productions, is doing a staged version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle in the fall in Harvard Square. We held a reading last fall and someone sent this to me.

To me, there was an inherent theatricality in Higgins’ dialogue, and it begged to be performed live. It is fascinating that these stories keep bubbling up.”

George Kimball’s 2010 Irish Times Piece

Advisory: This article contains explicit language that may offend some

It is in no sense a “sports book” (although George Higgins would eventually write one of those, too), but its pivotal scene takes place in the midst of a National Hockey League game, a 3-2 Boston Bruins win that the frustrated sportswriter who was its author could not restrain himself from describing in lively detail, right down to a recitation of assists and penalty minutes.

There in his second-tier seat at the old Boston Garden, in a memorable soliloquy that would be faithfully reproduced in Peter Yates’ 1973 Hollywood adaptation of Higgins’ masterpiece of criminal noire, the beer-soaked eponymous central character gazes out at the ice and says of the greatest hockey player either Eddie Coyle or I ever saw:

“Beautiful. Beautiful. Can you imagine being that kid? What is he, about twenty-one? He’s the best hockey player in the world. Christ, number four, Bobby Orr. What a future he’s got.”

The observation is laced with irony, because Eddie Coyle has no future; within an hour he will be dead. But then the novel’s title – The Friends of Eddie Coyle – is also ironic, because as Dennis Lehane points out in his introduction to the new Picador edition commemorating the 40th anniversary of its publication, “Eddie Coyle has no friends. He barely has acquaintances.”

When what Lehane describes as “the game changing crime novel of the last fifty years” was published in 1970, it was lauded by everyone from Norman Mailer to Ross McDonald. New York Times book critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt compared it to Hemingway’s “The Killers,” while to Elmore Leonard it was, simply, “the best crime novel ever written.”

It was a book devoid of heroes, or even vaguely sympathetic characters, and its strength lay in its unerring rendition of the small-time hoods and petty criminals populating the fringes of Boston’s netherworld – and of the small-time cops and petty prosecutors whose speech patterns and moral codes didn’t seem far removed.

Although it was a milieu that might superficially have appeared alien to the privileged one inhabited by George V. Higgins (who had followed postgraduate studies at Stanford by returning to his alma mater, Boston College, where he got his law degree), it was one he knew well. Until his breakthrough with Eddie he had supported his writing habit by working as an Assistant US Attorney for Massachusetts, specializing in organized crime.

“We always knew,” a classmate from his undergraduate days at BC once recalled, “that George would become either a prosecutor or a proctologist.”

In his capacity with the Justice Department, Higgins was more aware than most of the shockingly cozy New England alliance linking the Boston constabulary, the feds, the city’s bottom-feeding Irish-American criminal gangs (of whom Eddie Coyle represents a subspecies), and, occasionally, the I.R.A, that had devolved into a murderous, self-sustaining culture of violence by the time it began to unravel with its public exposure two decades later.

In fact, when the cast began to descend on Boston in the early 1970s in preparation for the film version of Eddie Coyle, Robert Mitchum, who would play Eddie, cultivated, presumably in the interest of verisimilitude, the friendship of the notorious gangster James (Whitey) Bulger. At the time Bulger’s public image was that of an eccentric but essentially harmless South Boston version of Robin Hood, but Higgins, aware of exactly how ruthlessly dangerous Whitey could be, knew better, and tried to convey his apprehension to the actor.

Mitchum, who had in 1949 served time in a California prison – an experience he likened to “Palm Springs without the riff-raff” — on a marijuana possession charge, reminded Higgins that it was actually Bulger who was imperiling himself, by associating with a known criminal.

Higgins had been writing since the age of 14, and had collected an impressive stack of rejection slips for his trouble. He was 31 by the time he hit paydirt with his first novel, and was amused that “the success of The Friends of Eddie Coyle was termed ‘overnight’ in some quarters; that was one hell of a long night, lasting seventeen years.”

While he maintained a private law practice for several years (in which he defended clients as diverse as Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver to Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy), he was primarily a writer for the rest of his life, churning out 24 more novels, two short story collections, and four nonfiction books (including The Friends of Richard Nixon, an analysis of Watergate flawed by its sympathetic depiction of the nut-case Liddy, and an underappreciated baseball memoir, The Passage of Seasons), simultaneously writing a newspaper column for much of that time.

Having re-read the new Picador edition when it arrived earlier this week (at 182 pages, it doesn’t take long), it occurred to me as I glanced at the other Higgins titles on my bookshelf that while some of them are pretty good, not one of his subsequent novels approached the simple perfection of The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

One explanation seemed obvious: After putting years into fine-tuning Eddie, the man wrote 32 books in the next 20 years, and publishers rushed them into print as fast as he could turn them out. When I mentioned that to Dr. Carlo Rotella, the Boston College-based culture critic who wrote an appreciation of The Friends of Eddie Coyle for the Globe a few days ago, he pointed out that along the way Higgins had also switched publishers and editors, encouraging what Rotella described as a gradual descent “into unrelieved mediocrity.”

Denis Lehane interrupts his love letter to Eddie Coyle introducing the new edition to offer yet another view: “No one, before or since, has ever written dialogue this scabrous, this hysterically funny, this pungently authentic,” writes Lehane, who goes on to note that Higgins “spent the rest of his career trying to fix what wasn’t broken, attempting to refine his dialogue in subsequent novels to such a degree of phonetic miscalculation that it became a near-parody of the mastery on display here.”

When I signed on as a columnist for the Herald in 1980 Higgins had already decamped from that paper for the Globe, where he had recently taken over the “Lit’ry Life” column originated by the paper’s elegant iconoclast George Frazier.

Frazier had died in 1974, and while in the intervening years others had with varying degrees of success attempted to maintain the tradition, Higgins and “The Lit’ry Life” turned out to be a perfect match. We were both new to our respective jobs, and since George was interested in sports and I in books and politics, we talked, sometimes over a drink, but more often on the telephone, several times a month back then.

Higgins died of a heart attack in 1999, a week shy of his 60th birthday. A precursor of that untimely end had come a few years earlier, when he collapsed in the Back Bay and woke up to find himself on a gurney in the back of an ambulance, snarled in Boston rush-hour traffic. As he gradually regained consciousness and took note of his surroundings, he asked the accompanying EMT “How much do these things cost, anyway?”

The medic cited what seemed an obscene hourly rate.

“In that case,” George V. Higgins calmly replied, albeit through gritted teeth, “turn the fucking siren on!”

Article by Here & Now’s Alex Ashlock


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