Much has been written about Whitey Bulger in the past three decades, but in “Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss’’ Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill (who already wrote about Bulger and his unholy alliance with the FBI in “Black Mass”) have put together a comprehensive life and times of the mobster, beginning with his 19th-century Irish ancestors to his present perch in the Plymouth County Correctional Facility awaiting trial.
In recounting this epic, horrific tale, the authors have mined a rich vein of sources that include Bulger’s federal prison file, interviews with Bulger associates, government documents released through Freedom of Information Act requests, court records, and more.
Lehr, a former Globe reporter, and O’Neill, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Globe editor, make it clear that Bulger’s life and career were shaped by a multitude of factors that begin with an upbringing in a dysfunctional family and an apparent personality disorder amid a South Boston culture of tribalism, violent internecine struggles in the heyday of Boston mobs, and morally-bankrupt FBI agents.
From the beginning, say the authors, Bulger grew up hating his remote father and looking to assert his manhood on the tough streets of 1940s Southie. “Whitey preferred the street to home, where he faced the glare of a disapproving father, who at times beat him,” they write. Bulger graduated from shoplifting to jacking delivery trucks to robbing banks. He also made lifelong connections growing up in the Old Harbor housing projects, including with John Connolly, who would join the FBI and recruit Whitey as an informant.
Lehr and O’Neill offer a fascinating psychological profile of Bulger, who blended supreme narcissism, murderous greed, and a compulsive need to exert control with personal charisma, intelligence, and massive ambition.
As a juvenile, Bulger was arrested multiple times for various, escalating offenses, but “there was virtually no price to pay for his transgressions,” the authors say. A swaggering Bulger learned to use his smooth talking and family/political connections to stay out of jail.
Young Bulger was finally arrested when bank-robbing associates ratted him out to prosecutors in exchange for leniency — a life lesson to watch his own back and avoid getting outmaneuvered again.
Even in federal prison doing a 20-year stint, Bulger used his political connections (most prominently, state politician brother Billy and US House Speaker John W. McCormack) to gain better treatment and help win early parole after serving less than half his sentence.
Bulger’s need to control his environment would deal him a setback in prison. Bunked in an eight-man cell in an Atlanta penitentiary, full of noise and lacking privacy, Bulger checked himself into the facility’s “Psych Ward.’’
His stay there would eventually lead to a job in the prison hospital, which in turn would result in Bulger’s decision to volunteer for CIA-funded clinical experiments with LSD in exchange for a reduction in jail time. Lehr and O’Neill fully explore these shockingly unethical experiments, Bulger’s participation in them, and their long-lasting effects on him.
After his early release in 1965, Bulger emerged hardened and murderously fully formed, prepared to build his underworld empire.
When the FBI came to recruit him as a top-echelon informant in the mid-1970s, he instead manipulated the agency into serving his criminal enterprise. Ultimately, agents would put protecting informant Whitey above serving the public, with Connolly giving his “valuable asset” from Old Harbor de facto immunity to murder at will.
In exchange, say the authors, Bulger offered information of little value to Connolly, while paying him and other FBI agents hefty cash bonuses for years. The authors chronicle all the sickening mayhem, but just as stomach-churning are their details about the complicity of agents, including the tipoff of Bulger’s impending arrest, which sparked his flight.
Given how much has been written about Bulger unearthing new detail is rare. But Lehr and O’Neill offer fresh context on the tip by Anna Bjornsdottir, a former California acquaintance, that led to the gangster’s capture. Bulger’s girlfriend Catherine Greig, who went into hiding with him in Santa Monica, loved animals, and had a cat, became casually friendly in 2007 with Bjornsdottir, a regular visitor to the area and also a cat lover.
One day, Bjornsdottir expressed her admiration for newly elected President Obama, which triggered a racist rant from Whitey, then calling himself Charlie Gasko, that both stunned Bjornsdottir and seared him indelibly in her memory — so much so that she had no problem recalling him and notifying the authorities after seeing his face on TV during a 2011 FBI media blitz.
In the end, what becomes clearest of all in “Whitey” is the gangster’s psychopathology that allowed him to objectify his world and the people in it. “The game he played was self-preservation, at any cost,” conclude the authors, “[it] had made him a monster who could strangle young women, shoot people’s brains out, and tear apart a city without blinking.” And of course, after his arrest, Whitey’s sordid story isn’t finished. But wherever it goes, it’ll surely be about Whitey first, last, and only.