‘Whitey’ Bulger: Gangster. Murderer. Art Thief?

25 Jun

When the FBI made their surprise visit to the elderly couple who lived just a couple of blocks from the Pacific ocean, they must have been delighted to find a stash of $800,000 dollars cash and an arsenal of 30  firearms. For the Feds, the haul was a useful illustration that, despite hiding in plain sight for many years, alleged mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was rich and ruthless. However, art lovers round the world will be disappointed that Whitey and longtime ladyfriend Catherine Greig -‘the Gaskos‘, as they were known locally –  didn’t have a Vermeer hanging above the bed or a Rembrandt in the sitting room. Not even a Degas sketch or two in the loo.

Asked by the judge if he’d read the charges, contained in 200 page document and topped off with 19 murders, Whitey simply shrugged and replied in a thick Boston accent “I know them all anyways”. But does the alleged Irish-American gang boss also know what happened to the $500m haul of artworks that were snatched from the walls of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in the early hours of 18th March 1990, just as St Patrick’s Day celebrations were winding down?


There’s no direct evidence to prove that Whitey ordered the world’s biggest ever art heist, but it’s unlikely he would have simply sat back and admired the audacity and success of the job. As alleged leader of the notorious Winter Hill gang, surely Bulger would have wanted a piece of the action?

As crime scenes go, it has got to be one of the most beautiful. The Dutch Room on the first floor of the Gardner Museum in Boston is lined with green silk wallpaper, from terracotta cobbled floor to oak timbered ceiling. There’s a Rubens over there, a Van Dyke on the far wall. But it’s the empty frames that immediately catch the eye.

An ornate gilded rectangle now frames nothing but green wallpaper, but it once held ‘Storm On The Sea Of Galilee’, Rembrandt’s only known seascape. And, next to the window, there is an easel on which was propped The Concert, one of only 36 Vermeer paintings known to exist.

Both masterpieces were cut from their frames and disappeared, along with two other works by Rembrandt, five sketches by Degas, a Manet painting, a landscape by Flink and – bizarrely – a bronze finial from a Napoleonic battle flag.

The Gardner robbery represents not only the biggest art heist but also the largest single theft of private property of all time. None of the artworks has ever been seen again.

Anthony Amore, the director of security at the museum, told me he spends a huge amount of time staring at the empty frames.

“If you were a homicide detective, you’d go to the scene and once the bodies were removed you’d see the taped outline of the person on the floor,” Amore explains. “I come in here every day and these are my taped impressions.”

The reason the frames remain on the walls is due to Mrs Gardner herself. An avid 19th Century collector, she scoured the auction rooms of Europe picking up masterpieces with the help of her personal shopper, esteemed art historian Bernard Berenson. She curated the museum personally and decreed in her will that nothing should ever be moved. Every frame hangs exactly where she hung it, every ornament exactly where she placed it.

Although Vermeer’s The Concert is probably the world’s most valuable single stolen artwork – estimates value it at around £200m if ever sold – the Gardner Museum holds an even greater treasure. But at nearly seven feet (2.1m) across, Titian’s The Rape of Europa was probably too big for the swag bag.

Dressed as Boston cops and sporting false moustaches, the thieves spent well over an hour in the Gardner galleries after handcuffing the hapless guards – both young music students doing part-time work – in the basement.

The Vermeer and the Rembrandt were obvious targets for any thief with a rudimentary grasp of art history. But the decision to unscrew five Degas sketches from the wall of a gallery is one that has perplexed every investigator who has worked on the case.

According to Charley Hill, a former Scotland Yard detective turned private investigator, the key to the crime is the time it took place.”It may technically have been 18 March 1990 but it was just after midnight as St Patrick’s Day celebrations were still going on. And that’s a big, noisy night in an Irish city like Boston,” says Hill.

As an undercover detective, it was Charley Hill who led the sting operation that recovered Edward Munch’s painting The Scream, stolen from the National Museum of Norway in 1994. Hill has been following a network of leads, many provided by underworld contacts. He says they all add up to one name – the Irish American mob boss who was finally arrested this week after 16 years on the run.

James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was on the FBI’s most wanted list – alongside another fugitive who was recently revealed to have been hiding in plain sight – Osama Bin Laden. Bulger had a $2m bounty on his head and there was a note on the Bureau website pointing out that he’s wanted for 19 murders, has a violent temper and carries a knife. There was nothing on the FBI website about Vermeer, Rembrandt and the others.

So why would Whitey have wanted the paintings? Charley Hill believes that – even if Bulger did not order the heist originally – he would have muscled in and taken control of the haul soon after.

“He’s never been interested in the sale of them, he’s interested in using them as barter,” says Hill. Offering up the long lost art might just buy him “a softer pillow and a better view” in jail.

Hill’s investigations have led him to remote villages in the Republic of Ireland, where – according to his sources – Whitey sought refuge and “laid down” the Gardner art. Since then, Hill believes, the paintings have been looked after by criminals who owe a debt to Bulger.

FBI Special agent Jeffrey Kelly confirms that Whitey Bulger is on his list of suspects but won’t reveal whether he concurs with Hill’s theory.

21 years on, the Gardner heist remains one of the great crime mysteries. But – with the theft of genuine masterpieces – it is also an act of appalling cultural vandalism and an artistic tragedy.

Multiple murder, extortion and racketeering will doubtless take priority when the Feds, the lawyers and the Boston judge start questioning Whitey Bulger. But, maybe a quick word about Vermeer, Rembrandt and co. could get Bulger talking. And maybe – just maybe – those frames in the Gardner museum will be filled once again.


Damon Albarn, pop conjuror

7 Jun

The unkempt beard and bags under the eyes of Damon Albarn tell you he’s deep in creative territory. He’s here in the Today Programme studio to talk to me – guardedly – about his new opera. And note, not just an opera, but new opera, his latest one.

‘Dr Dee’ tells the story of an English renaissance man, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, who juggled the conflicting demands of science, mathematics, international navigation, political chicanery, espionage, time-space-travel and wife-swappery. Dr John Dee – the Queen’s Conjuror, as he’s known in the title of the biography by Benjamin Woolley – has long obsessed the teeming imagination of Damon Albarn.

I suggest there’s something of the polymathic Dee about Albarn, in his restlessness and invention. Dee sought out the mysteries of a long-lost universal language. Albarn is increasingly fluent in the global lexicon of song, investigating the folk routes of musical connectivity. He leaps from Gorillaz to Monkey, from Britpop to Afrobeat in a blur of creativity. The former pop-pinup shrugs, grunts and flashes his still beautiful eyes by way of bashful response.

“I’m just a novice”, he protests. And long may he remain so. It’s Albarn’s refusal to sit on his well-earned laurels that keeps him fresh and vital. It’s his nervy, angst-ridden energy that ensure that within every project he tackles there are one or two moments of distilled melodic beauty that will course through you forever, occasionally bursting to the surface as a whistle, hum or song.

One thing of which we can be certain, Dr Dee will be crammed with tunes, big tunes. And yet Damon won’t play me any of his Dee demos. He even sidesteps the question of what an ‘English opera’, one featuring a band of musicians on 16th century instruments and supported by the BBC Philharmonic, will actually sound like. Give me a clue, Damon. Madrigals? He grins, scratches his head, repeats the question, then offers: “It’s a world premiere, we won’t know what it sounds like until it happens”.

Damon Albarn heads to the Manchester International Festival next month bearing the weight of great expectations. But he can carry them. In popular music quick fame and easy-acclaim are the name of the game. It’s all about corporate wealth creation and risk-management. Albarn – for all the millions he’s earned for himself and the industry – has never been averse to risk. He revels in it. And now he’s inventing his own musical genres. Like a conjuror.

Frankie Valli and the wiseguys

28 May

Five decades ago two young men from New Jersey shook hands. They sealed a deal that produced some of the most beautiful and joyous sounds to have poured from radios, jukeboxes and dancehall speakers. Sherry, Walk Like A Man, Let’s Hang On … and on, and on, with a shimmy and shake across the dancefloor. 

Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio knew that a combination of their respective talents – effortless falsetto and melodic composition – ensured they were on to a winner. Their band Four Seasons thrived and survived alongside Valli’s blazing solo career. The Jersey boys had an understanding, they’d shaken hands on their partnership. In a world of music biz sharks, mafia dons, lawyers and liggers, Valli and Gaudio had no need of a contract on paper.

“A handshake on friendship means alot more”, Frankie Valli tells me.

The hits have been good to Valli, the Italian barber’s son from Newark. I’m sitting in his massive suite on the tenth floor of a hotel overlooking Kensington High Street. His Noo Joysee accent emerges through straight white rows of expensive dentistry. A gold ring in each ear hints at the tough street style that forged The Four Seasons. Frankie Valli is small but compact, with a steady steely gaze. He looks the part. And he doesn’t flinch when I ask him if he wishes he’d whacked some wiseguys.

‘Yeah, why not? Or least have played a part in having them killed, be violent or nasty’, Frankie Valli reveals. But – WAIT – we’ve moved the conversation on, from the real mean-streets of Newark, on which Valli managed to evade the clutches of the Mafia, to the fictional Bada-Bing. This is Frankie Valli remembering his time as Rusty Millio, a fresh-out-of -jail capo in The Sopranos. As I say, he looks the part. 

Hear me talking to Frankie Valli on Front Row on Wednesday 1st May.


Coerced by none in Camden

24 May

The very first piece I wrote for the Camden New Journal, in 1988, was ripped neatly in two by the editor. Not only had I spent 30 minutes at the typewriter – twice as long as needed, apparently – I had failed to deliver ‘the story’.

“You’ve written the facts, JW, but where’s the story?”, the boss shouted across the room. “The story!”. Eric Gordon was terrifying to this young hack on his first day. My eyes were smarting from the smoke that filled the cramped newsroom. I was glad of the excuse as I blinked furiously. Eric caught my mood and twisted a lock of his huge beard.

“You’ll be ok, JW. Just tell the story”. I’ve been trying to do what he said ever since.

Eric Gordon is a Camden Town legend. He’s the force behind Britain’s only truly independent newspaper. Run co-operatively, the CNJ was born out of a bitter two-year strike, the details of which are recounted here. Its masthead slogan is as true today as it was when it launched in 1982 : “Open to all. Coerced by none”

Last night I popped in to a surprise 80th birthday party thrown for Eric Gordon. The old Marxist was surrounded by friends and comrades, drinking red wine and greeting every guest with a disbelieving “What are YOU doing here?”.

I was there just to say happy birthday. And thank you.

Morrissey’s Iranian chopper

23 May
Episode image for Morrissey talks to John Wilson

Against all my expectations I liked Morrissey when I first met him on Front Row 2009. He was candid and funny about his childhood love of pop music, heard in a record shop with sawdust on the floor. He moved himself to near-tears in recalling the discovery that his lyrics could “force people to accept me”. We got on well, the interview was great and it ran as a half hour special edition.

Recently Morrissey wanted to talk again on Front Row, to plug his new greatest hits collection. True to form he was provocative, sarky, coy and evasive. He took a swipe at stag-hunting PM David Cameron. And he laid into the Royal Wedding with vintage-Moz gusto. In the spirit of ‘one BBC’, we offered up the Wills and Kate-baiting stuff to my BBC colleague Colin Paterson. He played it out on 5Live and Nicky Campbell got a whole phone-in out of the ensuing reaction.

After 18 mins on Front Row and a slice of prime-time 5Live, it was therefore surprising to read that Moz himself felt he’d been “chopped and cropped” by us. On his blog he wrote “I had spoken fluently about the royal dreading, but an Iranian censorship confiscated all of my views. It is distressing”.

The man is a poet, of course, and hearing his words slightly pruned may well have felt like he’d just taken a beating by the basijis. I suspect that, having just told Morrissey all about my recent trip to Iran to report on the Cyrus Cylinder, his censorship quip was aimed at me. But Moz really should think again about his analogy. The phrase Hang The DJ – or the singer for that matter – has a very different meaning in Tehran.

Kate Bush calling

23 May

You won’t catch her on the television chat show circuit. She won’t be touring the radio studios to plug the new album. And as for a concert, forget it. So I’m slightly thrown when my mobile rings, flashing up ‘private number’, and a vaguely familiar voice says “Hello John, it’s Kate Bush here”.

In 2005 ago she broke a 12 year silence when she spoke to me on Front Row about her album Ariel. Now Britain’s most successful solo female artist is on the line with a suggestion: “Would you like to come down to my house to talk about the new record?”

I didn’t take much persuading and headed to rural Berkshire. Kate was charming, funny and hospitable. She has a beautiful home, a large Georgian property shielded from the outside world by mature trees and wooden gates. She guards her privacy fiercely.

We drank tea and chatted about gardening, our kids and art. Then we sat together on a plump sofa in the sitting room and – with the digital recorder rolling – discussed her re-return to the public eye. The new record Director’s Cut re-works tracks from two previous albums, The Sensual World (1989) and The Red Shoes (1993), to create something new, warm and intimate.

Within moments of the edited version of the interview being broadcast on Front Row it was clear – from the internet-buzz – that the legions of Kate Bush fans wanted more. So here’s a slightly longer version of our conversation, minus the music which I mixed in for the live broadcast. I know for some Kate Bush fans it still won’t be enough, that they’ll want to hear every pause, evasion, stone-wall response from the interviewee. But trust me, in this case less is more…

Kate Bush interview