A Notable True Crime Anniversary

Dutch Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photo: Sean Dungan

Shortly after midnight, thirty-one years ago today, two fully uniformed Boston policemen were let into the indifferently secured Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. But they weren’t cops; they were thieves. They tied up the two security guards and proceeded to wander the museum, stealing what appeared to be an almost random collection of paintings and art objects, retrieved the video footage from the security system, and departed.

Thirty-one years ago this morning, the daytime security guard located and released his colleagues, the museum staff were brokenhearted, the real Boston police arrived, trailed shortly thereafter by the FBI. While the haul was essentially priceless, it has been collectively valued at more than $500 million. It was the largest art crime and the largest property theft in U.S. history, and it remains unsolved. Netflix is taking it on now; details below.

The museum offered a huge reward—now $10 million. No takers, not in over three decades. From the first, FBI agents theorized the theft was the work of low-level organized crime figures. When the statute of limitations on the theft ran out, the FBI confidently predicted some mug would finally come forward with information. Crickets. Then they said fugitive mobman Whitey Bulger, might hold the key. Whitey was finally nabbed in California in 2011. He died in 2018, without a chirp. They engaged another New England mobster for help, but he died last fall, apparently without providing any. In fact, for thirty-one years, the FBI has periodically predicted an imminent resolution to this spectacular crime, and each time, nothing.

My short story “Above Suspicion” was published in 2018 in the Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine (Issue 26). It suggests an entirely different scenario. My thieves are two Massachusetts General Hospital surgical residents, recruited by a European fence. The docs are impoverished by years of medical training, and, on reflection, happy to have a substantial nest-egg to start their practices. Here’s how it answers the key questions the crime has raised.

1.How did the thieves talk their way into the museum against institutional policy? Do you know any surgeons? If they can’t convey a sense of authority, no one can.
2.Who hired/organized them? A man from Europe, a fence unknown to U.S. authorities or mobsters.
3.Since stealing art is child’s play compared to getting rid of it afterward, what happened to it? They stole items “to order.” The fence pre-sold them to people who aren’t fastidious about provenance.
4.Why did they overlook several more valuable works? Again, the buyers made their choices.
5.Why has no word leaked out? The European believed two doctors, unlike low-level mobsters, would never reveal his crime in a drunken confession or to a stoolie cellmate.
6.Why, with all the valuable art on display, did they steal two low-value Degas sketches? Those works were for them, one apiece, as a reminder.

Fictionalizing a real-life event has constraints. While I could make up the characters and the means for getting the works out of the country (sewn into the upholstery of a couple of showy vintage Cadillacs), I kept the core details of the crime completely true-to-life, fitting my fiction into a box of facts. Each time another FBI prediction falls flat, my theory remains standing. (smile)

I’m eager to see what Netflix does with this story. A four-part docuseries, This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, is coming April 7.

My reading (Amazon has a three-book deal on these books):

The Gardner Heist by reporter Ulrich Boser, Order on Amazon
Priceless by FBI Art Crime Team founder, Robert K. Wittman – Amazon link
Stealing Rembrandts by Gardner Museum security director Anthony M. Amore and reporter Tom Mashberg. Amazon link

Progress or Peril for Workers?

Warning: This is a post that may well fall into the category of free-association or, less kindly, half-baked. Three magazine articles I’ve caught up on this past week had something to say about the world of work, which seems headed for a collision with the future.

First up was a rather breathless article in the January/February issue of Metropolis (link to article here), about the rapid advances in 3D printing that extrudes cement to create entire buildings. “Companies worldwide are automating the construction of homes, offices, and other structures through techniques like 3D printing, robotic finishing, and automated bricklaying,” which lays down brick three times faster than a human.

“The possibility of automation soon becoming the norm in construction is not so far-fetched.”

Benefits the author cites are: improving construction efficiency, sustainability, and worker safety, while increasing the housing supply and even remedying labor shortages. Still, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7.2 million Americans had construction jobs in July 2018—“the highest employment level for the construction industry in a decade, with 7.5 million jobs projected by 2026. (The prognosticators must not read Metropolis.)

According to one builder, its automated processes can produce housing units in two or three weeks at about 40 percent lower cost than conventional construction and with “almost zero construction waste” (a good thing).

Sounds great, right? But who’ll look out for the people who want relatively good-paying construction jobs, enjoy building things where they can see the results, and don’t want to sit at a desk day in and day out writing software code? “Saving labor costs,” which is an argument implicit in the article but tactfully unstated, means lost jobs.

Impact on Workers

In Wired, a story reported on a 25-year-old bet on the future of technology that pitted one man’s rosy view against another’s dire outlook (both were half-right). A concern of the anti-tech guy (Kirkpatrick Sale, who had just written a book extolling the Luddites) was that technology “stole decent labor from people.” I hope Sale doesn’t read the Metropolis article; he’ll have a stroke.

Finally, historian Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article, “What’s Wrong with the Way We Work,” unearths some even earlier predictions. No less a personage than economist John Maynard Keynes said that, a hundred years in the future (starting date unstated), people would work no more than 15 hours a week, and everyone would suffer from boredom.

“It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person,” Keynes said, “with no special talents, to occupy himself.” Being confined to home during the pandemic has shown that even people with special talents can enter the realms of ennui and discontent.

Meanwhile, we know whose playthings those idle hands are. It’s worth remembering that the majority of people arrested after the January 6 insurrection have a record of serious financial troubles. It’s probably not too much of a stretch to wonder how many of those arise, at least in part, from a lack of good-paying jobs. In construction, for example.

I don’t know whether there’s anything worth thinking about here, or if these are just disconnected ramblings. If you have thoughts, I’d love to read them.

Tennessee Williams: In His Own Words

(Very) recently I discovered a thing called Quote Cards, which seem to be used in Facebook posts, to create cards for book promotion, etc., etc., etc.

So many times I read a powerful/beautiful/resonant sentence that inspires a “Wow!” You probably spot those too. Was there a sentence in the last book or story you read that stopped you in your tracks? That meant something powerful to you in that moment? Put it in the comments! I’ll compile a list for all of us. And I’ll bet you get lots of likes!

Meanwhile, here are quotes from a master. The Zoom class on Tennessee Williams I’ve been taking ended last week, and if you’ve read the previous posts about it (links below), you’ll know how interesting it was. The class was led by Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. The theater’s next session is on Shakespeare’s Henry V.

For our last class, each of the 45 or so students submittedthought-provoking quotations from Williams’s plays, stories, and poems that particularly struck us. Here’s a sampling:

“I tell you, there’s so much loneliness in this house that you can hear it.” (Vieux Carré)
“Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence.” (“The Timeless World of a Play,” essay)
“I’m not living with you. We occupy the same cage.” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
“Caged birds accept each other, but flight is what they long for.” (Camino Real)
“A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.” (Stairs to the Roof)
“Every time you come in yelling that God damn ‘Rise and shine! Rise and shine!’ I say to myself, ‘How lucky dead people are!’” (The Glass Menagerie)
“Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out and death’s the other.” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
“The girl who said ‘no,’ she doesn’t exist anymore, she died last summer—suffocated in smoke from something inside her.” (Summer and Smoke)
“There’s a time for departure even when there’s no certain place to go!” (Camino Real)
“Make voyages—attempt them—there’s nothing else!” (Camino Real)
“I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding.” (Sweet Bird of Youth)
“The only difference between a success and a failure is a success knows an opportunity when he sees it and a failure doesn’t.” (Night of the Iguana)
“All of us are in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars!” (Summer and Smoke)
“If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.” (Conversations with Tennessee Williams)
“Why did I write? Because I found life unsatisfactory.” (Tennessee Williams)

Previous posts in this series:
The Deep Dive (2/10)
How to See (2/17)
The Actor’s Challenge (2/24)

Image by sonseona for Pixabay.

What You Wear Is Code

Richard Thompson Ford’s new book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History was the subject of a recent American Ancestors Zoom presentation, the day the book was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. Ford is a Stanford Law professor who got interested in how dress codes (what you wear, your hairstyle) have affected employment opportunities. Plus he admits to being a bit of a clothes-horse himself.

Legal opinion on how dress codes may treat them as if they are trivial. If so, Ford believes, the courts are missing a lot of what’s important about the issue. What people wear is part of their self-presentation and sense of dignity. Back in Europe’s late middle ages, the puffy pantaloons called Trunk Hose (pictured) became the fashion for men. The upper classes resented their inferiors wearing the style and passed “sumptuary laws” prohibiting extravagant fabrics and attire except for those of high rank—a pure power play. No surprise, then, that in 1700s America, Blacks were prohibited from “dressing above their station.”

Ford noted that Queen Elizabeth I understood the power of fashion—magnificent, otherworldly fashion—to set her apart. Over time, the type of attire that signified the wearer’s importance changed, at least for men. It became more sober and conservative for men. Think of the black-clad Dutch Masters. The culmination of this trend was the familiar business suit we know today.

Intended also to convey the message that men were all equal, of course, little signals continue today to let people recognize the high-value “bespoke” suit versus one from the Men’s Wearhouse.

You may remember the photos from the early Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King and his colleagues marching and dressed in suits. They dressed in their “Sunday best” to underscore the validity of their quest?? A few years later, younger activists wanted to express solidarity with the poor people they hoped to organize, so they dressed in jeans and overalls. The Black Panthers had their own dress code: black trousers, leather jackets, and berets. These were all deliberate decisions related to identity.

Until the 20th century, women wore draped clothing below the waist. Wearing pants was totally unacceptable. A 1903 article called women who wore trousers anyway “bifurcated” and clearly suggests they were a threat to the social order. As expressed in an essay for the Metropolitan Museum’s wonderful exhibit: China Through the Looking Glass, “Fashion is the means by which we convey identity and belonging (including nonbelonging),” as in the case of the trouser-wearing women.

By repressing the individuality of the wearer, requiring a certain type of dress can be a tool of degradation or control. The stricter the requirements, the more control exerted. Now, with casual Fridays all week long, new unarticulated “dress codes” still determine what people wear. It will be interesting to see how the extreme informality of working from home and never changing out of our pajamas may persist!

Tennessee Williams: The Actor’s Challenge

So many of the insights of this five-session course on Tennessee Williams I’ve been Zooming from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey are directly applicable to fiction writing. The course is led by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte.

(The next Book Club, scheduled for spring, will focus on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, both parts, and Henry V, with its powerful “we happy few, we band of brothers” sentiments.)

Actor Laila Robins, who played Blanche DuBois in STNJ’s 2008 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, talked about the similar power of Williams’s language. “The language acts you,” she said. She deliberately didn’t play the heartbreak of Blanche’s situation, aiming instead to encourage the audience to keep hoping beyond hope, as Blanche does, that somehow everything will work out. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen the play before and remember how it ends. You keep hoping.

I do too. Every time I’ve seen West Side Story, I’m silently praying Chino won’t show up with that gun . . . even though I know better. Reading Hillary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, I read slower and slower in the last fifty pages, knowing how it would end and hoping for a miracle.

Robins and Monte pointed to the “practical core” of many of Williams’s characters that lets them be survivors despite their evident frailties and failures. Even at the end of The Glass Menagerie, Laura (pictured)—who is as fragile as one of her glass animals—seems capable of resilience. Monte believes a good Tennessee Williams actress must possess a great deal of courage because the roles demand so much vulnerability. Think of Alma in Summer and Smoke or Jane in Vieux Carre.

Just as he did with Summer and Smoke and its later incarnation, Eccentricities of a Nightingale (with critics still debating which is the better version), Williams returned to Laura’s story repeatedly, including in his short story, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which ends with Laura picking up one of her precious LPs, blowing on its surface a little as if it were dusty, then setting it softly back down. Then she says something enigmatic about her encounter with Jim, the family’s dinner guest who, unexpectedly, is soon to be married and therefore no boyfriend candidate: “People in love,” she says, “take everything for granted.” Where did that come from?  It’s so much more worldly-wise than we might expect from Laura and more generous toward the situation than her angry mother is capable of.

This gets to another aspect of Williams’s plays that Monte has emphasized throughout this course, which is kindness. Yes, his characters may be in bizarre and uncomfortable, even brutal situations, but they display unexpected flashes of kindness toward each other. She views Alvaro Mangiacavallo in The Rose Tattoo as a kinder version of Stanley Kowalski from Streetcar. What she terms “extraordinary gestures of kindness” are demonstrated by many characters in Night of the Iguana too. “Williams finds the life-saving power of compassion in some very dark places.”

The ability to be both rough and kind, whether embodied in one character or distributed among them, not only requires great actors, but also a director who establishes the right balance between these poles. It’s something all good writers strive for.

Previous posts in this series:
The Deep Dive
How To See