Thursday, January 20, 2011
Citizen Somerville: Growing up with the Winter Hill Gang
Bobby Martini & Elayne Keratsis
Powder House Press
by Rene Schwiesow
“It’s not just another mob book. It’s my life,” Bobby Martini says at the end of the trailer for his book “Citizen Somerville: Growing up with the Winter Hill Gang.” The book was released in December, 2010. Martini wrote the book based on a series of interviews, including interviews with reputed Winter Hill Gang Boss, Howard “Howie” Winter. The trailer and a clip of a videotaped session with Winter can be found on You Tube and provides interesting viewing as companion to the book.
During an interview with Martini, Ellen Brogna, Winter’s wife, speaks of her struggle with anxiety and fear that began as an adolescent and continues even now – “but you build walls and you learn to deal,” Brogna ends. Martini goes on to say, “We are all professional wall builders. I’m one myself. I don’t even think it’s a conscious choice. The booze, the crime, the violence comes out and the walls automatically go up to protect childhood as much as possible. Once they’re up, they rarely come down for the rest of your life.”
Certainly many of Martini’s readers can identify with building walls. It is his ability to deconstruct a portion of his own walls that makes his honesty palpable in his writing. He allows others access not only to the history of Somerville’s “Winter Hill Gang,” but also to the stories of the families whose lives were interwoven behind the public discussion of organized crime.
“Citizen Somerville” is a historical novel, a memoir, and a sharing of a culture made public through news media reports, movies and literature, but rarely seen through the eyes of family. Martini brings us into his living room and into the living room of Howie Winter in a way that reminds us that “family” has a universal understanding, perhaps reminds of the dysfunctions and foibles we deal with, and offers a reminder of the love we have for those we hold close. He weaves family through the stories of crime, murder, mayhem, loss and sorrow so that, at times, we can very nearly see the eyes of those living through the dangerous times of the Irish Gang Wars during the 1960’s in Somerville and Charlestown. While the writing does not always follow chronological order and Martini’s insertion of his own experiences in italics can make the story line difficult to follow, the book, nevertheless, is a page-turner. In fact, the way in which the story is told and Martini’s commitment to using New England vernacular add to the authenticity of the tale.
The story could not be told without writing in Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi and Whitey Bulger. Bulger had moved into Winter’s garage in the 1970’s with his own bookmaking and, while Winter was away, began to overtake the Somerville enterprise. Nor could it be told without discussing the way the FBI had been in bed with both Bulger and Flemmi. It’s history, and as I mentioned, this book is historical. However, Winter, the man John Kerry once referred to as the “Number Two Crime Boss in New England,” now often referred to as “The Gentleman Gangster,” wants to make it perfectly clear that neither Whitey Bulger nor Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi were ever part of Howie Winter’s Winter Hill Gang. Today, in his late 70’s, Winter is no longer affiliated with organized crime in New England, both he and Martini consider themselves Somerville survivors with a deep love for their city. And that is clear in the telling of their stories.
Rene Schwiesow is a member of the Somerville-based Bagel Bards.