Phoenix Review

Sunday, April 30, 2006

By Julia Dennis

Kevin Weeks, the number two man in Whitey Bulger’s mob, served a three-year sentence for racketeering, money-laundering, extortion, and drug conspiracy, and was released from the Allenwood Federal Correctional facility on a Friday in February, 2005. By the following Tuesday he was singing like a canary to a diminutive grandmother, young-adult novelist, and journalism professor from Newton named Phyllis Karas.

The two made an odd pair. Weeks, a burly Irish brawler from Southie, was one of the most feared enforcers in Bulger’s employ. According to the Globe, “Bulger groomed [Weeks] as his successor and treated [him] like a son.” Karas, for her part, never intended to consort with hit men. “I live in the suburbs,” she thought to herself. “I’m a doctor’s wife. I’m an adjunct professor at Boston University. What am I doing hanging out with the mob?”

But now, as their Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life in Whitey Bulger’s Irish Mob sits comfortably atop the New York Times bestseller list, with a 60 Minutes special under their belts, Karas and Weeks carry on like an old married couple.

“He mumbles,” Karas tells an audience at a Barnes & Noble in Kenmore Square.

“I don’t mumble,” says Weeks. Then he explains why he’s learned to speak softly: it’s an occupational technique he’s used his entire adult life to evade bugging equipment.

Old habits die hard. Though he’s traded in his brass knuckles for J.Crew sweaters, he says it’s hard to let go of his criminal instincts. “We may seem like the nice guys. People always want to be around us,” he tells the audience, waving an arm over the podium, “but the whole time we’re only trying to get something from you.”

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Phyllis Karas has a petite frame and wide brown eyes, and her profile at the AEI speakers’ bureau suggests two topics you might like to hear her speak about: “The Onassis Women,” and “The Boston Mafia Underworld.” Neither subject was in her repertoire nine years ago. In fact, nothing in her background suggested she’d one day pen a book that graphically describes the role of potato peelers in the art of interrogation. She’d had a long and unbloody career: she worked as a stringer for People magazine, freelanced for Vogue, and contributed a regular column to the Herald. She won an award for a series on teenage pregnancy. She wrote a teen novel, A Life Worth Fiction, for Avon. She interviewed Drew Barrymore and Sandra Bullock.

On her 30th wedding anniversary Karas took a trip to Greece. One day she struck up a conversation with a woman named Kiki Feroudi Moutsatsos, who at one time had been Aristotle Onassis’s private secretary as well as a close confidant to Jackie O. They made small talk, but months later their chance meeting blossomed into something big: a book called Onassis Women: An Insider’s Intimate Portrait. “It was serendipity,” Karas realizes. “You never know which stories are going to come up.” Putnam bought the book for a million dollars.

When Karas met with her agent to discuss her next project, she expected to write another young-adult novel. Instead her agent proposed a change of pace: that Karas write the life story of an Irish mobster named Eddie “Mack” Mackenzie. Mackenzie was offering an insider’s view of Bulger’s gang, but that didn’t mean much to Karas, who’d learned most of what she new about the mob from watching The Sopranos. “I knew nothing about Whitey, or as much as anyone else. He was a crime boss.” She learned quickly.

Phyllis Karas

Marblehead, Massachusetts