Jul. 20, 2009

Walter Cronkite and “The Strangler”

A still from Biography of a Bookie Joint

In the deluge of clips since Walter Cronkite died a few days ago, the same video seems to come up over and over, like a greatest hits collection: Cronkite announces the JFK and Martin Luther King assassinations, the moon landing, the call to withdraw from Vietnam. I’d like to call your attention to a more obscure clip, a 1961 CBS News exposé called “Biography of a Bookie Joint.”

The show — and Cronkite — make a brief appearance in my novel The Strangler. In the novel, a character named Joe Daley is filmed coming out of a Boston key shop that is a front for a bookie joint. Joe is just a bagman for local cops on the take, but his life goes into a tailspin the moment Walter Cronkite announces, “The man coming out of the door now is a detective. We found that he comes from Station Sixteen, Boston Police Department, just a few blocks away.”

What readers may not have realized is that the CBS News documentary was absolutely authentic. I rendered it virtually word for word from a transcript of the original, altering the narration only for pace and to insert poor Joe Daley into it.

Readers also may not realize that the CBS News exposé played an indirect part in the Boston Strangler murders, which began soon after. The documentary caused a scandal in which the Boston police commissioner, among others, lost his job. When the Strangler murders began and were not immediately solved, the city’s loss of faith in its police department led to a critical mistake: the investigation was removed from the experienced police detectives working the case and transferred to a jury-rigged, politicized “Strangler Bureau.” (The whole story is told in a nonfiction account by Susan Kelly called The Boston Stranglers, which is the best single source on the Strangler cases that you’ll find. If you’re curious about the history of the Strangler years, I recommend it.)

When I was researching my novel The Strangler, in 2005, “Biography of a Bookie Joint” was not available on the web. To see it, I had to go to New York where I watched it at the Museum of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media) on West 52nd Street. There I laboriously transcribed the show on a legal pad. But CBS has finally made this historic show available online. You can watch the whole thing below. (The show runs about an hour.) It is a rare glimpse of the old, seamy, unreconstructed Boston that is the setting for my book.

I always wanted to send a copy of my book to Cronkite, who spent his last years near here, on Martha’s Vineyard. I never did it. I didn’t have the nerve. It seemed presumptuous for a guy who writes meatball mysteries to approach a certified Great Man. But I wonder what Cronkite would have made of his cameo appearance in a story of old Boston.

Image: A still from “Biography of a Bookie Joint.”

Update 2.13.13: CBS has disabled embedding the video of “Biography of a Bookie Joint,” but you can still watch it here.

Also, I recently stumbled on this AP news story which adds an interesting detail: Abraham Swartz, who owned Swartz’s Key Shop, died in February 1962 at age 81, just three months after the original, nationwide broadcast of “Biography of a Bookie Joint” but before the documentary was aired in Massachusetts.

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