- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

By Myles J. Connor Jr. with Jenny Siler
Collins, $26.99, 294 pages

When are confessions not confessional? When a Senate witness swears that his elephantine bonus was proper and he intends to spend it all thank-you-very-much. Also, when a thug who spent half his life in jail boasts of crimes so blatantly awful that he should be collared for felonious braggadocio. Example: Myles J. Connor Jr., “art thief, rock-and-roller, and prodigal son.”

Having recently reviewed two worthwhile books about art thefts in these pages, I felt obliged to take a look at this volume, sadly. In part, I was fascinated — as a boy is fascinated by the swaying cobra in a Rin-Tin-Tin movie and then learns that it is the flute-playing swami who is mesmerizing the snake. So be it here: I was fascinated by a reptile and almost surprised that a showman put him on display.

“The Art of the Heist” might be a sign of our times: Act badly enough and someone will offer you a book contract, and if you can’t write yourself they’ll even hire a ghost. Here the co-author is Jenny Siler, making her nonfiction debut after six novels, most of them quite noir. She may have invented a new as-told-to genre, the noir memoir.

Ms. Siler’s prologue offers a teaser worthy of slick lit: a thumbnail account of the theft of art worth $300 million from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. Since then, she writes, “one name has surfaced again and again in connection with the robbery: Myles Connor.” Calling him “a hometown art thief with a genius IQ and a flair for the dramatic. … When it came to museum robberies, Connor had a resume a mile long, including the 1975 theft of a Rembrandt from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts nearby.” The theory had one flaw: He was in the slammer when the Gardner Museum was robbed.

Accused of complicity in that heist, which seemed to follow his MO, Mr. Connor denied it saying “I would have taken the Titian” instead of (or in addition to) two Rembrandts, a Vermeer and a Manet. He is, you see, a connoisseur who appreciated the masterpieces he stole, such as the MFA’s Rembrandt that he lifted and ransomed as a bargaining chip to get another prison sentence reduced. Still, he liked art, collected Samurai swords and other objets, and stole some treasures because he coveted them. Too bad that when he last went to jail he left his pelf with a pal who took up heroin and sold off what was to be a tidy nest egg when he got out. So now the sometime rock-and-roll performer has to sing for a living?

Who did the Gardner job? Mr. Connor fingers one of many occasional associates, Bobby Donati, because an unlikely object was taken along with the paintings. Many years ago Mr. Connor cruised the Gardner Museum with Mr. Donati, who admired a flagstaff finial, a Napoleonic eagle that would be among the objects stolen in 1990. It bears mention that in this surmise, he differs with Ulrich Boser, author of “The Gardner Heist” (reviewed here April 5), who believes it was another felon now doing time for other crimes. Talk about rogues’ galleries.

Be that as it may, throughout this unpleasant memoir Mr. Connor reeks with pride in his perverse achievements. Call it another sign of our times: pride in one’s work as ostentatious as a subpoenaed CEO’s pride in his trophy homes and private jets, all purchased with the well-gotten gains of obscene bonuses. There is even yet another parallel here: your average corporate magnate’s autobiography is ghostwritten, too.

Too bad Ms. Siler doesn’t quite get it right, to my ear. Mr. Connor’s voice — as she articulates it — sounds smarmy. The prose has a feminine ring to it, or the false dissonance of a woman who wants to sound tough. At the risk of being called genderist, I’ll offer one passage as an example: “Any heist is a performance. Robbing the MFA is the equivalent of playing to a packed house at Carnegie Hall. Not surprisingly, we were all suffering from pre-show jitters. I tried my best to put everyone at ease. …” How sisterly.

Why did he pick her to write his book? Perhaps in part because he likes a woman’s company. Indeed, when the text isn’t describing the planning or execution of some crime, or recounting rock concert triumphs, it relates his several liaisons. The narrative makes him sound irresistible to the opposite sex, and Ms. Siler may have become his thrall.

A cynic might also think he seduced his amanuensis into abandoning her critical judgment. There are gaps and voids in the telling of these misadventures, and when all is said and done, it is a ghostwriter’s duty to challenge the principal’s slips, excuses and bald lies — or else to put the best face on them or render them invisible.

If she didn’t get his story accurately, certainly he would have changed it and filled any omissions. In the process of reviewing outlines and drafts, he would note the absence of any heartfelt theme. For example, it’s revealed that Mr. Connor abhors pedophilia, and loved his father, a cop. Yet one particularly human feeling is missing from this first-person narrative, and the lack of it gives the book its weirdly fascinating character.

Recounting his life of violence, theft and depravity, Mr. Connor (per Ms. Siler) speaks as if his criminal modus vivendi is perfectly natural, his God-given right. Quoting Thoreau (without attribution) that “men live lives of quite desperation” he says his “has been anything but.” What’s missing is any sense of guilt, remorse or contrition. Bright and cunning he may be, but reading these “confessions” I saw the soul of a cobra. In this perhaps the ghostwriter nailed it. She wrote a revealing memoir, revealing in the way, say, that exhibitionism reveals. It is not a revolting book but a tale told by a revolting narrator.

Philip Kopper has written books about museums and ghosted several memoirs.

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