Michael Burke is in his mid-sixties now, living in a solitary but apparently contented retirement in Aughrim, County Galway, Ireland. To say that he has earned it is a polite understatement; Burke led, until his departure from New York for Ireland three years ago, a life packed with excitement and challenge. Precisely how exciting and challenging is the story of "Outrageous Good Fortune," an autobiography that provides further proof of what by now ought to be a literary truism: An interesting life does not necessarily produce an interesting book.
Burke was born in Connecticut in 1918, the son of moderately successful second-generation Irish-American parents. An athletic scholarship got him a private-school education, and his abilities on the playing field served him well at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a star running back. He married hastily, during the Christmas break of his senior year, and soon was father of a girl, the first of his four children by two marriages. After college he worked for a time in Manhattan, learning the ropes of marine insurance, but when war broke out he was an early volunteer.
It was here that Burke's life of adventure began. He was one of the first men to sign on with "Wild Bill" Donovan, whom Franklin Roosevelt had given a somewhat vague mandate to establish America's first intelligence service. The result was the Office of Strategic Services, in which Burke served as a secret intelligence officer. He worked with the French resistance, and was "the first American SI agent to be dropped behind German lines in France." His account of this assignment is the book's opening chapter; he describes his escapades rather matter-of-factly, though with deep respect for the Frenchmen with whom he fought.
After the war Burke wandered out to Hollywood, where he served as consultant for a film about the OSS. He was lured back into the intelligence game with the replacement of the OSS by the Central Intelligence Agency, which he joined in 1949 as a contract agent and subsequently served full time. His Who's Who biography says that from 1951 to 1954 he was "special advisor to U.S. high commissioner for Germany," but in fact he was in charge of "the CIA's largest and most comprehensive field operation."
He liked his work ("The covert world demanded that you find more within yourself -- in your head and in your stomach -- than the conventional world did"), but after a time he decided to try to make a living in the real world. This he did with impressive success. First he took over the affairs of his friend John Ringling North, which principally involved running the circus; there is an entertaining and rather chilling account of his battle to prevent Jimmy Hoffa's Teamsters from running him out of business. When the circus paled, he moved over to CBS and rose rapidly to the presidency of its European operations.
Then in 1964 CBS bought the New York Yankees, and named Burke president of the team. Suddenly he emerged into the sunlight of celebrity. With his fashionably long hair and hip manner he was all over the sports pages and news shows, even though at that stage of their history the Yankees bore little resemblance to the dynasty of earlier years. He deserves much of the credit for rebuilding the team back into contention -- credit usually grabbed by George Steinbrenner, with whom Burke briefly was co-owner of the team after CBS sold it in 1973 and whom he charitably regards as "hooked on power."
The last stop on Burke's tour was the presidency of Madison Square Garden, which he took over in 1973 after a falling-out with Steinbrenner. He liked this job, too: "The many faces of it, the built-in demand to continue to learn, the need to cope within the course of an hour, any hour, with a convention, a concert, a fan's complaint, a network contract, a player's ego, a Russian tour . . ." But by 1981 he had had enough of it, so off he went to Ireland, forsaking a lifetime in "the main event."
His story in outline is interesting, but it never really comes together. Perhaps this is because the most dramatic hours of his life occurred in France and were followed by four decades of what was, by comparison, anticlimax. Perhaps it is because his career had no real shape, no progress toward a logical and/or momentous triumph or defeat, and involved him in nothing of genuine importance. Perhaps it is because he makes only perfunctory gestures toward introspection or self-explanation. Whatever the explanation, "Outrageous Good Fortune" doesn't live up to the promise its author's life seems to offer.