ONCE AFTER LOCKING myself out of my apartment, I went down to the street and asked a policemen if he could, like in the movies, shoot in my lock. He took me back to my place, pointed to a spot on the door and said, "Kick it here." I did, the door flew open and never again did I put much faith into either doors or stories about master burglars.
It is for this reason that I have never quite accepted the stories about Bernard C. Welch, the so-called master burglar whom Life magazine has paid something like $9,000 to tell his story and pose for pictures. He allegedly maintained two homes, stocked them both with a trillion dollars worth of other people's baubles, had a cute little furnace to melt down jewelry and kept a tailor virtually on retainer to remove labels from mink coats. All this, we are told, makes him very sophisticated.
But he is also an alleged killer and rapist and there is nothing sophisticated about that. He is accused of shooting to death Dr. Michael Halberstam, who got in the way of a "sophisticated" burglary, and he is suspected of raping women who similarly got in the way. I'm sure he was a very sophisticated rapist.
No matter, Life magazine, having tired of astronauts, made its deal. It negotiated with Welch's literary representative, a Washington lawyer retained by Welch's criminal attorney when he realized that his client was a literary commodity. Now that is sophisticated.
The fact of the matter is, of course, that Welch is not a sophisticated burglar at all. He is an accused house-breaker, pure and simple. The similarities between him and, say, Cary Grant in the movie "To Catch A Thief" are passing, fleeting and of no importance. Welch did not steal the jewels of the rich and the undeserving. He cracked no safes. He lifted no strands from the fleshy necks of sleeping dowagers. Instead, he kicked in doors and broke windows and stole from the nouveau riche of suburbia. Among the items stolen by this alleged master thief, was a Mickey Mouse telephone.
In a way, Welch is something of a composite. His public personna, his celebrity, his relative fame and therefore his value to Life magazine, is a combination of media attention and police hype. The cops would never tell you that he is a man who only seems sophisticated in comparison to other burglars -- a very dull bunch. He is no junkie, no kid and he takes precautions not to get caught. He is also white. (You apparently have to be white to be sophisticated.) But sophistication is just another term cops use for someone they cannot catch. The question really is whether Welch was sophisticated or the police merely incompetent.
There is no way, though, that anyone is going to say this. The police glorify Welch for their own reasons and his victims glorify him for sharing their taste in jewelry. As for the press, it has its own stake in a good story. No one is going to write an article saying a brutal man who allegedly raped and assaulted some of his victims, killed another in cold blood and broke into the largely unprotected houses of suburbia to steal what he could in a haphazard manner, was accidentally caught when his very last victim ran him over.
It is risky to comment on the Life magazine article before it is published and knowing Life and its commitment to good journalism, it will present a balanced picture of Welch and not glorify him.But to a whole lot of people, simply slipping a guy $9,000 is glory enough, especially when what makes Welch worth that amount of money is a life of crime capped by an alleged murder. Life will defend what it has done and it may say, with some truth, that society is better off in the long run for getting a close look at its criminals. At the very least, it may say that it is simply adhering to a journalistic tradition that lately has undergone something of a revival.
In the last several years alone, The New York Post, a newspaper devoted to proving P. T. Barnum's proposition that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, has published pictures of the so-called Son of Sam killer, David Berkowitz, in his jail cell and a picture of John Lennon lying dead in the morgue. Both pictures were taken in violation of the law.
What Life has done is a long way from that sort of thing, but it has, in its own way, rewarded someone for breaking the law. And while it is true that the press is almost obliged to report news and not make moral judgments, it is also true that more and more people sense a reward -- money or publicity -- in crime. It may have been one of the reasons John Lennon was killed. I am waiting for some news organization to sign up Lennon's killer.
I understand he's very sophisticated.