Book Review: The Vidal Lecture

Unless you are from Massachusetts (I am); unless you know former Chief Justice Robert Bonin (I did) you would probably not open this book.   But if you like political stories that read like novels you will enjoy this nonfiction tale.  While it is narrow in focus, it is broad in scope, revealing how neither intelligence alone, nor loyalty to patrons, nor individual interpretation of justice  can forecast  behavior.   This book is about politics, scandal, racism, homophobia  and sexism.  It is about the pain of no second chances. When, in 1975,  Michael Dukakis became governor of Massachusetts, he promised to address the political traditions in Massachusetts that screamed patronage and that limited citizen access except through the tightly held power of judges and administrators.   Court reform was foremost on his mind.  Newly elected in a hard-fought battle for Attorney General was Francis X. Bellotti.  Dukakis and Bellotti knew that the existing judges were against reform and it was Bellotti’s job to search for a first assistant attorney general who would further the goal of court reform and drive a wedge into political patronage.  He chose “the smartest guy I ever met”(as described by Attorney General Bellotti) – a clear outsider –  Robert Bonin.  Two years later Governor Dukakis appointed Bonin Chief Justice of the Superior Court, a position that could have been a lifetime post.

Bonin’s new appointment as chief justice began a sequence of poor personal judgments on his part.  Acceptance of payment for his wife’s car by a former client, was one.  A court action against his former wife in order to reduce his alimony payment was another.  But the major controversy was related to a lecture given by Gore Vidal.

As this outsider, Chief Justice Robert Bonin, was being drawn into the court reform system, a scandal was unfolding which would follow an unsuspecting course to collide with his career.  To preface the controversy,  the author gives us a fascinating history of an amusement park in Revere, Massachusetts, just beyond the Boston city limits.  Wonderland, it was called, as in the subway stop and movie of that name “Last Stop Wonderland.”  Aloisi traces Wonderland from its birth early in the century to its seediest collapse in the 1970s. By 1977 it had become a place for liasons between adult men and young boys.   Suffolk County District Attorney Garrett Byrne indicted twenty-four men accused of sodomy and rape.  To Byrne, homosexuality was offensive, but the fact that boys might have been involved made the accusations heinous.  The trials of these men would be held in Bob Bonin’s courthouses.

The Boston gay and lesbian community had its own support  groups, including at least one newspaper.  This community remained aloof from the homophobic judiciary players and from  the newly formed Boston/Boise Committee.  The Boston/Boise Committee gave its support to the gay community, but it was controversial because it threw its support to the defendants accused of sexual encounters with young boys.   What’s more, this committee sponsored a lecture by Gore Vidal, the proceeds of which were to support the legal  defense of the twenty-four men indicted at Revere Beach.  Bob and Angela Bonin attended this lecture.

Not only homophobia raged through the judicial community, but racism in the form of anti-Semitism seeped through the courthouses.  For the new chief justice who was appointed to help reform the court being Jewish cemented his “outsiderness.”  Aloisi refers to whispers of “Jewdiciary.”

If the judges were holding fast to their old ways, the culture of politics in Boston in 1977 had no room for a woman like Angela Bonin.  She was young and attractive and spoke out about what she expected for her own life and that of her husband.   The author quotes the Boston Globe in April 1978 as referring to Angela as “very bright, aggressive, ambitious, a driving force.”

The Boston political community had had its fill of Chief Justice and Mrs. Robert Bonin.

One by one he tried to undo his “offenses.”  He stopped the support of Angela’s car by a former client.  He withdrew his alimony case.  He made a public statement explaining his belief that he had the right to attend a lecture, and more important, that he had no idea that the money from the ticket he bought for that lecture would be used as a defense fund.  (In fact, the Boston/Boise Committee never did pay toward a defense fund for the “twenty-four”)  By this time, the proverbial snowball had reached maximum speed.

Withdrawing from judicial cases was not enough.  Making public explanations was not enough.  Bob Bonin was asked to resign.  He refused.  He was suspended by a committee on judicial responsibility.  Resignation was suggested again.  He refused.   He was tried by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.  The testimony at trial and the conversations behind the scenes dramatically unfold.  Revelation of the archaic form of petition of address for removal from office without due process is stunning to witness.

The author, James A. Aloisi, Jr. is no stranger to Massachusetts politics.  He is a Boston Attorney and has served as the Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation.  He has authored other books about Massachusetts politics, including one about the Big Dig and another about President John Kennedy’s grandfather, John Francis ” Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald.  Aloisi is a clear reporter and keeps the nonfiction story flowing  like a novel .


Barbara Younger, attorney, mediator, matriarch, is a facilitator in family conflict resolution.




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