Art of Column Writing
By Suzette Martinez Standring
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
I like the underdog.
Recently, I was responsible for featuring notorious art thief Myles J. Connor Jr., age 69, at a rare public appearance that took place in Milton, Mass. Understandably, a powerful aversion to his having a public platform arose and I was barraged by criticism.
Connor served time and admitted to heisting valuable museum art throughout New England, including the Robert Forbes House Museum, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, and The Woolworth Estate in Maine. A conviction for murder was overturned, and a conviction for rape was reversed when authorities found the real assailant. He’s a bank robber to boot.
I can appreciate the fierce resistance to his appearance.
But Myles Connor is not the underdog I speak of. The underdog is the everyday person who wants to hear, who desires to know more — or just gawk — but who is intimidated by the opposition who says he or she shouldn’t be there. I think my ex-mother-in-law (proper, formal and very German) said it best, “S*** on shoulds.”
For the last few months, our town had been reading The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft by author Ulrich Boser as part of a community-wide reading project. In a related event, Anthony Amore, head of security for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of Boston and author of Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists, gave a public talk.
Both men talked about Myles J. Connor Jr. In fact any book or authority on art heists always mentions Connor, who wrote his autobiography with Jenny Siler, The Art of the Heist: Confessions of a Master Art Thief, published by Harper Collins. In it he is shockingly candid about all of his past crimes.
So if the experts regularly talk about Connor, why not hear from the man himself? Independently I went about tracking him down. It’s rather comical that a local community gallery, the Milton Art Center, was willing to host a talk by a notorious art thief.
However, many did not share my view of amusing irony.
The criticism poured in:
- This sets a bad example to young people.
- You’re glamorizing a convicted felon.
- You’re naïve and reckless.
- He’s a sociopath.
- He’s dangerous.
- This event should be closed down.
I was sent a chilling newspaper article about Connor with the added note, “Sweet dreams” and one anonymous caller insisted I was “being used” in “a genius move by the FBI” to get more information out of Connor.
Now wait a minute, the whole thing was MY idea.
Aspects to controversy can radiate in ever-widening ripples, but I kept two simple thoughts in mind:
First, the literary topic in town is about art heists. Guess what? I found a primary source on art heists!
Second, what you think is based on what you see or hear, and that should be a free and personal process.
“But Connor is a very bad man!” Frankly, if Judas came back to life, he’d be speaking to a packed house. People have an insatiable desire to know, to be present, and to make up their own minds.
Connor has never before made a general public appearance. The event itself was eye-opening, and Connor did not shy away from the hard questions. Art heists, yes, he admitted involvement, but he insisted he never killed anyone, and court evidence and testimony led to his acquittal on murder charges.
I found him charming, unexpectedly forthright, and this will probably get me into more hot water, but I liked him. Besides his past, he revealed much about motivations, missed opportunities, regrets, and blessings — the kind of stuff that fascinates me, and apparently, the audience, too.
I won’t lie to you. Public criticism is debilitating for me. I will never be mistaken for hard-hitting columnist colleagues like Dave Lieber of The Dallas Morning News or Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Daily News.
Yet it’s important to remember that highly unpopular people possess unique insights often earned or learned in very unconventional ways. The underdogs are folks who want to hear and see but are scared of others who don’t want them to. They are for whom we write and work.
P.S.: So how did I get him to come? Through a mutual friend, Connor misunderstood and thought he was speaking at a small class reunion in Milton. He didn’t discover the error until he met me for the first time over dinner right before the event, and did feel some resistance. That’s another column, perhaps on the art of persuasion.
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Suzette Martinez Standring, is a syndicated columnist and blogger with GateHouse Media. She also is a cable TV show host and writing teacher. She wrote the award-winning The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists and is the author of the forthcoming book, The Art of Opinion Writing: Insider Secrets from Ellen Goodman, Cal Thomas, Clarence Page and Other Great Op-ed Columnists. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.