THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Remade In Italy
Michele McPhee escapes death threats and more back in the States and begins la dolce vita in bella Italia.
Words & photographs © Michele McPhee
It came, like a bullet, the decision to leave, after I killed former New England Patriots tight end and convicted (well at the time he was) murderer Aaron Hernandez. At least that's what many people were saying. Some reporters were even putting it in writing.
It was my fault, or so it went, that sometime before 3 a.m. on April 19, 2017 Aaron Hernandez, a onetime NFL standout, scribbled out three notes: one to his fiancé, the mother of his little girl, one to that daughter and a third to his prison boyfriend – and placed them next to a Bible in his solitary cell in a Massachusetts prison.
The Bible was opened to the New Testament, John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life," and the verse was scrawled on his forehead with red ink. He made marks on his hands and feet like a crucifixion.
Then the 27-year-old serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole jammed his cell door with cardboard to prevent guards from coming in, slicked his cell floor with liquid soap and shampoo, which investigators believe he did in case he lost his nerve, wrapped his bed sheet around his neck multiple times and tied it to a bar on the window of his cell.
And Hernandez reportedly did this because I told sports radio show hosts interviewing me about my book Maximum Harm that his sex life was investigated as a motive for the murder he committed in 2013, in particular his longtime relationship with a male lover. My police sources told me Hernandez's love life was central to the homicide investigation into the coldblooded shooting of his friend Odin Lloyd, a semipro football player who was dating the sister of Hernandez's fiancé. Days after the interview Hernandez took his own life and the buzz that I was to blame began.
The Bloods gang, which Hernandez, a longtime gang aficionado, who, according to his prison ink joined their ranks behind bars, didn't agree. "Keep your head on a swivel," came the text warning on my phone from a corrections official that worked in the prison where Hernandez died. "The Bloods are blaming you for Aaron."
It wouldn't be the first time I was the subject of a threat. I've been a crime reporter for two decades. A Charlestown bank robber I wrote about sent me a letter saying he was going to send people to my East Boston condo to rape me a few years ago. Long before that a ragtag crew of mobsters in the Boston underworld threatened me at gunpoint after I wrote a story about a Mafia massacre at a 99 Restaurant in the late 90s, which, in part, prompted my move to New York City where I became the Police Bureau Chief of the New York Daily News. I pissed off plenty of people in that city too, dirty politicians and Russian drug dealers and even a sitting judge. After 9/11 I wrote stories about Al Qaeda and then ISIS and my coverage of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Maximum Harm prompted ugly online attention toward me from Islamic extremists. So I am certainly no stranger to keeping my head on a swivel.
But the Aaron Hernandez threats were different. They exhausted me. Physically. Mentally. I wasn't just fighting the gangbangers. My own colleagues in the media piled on me with endless criticism rather than report out the story. (My reporting on Hernandez has been proven since. He had relationships with men, including one in prison).
That's when my friend Lauren called from the Amalfi Coast. Ten years ago she was in the same boat. Well, not the subject of repeated threats of being raped or killed. She was at the end of her rope. She was a high-powered public relations executive with a grueling clientele of Boston's biggest clubs, restaurants, and corporations. Her health was suffering because of the punishing work schedule. She was single. And she was sick and tired of being sick and tired. So she came to Italy. And she barely came back.
I'm sitting on her terrace listening to the church bells from Praiano's San Gennarro below me and taking in the bella vista that makes up the Amalfi Coast: the panorama of neighboring Positano, its homes like rainbow sprinkles on a pistachio gelato ice cream cone, stacked on the cliff. Yachts are everywhere, as it is the playground of the beautiful people, among them over the years Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Pablo Picasso, Sofia Lauren and so many others, more recently Boston Red Sox hero David "Big Pappi" Ortiz, supermodel Emily Ratajkowski, actors Ed Norton and Denzel Washington.
Lauren is living the "dream life" that Steinbeck wrote about when he lived here. After settling into her tiny studio in Positano she met a driver from Pompeii, the most storied place on the planet, Rino. He is now her spectacular husband, theirs a love story to inspire some of the poetry that has been written here by men like Pablo Neruda. I want to live Lauren's life. In June my drive-time 50,000-watt talk radio show ended, the station shuttered, my book received excellent reviews and a shopping deal for a documentary. After years of working a full-time radio show, working as an ABC News investigative producer in New England, and simultaneously writing Maximum Harm I was tired. Lauren called me. "I'm sending you my points. You're coming to Italy. And you're staying with us." It wasn't a question. It was a demand. Which is how the Italians operate. "Voglio un café," might be the query from one of Lauren's neighbors, like 67-year-old Guisepina who sings Michelle My Belle in a hysterical mixture of English and Italian to me from her balcony whenever she sees me climbing down the stairs, but the answer is a given. Yes. You want a coffee and you are going to get one. Lauren had booked my ticket before she asked. I was going.
I think with that Lauren saved me. From what, I'm not sure. What I do know is that I want what she has. And she promised to show me how to get it: in all of its chaos – inexplicable electricity blackouts, impossible Wi-Fi, workers who don't show up, gardeners who vanish, couriers who don't want to carry packages down the 100-plus steps to her villa, stores that close from 1 to 4 pm everyday for lunch – and in all of its unmatched beauty. Of course there is the gossip, the affairs, the whispers over café luongo at the standup bar about who's sleeping with who, what gay guy left his partner to marry a rich old woman, whose husband walked in on his wife sleeping with the postman.
I am learning it all, traveling on my little motorino, my moped, perhaps even creating some of my own small village gossip by flirting with the computer hacker who breaks the code on Lauren's iPhone. Making new friends on the Amalfi Coast happened with ease, including the train conductor who upgraded me to first class on my way to Firenze, or paying the "local price" at the bar Il Mirante which hangs over the edge of a cliff along the 359 steps leading to alla spiagga, One Fire Beach on Gavitella, Praiano.
And of course there is the food. Lauren is not just mia sorrella, a sister to me, she is a treasured authority on Italian food and history. An author. A wildly successful businesswoman that has earned a reputation among Michelin chefs and family trattoria owners alike as a trusted journalist and foodie.
So she is going to teach me to cook. To live. To be piano, piano. Tranquil. The only way to truly emulate her life, to fall in love, calm my Type A personality, create a way of living in my forties with a bella vista in every way possible, not just a beautiful view of the ocean, but to truly live La Dolce Vita, is to live in Italy. Remade in Italia.
Michele McPhee is an American author, talk radio host, and journalist from Boston, MA who has written and presented for radio and TV stations in Boston, the Boston Herald, The Boston Globe, the New York Daily News and ABC News. Her books include: Mob Over Miami; Absolute Evil; Heartless: The True Story of Neil Entwistle and the Cold Blooded Murder of his Wife and Child; When Evil Rules: Vengeance and Murder on Cape Cod; A Date with Death: The Secret Life of the Accused; A Mob Story; A Professor's Rage: The Chilling True Story of Harvard; and Maximum Harm: The Tsarnaev Brothers, the FBI, and the Road to the Marathon Bombing.