- Historic Sites
The Last Of The Bosses
Part hero, part rogue, Boston’s Jim Curley triumphed over the Brahmins in his heyday, but became in the end a figure of pity.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
It is a rambling and uneven book, often dulled by the memory of obscure and forgotten ward heelers, but on the other hand enlivened by the candidly brazen quality of Curley’s admissions. Though written by a professional rewrite man after conversations with Curley, it preserves Curley’s own style of the informal cliché. What runs through the pages as an undercurrent, sensed even when not visible, is the after-feeling of the famine years, the old Celtic bitterness against the chill Yankee. Dinneen in reviewing it wrote that Curley had destroyed an illusion. I’d Do It Again is more reticent about Curley’s financial background than is The Purple Shamrock. There is no mention of his income tax irregularities, and nothing is said of his connection—inadvertent though it may have been—with the Mishawum Manor blackmail scandal of the early twenties in which two district attorney friends of his were disbarred.
The summer after The Last Hurrah was published, Curley sold his Jamaicaway house to the Oblate Fathers. Those shamrock shutters, once a gesture of defiance, had become a familiar landmark. The furnishings, the library, the Georgian silver, the Waterford glass and Crown Derby china, jade and ivory bibelots, icons, pious statuary, and massive furniture had been purchased for the most part from auction rooms. Now to auction rooms they would return.
Curley moved to a small suburban-colonial house the other side of Jamaica Pond. He settled down there with his governor’s chair and his mayor’s chair and whatever other belongings were sizable enough to bring with him. Governor Foster Furcolo appointed him to a sinecure job, for Curley was hard up again. The Boston papers always seemed to be printing little human interest stories about him, photos of him fishing, or being shaved by Sal, the Huntington Avenue barber. Edward R. Murrow ran his Person-to-Person television show from the new house, and when Curley appeared he announced that he was going to live to be 125 years old so that he could bury all his enemies. Columbia Pictures was shooting a film version of The Last Hurrah starring Spencer Tracy.
Though Curley belittled it, from the time he moved his health began to fail. He was in and out of the hospital for check-ups. His face grew gray and flabby. Yet his right hand had not forgotten its cunning. When Columbia was preparing the premiére of The Last Hurrah Curley, after a private showing, filed suit for “irreparable damage to a valuable property”—that is, his life story. Columbia paid $25,000 for the damages. Then it was discovered that the lawyer to whom the check was made out was non-existent and that the stamp on the release was from a non-existent notary; it was claimed that the Curley signature was a forgery. Officially, no one knows yet who got the money. Curley still threatened suit, and Columbia settled for an additional $15,000. The picture was running at a Boston theater when he died.
He entered the city hospital for an intestinal operation on November 4, 1958, election day. Just another campaign, he remarked. For the first few days he seemed to be mending. He was able to walk about and to talk of the great Democratic victory. A week later he had a relapse. The end came quickly.
He lay on a bier in the State House in the great hall where the battle flags of Massachusetts regiments are kept, and in two days 100,000 people filed past. Then, on a warm morning like an aftermath of September, he was buried from Holy Cross Cathedral. It was the largest funeral ever seen in Boston.
According to the Boston papers, Archbishop (now Cardinal) Richard J. Cushing had flown from Washington to deliver the eulogy. The late Cardinal O’Connell had spoken one when Curley’s first wife died; the Archbishop himself had eulogized Mary and Leo eight years before. Now he sat silent and dominant in the sanctuary. The celebrant was Curley’s youngest son, Father Francis Curley, S.J.
The coffin of polished mahogany glittered in the candlelight that was reflected again on the scabbards of the Knights of Columbus, Fourth Class, who formed the guard of honor. They stood there, plump and middle-aged, in silk capes, their hands on their sword hilts, white plumes covering their heads. As the requiem mass reached its conclusion, the Archbishop approached the coffin. Then he prayed, in the grating, honest, South Boston voice that was his inheritance and that he was too proud to change. High overhead, suspended by a wire from the Reconstruction-Gothic dome and directly over the coffin, Cardinal O’Connell’s red hat swung slightly in the air currents.
The prayer ended, and everyone watched the Archbishop’s seamed face under its white miter, waiting for him to mount the steps to the pulpit. But the Archbishop did not move. There was no eulogy.