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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
From that time on Curley never lacked for money. Merchants, tradesmen, and those who did business in Ward 17 now paid to him on a more regulated basis what they had paid to Pea-Jacket. But from the ordinary people of the ward, deserving and otherwise, whose needs and requests Curley took care of quickly and efficiently, he expected nothing in gratitude but their votes. When Honey Fitz was mayor of Boston everybody in City Hall paid, from department heads down to the porters and scrubwomen. Curley, gaudy as he might be in his later plundering, never took from the little men. Money came into his hands and slipped through his fingers. For him it was never an end in itself.
The core of his support would always come from the slums. There he was given an allegiance the Pea-Jackets could never command. But Curley never had a political philosophy beyond that of taking care of himself and his own. With equal ease he could at various times support Al Smith, Franklin Roosevelt, Mussolini, Father Coughlin, and Senator McCarthy. If he had had the vision, he might have become to Boston and Massachusetts what Al Smith was to New York. His vision, however, was limited to his own drive for power.
With Ward 17 in his pocket, Curley moved on to the Massachusetts legislature, where he spent one term, more as an observer of the political passing show than as a participant. He was still learning. At the Staley College of the Spoken Word he took elocution lessons, modifying his speech still further to its final form. The Curley accent was unique, with grandiloquent overtones, impressive and at once identifiable, yet underneath synthetic. It achieved the desired effect, but it never rang true. And in an election pinch, it could always be dropped for something more primitive.
In 1903 Curley met his first reverse. He was caught impersonating one of his less talented ward workers at a Civil Service examination and sentenced to sixty days in the Charles Street jail. Yet far from being disconcerted by this lapse he capitalized on it. In later years he often planted stooges in his audience to get up and ask: “How about the time you went to jail?” Curley then liked to draw himself up and announce floridly: “I did it for a friend.” Ward 17 understood. While in jail, where he spent a not unpleasant two months reading all the books in the library, he was elected to the Board of Aldermen, the upper chamber of Boston’s city government.
Curley remained an alderman until 1909, when he became a member of the new City Council. And all the time he was laying his lines carefully toward his own clear though unexpressed goal—to be mayor and boss of Boston. His retentive mind had the city and its departments catalogued for future use. No one would ever be able to fool Curley.
Established in his thirty-second year, he now found time to marry Mary Herlihy, whom he had met at a St. Philip’s minstrel show. With a background much like his own, she was a woman of grace and character, and a permanently steadying influence on him. It was a happy marriage for them both and a fortunate one for him. Honey Fitz’s blond Tootles might become the subject of limericks, still repeated today by elderly Boston politicians, but no enemy could ever touch Jim Curley that way. His private life was always beyond reproach, though it ended sadly, for of his nine children only two survived him.
In 1909 Fitzgerald was elected to a four-year term under Boston’s reform charter, which gave him almost complete responsibility. In 1880 Mayor Frederick O. Prince had said: “No allegation of municipal corruption has ever been made against any Boston official.” By Honey Fitz’s time such a remark could be considered a flat, cynical joke. Another class had emerged to take over the city. These Irish-Americans, more and more of them now second-generation, felt no obligation to observe the rules made by the Beacon Hill ascendancy that had exploited them for the last sixty years. All the other roads had been barred to their strength and their cunning and their enterprise except the road of politics, which they had pushed into by their weight of numbers.
Nobody understood this better than Curley. Contemptuous of Honey Fitz, willing to wait for the next round, he let himself be persuaded to run for Congress by the district incumbent, Bill McNary, who counted on insuring his own re-election by having Curley split his opponent’s vote. For the first time Curley stumped outside Ward 17. In a day when political rallies were still a prime source of entertainment, Curley put on a campaign that was a combination of vaudeville, Chautauqua, and the prize ring. No one, his opponents realized too late, could equal him as a showman; no one could talk him down. There was the usual torchlight parade with the bands blaring “Tammany” to celebrate his victory.
He spent two undistinguished terms in the House and his week ends back in Roxbury. In Washington he and his wife mixed in a more sophisticated society than they had known before. They took instruction in etiquette, and this became a source of later jokes in Boston. In his autobiography Curley maintained that he liked Washington. But Boston, the hard core of the city, the massed wards south of the Back Bay—these were his roots, and he never really functioned outside them. Before his second term was up, he resigned to enter the 1913 mayoralty contest.