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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
All this activity had not been undertaken just for the Forgotten Man. What Curley now wanted was to set the seal of respectability on his career by becoming the next Secretary of the Navy. After all, it was a job held recently by a Boston Adams. Shortly after the election Curley, with his daughter Mary, called on Roosevelt at Warm Springs. There, according to Curley, Roosevelt told him, “Well, Jim, if that’s what you want, the job is yours.” A few weeks later, however, at Calvin Coolidge’s funeral in Northampton, James Roosevelt took Curley aside and told him a Cabinet post wasn’t possible. James went on to tell him that he might instead become ambassador to France or Italy, and suggested that he drop in at the White House to talk it over.
On that visit the President mentioned Italy, and Curley asked for a few days to think it over. Whether Roosevelt ever intended to send the boss of Boston to Rome, whether Boston’s William Cardinal O’Connell vetoed the idea, or whether Curley was being given the Roosevelt run-around—no one will ever know. In any event, at Curley’s next interview, the smiling President said there were difficulties about Italy and offered him instead the post of ambassador to Poland, remarking that Poland was one of the most interesting places in the world. “If it is such a goddam interesting place,” Curley is said to have replied, “why don’t you resign the Presidency and take it yourself?” To the newsmen who crowded around him outside, he used a quick term to describe Roosevelt that Truman later reserved for music critics. In Boston a witticism went the rounds that if he had accepted, he would have paved the Polish Corridor.
Between the two conventions Curley had been elected mayor for the third time, by a clear majority and once more with the odds against him. His principal opponent was another respectable Democratic lawyer, Frederick W. Mansfield, silently endorsed by Cardinal O’Connell himself, who had long felt with increasing irritation that Curley was a discredit both to the Irish and his Church. The Cardinal, from a slum background similar to Curley’s, was of the cast of a Renaissance prelate. He spoke Italian like an Italian, English like a cultivated Englishman. An urbane and aristocratic man, he wanted to see the emergent Irish become respectable and accepted. Politically, however, the Cardinal was an innocent.
Curley in his inaugural address attacked the Republican Good Government Association and the “select and exclusive body of social bounders in the Back Bay.” His new administration began with the usual Curley public works projects, the need for which was accentuated now by the onset of the depression.
Even before his election he knew that his wife was doomed by cancer. She died the following June. Mary Curley’s influence on her husband had been stabilizing and restraining. Without her he seemed to lose his balance. He drank too much, he coarsened physically, he grew bombastic and careless, he had less control over his quick temper. Opposing Ely’s nomination for governor, he got into a fist fight with the chairman of the Democratic State Committee at radio station WNAC. City Hall interested him less now than national politics.
The older, less careful Curley now made a political mistake. He made his friend Edmund L. Dolan city treasurer. Dolan was the legal owner of Curley’s 93-foot yacht, punningly named Maicaway. As Curley’s understudy, Dolan headed the Mohawk Packing Company and the Legal Securities Corporation. Mohawk was organized to provide meat for city institutions—at a third above the usual cost. Through the Legal Securities Corporation, Dolan managed to sell bonds to the city and also buy them from the city to sell to brokers, collecting commissions at both ends. The state-appointed Finance Commission uncovered these and certain aspects of land-takings and other facts sufficient, so it seemed for a while, to send both Curley and Dolan to jail. The younger Curley would never have left himself so vulnerable.
Eventually Dolan was charged with the theft of more than $170,000 from the city. Before the case came to trial he was caught trying to bribe the jury, and received two and a half years in jail. At the same time a bill in equity was brought against Curley, and after three years and 34 continuances he was ordered to pay back $42,629 to the city treasury.
Now that he had no more Washington ambitions he badgered and needled Roosevelt for more aid, more money for Boston. He devised new projects for the Civil Works Administration. After all, a CWA was what he had been occupied with all his political life. With Governor Ely, still a disgruntled Smith man, retiring in 1934, Curley had little trouble in getting the Democratic nomination for governor. That election, the second New Deal wave, swept almost the complete Democratic state ticket into office. Boston had taken over Massachusetts at last. The crowd from City Hall moved up Beacon Hill to the State House.