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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
Curley’s two-year term as governor marked both the height and depths of his career. No such turmoil had occurred on Beacon Hill since cynical, droop-eyed Ben Butler had been governor fifty years before. Curley would now use the greater resources of the Commonwealth as he had previously used those of the city, but this time with a recklessness and a hard arrogance he had not shown before. Work there was, projects useful and otherwise, feverishly undertaken from the Berkshires to Cape Cod, and where there was no work there were at least jobs. The State House offices bulged with idle incompetents, the Governor’s anterooms swarmed with old City Hall petitioners. When the Finance Commission still threatened to dig up old Curley City Hall scandals, its members were bribed or dismissed. Curley rode roughshod over the Governor’s Council, courts, and department heads, his energy as boundless as his activities were unregulated.
Insolence of office trailed him through the state as he scorched the roads in his limousine with its S-1 license plates, preceded by state police motorcycle escorts with sirens wailing, and followed by carloads of his military aides bright in incongruous blue and gold-braid uniforms. S-1 was in a series of accidents. One state trooper was killed, another badly injured. Curley moved across the Massachusetts landscape like a Latin dictator. For the 1936 Harvard Tercentenary he arrived at the Yard escorted by scarlet-coated National Lancers, drums beating and trumpets sounding, to move ostentatiously past a stony-faced President Roosevelt while a few Harvard die-hards booed.
Just before he took the oath of office, Curley had swung a parting punch at Governor Ely. Somehow that outrageous brawl within the State House became symbolic of his administration. The inauguration ball, held at the Armory, was a monstrous affair to which 14,000 were invited. During his first year in office the Governor spent $85,206 just for taxis, flowers, dinners, luncheons, cigars, refreshments, and trips for himself and his guests and secretaries. The following winter he moved his entire staff to Florida. In those depression times his daughter Mary’s wedding to Edward C. Donnelly, Jr., of the Donnelly Advertising Company, was the gaudiest ever held in Massachusetts. The bride’s trousseau cost $10,000—paid for, and not donated, as anti-Curleyites had hinted. At the packed Cathedral of the Holy Cross, under the dismayed eyes of Cardinal O’Connell, many of those present stood on the pews as the bride and her father came down the aisle. There were 2,300 guests at the Copley Plaza reception afterward. They downed two tons of lobster at $13 a plate.
Financially buttressed at the end of his governor’s term, Curley determined to revenge himself on Roosevelt. The President had not liked him as governor, and he would like still less to find him in the United States Senate. For Governor Curley the senatorial nomination was easy to manipulate; the election seemed equally so. His Republican opponent was Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the grandson of the old anti-League senator, whose political experience was contained in two terms in the Massachusetts legislature. Curley liked to refer to him as “Little Boy Blue.” Yet in the New Deal landslide of 1936, when every other major Democratic candidate in the Commonwealth was overwhelmingly elected, Curley lost to Lodge by 136,000 votes. All the states except Maine and Vermont went for Roosevelt, but Massachusetts had had enough of James Michael Curley.
In a sense, however, Curley had the last word, for on that day when the cannon boomed across the Common to announce a new governor, he stole the whole show by marrying again. His second wife, Gertrude Casey Dennis, was a widow, a quiet woman without political or social ambitions, who would give him the domestic stability he had found in his first wife.
The following year he again ran for mayor, and again found himself opposed by a “reform” candidate, Maurice Tobin, a handsome and hardy young Democrat from his own district, who in the wheel-spins of politics would twice become mayor, then governor, and finally figurehead Secretary of Labor in Truman’s Cabinet. Curley has accurately described him as “a protégé of mine who learned too fast.” It was to Curley’s mind an easy election, but on election morning there appeared on the masthead of the Boston Post, whose editorials generally reflected the views of the archdiocese, a brief notice to the voters of Boston that read: “Cardinal O’Connell, in speaking to the Catholic Alumni Association, said, ‘The walls are raised against honest men in civic life.’ You can break down these walls by voting for an honest, clean, competent young man, Maurice Tobin, today. …”
Thousands of copies of the Post were distributed free in front of all the churches. The actual quotation was from an address made by the Cardinal six years before, but few readers noticed that the quotation ended before Tobin was mentioned. To the faithful it seemed that His Eminence had endorsed Curley’s opponent. Curley furiously tried to get a retraction broadcast, but the Cardinal could not be reached. It was a maneuver worthy of Curley himself. Enough pious votes were swung to Tobin for him to win.