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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
Yet the city was not the same. What he had done as boss of old Ward 17, and in his many years as mayor, had now become a more impersonal function of government. Voters were no longer gratefully held in line by a job shoveling snow, by the odd ton of coal, by the perennial Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas basket. Social security and unemployment insurance and the psychiatric social worker had taken over. The Irish were becoming middle class. One couldn’t even soak the rich any more. In an almost bankrupt city the tax rate could go no higher. What Boston mostly needed now was an efficient receiver.
In the 1949 election Curley, to his derisive surprise, was opposed by John B. Hynes, who had served as mayor while Curley was in jail. “A little city clerk,” Curley called him contemptuously, but when the ballots were counted, Hynes, the honest, skillful administrator, had won by 15,000 votes. It was the end of Curley’s political career.
The next year by a twist of fate his daughter Mary and his son Leo both died of cerebral hemorrhages on the same day. Mary, who had been closest to him, had led an unhappy life; her marriage had ended in divorce in 1943. Leo was at his death a lieutenant in the Navy. In the father’s loss even his enemies could feel a kindly pity for him.
After Curley got out of Danbury, he had complained to a Boston newspaperman named Joseph Dinneen that the press had always been unfair to him. Dinneen then offered to write Curley’s life story honestly and objectively as Curley told it to him. Curley agreed, and with his collaboration The Purple Shamrock was written. It appeared in 1949. Curley was proud of the book at the time and used to give away autographed copies to City Hall visitors.
The Purple Shamrock was the beginning of the Curley legend, the first attempt to put his career in perspective. What it told was true and often amazingly frank. Dinneen admitted that money was never a problem for Curley although he could never quite explain where he got it, that his income skyrocketed when he was in office and shrank to a trickle when he was not, that “there wasn’t a contract awarded that did not have a cut for Curley.” Yet Dinneen felt that even so, Curley’s accomplishments justified the cuts.
Now that Curley was no longer to be feared politically he began to seem a kind of institution. He had been around for so long. Even the Bostonians who had fought him most in the pugnacious City Hall days, now in the nostalgia for their greener years felt a certain left-handed affection for him. He in turn was pleased and flattered by the occasional courtesy from a Lowell or a Lodge. Every political figure from Senator Saltonstall to the last South Boston ward heeler would drop in on the way past the House with the Shamrock Shutters. Curley in his old age could still charm the birds out of the trees.
When Edwin O’Connor’s novel The Last Hurrah was scheduled to appear in 1956, it was carefully let out in advance that here was a novel about James Michael Curley. The editor of the Globe sent Curley a copy with the suggestion that he review it. The next day the book was returned with a note from Curley to the effect that he was consulting his lawyers.
Frank Skeffington, the politician-hero of the book, is undoubtedly Curley, even to his feud with the Cardinal, but he is a retouched Curley, less violent, more urbane. After Curley’s first resentment had worn off, he began to see the Skeffington portrait as an asset. The book had toned down his ruthlessness, emphasized his benevolence. Various hints of fraud and peculation were, after all, no more than the admissions of The Purple Shamrock. For a while Curley took jokingly to calling and signing himself Skeffington. From originally intending to sue O’Connor, he ended up by congratulating him. The Last Hurrah caused him quite a lot of mental turmoil, however. As an aftermath he decided to write his autobiography, to out-Skeffington Skeffington by putting in what Dinneen had either not known or discreetly omitted.
In the final section of The Last Hurrah, when Skeffington is on his death bed, someone standing by the apparently unconscious figure remarks unctuously that if Skeffington had it all to do over again, he’d no doubt do it very differently. The dying man then manages to rouse himself and whisper: “The hell I would!” It is from this episode that Curley took the title of his own book, I’d Do It Again.