June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
Part hero, part rogue, Boston’s Jim Curley triumphed over the Brahmins in his heyday, but became in the end a figure of pity.
For the first half of this century and beyond, James Michael Curley was the most flamboyant and durable figure on Boston’s political scene. Mayor off and on for a total of sixteen years, he spent four terms in Congress and two in jail, and for two depression years he was governor of Massachusetts. At his death he lay in state for two days in the State House Hall of Flags, the fourth person in the history of the Commonwealth to be so honored. His seventeen-room neo-Georgian mansion on Jamaicaway with shamrocks cut in its shutters was both a landmark of the rise of the immigrant Irish and a nose-thumbing in the direction of Yankee Beacon Hill. He has been hated by Proper Bostonians with a proper and ultimate hatred and held in mindless affection by the slums. Alternately his Irish-American political associates embraced and knifed him. Counted out a score of times, he always bounced back. On several occasions, and long before his death, he received the last rites of the Catholic Church.
His political career began midway between the famine in Ireland and the present. In 1847, the annus mirabilis, came the first wave of mass immigration to America. Because the Cunard Line terminus was then at Boston, the wretched Irish landed there. Illiterate, sunk in their defeat, they came like cattle. Five percent of them died on the “coffin ships” on the way over. Transported from their primitive earthbound existence, they were forced to take whatever work they could find at hand, usually in a glutted market—or else starve. Sometimes they did starve in their reeking Paddyvilles and Mick Alleys, where they lived packed closely together in the first urban mass slums of America.
They were the butt of the social pyramid, the unfailing source of exploitable labor: ditchdiggers, stevedores, hod carriers, stableboys. Boston was the center of cheap labor for the country. Construction bosses all over America sent there for fresh supplies of Irish workers. The Paddies went as contract laborers in coaches with sealed doors, the curtains nailed across the windows. Along the Erie Canal and the new railroad lines they died like flies. Jeremiah O’Donovan-Rossa wrote of “the wreck and ruin that came upon the Irish race in this foreign land.”
These unassimilable foreigners with their uncouth solidarity more than doubled the population of static Boston, turning it from a coherent and comprehensive town to an incoherent and incomprehensible metropolis. Dismayed, the Old Yankees retreated into themselves, originating the so-called Boston Brahminism as a kind of defense. The term Brahmin, which Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes had given them quite by accident, they took for self-assurance, and the name stuck, coming to mean not Dr. Holmes’s disinterested bread-and-water asceticism of the mind but a class-conscious membership in the Yankee State Street financial oligarchy. The Irish were untouchables. Mayor Theodore Lyman called them “a race that will never be infused with our own, but on the contrary will always remain distinct and hostile.”
Somewhat, over a hundred years later we find Senator John Kennedy—indistinguishable in manner and appearance from his Yankee counterparts, author of Profiles in Courage, Pulitzer Prize winner, a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers—a possible presidential candidate. It is interesting sociologically that this upright young man is the grandson of Curley’s predecessor as mayor, John F. Fitzgerald—known as “Honey Fitz” for his rendering of “Sweet Adeline” at political rallies.
James M. Curley was a transition figure, a symbol of the emergence of the famine Irish from their proletarian status to political dominance. It is the recurring phenomenon of one class replacing another. In 1776 the Boston merchant oligarchy succeeded the Tory squirearchy by revolution. It in turn, if more slowly and by attrition, was superseded by the Celts. Curley’s career is a symbol of this process.
His father, Michael, came to Boston from Galway in 1865 at the age of fourteen. Sarah Clancy, his mother, arrived that same year—a meager-boned Connemara girl of the type Dr. Gogarty called Firbolg. She was twelve years old and worked first as a maid” on Beacon Hill. Michael Curley became a hod carrier at ten cents an hour by the grace of Patrick “Pea-Jacket” Maguire, boss of Ward 17, where Galway men clustered. Michael Curley was good-looking in a stumpy, plodding, impassive way, strong, and as he grew older, bearded. At 21 he married Sarah and took her to a tiny flat in one of the rotting three-deckers off Northampton Street. Along Roxbury Neck there were hundreds of those fetid wooden tenements that had been run up by jerry-builders for the shanty Irish. Beyond Northampton Street lay the North Bay, and at low tide the marsh gas sifting in across the mud mixed with the sour permanent stench of the Southampton Street dump. It was said that in Ward 17 children came into the world with clenched fists. In that Roxbury flat James Michael Curley, the second son, was born in 1874.
The boy’s horizon was the water-front slum. By the time he was five he ran with an urchin gang, pilfering, dodging the cops, wandering along the edge of the Roxbury flats while the herring gulls wheeled overhead, scaling stones at the wharf rats that scuttled across the dumps, selling old whiskey bottles they found there to Jakie the Junkie. Daily they would see the angular masts and spars of the cargo schooners coming up the Fort Hill channel from far off places like Maine or Nova Scotia. In the summer they played about the old Roxbury canal or swam in the murky South Bay. Evenings as they lay in bed they could hear the bullfrogs croaking from the marshes. Sometimes, very rarely, in the heat-struck weather they wandered outside the ward. Only a little over a mile to the north was the newly filled area of the Back Bay with its wide avenues and brownstone-front town houses. To tenement boys these opulent mansions with their turrets and gablings seemed like castles.
By the time Jim readied grammar school he was peddling papers. Afternoons he worked as a bundle and delivery boy at the Washington Market. When he was ten his father died. Mike Curley had always been proud of his own strength. One of the workmen challenged him to lilt a 400-pound edgestone onto a wagon. He managed to raise it but then collapsed. Three days later he was dead.
The Curleys were then living in an alley tenement in Fellows Court. Pea-Jacket’s point of view was limited—no votes, no help. And there was no help for the Curleys.
Sarah kept the family together by scrubbing doors in a downtown office building. Jim and his brother John, two years older, wrapped bundles and served customers at the Washington Market in their free time until the end of grammar school—their last schooling. At twelve, Jim was working in Gale’s drugstore an hour and a half before he went to school, and from half past four until eleven after school.
Reared in poverty, alienated from any sense of community, young Jim Curley formed his hard, unwavering, egocentric determination to succeed. Success, the road up from the Fellows Court flat to the imagined great house, was through politics. He knew that when he was still in short trousers. There was no other road for an Irish slum boy. Politics, then, was a game he would take as he found it, not to change the game or reform it, but to win. In the harshness of his own few years he grasped instinctively Boss Martin Lomasney’s Neoplatonic axiom that politically speaking the mass of people are interested mainly in food, clothing, and shelter. For these they would barter their votes.
At fifteen, after a series of small jobs, he settled for the next eight years as a deliveryman driving a wagon for C.S. Johnson, Grocers. He was strong like his father, wily and wiry, and except for his somewhat vulpine nose, handsome. He had a resonant voice and soon learned to modify the harshness of his gutter speech. From time to time he would drop in at Curran’s livery stable, where the wardheelers gathered, or at One-Armed Peter Whalen’s tobacco store, the political hangout of the district.
Meanwhile, he enrolled two nights a week at the Boston Evening High School. In the public library he read Dickens and Thackeray and Shakespeare, and the Boston Transcript. He taught Sunday school, ushered and passed the plate at St. Philip’s on Harrison Avenue, and joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians. He became chairman of committees for picnics, outings, minstrel shows, and church supper dances. For his straight purpose, games and girls and conviviality had no meaning. Time was too short, life too dear.
He knew the families on his grocery route as if they were his own family; he talked with people—after church, at the Hibernians, at Whalen’s, on committees. Always he was obliging and always available. By the time he reached his majority he showed the indefinable air of future success that a sixth-sense “pol” like Whalen could spot at once. In 1898 One-Armed Peter tipped him to run for the Boston Common Council against Pea-jacket’s organization, and staked him to his first contribution. Curley won by several hundred votes, but by the time Pea-Jacket’s henchmen had finished with the ballot boxes, he found himself counted out. The next year, organizing his own strong-arms and after weeks of pre-election gang fights and corner brawls, he won—too handily for Pea-jacket to challenge him. So at 26 he formally entered political life as one of the three council members from Ward 17.
With his defeat of the aging Pea-Jacket, Curley consolidated himself as the new ward boss, organizing Ward 17 on the Tammany model of tribute and social services and even calling his organization the Tammany Club. There was, however, this difference: Curley’s organization was personal rather than self-perpetuating. In politics he would always be a lone wolf.
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.
Fitzgerald’s first thought that year was to run again for mayor, but young Jim Curley—back from Washington, aggressive and dominating—was like a tidal wave. Honey Fitz’s second thought was to retire. The ward bosses finally fixed on an opponent, a Fitzgerald nonentity named Thomas J. Kenny.
Curley’s campaign for mayor dwarfed his congressional one of four years before. He stormed the autumn city in raccoon coat, “iron mike” on his head and the gilded voice booming. He promised to clean out City Hall and give it back to the people—whatever that might mean. He savaged the ward bosses and invited the voters to call on him personally at City Hall. He promised more schools and playgrounds and beaches and parks and jobs. Politicians can hear the grass grow, and there was the underground feeling that he was unbeatable.
Incongruous as it might seem in later years, or even months, Curley was first hailed as a reform mayor. Hundreds of Honey Fitz’s officeholders were ousted. True to his promise, Curley opened up City Hall. Those who wanted to see him about jobs, favors, or assistance, he received without appointment. A squad of secretaries catalogued each visitor before he was taken to the Mayor. Decisions were made on the spot. If a request could not be granted, Curley said so and why. He was the super-boss. Ward bosses became obsolete: Curley had destroyed their power, even in Ward 17. He talked to an average of 200 persons a day, 50,000 in a year.
The financial and business community’s satisfaction with the new mayor was brutally short-lived. Curley, they would soon discover, had lost none of his old resentments. Assessments were raised all round. A vast construction program such as Boston had never seen before was begun. Streets were ripped up, transit lines extended, beaches and playgrounds laid out, hospitals built, and services expanded. There was a job for every jobless man in the city. Here lay Curley’s basic formula, then and in all his administrations: a juggler’s act of public works without regard for cost. When the city treasury was empty he would borrow. The outraged Yankees could pay for it all through taxes.
Yet, much of what he did needed to be done. The cost would be excessive, the payrolls padded, a percentage of the contractors’ fees would always find its way into Curley’s pocket—yet without him most of these projects would never have been undertaken. By the end of his first term he had altered the face of the city; by the end of his fourth term the tax rate had quintupled.
Though with him money went as easily as it came, though he liked to be known as the mayor of the poor, he enjoyed lush living. Midway in his first term he built himself the house overlooking Jamaica Pond that would be known as the House with the Shamrock Shutters. It was better than anything on Beacon Street. Some of the trimmings, including the mahogany-paneled dining room and the winding staircase, came from the Fairhaven house of Henry H. Rogers, the Standard Oil executive. The Finance Commission and others were to ask vainly how anyone could build a $60,000 house on a $15,000 lot on a salary of $10,000 a year. Such questions never bothered Curley. In his autobiography he maintained—archly and without expecting to be believed—that he had made the money for his house on a stock market tip given him by a since-deceased wool merchant. Almost everyone in Boston knew that the house had been a donation from a contractor. The Curley wards felt he deserved it.
In 1917, when Curley ran for re-election, a curious amalgam of businessmen and bosses took the field against him. Martin Lomasney, the old Ward 8 mahatma and the only ward boss to survive unscathed, entered two congressmen with Celtic names as pseudocandidates to cut into Curley’s Irish-Democratic vote. It was an old gambit, used many times by Curley himself, and it worked well enough to defeat Curley.
After several ludicrously unfortunate business ventures—in such matters Curley would always be both gullible and inept—he became president of the Hibernia National Bank, within wistful sight of City Hall. But this was for him only an interlude. His real life was always politics.
The 1921 mayoralty campaign was one of the closest and meanest in the history of Boston, and Curley fought alone. No political pro in the city was for him, and the betting against him ran over two to one. But his opponent, a respected Catholic lawyer named John R. Murphy, was not prepared for what he now had to face—too much of a gentleman, it was said commiseratingly of him afterward. Among other things, Curley sent some of his workers to Charlestown dressed in clerical black and carrying prayer books. There they let it be known that turncoat Murphy had joined the Masons and that he was divorcing his wife to marry a sixteen-year-old girl. Other Curley supporters rang doorbells through Catholic South Boston posing as members of the Hawes Baptist Club and soliciting votes for John R. Murphy. Curley even gave a Ku Klux Klan organizer known as the Black Pope $2,000 to campaign against him.
Against all odds and predictions Curley won, with 74,200 votes to Murphy’s 71,800. For the first time in a Boston election women could vote, and it was generally felt that Mary Curley’s “Personal Appeal to Women Voters,” an open letter circulated at the last minute, gave her husband the extra votes that elected him.
Before anyone quite knew what was happening—anyone except Curley—there were $24,000,000 worth of building projects under way. Several times the city treasury gave out, and Curley merely borrowed more money against future taxes. If a banker showed reluctance to lend, Curley would threaten to start a run on his bank “a mile long.” Taxes and assessments as well as buildings went up.
During Curley’s second administration, and with Curley pointedly in mind, the Republican state legislature passed a law that no mayor of Boston might succeed himself. Instead, in 1924 Curley ran as Democratic candidate for governor against Alvan T. Fuller, who would later become so widely known in connection with the Sacco-Vanzetti case. It was a Republican year, and in any case, Massachusetts would not be ready for Curley until after the transvaluations of the depression. Curley tried to make an issue of the Ku Klux Klan and his own opposition to it. Wherever he spoke in the rural sections of the state, fiery crosses would suddenly blaze out on nearby hills just in time for him to point to them and say, voice resonant with emotion: “There it burns, the cross of hatred upon which Our Lord, Jesus Christ, was crucified.” Later he admitted that the crosses had been touched off by his boys. Fuller won—but the size of Curley’s vote gave the state party leaders, whose enthusiasm for Curley was at best limited, something to think about.
In the presidential election of 1928 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was one of the eight states carried by Al Smith. To the Irish Democrats of the Commonwealth, Smith was the most creditable man from Irish ranks who had yet appeared in politics. Before the national convention the Massachusetts leaders were solidly for Smith. All of them were at odds with Curley, and they took care that the ex-mayor would have no part in the convention or in the subsequent Smith campaign. They reckoned, however, without Curley.
Shortly after Smith’s nomination, Curley opened what he called his Bull Pen in the vacant Young’s Hotel near City Hall. He had the walls plastered with Smith signs and photographs. There were loudspeakers in the windows blaring a steady raucous mixture of speeches and music. Every day was open house in the Bull Pen. Inside it was like an amateur night. Anyone who felt like walking in and speaking his piece about Smith was welcome to use the microphone. And when Al Smith arrived in Boston to ride through the city in a whirl of ticker tape, the excluded Curley was somehow there in the car beside him, to the chagrin of the official members of the party. Yet in the election, when Smith was trailing Hoover by 83,000 votes outside Boston, and the city’s roaring majority gave him the state by 17,000, it was Curley’s desperate drumming up of the last few thousand votes that made the difference.
After the Hoover sweep Curley was astute enough to realize that Smith would not have another chance, no matter what Massachusetts Democrats thought. Four years later Curley was the first and in fact the only politician in the state to come out for Franklin Roosevelt before the convention. Massachusetts Democrats, still solidly and emotionally for Smith, were shocked and furious. Curley was a traitor. The wilderness was where he belonged.
The Massachusetts delegation to the 1932 Democratic Convention was headed by Governor Joseph B. Ely, an old Curley enemy. Curley would not be a delegate to this convention; in fact if Ely had anything to say about it he would not even be a spectator. But, as the event again showed, one had better not count Curley out too soon. For directly behind the Massachusetts delegation in the convention hall sat the Puerto Ricans with their chairman—none other than Alcalde Jaime Miguel Curleo. The Alcalde, in a familiarly florid accent, cast the six Puerto Rican votes for Roosevelt, though even after the Roosevelt stampede the Massachusetts delegation glumly and stubbornly held out to the end for Smith. Behind the scenes, Curley had helped arrange with Hearst and Garner the deal that finally gave Roosevelt the nomination.
Public opinion in Massachusetts veered quickly. The emotions that for four years had been bound up with the fortunes of Al Smith were transferred overnight to Roosevelt. Having left Boston as an outcast, Curley came back from Chicago a hero. He arrived in North Station to find that a crowd of 250,000 had turned out to meet him. Streets were jammed all the way to the Common. Inside the station 21 bands were blaring at one another. It took 100 reserve policemen to clear a path for Curley to his car.
From that night until the election all Curley’s efforts went into the campaign. He reopened his “Bull Pen,” and re-decorated it with large Roosevelt motifs. He mortgaged the House with the Shamrock Shutters. He traveled 10,000 miles through 23 western and midwestern states to deliver 140 speeches. For the election he spent a quarter of a million dollars of his own money. With James Roosevelt as an assistant, he was the Roosevelt ringmaster in Massachusetts.
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.
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.
In 1938 Curley was strong enough to take the nomination away from the Democratic governor, but he was still unable to win the election. His opponent was the long-jawed speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Leverett Saltonstall, who as a Republican, a Harvard man, and a Brahmin combined the three things that Curley was best at excoriating. Yet Saltonstall was a new type of Old Yankee who represented a rapprochement with what Curley liked to call “the newer races.” The growing numbers of middle-class Irish liked him. In later years when he and young Senator Kennedy were colleagues in Washington, they became so friendly that Kennedy refused to endorse Saltonstall’s next Democratic opponent. Saltonstall also had the advantage of owning one of the most agreeably ugly mugs in politics. Curley made the mistake of quipping that Saltonstall might have a South Boston face but he would never dare show it in South Boston. Of course, Saltonstall walked through the South Boston streets the next day, talking with everyone he met and dropping in at the innumerable bars. He overwhelmed Curley at the polls.
By the time of Boston’s next municipal election Mayor Tobin had built a tight political machine of his own. Curley ran against him nevertheless and suffered his fourth defeat in a row. At 67, after a generation in politics, it looked as if he had come to the end of the road. But that was not the way Curley saw it. He turned again to his solid core of supporters in the close wards of Roxbury and South Boston and Charlestown. As if he were now going down the ladder he had once climbed, he turned to them to send him back to Congress in 1942.
These days he was short of funds, and every week there was the $500 installment on the $42,629 he had been ordered to pay the city. A few months before Pearl Harbor, unlucky as usual in his private ventures, he had run into a Washington promoter named James G. Fuller, who was organizing a five-percenter corporation to mediate between manufacturers looking for war contracts and the appropriate heads of government agencies. Fuller offered to make Curley president of this organization, to be known as the Engineers’ Group, Inc. Later, Fuller was shown to be a confidence man and ex-convict. Curley, in spite of his title, had little to do with Fuller’s group except to appear on the letterhead, and before he became a congressman he had resigned.
Two years later, however, the Engineers’ Group was one of those investigated by the Truman Committee, and sometime afterward Curley was indicted because of his connection with it. He always maintained that the case against him was directed from the White House. His trial was postponed, however, to allow him to run for mayor of Boston in November, 1945.
Tobin had moved on to become governor. The acting mayor was an obscurity, as were the other four candidates. Postwar Boston itself seemed derelict, a fading seaport as drab as the blackout paint that covered the gilt dome of the State House. So much needed doing, from street repairs to veterans’ housing, and “Curley gets things done.” That at least was the campaign slogan spread casually in public by his paid workers and taken up by others. Looking back to the prewar days, it seemed true enough. What if Curley was under indictment for some contract swindle? If he was guilty he hadn’t done very much, no more than the rest of them. Anyhow, he got things done!
On election day Curley beat his closest opponent by two to one. For the fourth time he became mayor of Boston, 31 years after his first inaugural. Two months later he was convicted by a Washington jury of using the mails to defraud.
His final appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected in 1947. As the date neared for his sentencing he took to his bed. He received the last rites, and then unexpectedly his health picked up. Finally, the postponed but inevitable day came when he appeared in court, in a wheel chair and wearing a collar a size too large. His lawyer produced a certified list of nine ailments from which he was suffering, any one of which might prove fatal. Unimpressed, the judge sentenced him to six to eighteen months at the Federal Correctional Institute at Danbury, Connecticut. “You are sentencing me to die,” Curley told him as they wheeled him away. Democratic House Leader John W. McCormack circulated a petition for Curley’s release signed by all the Massachusetts delegation in Washington except Senator Kennedy. Finally after five months President Truman pardoned Curley—because, the President said later, “he was innocent.”
Although it was not known at the time, or even later, Curley was shattered by his Danbury experience. There was nothing left of the young man who could shrug off a few months behind bars by reading all the books in the prison library. He now felt his age and a sense of failure, and for the first time he knew self-doubt. On his release, according to his daughter, he was hesitant about facing people again.
It warmed him to be met by a great milling crowd in front of the House with the Shamrock Shutters welcoming him with “Hail to the Chief.” Inside he found familiar faces and a huge cake inscribed “Happy Birthday to Our Beloved Boss.” In a few days he was back at City Hall at his old desk, looking fifteen years younger and running the city in his old way.
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.
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.