His Honor

The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley, 1874–1958

by Jack Beatty
Addison-Wesley, 570 pp., $25.00

The late Rev. Francis X. Curley told Jack Beatty that from all his childhood he could remember only one time when his father took a hand to him. It was an evening late in the 1920s when little Frank met the home-arriving James M. Curley with a heartfelt “Hi, Dad!”

Curley slapped him lightly across the face, knocking him down on the Perian rug. “I am your father and don’t ever forget it, boy!… I will not have a word like ‘Dad’ introduced into my house.”

[Later] Frank tried to explain. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with the word; he had simply picked it up from some of the children at school. “They’re shanty Irish,” Curley replied…”If they wish to allow such things in their homes, that is their business.”

The Boston Irish thus disdained had by that time made James M. Curley twice a congressman and then twice a mayor, and would go on to make him again a mayor and then a governor and then again a congressman and finally once more a mayor. He repaid them with equal doses of public exaltation and private contempt.

Curley’s nature was so rich in paradoxes as to offer equal opportunities to the taste for the comic and the taste for the tragic. He was the practicing grafter and occasional blackmailer who never left home until he had bent his knee in prayer. That is the comic paradox. He was also the Brahmin-Yankee-worshiping champion of the poor Irish against the Brahmin Yankee. That is the tragic paradox and, as usual, the truly moving one.

James M. Curley’s proper epitaph was not the “I’d Do It Again” of his autobiographical preference but Yeats’s meditation for the “Irish Airman”: “Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love.” Yeats came closer to sounding the Celtic chord than anyone not of Celtic blood ever has; and his echoes come frequently to Jack Beatty’s ear. But Beatty is pure Celtic Boston; and he plays on the whole Celtic organ—somber, fierce, and keyed to the awareness of the tragic bottom of every man, be he Othello or be he Falstaff.

Curley had one of those careers into which vicissitudes frequently intrude and which train their victim to the higher styles of lamentation, enriched in his case by habitual borrowings from Shakespeare. Whenever some grander personage betrayed him sooner than he had the chance to do the same, Curley would evoke the last act of Henry VIII and say, as Cardinal Wolsey did: “Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my King he would not have left me in my age naked before mine enemies.”

The speech of kings and high prelates was Curley’s chosen tone when he cast himself as Shakespearean hero. An altogether more appropriate model for self-identification would have been the Falstaff who asks himself in Verdi’s opera: “Can honor fill your belly? No. What…

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