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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 is [honor] then? It is a word. What is that word? Air that flies away.”

Even family honor meant so little to Curley that he campaigned for his own brother’s opponent in the Boston mayoralty election of 1925. “Great hatred, little room” was Yeats’s definition of Ireland, and Beatty makes achingly clear how well it serves for the Boston of James Michael Curley. Curley himself so chafed in its confinement and so raged with its mainly fratricidal hatred that, as soon as he had grafted the means in his first term as mayor, he built himself a splendid neo-Georgian mansion in Jamaica Plains so that he could live among the haute—which is to say Protestant—bourgeoisie as near to Brookline as he could get and still be in Boston.

The contractors who paid tribute for his favors subsidized most of his house, and he remained so dependent on them that, populist tribune of the Irish poor that he was, he let Boston wither through the Depression without its fair share of federal funds by refusing to accept Public Works Administration projects unless they were allotted to contractors who were his pets because they favored him with pieces of their awards. He was so implacably mean-spirited that he once demoted John F. Kennedy’s great-uncle from a police desk job to street work as a mark of spite against his brother, former mayor John F. Fitzgerald.

It was Curley’s custom to run in any election in which the office of governor, senator, congressman, or mayor was on the ballot; and Beatty finds a major stimulus to this itch in the chance thus offered for Curley to pilfer campaign funds for his own use. When he was elected governor, Curley went half mad with his presumptions; and we can conjure up the helplessness of the peasants scuttling to escape the carriage wheels of the ancien régime‘s aristocrats from Beatty’s catalog of the casualties attendant upon the hit-and-run excesses of Governor Curley’s chauffeurs.

And yet those who loved him endured his every cheat and affront, because he knew the scoundrelly politician’s one great secret, which is to turn all your rogueries into jokes and your shames into self-approvals along the lines of “I never took a quarter from anyone who couldn’t afford it.” Say to Curley as one malcontent did, “You’d steal the gold from the mouth of the poor,” and he would reply, “And why not, sir? I put it there in the first place.”

Curley was too much the free-lance with his sword against every other Boston politician to be confused with the machine bosses of tradition; and Beatty acutely discerns his nearest modern equivalent in former mayor Marion Barry of Washington, whose voice was for the oppressed and whose heart was for himself, and who constructed and stayed safe a long while in a castle of ethnic immunity.

Barry knew and used the grievances of Washington blacks; and Curley was as intimate with the angers of the Boston Irish. He showed them his scorn with a near-suburban house that boasted a three-story staircase and Italian marble panels; and then he softened the affront to his own by insulting the Protestants with the shamrocks carved in its shutters.

And yet, as with Falstaff, there was a melancholy beneath the japeries. Five of Curley’s seven children died untimely deaths, and each had a shockingly sudden end. Paul Curley, thirty-two, was the last of these losses, and when the news came to a father already weighed down by funerals, his first words were, “Well, that takes care of the election.” “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart,” Beatty remembers from Yeats. Even so, chill as was Curley’s response to this one blow too many, Paul’s death helped him win the 1944 mayoralty election. He would never win another.

I met him only once. It was in 1952 when the Eisenhower campaign was winding up in Boston and left an afternoon free. I had heard that Curley’s unappeasable worship of those better born than he had inspired him to prostration before the image of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate. I thought a visit to this redeemed old sinner might elevate my own morals and went on a pilgrimage to Jamaica Plain.

Curley was still awaiting the apotheosis with which Edwin O’Connor would provide him in The Last Hurrah, and the house where his dreams were incarnated and broken was dark with intimations of electric bills unpaid. But the visions quickened in Curley by Stevenson lighted up the gloom. He was in full cry with his encomiums of Stevenson’s dedication and homages to his eloquence, when one of his faithful came in. He was an old man, as all of Curley’s faithful were by then, but the indignations of youth had been rejuvenated by the sight of a rubber Republican elephant blown up in front of Copley Plaza.

And down from the heights Curley descended, growling: “In my day, it wouldn’t have lasted ten seconds. All you need is a pin.” As Beatty so wonderfully observes in this wonderful book, here “was a hero to break your heart.”

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