Colorful Mayor Dominates Boston Political Operations
Once Governor, Twice Jailed, Jim Curley Has Bounced Back After Each Defeat
In 1930, after James M. Curley had just been elected mayor of Boston for the third time, the fight began at the State Democratic Convention to nominate a candidate for governor. Curley was supporting John F. Fitzgerald, a former city mayor, against Joseph B. Ely, a strong Yankee democrat from Springfield. The fight was bitter because Curley feared that Ely, with his popularity throughout the State, would set up a very strong personal machine. Late in the Convention, Fitzgerald withdrew and Ely became nominee for governor in a year which promised success to almost any democrat.
As was the custom, the vanquished leaders, Fitzgerald and Curley, met Ely to congratulate him on a public platform in Worcester. When it came time for Curley to speak, he rose and presented Ely with a check for $1000 --"to show my sincerity in the effort to elect Mr. Ely." The press the next day went wild, praising Curley for his magnanimity; but Mr. Ely was less enthused. The check had been made payable to the Boston City Committee --to be used by the mayor and not by Mr. Ely for getting out the Boston vote.
This sort of shrewd gallery play is what makes James M. Curley the most colorful and probably the most successful politician in Boston's history. In whatever Curley does in public life, he is ostentatious--whether driving down Boylston Street when the theatre crowd lets out with the lights on in the back seat of his limousine; or stealing the show at the Harvard Tercentenary celebration with an eloquent dissertation on the history of the relationship between the State of Massachusetts and Harvard--plus a timely presidential election year plug for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Born of a very poor family in 1874, Curley's first home was near the city hospital, in the mud-flats of South Boston. It was an environment of native Irishmen, hod-carriers and widow-scrubwomen; a savage place where you had to be tough to be honest and cunning to be dishonest. Curley, at the outset of his career, fell in the middle. He was a politician, and therefore cunning, almost from the beginning, but in contrast to the previous ward leaders he demanded that his constituents get something for their vote. Eventually, after numerous intermediate positions of ward leadership, this policy led him to his first term as mayor in 1914.
In his debut, Curley swept the city with a wave of reform that left his critics gasping. He built schools, playgrounds and beaches; he hired new doctors for the city hospital; he extended the transit systems and pulled down old elevated lines, making thousands of jobs. When the banks in Boston refused to lend him money for this spending spree, he bolted traditions and borrowed from banks all over the country. Those were the days when newspaper editorials hailed him as the first great leader to emerge from the Boston Irish.
But very soon, the mayor began getting into the kind of difficulty that has marked every one of his later regimes--he borrowed money far and above the city's income. He mortgaged most of Boston's real estate, spent taxes that were to be collected in the following year, secured loans indiscriminately from any bank that would give them. Consequently, he incurred the wrath of not only the bankers who had lost control of the city, but also of many voters who didn't care to see his mysterious financing reflected in tax rate hikes.
Fighting the Fin Com
As Mayor of Boston, Curley is forever at words points with the Boston Finance Commission. The Commission (or the Fin Com as it is most commonly called) is a five-man board appointed by the governor to keep a constant eye on the city's financial condition. Since the state government was Republican during most of Curley's administration, the Fin Com was generally very hostile to him; even during his first administration when the late Senator David I. Walsh, a democrat, was governor, the members of the Fin Com bitterly fought Curley's spending. But, for all their efforts, and despite cases of graft that were obvious even to the public, it was not until 1940 that they were able to make a court tell Curley to "pay or go to jail." In that year, the West Roxbury District Court ordered him to pay $42,000 to the City of Boston in payments of $500 weekly.
Curley Not Invincible
The political hold which Curley has kept over Boston has been a very strange thing; losing as many times as he has won the race for mayor, he can hardly be called invincible. Yet after every defeat, when his opponents predicted the end of bossism in Boston, Curley has displayed remarkable resiliency and come back to win again. One reason undoubtedly is that he leaves the city in such a poor financial condition when he is defeated that the burden of reform overwhelms the next mayor. The two men that shared the mayoralty with him during the Twenties, Malcolm E. Nichols and Andrew J. Peters, both left City Hall in near-disgrace while Curley re-emerged as the city's saviour. Maurice J. Tobin, who beat him in 1937 and 1941, seemed to be the only one who could lick the Curley curse; and the moment Tobin went up the political ladder, Curley sneaked in again in 1945 when the anti-Curley faction thought he would be a pushover for anyone who ran against him.
Why is Curley so popular? The big reason is his colorful individuality. When he first ran for mayor, he bolted every other ward boss in the city--a trick commonly thought of at the time as political suicide. As soon as he was mayor, he jarred the banks by his out-of-town borrowing. He has made and broken political friendships with nearly everyone in Boston politics since 1900: Ely, Fitzgerald, Daniel B. Coakley, ex-governor Robert F. Bradford, Tobin and David I. Walsh. In no term as mayor has he built up a strong personal machine such as those operated in other cities by men like Hague and Prendergast.
Yet the same independence that kept him from developing a machine gave him victories against the organizations set up to stop him. He carried all of his campaigns directly to the people; working sometimes 16 hours a day, he would shake hands with everyone on the street, be present at every gathering i nthe city where he might find votes, distribute money to needy families in person. He claimed marvelous accomplishments and promised even more wonderful ones--often figments of his imagination; in 1932, when he had been active in the national campaign, he pledged to the voters that he would get 30 or maybe 60 millions in Federal relief for the State; the total relief ended up somewhere near $1,500,000.
Under the heading of the word color comes Curley's gift for public speaking. Originally, he was only a commonplace orator but he sensed the need for inspiring speech-making even before he was mayor. He studied nights under a Professor Staley at a public speaking school in Boston. Staley comments that Curley was so unrefined when he first went to the school that the young man had a very difficult time convincing the professor to keep him. Curley soon became Staley's best pupil, and even now, the teacher still sends written comments to the mayor on each of his speeches. What ever you would expect a politician to say in an address, you can rest assured that Curley won't say it; instead of sonorous praises for the Irish Republic, Curley gave, on the night of DeValera's visit to Boston, a witty and fascinating short history of Ireland. Of course, he stuck in a little campaigning before he was through, but that being an election year, he just couldn't resist.
The Two-Sided Mouth
They say that Curley uses a different side of his mouth for either side of Beacon Hill. In his hey-day, he had the cultured charm in his voice of the highest rank of Brahmin, yet, on the same night, he could go across the Hill to the North End and deliver a spirited, rabble-rousing speech that would practically incite whole national groups to riot. There wasn't anyone who Curley couldn't sell in Boston. He could as easily convince the millionaire Robert White to leave his money to the city for health improvements, as line up ward workers for a campaign.
Curley, personally, gives the appearance of the utmost refinement. In his younger days, he was a very handsome man; today, at 75 he is jowled but in his face remains most of the vigor of his younger self. You stop and think if the stories about his being on his deathbed when he was in jail at Danbury in 1946 have any truth in them. A capable conversationalist, Curley can talk on almost any subject with the facility of a specialist, the gift of a retentive memory stands by him well. From a small amount of reading, he is able to glean and store a warehouse of facts; one of the reasons that he was so valuable in the national campaign of 1932 was because he gave such fine speeches extemporaneously.
His dress makes him distinctive, too. The story goes that Curley came over to Cambridge at the outset of his career and bought a second-hand rich boy's suit from Max Keezer that he were for years as alderman and mayor. Now, you see him mostly in a cutaway; supposedly he once showed up in a tuxedo to shovel the first clod of earth for a foundation, complaining that he hadn't hat time to change his clothes after a formal luncheon.
Failure Outside of City
Outside of the city of Boston, Curley's success has, been very limited. Beaton twice for governor, in 1924 by Alvin T. Fuller and in 193 8by Leverett Saltonstall, he was in the State House for only one term, 1934-6; and those were the years of Roosevelt's first term when no democrat could lose. In the last year of his governorship, he ran for the Senate against Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and lost even though it was the first time Lodge had ron for political office.
What stopped Curley from being a good governor was his attempt to gain power enough to form a state machine without setting up an efficient organization to do it. He tried to see everyone in the State and pass out jobs to everyone when the jobs just didn't exist; the Brahmins, looking out of their Beacon Hill bay windows were shocked by the long queues of unemployed emanating from the State House doors. That was the kind of thing that worked in City Hall, but couldn't possibly work on such a scale as the State of Massachusetts demanded. In his organization, he put political backers and ward-heelers where, for his own good, he should have put administrators.
The case of the Commissioner of Agriculture is the best example of his poor judgment; an experienced executive was replaced by a grocery salesman from Fitchburg who got the job for getting Curley in the Grange and for making him an honorary member of the Mashpeo Indian tribe. Payson Smith, such a noted educator that Harvard hired him on the spot, was dismissed as Commissioner of Education in favor of a small-town Superintendent of Schools. Thomas H. Green, to whom Curley himself once referred to as one of "the James brothers" was made head of the Civil Service. Case workers in the Department of Public Welfare were removed and in their place went unem-
Worse than these administrative sins, however, in the light of popularity, were the childish escapades of the governor and his entourage when they drove around the State in their limousines. Twice, policemen in the procession ahead of Curley were killed in crashes; three deaths were caused directly by men in State cars. Mayor Mansfield of Boston dubbed Curley the "Hit and Run Governor." It was in this connection that one of the most famous of the Curly quips came. A reporter suggested that one of Curley's night trips to a disaster scene during the 1936 floods, was a little over-melodramatic. Replied Curley, "Well, they won't have as much trouble finding me as they had finding Coolidge the night of the Boston police strike."
The National Limelight
In 1932, Curley's name because nationally known when he shrewdly backed Franklin D. Roosevelt in the national Democratic convention and then campaigned vigorously for him in the election race. However farsighted, the action was politically dishonorable; Alfred E. Smith, Roosevelt's opponent for the nomination was an enormous favorite in Boston. So popular was Smith that for months after Curley's break with him, the Boston people wouldn't turn out to hear Curley speak. In that year, the State democratic convention sent Governor Ely as head of the delegation to Chicago to vote for Smith's nomination.
Curley had met Roosevelt at a luncheon at the home of Colonel Edward M. House ("the president-maker") in Magnolia, Mass. After the luncheon, when the group faced the press, Curley told the newsmen point-blank that it was going to nominate Roosevelt for President, But, so strong was Massachusetts feeling for Smith, that Curley was not even elected to the delegation to the convention. Instead, he went to Chicago alone and there executed one of the shrewdest tricks in recent political history. He approached the delegation from Puerto Rico, talked them into giving him their standard, and sat as their leader when the roll call began. When the clerk got to Puerto rice, "Alcalde Jaime Miguel Culeo" delivered the Island's vote for Roosevelt. It was Curley, too, who led the landslide on the fourth roll call that ended in Roosevelt's candidacy for President.
For 41 days in the Roosevelt campaign, Curley led a pace that that would have buried two men; he covered 23 states and made 141 speeches. For all this, Roosevelt promised him a cabinet position--probably Secretary of the Navy. However, when the tome came for the appointments Roosevelt changed his mind, offering Curley the ambassadorship to Rome in place of the cabinet job. Once more, Curley accepted but Roosevelt backed down; finally, the President asked Curley if he would accept the position of ambassador to Poland. Apparently,, Roosevelt was not going to make the mistake Curley had made as governor and appoint pure politicians to the important post in the government. Curley, indignant as he was, turned the Polish offer down with a very graceful letter in which he cited his duty to the city. An edd sidelight was that the Boston Transcript, anti-Curley as it was, came out strongly for the mayor to accept the Polish job; the editors figured that that was the easiest way to get him out of Boston.
Two Jail Sentences
Curley also gained national prominence for going to jail twice in his political career. The first jail sentence was, in a sense, his springboard to fame. In 1904, when he was in the State Legislature, Curley, and an unrelated Tom Curley took civil service exams for two constituents. It was common practice in those days for a ward boss to take such an exam in lieu of one of his following who couldn't read of write. But a clerk recognized the two Curleys and forthwith, the two were judged guilty in a spectacular trial and sent to serve 90 days in the Suffolk County (Charles Street) Jail.
The stay at jail did Curley anything but harm, politically. Not only did he vastly improve himself by reading every book in the jail library but he conducted a campaign from behind bars, too. In all his forthcoming politics, he used the slogan, "Curley would go to jail for a man." In another instance he set up a platform outside the jail facing Beacon Hill. Pointing first to the Hill and then to the jail, he addressed his North End crowd, "They (the Hill) put me in there (the jail)."
In 1946, he was sent to the Federal Penitentiary at Danbury, Conn. for using the mails to defraud. When in Washington as Congressman from the 11th District (Cambridge and Somerville). Curley had been the nominal president of the Engineer's Group, Inc., a company dedicated to the purpose of getting government contracts for small businesses. The Truman Committee, investigating the Group, caught up with the promoter James G. Fuller, a notorious confidence man. In the proceedings, it was found that Curley had accepted a $3500 check for services along the way. Therefore, in a trial in the District of Columbia, Justice James K. Prector ruled that Curley and three other defendants were guilty of mail fraud. But, in his decision, Prector asked for a full review of the case by a higher court; the Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision in a close vote and the Supreme Court refused to review the case. Curley was sentenced to 18 months at Danbury.
The Mayor in Jail
Meanwhile, he had been elected mayor of Boston again and had to leave City Hall to serve his term. It was then, that Curley's strongest opponent in the present, mayoralty race, John' B. Hynes, became acting mayor. The city's charter provides that the chairman of the city council be mayor in case the elected mayor's indisposition, but in such a confused state was the city of Boston, that the city council chairman was also being held on under indictment by a grand jury, charged with graft. Thus, Hynes, the City Clerk, became mayor and was given, in addition, a life tenure on the City Clerk's job.
The story wouldn't be complete without a purely Harvard angle. One day a reporter found that Curley for some reason or other, carried a revolver in his desk. When the newsman investivated he discovered that Curley felt in some danger for his life because a few days earlier, he had received a package that ticked. When he opened it, the major found an alarm clock surrounded by preprint candy that a couple of "prankish Harvard youths" had sent him