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