The Harvard History of James M. Curley
Old Boston Boss Found Many Sources of Humor, Advancement in Harvard But is Called Freebooter By Harvard Historians
Not long after his triumphant return from Danbury Prison to City Hall, the late James Michael Curley was visited, one afternoon, by three earnest young students bearing a heavy granite urn. They introduced themselves as Terence O'Shaughnessy, Denis McGillicuddy, and Patrick Xavier O'Donovan, all of Boston College. Their urn came from a prehistoric monument which had recently been uncovered in Ireland. They had brought it to Mayor Curley, they explained, because it was a discovery worthy of a great man.
Curley Smells a Rat
Curley was deeply touched by their generosity and good judgment; he presented each of them, in return, with an autographed document. But when his visitors asked for more signed doctuments for other members of their students' committee, the Mayor began to smell a rat. He noticed that they didn't talk like anyone from B.C. that he knew. And indeed they didn't. They were prospective members of the Harvard Lampoon out about the pranks that characterize that magazine's bi-annual Fools' Week. As for the urn, it was and remains the sturdy and much-used punch bowl usually located in the "sanctum" of the Harvard Crimson.
It wasn't often that the boys from Harvard, or their teachers, managed to put one over on that canny Irishman. Since Curley was Curley and Harvard remains Harvard, the two did frequent battle. There is an unlimited fardel of tales about Harvard's collisions with Curley. It would be as foolish as impossible to attempt to separate legendary fact from factual legend.
This is as Curley would have had it. It is, in fact, a view that he wished to lure from the realm of story-telling to that of contractual relationships between public officials and the people they hire to build bridges, dig tunnels, bulldoze beaches,, and supply the flowers on funerals and other state occasions. It was to the everlasting disgrace of the Boston Finance Committee that they failed to accept this application.
Nevertheless, Curley's view of the truth was in some ways unique and should be hinted at. He rarely explained anything he had said, unless by contradicting it. His attitude toward those of his own utterances that someone had had the temerity or good sense (depending on the circumstances) to record, was, at the least, oracular. Claims were facts because he had made them; petty and unsympathetic attempts to verify his remarks rendered an individual unworthy of Curley's further attention. His attitude toward facts resembled that of the student of the earliest Byzantine or Russian history who, in the absence of evidence, let alone verification, must not only accept the meagre suppositions that come his way, but must mold them, conn them, fashion them, shape them, corrupt them, must spin a whole universe out of the air so as to have any at all; who, having done so, steps aside, and by means of subsequently sustained inattention, accords his creation the most vigilant protection.
"When Curley was around," Professor Charles Cherington recalls,, "he told the stories." And as Curley himself once remarked, "It isn't what a politician says but what he whispsrs that gives a slight clue to what he may be thinking." Thus, an attempt to give even so modest an account of Curley as his Harvard History is infected with compounds of uncertainty. But it has its compensations. To go from the faded pages of ancient Crimsons or the often jaundiced accounts of old adversaries to Curley's own recollections is to proceed from Arctic regions to land of balmy, ever-tropical breezes.
Like his political history, Jim Curley's Harvard History begins before the turn of the century in the day when a few of the boys at Pete Whalen's cigar store talked him into running for Boston's Common Council. Old Ward 17, an immigrant district which included City Hospital and the Mud Flats, had been devotedly tended by tight-fisted Pea-Jacket Maguire who had only recently been hoodwinked into giving up his patronage for the honorific and powerless post of Democratic City Commission Chairmen by John F. Dever, the Uncle of the late Governor. Dever's position was not yet secure; and if Curley could get enough publicity, his friends persuaded him, he might get elected.
He left Roxbury that day, and made his way over to Harvard Square and Max Keezer's used clothing store. The next time he was seen at Whalen's Place, Curley sported full evening dress--cutaway and striped pants. Shabby though it may have been in a few places, his Harvard cutaway helped Curley make a name for himself. He wore it in campaigns for thirteen years until he was elected to Congress in 1911. Then Curley gave the suit away to a cousin who, in due time, he saw waked in it.
Admired Tammany Hall
It did not take the common councillor long to find Harvard an unparalled source of humor and self-advancement in Ward 17. He had long admired the well-oiled machine of New York's Tammany Hall, which, in a modest way, his own Roxbury Tammany Club recreated. Partly because many of his constituents could not yet read a ballot, Curley made a more educational enterprise of his club. He invited speakers from outside the ward. Whatever the topic, he assured them all of an intelligent and sympathetic audience. Thus their dual function was to provide the ward with entertainment as well as enlightenment. Such was the speaker, an opponent of Irish freedom, who Curley had described the previous week as a Harvard professor. The speaker managed to get out that night after a cuspidor had hit him on the head.
In spite of numerous political reverses, the hey-day of Curley's Harvard career came in the 'thirties. The depression gave numerous opportunities to sport with President A. Lawrence Lowell. Distressed to note that the 1931 Harvard-Army football game was to be played at the Cadets' small field, Mayor Curley pressed President Lowell to move the game to Yankee Stadium, with the extra proceeds going to the City of Boston for its unemployed. When Lowell protested that a Harvard team could play only on a college field, Curley arranged for Boston College to play Holy Cross at Harvard Stadium on Thanksgiving. With an undefeated record, Barry Wood's team had just been defeated 3-0 by Albie Booth's last period field goal for Yale when, in an exclusive statement to the CRIMSON, Curley urged Harvardmen to attend the Thanksgiving game, explaining, "This is one game Harvard can't lose."
Curley did not always emerge so jauntily from his encounters with the faculty however. In 1931 at a luncheon given by Colonel House, he had astonished the guests, embarrassed Roosevelt, and enraged the Boston Irish by declaring himself for Roosevelt--and not Smith--for President. When the primary came around the next May, Curley convinced Roosevelt to enter. Since Smith's entries were all veteran politicians, Curley hit upon the idea of outdrawing them by appealing to all minority groups. So the Curley-Roosevelt slate included a Frenchman, an Italian, a Pole, a Negro, the President of the Massachusetts State Branch of the AF of L, and a Harvard professor. (In a later campaign he was to vary this approach by spreading it about that his Yankee opponent was in fact a Communist, and the Italian a Negro.)
To kick off the campaign Curley held a banquet, and invited all to speak. The professor, Eugene Wambaugh, began enthusiastically to tell the Boston audience that they could not nominate Smith, since the South would never accept a Catholic. As an observer noted, "A look of bewilderment and chagrin crossed Curley's face..." He got the professor off the platform as soon as he could.
In the same campaign, Curley found his own fortunes going badly. He needed an issue, and found one in the mild revival the Ku Klux Klan was enjoying at the time. Fiery crosses began conveniently to brighten the hillsides overlooking his political meetings. The Klan's menace, he orated, was subtler than of old, but no less real. It was, in fact, the menace of Communism. At the same time, on Halloween night, Klan leaflets turned up in the mailboxes of Harvard dormitories. These also berated the Communist menace, but urged, as the Crimson reported, that the "standard of the Klan be raised again in defense of American institutions as in former years."
During Curley's successful campaign for Governor in 1934, the Lampoon published a cartoon satire entitled "Curley Addressing His Puritan Ancestors." Curley demanded a public apology. "The downy-cheeked editors waited in an ante-chamber at City Hall for two hours," he recalled, "while I wrote out an abject apology for them to sign. They signed it."
In 1935 Curley found himself elected Governor. The four years that followed were as riotous as any in State House history. He controlled patronage on a grander scale than ever, and had unlimited opportunities to harass his friends from Harvard. To replace the noted Commissioner of Education, Payson Smith, Curley appointed a woolly-minded old crony who had once taught in a country school. The man promptly enraged even Ward 17 by changing his name from Reardon to the more distinguished Reardan.
It was also during that term that Harvard held its Tercentenary Commencement. There was no choice but to invite the Governor; and he put on a very fine show. Consistent in minute detail to the precedent of the colonial governors (which had not been observed since Harvard's Centennial), Curley heralded his arrival with a massed band, an escort of fully-armed lancers, the National Guard, trumpet sounds, bugle calls, the beating of drums, the shooting of guns, and the cheers of a mixed collection of Boston Irish such as Harvard Yard had never imagined. He reminded the assembly that the last President to address a Harvard anniversary celebration, Grover Cleveland, was a Democrat, that President Roosevelt, sitting behind him, was a Democrat, and that he, Curley, was likewise a Democrat. Who, he queried, were they?
The speech did not lack for repercussions. Presaged by phone calls and threatening letters, a time bomb appeared one morning on Curley's doorstep. Investigation revealed it to be the work of Harvard students: a box of peppermints wrapped in a copy of the Boston Herald, to be ignited the ringing of an alarm clock.
The other events of these years were less spectacular. Curley is said to have turned up at Lowell House High Table one evening. When asked for his impressions of House life, he replied, "They wanted to know how a city government works and I told them." He paid a visit too, in 1939, to Government 1 as a guest lecturer. When asked how to achieve success in politics, Curley replied, "Become a Republican; and then they won't criticize you for doing what I've done." Professor Cherington recalls that, "He improved the quality of the course immensely." It was during those years, also, that his son Leo, a first year law student, made headlines by quitting the Law School after a professor had likened Curley to Big Bill Thompson of Chicago.
Although the war years saw Curley in Washington and curtailed his active relationship with the University, his term in Danbury Prison lit the spark once again. Curley came back reporting that his closest friend had been a Harvard graduate, and that he had, indeed, become acquainted there with representatives of all the Ivy League campuses.
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When Curley had playfully suspended a football game in Harvard Stadium (because President Lowell was not anxious to sponsor B.C. against Holy Cross), the Crimson and the Daily Dartmouth compared him to Hitler. But in an attempt to assess the man, to make that suggestion is only to confuse matters in a manner worthy of Curley himself. For he was one Hitler who could not do without a soapbox and a Boston Irish audience. As garrulous as was his term in the State House, he did not seem made for government on that broad a scale. His lavish handouts, his willingness to trade legwork for votes and to dispatch hecklers with tongue or fists, the techniques he applied as boss of Ward 17, were best suited to government on that level.
"Poodles at his Heels"
Curley had thousands of friends, recipients, at one time or another, of his largesse. Not a few were bums, many of whom travelled out to his Jamaicaway door to put the touch on him personally. The bus fare was rarely a bad investment. Curley thrived on their visits. "A Great Dane," he once said, always has a few poodles yapping at his heels.
Though his personal following was immense, Curley lacked what might usually be called an organization. "One reason," Professor John K. Galbraith wrote recently, "is that a leader must also be loyal to his organization, and where his own interests were involved Curley was never a man of divided loyalties." But, though he was not much interested in electing anybody to public office besides himself, Curley often managed to do so.
Neither the personal nor the local character of his following was sufficient to distinguish Curley from the other big-city bosses. Frank Hague controlled Hudson County, mostly Jersey City; Tammany had the city across the river; in Chicago Boss Kelly ran Cook County, and Ware had Philadelphia. But, as Louis Lyons points out, none had an organization that reached far outside his city.
What lifted Curley out of the barren pattern set by most other bosses was his wit. Much of it was of a local variety. In 1921 campaigning for Mayor against John R. Murphy, a good Irish Catholic, Curley dressed up a few of his camp followers as priests and sent them across Charlestown and elsewhere bruiting it about that John R. Murphy had renounced his Catholic Faith, joined a Masonic Order, had been observed attending Back Bay's Trinity Church, and intended to divorce his good wife in order to marry a sixteen-year-old girl. As the campaign was drawing to its successful close, Curley asked a Roxbury audience, "Where was James Michael Curley last Friday night? He was conducting a political meeting in Duxbury. Where was Mr. Murphy last Friday night? Eating steak out at the Copley Plaza."
His resourcefulness was not limited, however, to a single theme, nor to rostrum repartee. It lent itself to schemes of a sometimes highly elaborate variety. During Curley's first (and successful) campaign for Congress in 1910, his opponent William J. McNary elaborated on the theme of his own integrity to eventually tedious lengths. Forthwith, Curley summoned one of his indigent acquaintances, suited him up in Grecian-like robes, put a lantern in his hand, and set this Diogenes out upon the streets of South Boston. His inability to find the honest man McNary was attended by sufficient cameramen and reporters to ensure the Curley victory at the polls.
Curley's wit raises a question that still divides the faculty of the institution he so enjoyed baiting. Was he the colorful old rogue that he has been made lately, or did he do Boston irreparable harm? In his old age he certainly tried to give credence to the former view. Though he grouched about Joseph Dinneen's biography and Edwin O'Connor's novel, he seemed immensely to enjoy the renewed attention they brought him. He gave the books away with such genial inscriptions as may be found in Lamont's copy of The Purple Shamrock: "To Jack: From one swindler to another. Jim Curley."
The 'roguish' school does have adherents on the Harvard faculty. One of them is professor of Government Charles Cherington who said this week, "Governor Curley was very polite to us, and we tried to be polite to him...I don't think he would get a very good recommendation from the Divinity School. But if you regard him as a period piece, he was unique and magnificent. I don't want to pass judgment on him. That's in the hands of our Father."
Other members of the faculty have expressed admiration for Curley's wit. Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Warns against a priggish approach to the man. Mr. Louis Lyons, Curator of the Nieman Fellowships, grants him "talent, and a wonderful voice." To Professor John K. Galbraith, "He was clever and articulate, and had both an audacious sense of humor and a highly developed if somewhat indiscriminate imagination." Professor Oscar Handlin sees in the man "a certain kind of charm, and a lot of blarney."
But if these are tributes, they seem hardly so fulsome as those Curley received in the Boston papers last week. "What he was ought not to be overlooked," said Handlin this week. Looking, few members of Harvard's faculty find much that is good.
The most telling criticism is, perhaps, Curley's persistently devisive influence on Boston. "Curley's stock in trade," Handlin wrote in his recently-published Al Smith and His America, "had been the appeal to the narrow clannishness of his group. Unlike Smith he had consistently labored to widen rather than to bridge the differences between the Irish and their fellow citizens."
Ward boss or Governor, Curley was not a man to fiddle with reforms or constitutions, the ways of doing things. His brief attempt to pack the Massachusetts courts by removing all judges over seventy did not get past the over-seventy members of his Council. More often he took what was given, Ward 17 or Boston society, and moved around in it a little faster than anyone else. Limiting himself to what he could get out of a thing, he made few forays into the more creative spheres of machine building or organized social planning. Like his social security (the ten dollar handouts), his civic improvements were piecemeal affairs where he made sure that the recipient knew about the donor, and where the donor was himself a recipient.
It is for this reason that Curley had constantly to carry on diversionary actions. They were like his planted hecklers and the stickers, "Vote for Curley: a Humble Man," pasted onto the pretentious posters of an opponent. Curley had no extensive scheme, mental or political, with which to becloud events. With him it was a day to day activity. That is why he was so dependent on patronage powers, and his influence faded so quickly when he went to Washington.
He was, as Handlin said this week, "purely opportunistic... The worst part of his effect was that he kept confusing any kind of issue with which he dealt. People influenced by him never got to confront problems even as directly as in New York where, though you had Tammany, the leaders and more important politicians had some conception of the larger issues of politics."
While Handlin finds his influence divisive, Schlesinger noted last year in a review of Curley's own book, I'd Do It Again, "his sublime satisfaction in the successful struggle of the Irish community of Boston for political and social influence." It would be no academic feat these days to suggest that the two may be reconciled: that, in the name of all that is most Irish, Curley was urging his fellows to assume in political influence, social prestige and fact, with Curley, mind you, always at their head, a posture indistinguishable from that of the old proper Bostonians, and perhaps, in time, the Harvardians who amused him.
As satisfying as is the cloud in which this kind of generalization leaves its author, to stress in might be to gloss over what Curleyism meant to Boston. Here perhaps the most articulate of local commentators is Louis Lyons. "Curleyism," he said a week ago, "surrounded Boston like a moat for a generation, putting a chasm between city and suburbs with the most bitter refusal to entertain any cooperation with the city. It was a compound tragedy of Boston that it was saddled with Curleyism in the period of its most severe economic pinch, as capital of the region that saw its major industries, textiles and shoes, sliding away. Newer cities still expanding every decade could absorb the graft and woeful inefficiency of city machine patronage in their burgeoning growth. But Boston was drained..."
Criticizing Curley is nothing new for Lyons, who has also mentioned the divisive, racial character of his appeal that is less prominent now than it was twenty-two years ago. He than wrote in The Nation, "The intolerance of the Irish politician in Boston for any sharing of politician in Boston for any sharing of political power or political liberties can be compared only to that of the early church magistrates of New England. Curley's regime is frankly racial beyond anything known else-where in America."
Lyons concluded in 1936 that, "Curley controls the Commonwealth by means of the smallest and cheapest political heelers that ever shined their trousers in the seats of public office in Massachusetts." In this year's Al Smith and His America, Handlin refers to Curley's "richly deserved prison terms," finds him "the prototype of everything that Smith abominated," a "freebooter." These are understatements; for his original text had "the publishers a little worried and they softened it down some." Harsh as it is, this view may be typical of what Harvard thinks of Curley.
If he could have transported himself to an ideal Boston, Curley would quite possibly have tolerated the Harvardians for sentimental reasons so long as the Irish had the money. But it seems less likely that the Harvard community (insofar as it exists), were it transported to an ideal community (insofar as it could agree on one), would be inclined to accord Curley a similar favor