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."