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A Look at James Michael Curley in Power

By Staff, November 1, 2009

"When Congressman Curley is in Boston," one of the papers wrote in 1913, "though his political influence is now supposed to be with the federal department heads, he is just as busy pulling favors at City Hall as when he was an alderman and councilor. Members of the present City Council are rarely seen in the building but for favors or other things until a meeting day, but Curley is always racing from one office to another for his constituents. Those who know the Congressman well say that this is the secret of his success in politics so far - that he is always 'on the job' for his constituent."

Curley always was "on the job" for his constituents. There is a hope that whoever it is we elect will do the job for which he's elected. There was the reassuring sense that while Curley was the mayor, Curley was in truth the mayor - for better or for worse. It was reassuring that the major decisions were not being made by a banker or a newspaper publisher or a ward boss. It was the judgment of Curley, the man elected to do the job, that was being brought to bear on the city's business. It is a betrayal of the electorate for any elected official to sacrifice his judgment to the desires and interests of publishers and businessmen who have not been elected. In all likelihood press people and business people, if they had the courage to put their names on a ballot, would be rejected.

 If someone had a problem, he or she did not need to "know someone" who would speak to the mayor. A man could speak to the mayor himself. In his first term as mayor, Curley claimed to have talked to as many people as were registered to vote in the city. When Curley made grandiose claims about seeing two hundred people every day, fifty thousand per year, we can be sure of one thing: he was shamelessly employing hyperbole. He could not have been telling the truth. Do the math. Count the minutes and the hours. If Curley did talk to two hundred people every day, when did he do anything else?

Parade is an Opportunity

I am reminded of Representative Jim Craven of Jamaica Plain, who expressed envy that "you South Boston politicians can march along, greeting your constituents by the tens of thousands, while not one of them can get your ear. It may seem like personal campaigning, but you might as well be on CNN for all the access these folks have." In truth this parade participation is much fun, and it provides a chance to say hello. On the other hand, John Kerrigan, a longtime South Boston city councilor, believed that the more banquets he attended as an incumbent, the more votes he lost, as requests for impossible favors resulted in disappointments for supplicants.

Once one becomes an officeholder, such things as knocking on doors for votes become impractical. People have many problems. Many will ask for the most impossible things. They are displeased to be told that their request is beyond the politician's ability to grant. It is a melancholy reality for incumbents that the challenger, having no office, is free to raise false hopes in the hearts of the constituents. I remember that at that Brunswick Hotel party on Primary Day in 1951, a sweet little woman told me that she had asked Curley for a job. "Come see me in January when I'm the mayor!" With this assurance she had devoted herself to the campaign. Let's suppose that Curley was elected, and could hire 111 people - would he stop saying this when he met the 112th person? Curley could make promises; for most of his career he was able to deliver on them. But the claim that Curley spoke with every voter in the district must have been as much an exaggeration as the promise that he would find work for every deserving constituent.

Access for Everyone

The point of all these stories of accessibility is not that he was completely accessible. The point is that an ordinary citizen had as much access as the president of State Street Bank, and that ultimately it would be Curley's judgment, not the counsel of an insider, that would be brought to bear on the city's problems. You did not need to go through an intermediary; you could go directly to City Hall. All the city's ward leaders had their power eclipsed during Curley's tenure, except for Martin Lomasney, who had built his power base through the same kind of dedication to constituent services.

Curley learned that one city commissioner did not allow the public to come into his office. He was impossible to see, difficult to get on the phone. The mayor sent word to all heads of city agencies that "coming down to earth a little more in meeting the public is a pretty good idea." Department heads worked for the people of Boston.

This is a salutary policy, and it also makes good political sense. In my office every year I would stand on a chair to address the staff, insisting that anyone with a complaint, whether it was within the purview of our office or not, had to be treated with respect and deserved the courtesy of being listened to.

Respect and Courtesy

And no one of us is above that. If someone here believes that only legislative matters are his responsibility, then he should leave now. When you help these people who come through here, you are learning what bedevils such people in their ordinary lives. You are then better prepared to craft legislation and shepherd it through the process. You may even recognize that our intrusive government frequently becomes the source of new problems, no matter how well-intentioned the intrusion into people's lives may be. This direct experience is better than any dry study of the plight of ordinary people. Help them, learn from them, and in doing so, help your legislator to be reelected."

I recall a lawyer who asked that I hire his much-graduated spouse as my aide. "She would work on legislative policy," he said, "but not on constituent services." I informed him directly that everyone in my office, including me, works on constituent matters. Sorry that I cannot help her.

Imagine suggesting to a constituent that we need not bother ourselves with his or her petty concerns. That person will have a story to tell for the next thirty years. I think of my old friend Joe Moakley, sitting out at Castle Island writing down the problems people brought to him there. On the other hand, if all we do is appear in public, listening to people, we will get nothing done.

Their Man in Charge

As long as that is true - that we as ordinary citizens have access to our elected officials, and that our views will have the same gravity with them as the views of the bank presidents or newspaper publishers, then we have a sense of ourselves as being in charge. Curley, by the strength of his personality, reassured his constituents that he was their man in charge, and that he truly represented them. He sensed the tremendous responsibility he owed to the voters who had put their confidence in him. He knew that if he was to maintain the sort of public confidence he had earned, he had to be at it full-time. And indeed that was characteristic of all his days in office. They were full days. There was no absenteeism, no hint of absenteeism, no hint of lack of interest.

He was fulfilling this hope, especially of the people who are in fact ordinary people. This accounts for their loyalty to him. He sensed that this was what they wanted of him, and by God, this was what they would have. Office seekers noted his appeal and sought to emulate him. Politics became a very personal matter in that community.

The Curley Spirit

This brand of politics, very personal, very special, gathered its own spirit from Curley. It is no wonder that people who are more sophisticated, more mobile, less connected to the older neighborhoods of the city look on this personal, intense connection with puzzlement. Why, the more sophisticated people will ask, would people be loyal to him? Why would they do this when all of us know it's ridiculous - this is a seriously flawed individual. But the scoffers cannot understand the importance of this critical, fundamental reality, that Curley's people saw his election as their way of determining their own fate through this office. Through him, they were able to keep their own influence. They could have a genuine influence - a serious and honest influence - on the future of their city, and the more displeasure they witnessed on the part of the bankers, business leaders, and newspaper publishers, then the more certain they were that he was simply not beholden to the powerful. He was their man, and the displeasure and wrath of the powerful was the price that he would pay. The intense disapproval of high-placed Curley foes reassured the electorate of one thing: the leaders of State Street did not like him; therefore he should be elected. Frequently it is those who disapprove of a candidate that informs us of what he is.

An Early Great Act

By the way, people speak of Boston politics as fascinating, though it is less so now. When it was more pervasive and more intriguing and more entertaining, that was due to the presence of this individual, James Michael Curley, who fulfilled the urge or something stronger of the ordinary people to be masters of their own fate and community.

The fact that Curley dedicated himself so fully allowed him to perform one of the first great acts of his mayoral service. Curley noticed how dirty City Hall had become, its walls coated with smoke and grime, its floors covered with tobacco and dirt. He ordered the place cleaned thoroughly as befit the people's government. On leaving City Hall that first night on the job, he met the cleaning women, down on their knees scrubbing the floors. Curley remembered his own mother scrubbing floors on Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay, and told the cleaning women that they should be on their knees only to pray to God. He ordered long-handled mops for all the city's cleaning women, and issued an order that no scrubwoman was to get on her knees in City Hall.

It was a small, symbolic gesture, but for these women an important one. Throughout his political career, Curley fought for the interests of the city's laborers, getting them paid vacation days, shorter working hours, and other benefits. The male laborers could vote, but at the time these women could not. Pea Jacket Maguire had ignored Sarah Curley and her orphaned children after Big Michael Curley died; but James Michael Curley would be different.

Meanwhile, the great political show would go on. Curley absolutely refused to be in the same hall with his predecessor, John Fitzgerald. When Governor David Walsh, the first Irish Catholic governor of the Commonwealth, was running for reelection in 1914, Curley refused to address a rally at Tremont Temple, a popular venue for public orations of all stripes, because Fitzgerald would be in attendance. "For Governor Walsh I will go the limit, but I must draw the line at Fitzgerald-addressed rallies." If he appeared on the same platform with Fitzgerald, "I would forfeit the right to be respected." Shaking Fitzgerald's hand, Curley said, hurt his dignity.

This clash between Curley and Fitzgerald is one of the great stories in Boston's political history. Addressing the City Council in early 1915 and reviewing the record of his own administration, Curley did not mention his predecessor by name. "I would not injure my dignity by mentioning the name of the ex-mayor." What nerve! He was only ten years out of the slammer, which should bear at least some slight stigma. When the City Council asked to hear from the former mayor, Curley left the chamber and loudly slammed the door as Fitzgerald was being introduced.

JMC and JFF

How to account for this animosity? Curley had early on recognized that Fitzgerald was the great man in Boston politics. Curley asked a student in a Tammany Club naturalization class, "a foreigner with a name like a firecracker," about the American government.

"How are the laws of the nation made?" Curley asked.

"John F. Fitzgerald."

Curley suggested a little more reading, then asked, "How are the laws of the state made?"

"John F. Fitzgerald."

"You're consistent, anyhow. Who is president of the United States?"

"John F. Fitzgerald."

"In case there is any misunderstanding on these points," Curley told the student and the class, "I want it to be understood that John F. Fitzgerald did not discover America or drive the snakes out of Ireland."

It is claimed that Curley had driven Fitzgerald out of politics by exposing his affair with the dancer "Toodles," promising to give a series of lectures on "Great Lovers in History: From Cleopatra to Toodles." It may have been Fitzgerald's infidelity that most outraged Curley. Or it may have been Fitzgerald's failures as an administrator; though Curley had supported Fitzgerald during his first term and part of his second term, as mayor Fitzgerald was not as efficient as Curley. Or it may simply have been Curley's ambition.

Vaudeville Show

"I am conducting this city on a business basis," Curley said early in his administration, "and not conducting a vaudeville show. I will leave the field clear for a vaudeville show to Mr. Fitzgerald."

Curley, master vaudevillian, denouncing Fitzgerald as a vaudevillian: this is stage entertainment at its best.

Curley was relentless in his one-upmanship. Fitzgerald was stung when Curley refused to invite him to the opening of Boston's High School of Commerce, which taught secretarial and commercial skills. Fitzgerald's response was to have himself photographed in front of the High School of Commerce, exclaiming that Curley could not prevent him from looking at the school he had built. Curley produced Board of Aldermen minutes from April 24, 1905, when Alderman Curley had first proposed building a High School of Commerce. If Fitzgerald had anything further to say, he was, like so many others, disinclined to continue the game of one-upmanship at which Curley excelled.

Tireless Administrator

 "Honey Fitz," wrote his biographer, John Henry Cutler, about Fitzgerald, "was a signpost who could tell you where to go, but not always how to get there." Curley knew how to accomplish what he was after. Curley was a great political showman, but also a diligent and tireless administrator. Though political showmanship overshadowed his administrative role, the day-to-day chore of keeping the government moving was Curley's stronger virtue. We get the idea sometimes that the campaign spectacle is all there is to it. But the Boston Post in a 1934 tribute to Curley expressed what his supporters and his foes viewed as his core strength:

"In days when city after city was defaulting its obligations, when faithful employees went without pay for months, when bare treasuries allowed of no assistance to the unfortunate, Boston stood almost alone among the large cities of the country in living up to every obligation and providing generously for all in need. No matter what the critics may say, . . . Boston kept the faith. Solvency, financial honor and consideration of those who could not help themselves went hand in hand. If this is a proud record, . . . then Mayor Curley is entitled to the tribute of a grateful people. He developed into an administrative genius. No man could possibly approach him in knowledge of the city problems. For twenty years he has been a deep and earnest student of municipal government. It is not likely we shall see a man with his vast equipment in many years to come."

The Post acknowledged that some saw his faults more clearly but said the faults "lie gently on him" as it bid him "not goodbye, but good luck."

Curley was, as this tribute said, an "administrative genius." In John Bantry's 1921 profile in the Post, the reporter pointed to the contrast between the public image of congenial and gregarious Jim Curley, and the "stern, stocky, studious looking person with the grave look of inquiry behind his heavy glasses" sitting at the desk at City Hall. Behind the desk Curley was all business, and his accomplishments demonstrate a knack for public administration.

During his first three terms in City Hall, Curley built more schools than any other mayor of the city, and he abolished the "parental schools" for truant children, institutions to which habitual truants and other incorrigibles were committed. He set out to build two new branch libraries every year. He expanded Boston City Hospital and established the George Robert White Health Units throughout the city. He had sprinklers and fire alarms installed in all hospitals and hotels, and he oversaw the Fire Department's transition from horsepower to motor power. He gave all city workers a two-week paid vacation each year and established the Municipal Credit Union for city employees, who previously had had to borrow money from loan sharks to stay solvent.

During the Depression years Boston, unlike other cities, paid its city workers regularly. Curley pushed successfully for a new vehicular tunnel to be built under the harbor to East Boston, and he expanded the city's transit lines, extending the East Boston tunnel to Maverick Square and the Boylston Street tunnel to Kenmore Square, and he expanded the Dorchester Rapid Transit system - three key components of the modern MBTA Blue, Green, and Red Lines. Curley shocked the Beacon Hill and Back Bay Brahmins by proposing the sale of the Public Garden, but no sale took place. He added parks in the city's densely populated neighborhoods, transforming the polluted and dangerous Old Harbor area of South Boston into Columbus Park (now Joe Moakley Park), creating fifty-six acres of new parkland. Incidentally, the baseball field in Moakley Park until recently was named for William McNary, whom Curley had beaten in 1910.

"Finer Than Waikiki"

Curley also completed the Strandway, now Day Boulevard. Originally, Columbia Road and the Strandway were to have been elegant parkways continuing Frederick Law Olmsted's Emerald Necklace, a series of connected green spaces threading through the city's streets, but that project had languished since the 1890s. Curley finished the Strandway in his second term. He also built the public bathhouses at Carson Beach and at L Street, the latter now named for him. Curley promised that the L Street Bathhouse in South Boston, built at a cost of $350,000, would "provide all the advantages of a Florida trip." I heard him, at a Boston College High School dedication, call it "a finer beach than Waikiki." None of us had been to Waikiki. Who could give him an argument? Incidentally, to this day the state subsidizes the L Street Bathhouse, which nearly closed after the passage of Proposition 2½, which limits the ability of municipalities in the state to raise property taxes.

These accomplishments all required the city to spend money and hire people. Construction projects put people to work. The Parthenon in Athens is a splendid example of a W.P.A.-style project. Curley insisted that veterans be given preference for public works and city jobs. This was a good strategy. The City was responsible for relief payments to jobless veterans; by hiring veterans, the City saved on relief payments. Curley spent for good reason, though Republicans in state government launched a Finance Commission to keep track of the City's spending.

A Busy One Term

Curley served but one term as governor, but he made the most of it. Despite the facts that the Republicans controlled the legislature and that these were tough times for the country (1935-1937), Curley persuaded banks - for the first time in twenty-five years - to reduce mortgage rates, from 6 to 5½ percent interest. This saved homeowners something like $12 million each year. He also persuaded electric companies to cut their rates, saving consumers another $2 million. Governor Curley ended the double fares that commuters from Winthrop, Chelsea, and Revere had to pay to ride the separate trolley lines into Boston; they now would pay a single fare of ten cents, rather than two ten-cent fares to transfer to the Boston line. Ten cents might not seem like a lot, but in 1935 a dime had roughly the same purchasing power as $1.50 does today - the current fare on MBTA buses.

As governor, Curley also worked to bring the New Deal's benefits to Massachusetts. Most of the New Deal programs were administered by the state - the federal government underwrote or expanded on existing programs at the state level. Something like $250 million of federal money was advanced to the state, and Curley's administration embarked on $6 million in new projects. The Civilian Conservation Corps laid out trails in the Blue Hills. There are granite curbstones all around the state, and many of these were laid during Curley's term as governor. Crews of men, who otherwise would have been jobless, were dispatched to the far corners of the Commonwealth to put in curbstones. Undoubtedly, Curley recalled that his own father had died working on a similar project.

JMC and George Robert White

Curley used his persuasive power to establish health units in the city's most congested districts. Curley knew that the real estate tycoon George Robert White had the largest tax bill in Boston; he owned $5.5 million worth of property. White refused to meet with the mayor, but Curley's staff learned that the bachelor millionaire ate lunch every day, alone, at the Copley Plaza. Mayor Curley dropped in at lunch.

"I want you to give me the money to finance those health units."

"Why should I?" White asked.

"As outright philanthropy. You've got more money now than you know what to do with. You can't take it with you. Wouldn't you like to be remembered as a man who did something spectacular for the health of the people of the city? I'll chisel your name in granite all over them. I'll see to it that as long as you live, you'll never be sorry you gave me the money."

White was not persuaded, but Curley persisted, following White and explaining the dire need for health care in the city's congested slums. White showed no signs of agreeing. But when White died, he left his entire estate - $5.5 million - to the City, setting up a fund administered by the mayor, the city auditor, and the Bar Association and Chamber of Commerce presidents. Nearly every family in Boston's neighborhoods used these health units.

I remember Ed Mullin, an amputee, frequently sitting on the steps at 28 Logan Way, where I grew up. He loved the James Michael Curley of legend. No one could rival Curley. I knew this quite well by the early 1960s, when I was a state representative. I distinctly recall Ed saying, "Curley would give you anything you wanted." I thought, "Mr. Mullin, you should vote for Curley whether he is dead or alive. Go with the guy who will give you everything you ask for, though even God won't do that."

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