James Michael Curley’s Last Hurrah

Week II

JM Curley became more benign in his later years. He is pictured here with another political star Franklin D Roosevelt.

JM Curley became more benign in his later years. He is pictured here with another political star Franklin D Roosevelt.

Despite all his bravura and political showmanship, his coarse humour,* a great fixer, a downright trickster and grafter, yet with a genuine kindness that endeared him to vast swathes of Boston voters, James Michael Curley’s personal life was unusually tragic. Following the death of his first wife ‘ Mae’ (nee Herlihy ), he remarried a widow, Gertrude Dennis with two sons. This was on the last day of his term as Governor of Massachusetts, January 7 1937, “ to give her at least one day as first lady of the Commonwealth.” Between his two wives he had nine children; but incredibly seven of them predeceased him.

Twin sons, John and Joseph, died in infancy. His 14 years-old daughter Dorothea was her father’s ‘special friend.’ By all accounts she was a lovely girl, who adored her father. After school, the Convent of the Sacred Heart, she would rush to where her father was, and wait for him, either outside in the mayoral car, or in his busy office. She would sit at the end of his desk and do her homework. Out of the blue she contacted double lobar pneumonia on top of what the papers called ‘ a heart infection of long standing.’

For days Mae and Curley kept vigil by her bedside. A huge crowd of well wishers, and newsmen gathered outside. The Jamaicaway, where the Curleys famously lived, was closed to traffic. After her death Curley and Mae managed to go downstairs to tell the newsmen, while clinging to each other and weeping. GRIEF OF MAYOR AND MRS CURLEY BEYOND WORDS TO DESCRIBE - read one headline that evening.

But the blows kept falling. Curley’s namesake, James jr, who was being groomed as his political successor, died aged 21 following a gallstone operation. His son Paul, who was an alcoholic, died while Curley was running for mayor in 1945.

His remaining daughter Mary died of a stroke in February 1950; and when her brother Leo was called to the scene, he became so distraught that he, too, suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, and died the same day, at 34 years.

Two remaining sons, George (1919 -1983 ), and Francis X (1923 -1992 ), a Jesuit priest, outlived Curley.

A sweet deal

A failed mayoral bid in 1951 marked the end of his serious political career which had dominated Boston politics throughout the first half of the 20th century. Despite his extraordinary achievements in school, hospital, public housing programmes, and getting better deals for his vast municipal staff, people were tired of the corruption, and the City-Boss idea.

Curley continued to support other candidates, and remained active within the Democratic party. He ran for mayor one last time in 1955, his 10th time running for the office. Yet, despite failure at the polls, wherever he went, or whenever he addressed crowds, he was always greeted with loud cheers, smiles and handshakes. He remarked to associates: “ If they love me so much, why won’t the sons-of-bitches vote for me?”

Inevitably Curley caught the attention of Hollywood. Columbia Pictures released The Last Hurrah, directed by John Ford, and staring Spencer Tracy as the mayor of ‘an New England’ city. It brilliantly tells the story of a sentimental, but iron-fisted, Irish-American, and his last attempt to hold on to power by being elected mayor one more time. The film was based on Edwin O’Connor’s best selling novel, and was widely taken to be based on Curley. Ironically, the film was released in 1958, the year that Curley died, which includes a death scene which John Ford plays up with all his skill. There was not a dry-eye in the house. When Curley met O’Connor he told him that the scene that he liked most in the book was the death of the hero.

Suspecting that Curley might sue for defamation, Columbia wisely paid Curley $25,000 before the film was released. But following Curley’s interest in his death scene, Columbia passed him another $15,000 before the film opened in Boston. It was the kind of sweet deal that Curley loved.

Boston gold

In 1931, Curley and his daughter Mary went on a grand European tour. They visited France, Italy (where Curley met Mussolini ), London, and finally Ireland. Coming across on the ferry Curly stayed on deck anxious for a first glimpse of the land of his parents. They came straight to Galway, and out to Collinamuck, near Moycullen, where they asked if anyone remembered his father. There was a hazy memory of the family, but people shrugged, and said that they had all emigrated to America.

Then it was on to Oughterard. Mary and Curley walked out to Canrower, where his mother Sarah Clancy came from. Again few could remember the family. His parents had left Ireland as children. They were both long forgotten. What struck Curley most, however, was the ‘melancholy beauty, dotted as it was with the free-standing chimneys marking the abandoned farms of the anonymous thousands who had fled the Great Famine for America.’

Gazing about him, Curley felt depressed. Just then a woman came along, and stopped in surprise: “ Glory be to God if it isn’t the Curley!” she exclaimed.

Curley asked how did she know him? The woman replied that of course she knew him. She had gone to Boston looking for gold in the streets; but only found poverty and disappointment. Then she had gone to Curley, and he weaved the Curley magic: He found her a home. It was as valuable as gold to her. She warmly embraced him, and thanked him again.

NOTES:* A quote from a campaign speech that has famously entered Boston folklore, was when Curley raised the spectre of Communist leanings in his opponent saying : “ There is more Americanism in one half of Jim Curley’s ass than in that pink body of Tom Eliot.”

It is impossible to tell the full story of James Michael Curley in only two weeks. There is a good book which I got in Charlie Byrne’s some years ago: The Rascal King - An epic of urban politics and Irish America, by Jack Beatty published by Addison-Wesley 1992, which tells it well.

NEXT WEEK... The Old Galway/Diary page will be given over to publish an historic photograph of the members who attended the Óireachtas of Conrad na Gaeilge, held in Galway 1913, almost exactly 100 years ago. The photograph is remarkable for its clarity. It shows everyone who attended including Eoin McNeill, Padraic OConnaire, and many other well known personalities; as well as men who featured in the 1916 Rising, such as Padraic Pearse, Cathal Brúha, and many more.

This unique photograph was discovered by the Curran family of Dublin, and they are kindly presenting it to the city on Friday December 6.


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