The mayor of the poor

For better or worse, James Michael Curley defined Boston in the early half of the 20th century

Fifth in a series

What’s important about the election of 1913/1914, what distinguishes it as a milestone in the city’s political history, is not electoral drama but electoral outcome, because it was the first of four mayoral elections won by James Michael Curley. Curley had been a fairly constant presence in Boston politics since the turn of the 20th century, but he was now in his ascendancy. One person stood in his way: Mayor John Francis Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was no political slouch, but he was a man of unrestrained appetite, and this lack of restraint became his Achilles’ heel.

Curley made it clear that if Fitzgerald intended to stand for re-election, Curley would hold nothing back. Fitzgerald’s marital infidelity with Elizabeth “Toodles” Ryan was an open secret, and Curley proposed to broadcast the mayor’s improprieties by delivering a series of lectures on topics designed to draw public attention and ridicule: “Great Lovers in History: From Cleopatra to Toodles,” and “Libertines in History from Henry VIII to the Present Day.” One can only imagine the conversations in the Fitzgerald household that led to the mayor’s declaration that he would not be a candidate for re-election. With Fitzgerald out of the race, Curley was an easy and predictable winner. His principal opponent was City Councilor Thomas Kenny, a good government candidate dismissed by Curley as a “lawyer who would have made a brilliant accountant.” Curley won his first election as mayor on Jan. 14, 1913 with 43,362 votes to Kenny’s 37,542. (Although the election campaign was conducted mostly during the latter part of 1913, the election itself was held shortly after the New Year.)

Curley has become a legendary figure, a caricature of himself, and it is difficult to sift through the myths surrounding his long public career to find what was real and what was genuine in the man. Curley the private man was a self-taught scholar, very much a family man. His devotion to his first wife Mary, who died early in his third term after a long bout with cancer, was true and real and honest by all accounts. Curley the public man – well, that is another story. He would serve as mayor of Boston for 16 years, but his record is strangely elusive.

Unlike other long-serving mayors like Kevin White and Tom Menino, Curley’s years as mayor were not served consecutively, but over a lengthy span of time. Consider this: John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Curley’s first term in office, and was elected to Congress in Curley’s last. The frequent interruptions in his service as mayor make it all the more difficult to assess Curley’s record. One thing is certain: Boston in the first half of the 20th century was defined, for better or worse, by this one man who, at the end of his life, having been twice jailed and once pardoned, reviled as a knave and rogue, loved by the people, hated by the business community, spurned by FDR, and chastised by the Cardinal, wrote a brash autobiography he titled “I’d Do It Again!”

Curley was called the “Mayor of the Poor,” and if he himself somehow found the financial resources to build a grand mansion on the Jamaicaway (complete with custom built shamrock shutters), he never forgot where he came from, or the people who put him in office. He had gained a well-earned reputation as a “man of the people” the hard way. As a state representative in 1903, he took a Civil Service exam posing as a constituent who presumably could not pass the exam on his own merit. This was fraud, and Curley was briefly jailed, while at the same time winning election as a member of the Board of Alderman. The episode cast Curley as a politician who would put himself personally on the line to help a constituent in need. “He did it for a friend” became a motto worn as a badge of honor.

Curley’s mark was made through his longevity, and his ability to respond effectively to the tenor of his times. For the many thousands of people who elected him to city, state, and federal office, he was a symbol of hope – a man who had experienced the same deprivation they knew all too well, and who overcame it. He provided support in the form of jobs at a time when jobs were scarce. Curley used every opportunity to underscore that he was the one political leader who would be for the little guy when the chips were down. Through the power of his rhetoric and presence, he gave the “little guy” a belief that, in the halls of power, James Michael Curley would be watching out for him. It often didn’t matter whether Curley ever delivered on a promise. What mattered was that people believed that this man who “did it for a friend” would help them, too, if they really needed help.

Curley also offered the public something unique – unparalleled political theater. He was drawn to the theatrical, to the rhetorical flourish and the bold but often unkept promise. In some ways he provided a form of free entertainment to a city that (although many would not admit it) enjoyed the antics of this colorful politician. An early backer of Franklin Roosevelt at a time when the overwhelming support of the Massachusetts Democratic Party leadership was still for Irish Catholic Al Smith, Curley easily put ethnic and religious fealty aside to support FDR for the 1932 presidential nomination. Curley knew political talent when he saw it, and he saw it in abundance in the personage of Roosevelt. Curley expected a reward for his early support, but the cagey Roosevelt knew that appointing Curley to a prominent post was a risky proposition. When he offered Curley the position of ambassador to Poland, Curley extravagantly refused it, accusing FDR of political betrayal by quoting (in quintessential Curley fashion) a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, when Cardinal Wolsey despairs of his fall from royal favor: “Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my King, he would not in mine age have left me naked to mine enemies.” The Curley legend was built in moments like that.

Curley’s record as mayor does not quite match the outsized myth. Curley had great ambitions to be a builder and re-builder of the city, but he was constrained by forces beyond his control – the economic downturn of the Great Depression, the persistent lack of cooperation by the state Legislature in appropriating funding for city projects, and the lack of significant federal funding for projects under the early years of the New Deal. Curley devoted the limited resources available to him to neighborhood initiatives.

It was this focus on neighborhood projects that distinguished Curley as a mayor who really cared about average citizens. Curley kept property assessments in the downtown as high as he could – it was his way of taxing the wealthy to pay for the poor. And he used the money to invest in the city’s needy precincts. He made no excuses for this strategy, declaring: “I have known what it is to be hungry, and I have known what it is to be cold, and if I have erred in response to the dictates of the heart rather than the head, perhaps I am not altogether to blame.” His mission, he said, was to provide assistance to those “shivering in the shadows of adversity,” and that meant he would cater to the often-neglected neighborhoods.

During his second term in office, he built new schools, decreasing the number of students in the classroom by one third. He built the L Street Bathhouse complex in South Boston and completed 12 new neighborhood parks. He built the neighborhood Relief Stations that brought health care to people without easy access to downtown, and made significant improvements to Boston City Hospital. On health care, Curley didn’t just talk; he delivered. In the late 1920s, at the end of his second term in office, New York City expenditures on public health averaged 90 cents per capita. The figure in Boston was $1.53.

Curley began his third term in office three months after the stock market crash of 1929. In that year, 71 percent of all Boston citizens had at least one parent who was born abroad. Of the nation’s urban centers, only New York City exceeded this percentage. The city in those years continued to be a place of immigrants, and a particularly harsh place for many people to live in. In the North End, only half of the residential units had a toilet, and only 81 of the available 5,000 rental units had refrigeration. These substandard conditions were exacerbated by the Great Depression, as landlords stepped back from making investments of any kind, and the mayor had limited local resources at his disposal to make a significant difference.

In the three years to come – three years under President Hoover with no New Deal programs available to help support the struggling city – Curley did what he could to keep the city afloat. He opposed handouts and sought to put people to work, any kind of work, as a way to maintain personal dignity while providing some basic financial sustenance. He created jobs for men to rake leaves and shovel snow. Laborers were hired to re-grade, loam, and seed city cemeteries; others were hired to re-catalogue over 2 million books at the Boston Public Library. It was make-work, but it was work. By the time the New Deal programs kicked in toward the end of his administration, Curley’s habitual penchant for being difficult to work with meant that Boston was a national laggard in the receipt and expenditure of the first wave of federal relief funds.

The reality is that the Great Depression accelerated what was already happening in Boston. Boston entered a long period of decline during the Curley era, a decline that was not halted by the mayors who filled in the terms between Curley – Peters, Nichols, Mansfield, and Tobin. Boston was a city that had lost its status as an important harbor, a status that meant everything to the city in the 18th and 19th centuries. It wasn’t easy for Boston to replace what it had lost, or to come together as one unified civic enterprise to develop a new, credible vision for the future. This reality, combined with the constant antagonism between the populist Curley and the hard-edged Yankee business establishment, left the city at the mercy of a political standoff that led to stagnation and decline. A former chairman of the Chamber of Commerce remarked in 1930 that “the business community of Boston has very little public spirit.”

Curley’s third mayoral term was followed by two years as governor, a position of power and prestige that he used primarily as an unsuccessful launching pad for a seat in the US Senate. His defeat in the 1936 Senate race to Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. marked the beginning of Curley’s political decline. When he tried and failed in 1937 to win another term as mayor, losing famously to Maurice Tobin (in a campaign that became the fictional backdrop for Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah), Curley’s political future was considered over. Curley was nothing if not persistent, however, and after a brief return to Congress he returned to City Hall once more, winning his fourth term in 1945. By then Curley was in his early seventies, a spent force politically, expressing no new vision for Boston.

Curley became mired in a tawdry influence-peddling scandal, and within days of his election, he was convicted of 10 counts of mail fraud. He was sentenced to Danbury federal prison in June of 1947, and pardoned by President Truman five months later. Truman was urged to pardon Curley by the entire Massachusetts Congressional delegation with one notable exception: Congressman John Fitzgerald Kennedy did not join the call to release Curley. For John Kennedy, it was perhaps a small way to repay Curley for his treatment of “Grandpa” Fitzgerald in 1913. Curley learned no lessons in humility during his five months in jail. When he returned to City Hall, he behaved with appalling arrogance toward the city clerk who had been the caretaker mayor while he was in prison. As we shall see in our next installment in this series, Curley’s arrogance, culminating in an ill-advised comment made at the end of his first day back on the job, finished off his own career.

Meet the Author

James Michael Curley was a larger-than-life figure, a man whose legend outweighed his talent for governing, whose antipathy toward the wealthy was as genuine as his empathy for the poor and the needy. Curley was a rogue, a knave, a “rascal king,” but he was also a self-educated and cultured man, a reader of Shakespeare and the classics. He was undaunted by adversity and weathered the death of his first wife Mary, and the deaths of seven of his nine children, with a resolve and a toughness of character that could only have come from his own journey of survival and triumph over poverty and want. When he married Gertrude Dennis, his second wife, he did so on the last day of his gubernatorial term in January 1937 – a typically brash Curley flourish, walking down the State House steps with a new bride and most likely a raffish wink for any onlookers who might have thought him past his prime. He was as complicated and colorful a politician as Boston has ever produced, and his stamp on the city in the last century, for better or worse, was indelible.

Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation. His most recent book is The Vidal Lecture.