Curley’s People

Three generations after James Michael Curley reshaped Boston politics, we - and our leaders - are still living with the consequences

(Globe File Photo/Globe Staff Illustration )
By Peter S. Canellos
January 3, 2010

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Back in the ’90s, Turner Classic Movies produced hourlong documentaries on the great stars of the ’30s, hosted by actors who were inspired by them. Susan Sarandon praised Bette Davis for giving working-class heroines both guts and dignity, Liam Neeson honored Clark Gable’s effortless masculinity, Michael J. Fox celebrated James Cagney’s pluck, and so on.

The documentaries drew their strength from the surprising depth of the connection between the generations. Each hour was a love story, a display of affection for a long-dead mentor. The flickering vulnerability that was visible in the old clips of Vivien Leigh flashed in Jessica Lange’s eyes as she squared her shoulders and paid tribute to Leigh.

Billy Bulger, who in the ’80s and most of the ’90s ruled the Massachusetts Senate, displays the same kind of connection in his newly published “short biography” of the governor, congressman, and four-time Boston mayor James Michael Curley. It’s an extraordinary meeting of author and subject. A live wire flows from the Curley of the ’30s to the present day, and for several decades its chief conductor was none other than Bulger himself.

Like Curley, Bulger was a mixture of grandiosity and humility, with a larger-than-life manner and a down-to-earth patronage network. Each cultivated a classical speaking style, spiced with Latin and Greek references, to inspire his working-class audience. Each also framed his politics strictly in terms of what he delivered for supporters, with votes and government programs exchanged almost as a quid pro quo.

Curley’s legacy is, of course, greater than that of Bulger or any other protege. Curley was unpopular with

most of his political peers, who regarded him as selfish and untrustworthy, but he now enjoys near-universal approval among Boston’s neighborhood politicians. They’ve accepted him as their role model, forgiving (and in a few cases embracing) his divisiveness and trading of favors. Come election time, they vie with each other to meet his standard of authenticity.

That means judging candidates by their loyalties - to their neighborhood and ethnic group - and by their level of attentiveness to average constituents. Forgetting where one came from is the cardinal sin. That’s why Representative Michael Capuano never misses a chance to tout his working-class roots and home in Somerville. It’s why even the upwardly mobile businessman-turned-politician Stephen Pagliuca felt obliged to recall how an employer once told him, “I didn’t know they had Italians at Harvard Business School.”

Curley felt that no one should forget such insults, and that they should dedicate themselves to pushing back.

He attacked rival Irish-American politicians for kowtowing to the Yankees or, worse, the British. He called one such rival, an Irish immigrant who happened to have served in the British army, a “hireling of England.”

Inspiring to the sons and daughters of immigrants in his day, who had experienced vivid discrimination, Curley’s style of politics would seem to be as dated as his fedora; but his current-day imitators don’t see it that way. In accepting the enduring appeal of class-based politics, they don’t really acknowledge that times have changed, that never moving beyond one’s birthplace or station in life is a suffocating expectation, and that blaming a smug upper class for current-day deprivations is as anachronistic as blaming King George for unfair taxation.

And yet the strictures of the Curley era aren’t alive only in the minds of politicians. There’s something in the city itself - in its proud neighborhoods, its quick sense of grievance, its disinterest in things happening outside its borders - that reflects the Curley mind-set. As a true son of Boston, Curley may have molded himself in reaction to the forces buffeting his city. But as the man who set those forces into motion, Curley has to be held at least partly responsible for the parochialism that still encircles Boston politics, sacrificing growth and expansion for a deeper commitment to preservation and neighborhood justice.

Bulger stood for that principle, unashamedly seeking public jobs for supporters, with court officer positions as his top prizes. As Senate president from 1978 to 1996, he was one of the three most important political leaders in the state. And while governors and House speakers came and went, Bulger’s Curley-infused politics endured.

It’s not exactly a revelation that Bulger modeled himself after Curley, yet in “James Michael Curley: A Short Biography With Personal Reminiscences,” he indicates just how rigorous the modeling was. Bulger writes, for example, of practicing relentlessly to master Curley’s speaking style. Watching Curley through the starry eyes of the college-age Bulger, racing from the Hotel Brunswick to Thompson’s Spa in search of his aging role model, offers a glimpse of history. But watching how Bulger describes Curley’s politics has a deeper fascination: It defines the cult of authenticity that has limited the horizons of many Boston political leaders. And it shows why Boston can’t fully move beyond its political past.

Boston was the center of political agitation leading up to the Revolution, and later, in the years surrounding the Civil War, Boston’s “Brahmin” elites exerted groundbreaking influence in religion, education, feminism, environmental consciousness, literature, and the abolition movement. Boston’s culture defined the new nation, and infused its politics. But by the dawn of the 20th century, Boston’s influence was waning. The Yankees, with their once-restless spirit, had ossified into a Beacon Hill oligarchy.

Their downfall came for the usual reasons, an infatuation with their own status and the numbing effect of prejudice. Waves of immigration had reached a critical mass, and in Boston the Yankees were outnumbered. They took refuge behind class barriers, and made war over the unseemly influence of the mostly Irish-American ward bosses.

James Michael Curley, who was born in 1874, came of age during this time of decline. Factories were moving south, and many sons and daughters of immigrants were relegated to the lowest of service jobs.

Curley’s driving force was anger at the reform committees, instituted by the Yankee-dominated state government to monitor municipal finances and report on corruption. But that was just the tip of an iceberg of resentments that included the degradation of Irish-American maids in Yankee homes, the condescension of Yankee intellectuals to even highly educated Irish-Americans, and the resistance of Yankee business owners to workplace reforms.

Bulger draws attention to Curley’s use of symbols, including his famous edict that only long-handled mops would be used at City Hall, lest any cleaning woman be obliged to work on her knees, as many did in Yankee households. Curley also cast his civic improvements in class terms, declaring that the L Street Bathhouse on Dorchester Bay would provide the equivalent of a vacation in the tropics - something only the wealthy (and, most likely, Yankee) could contemplate.

Similar class-based strains existed elsewhere in Depression-era America, and Curley’s soak-the-rich politics fascinated struggling urbanites in much the same way that Huey Long’s “share the wealth” plan inspired rural voters and communism intrigued intellectuals. But in Boston the divisions were not only class-based but ethnic and religious, extending from old-country tensions between England and Ireland to disputes between Catholics and Protestants. They created a vein of distrust that arguably extends into the present day.

Still, if Curley’s only contribution had been to accelerate the Yankee-Irish political wars, he’d be a footnote. Instead, he fought most of his battles against his ethnic rivals, creating the “authenticity” test that still gets applied to Boston politicians.

Curley was so intent on proving his commitment to “his” people that he often handed constituents money out of his own pockets. He also sought to demonstrate a superior devotion to Catholicism. He told interviewers how he would kneel by the closed door of the birthing room, saying the rosary, while his wife was in labor; women were deeply touched, and gave him their votes.

Curley turned other aspects of his life into parables connecting him to voters’ struggles. His father, who immigrated to Boston as a teenager, “died on the job,” Bulger reports, suggesting that the 34-year-old man was done in by unrequited toil. In fact, as Bulger acknowledges, Michael Curley bet a friend he could lift a 400-pound curbstone and then dropped dead of the strain.

In 1904, the younger Curley was caught taking a civil service exam for another man, and went to jail. “He did it for a friend,” became his rallying cry. Indeed, Curley managed to transgress just enough to become the victim of the very forces he opposed, earning a cloak of martyrdom. Five decades after Curley’s first imprisonment, the young Billy Bulger idolized him precisely because of his critics; as a student at Boston College, Bulger wrote a paper on the vicious lengths to which Curley’s enemies went to persecute and vilify him, essentially for standing up for his people.

“He was certainly - in my mind - a man of greater virtue than his foes,” Bulger writes in the biography.

Be that as it may, there was always another route for both Curley and his foes. The tensions between the Yankees and Irish-Americans were clearly visible, but not every politician chose to make a living off them. A few Brahmins, like Leverett Saltonstall, cheerfully marched up Broadway in South Boston seeking the backing of Irish-Americans. And on the other side there was Joseph P. Kennedy, a Curley skeptic and near-contemporary who chose to blaze a very different path.

The son of an East Boston ward leader and son-in-law of John F. Fitzgerald, the Boston mayor whom Curley helped topple by threatening to reveal his affair with a dancer named Toodles, Kennedy harbored grand dreams that propelled him away from the world of door-knocking and constituent favors.

He steered his four princely sons around the conflagration that was Boston politics under Curley, so they could offer an aspirational message premised on the idea that the sons and daughters of immigrants could take their rightful places atop American society.

Amassing a fortune, Kennedy chose to live like the Yankees, and instilled in his children both a sense of opportunism and noblesse oblige. Here was an Irish-American who remembered where he came from but didn’t want to stay there. He resented the Brahmins but admired their role in American history so much that he claimed it for himself, as part of an American birthright owned by no single ethnic group.

Kennedy’s success, and that of his sons, made him the ultimate counterpoint to Curley. While Curley told the sons and daughters of immigrants to remember where they came from, Kennedy told them to boldly go wherever they wanted to go. Curley’s politics, predicated on a struggle between communities for a shrinking pool of resources, denied the existence of the American dream; the Kennedy family lived it.

Ultimately, it was the Kennedys, not Curley, who fully married the immigrant experience to the American dream, closing the loop on Boston history in a way that helped restore Massachusetts’ relevancy - and, in many ways, its primacy - in the country’s political and intellectual life.

Bulger, who purports to admire both the Kennedys and Curley, also notes the animosity between them. After the Second World War, Joe Kennedy helped secure a congressional seat for his eldest surviving son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Curley was then serving as mayor of Boston from the federal penitentiary in Danbury, Conn., having been convicted of mail fraud for allowing a friend to use his name in securing a war contract. Back in Boston, many believed Curley had been railroaded. The entire Massachusetts congressional delegation except for John F. Kennedy petitioned President Truman to commute Curley’s sentence.

“Some pundits have suggested that Kennedy’s hardheartedness derived from his ambition - how would it look in the rest of the provinces to be tainted by empathy for the old scoundrel?” Bulger writes, but then concludes that “Kennedy was acting in this instance not like an up-and-coming politician or a callous son of privilege. He was acting like a politician with a long memory.”

Kennedy was thinking of his grandfather and Toodles!

Bulger is thus able to justify both his high regard for the assassinated president and his faith in Curley’s mandate that all politics be personal. Both Kennedy and Curley remembered where they came from. Both were good to those who loved and supported them.

The Kennedy dynasty may now be ending. Last August, in a procession followed by millions of TV viewers, Edward Kennedy’s casket made a solemn pilgrimage to his favorite Boston historical sites, symbolizing the fusion of Yankee and Irish-American values and aspirations. All the Kennedy brothers are now gone. But in many neighborhoods, James Michael Curley, and his entirely more reductive version of Boston politics, lives on and on.

Peter Canellos is the editorial page editor of The Boston Globe.

James Michael Curley tried to ride his popularity to a fifth term as Mayor of Boston, though was not reelected. (Globe File photo ) James Michael Curley tried to ride his popularity to a fifth term as Mayor of Boston, though was not reelected.