James Michael Curley

The American politician James Michael Curley (1874-1958) was a magnetic political figure, particularly as mayor of Boston.

James Curley was born on Nov. 20, 1874, in Boston, a city whose upper-class Yankee Protestant families despised Irish Catholics socially and discriminated against them politically. He became a symbol of the emergence of the Irish from their proletarian status to political dominance. Reared in politics, alienated from any sense of community, Curley formed a hard, unwavering, egocentric determination to succeed.

Curley overcame handicaps of birth and poor education, and his political ascendancy was meteoric. Elected to the Common Council in 1900, he then progressed to the Board of Aldermen and the Massachusetts Legislature. His Irish slum constituency elected him in 1911 to the first of four undistinguished terms in Congress. In 1928 he was a firm supporter of Governor Alfred E. Smith for president. Denied a place in the Massachusetts delegation to the 1932 Democratic convention, Curley managed to be chosen a delegate from Puerto Rico. His support was instrumental in winning the presidential nomination for Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he broke with Roosevelt after the President refused to appoint him ambassador to Ireland.

As governor of Massachusetts in 1935, Curley was criticized for his spending, job trading, and high-speed motorcades across the Commonwealth. In 1936 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Of his many political posts, Curley best enjoyed being mayor of Boston. He was elected in 1913, 1921, 1929, and 1945. In an age of such figures as Tom Pendergast of Kansas City and Frank Hague of Jersey City, Curley enjoyed his self-described role as political "boss." But whereas the others had powerful political machines, Curley's greatest strength lay in his personal magnetism. The core of his political support always came from the slums. Curley lacked a political philosophy beyond that of taking care of himself and his own.

Politics was a game he took as he found it; his only desire was to win, not to change or reform. He fabricated a Ku Klux Klan scare during his first gubernatorial campaign, and he regularly blackmailed Boston's propertied classes and social elite to subsidize his huge public works projects and padded city payrolls. He served two terms in prison: in 1904 for impersonating a friend in a civil service examination, and in 1947 for graft in connection with Federal contracts while serving as a member of Congress. His conduct frequently brought him into conflict with the Catholic hierarchy of Boston.

A political legend in Boston for more than half a century, Curley lived to see himself perpetuated as a literary legend. He was the prototype for Frank Skeffington, the principal figure in Edwin O'Connor's novel The Last Hurrah. Curley died on Nov. 12, 1958.


Further Reading on James Michael Curley

Curley's autobiography, I'd Do It Again: A Record of All My Uproarious Years (1957), is a rambling and uneven document enlivened by the candidly brazen quality of the author's confessions. The beginning of the Curley legend and the first attempt to put his career in perspective is Joseph F. Dinneen, The Purple Shamrock: The Honorable James Michael Curley of Boston (1949). A frankly hostile account of Curley's governorship is Wendell D. Howie, The Reign of James the First: A Historical Record of the Administration of James M. Curley as Governor of Massachusetts (1936).

Additional Biography Sources

Beatty, Jack, The rascal king: the life and times of James Michael Curley, 1874-1958, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1992.

Curley, James Michael, I'd do it again, New York: Arno Press, 1976, 1957.