James Michael Curley was born and bred in Boston of good Irish stock. His parents, recently from Galway, lived in Ward Seventeen where his father sometimes found work as an unskilled laborer and his mother as a scrubwoman. When his father died when James Michael was just 12, he left school and had to pick up what learning he could in the public libraries. He held a variety of jobs, but by the time he was eligible to vote in 1896, he found his true calling – politics.
At the age of 23, James Michael Curley won a seat on Boston’s Common Council. His one motto — “Work harder than anyone else, preserve your self-respect and keep your word” was soon coupled with his other – “Do unto others before they do you.” He spent part of every day meeting with needy constituents and helping them find jobs, fuel, or food, or fend off creditors, the police, or the courts.
By 1903 he was running for alderman. A barely literate constituent needed a job with the post office, so as a favor Curley took the civil service exam for him. Curley was recognized, prosecuted, and convicted for fraud; he was sentenced to 90 days in jail. The public was incensed by the authority’s actions. “He did it for a friend” became the slogan that aroused public sympathy. Campaigning from his jail cell, Curley won the election in a landslide.
In his first run for mayor in 1914 Curley called the powerful Democratic City Committee a group of “empty eggshells” and labeled the ward bosses a “collection of chowderheads.” The Good Government Association he called “Goo Goos” and business leaders the “State Street wrecking crew.” When Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald decided to run again, Curley was ready. The challenger knew that the incumbent was enjoying the charms of a woman not his wife, the young and lovely “Toodles” Ryan. Rather than overtly accusing his rival of infidelity, Curley announced that he would deliver a series of lectures including “Great Lovers, from Cleopatra to Toodles.” Fitzgerald dropped out of the race.
Curley had no use for Boston Brahmins, with their “clubs of female faddists, and old gentlemen with disordered livers or pessimists croaking over imaginary good old days and ignoring the sunlit present.” The day after he was sworn in, the “Mayor of the People” proposed to sell the Public Garden just off Beacon Hill and use the proceeds to build new gardens in neighborhoods “more easily accessible to the general public.”
Curley declared “The day of the Puritan has passed; the Anglo-Saxon is a joke; a new and better America is here.” What Boston needs is “men and mothers of men, not gabbing spinsters and dog-raising matrons in federation assembled.” In a classic gesture, he procured long-handled mops for City Hall scrubwomen because “a woman should only get on her knees to pray.”
Curley was elected to a second term over John R. Murphy, the candidate of “the Goo Goos” , calling him “an old mustard plaster that has been stuck on the back of the people for fifty years.” In 1929 Curley won his third term over Frederick Mansfield who was “as spectacular as a four-day-old codfish and as colorful as a lump of mud.”
In 1932, in a maverick, but prescient move, Curley backed Franklin Roosevelt over Al Smith for the Democratic nomination. Al Smith was an enormous favorite in Boston, so popular that for months the Boston people wouldn’t turn out to hear their mayor speak, and Curley was shunned from the delegation to the Democratic convention. Snubbed, but not discouraged, he travelled to Chicago alone. Somehow his blarney charmed the Puerto Rico delegation into handing him their standard. When the roll call finally got to Puerto Rico, “Alcalde Jaime Miguel Culeo” rose and, to tumultuous applause, delivered the Island’s one vote for Roosevelt.
Curley would be elected Congressman and Governor, but it was as Boston’s Mayor that he thrived. In 1947 he was sentenced to a term in federal prison for mail fraud. He ran for mayor for a fourth term from his cell in Danbury Prison. He was reelected, and then pardoned by Harry Truman. When he returned from Danbury to City Hall the band played “Hail to the Chief”.
Always sociable, Curley came back reporting that his closest friend in prison had been a Harvard graduate, and that he had, indeed, become acquainted there with representatives of all the Ivy League campuses.