Few things bring on recollection of times long unremembered as an obituary notice does. Recently, for example, when I was reading of the death of James Michael Curley, "last of the oldtime big-city political bosses," my mind kept darting back over the years to the middle 1920s when I knew Curley well.
Ours was a summertime friendship. In the years following the close of World War I, my family used to spend the summers at Nantasket, a beach about 20 miles from the Boston area. From Nantasket the men could commute to work quite easily, and this, as we kids saw it, was an advantage in more ways than one: they weren't stuck at the beach day after day with nothing to do as we were. I realize it sounds arch or contrived to say this but life was terribly boring. I think the main trouble was that Nantasket was too good a bathing beach. The waves came pounding in and broke beautifully the whole uninterrupted curving length from Hull Hill at one end down to Paragon Park at the other. It was this very excellence of the surf that hampered a kid's style. There was no boating at all. I remember one or two live-it-up guys, who would have been of college age, fooling around with a kayak for a brief time, but that was it.
What you did was go in swimming a couple of times a day (an hour after you finished eating); you broad-jumped (both running and standing) on that in-between stretch of sand that was half wet and half dry, firm enough to jump from and soft enough so you didn't sting your feet when you landed; you strung out a few kids' games like tag or ringaleevo (local pronunciation), in which the best hiding place was the grass, about three or four feet high, that covered the short strip of natural duneland between the houses on Beach Avenue and the beginning of the beach; you fooled around with a little croquet or "ran the bases," neither of which was any fun unless it involved some guy you hated and could handle or some girl you secretly liked; you watched the ships sailing by miles away on the distant horizon of the ocean, and occasionally the New York boat was late; and the rest of the time you spent desperately trying to work up some excitement over things that had long ceased to be exciting, like crawling under the verandas of the houses and, on your hands and knees, exploring those sections which were not built on cement foundations, or seeing how far you could walk without losing your balance on the cement sea walls which bordered the various plots.
In the midst of this drab torpor there loomed one shining citadel of vitality—Mayor Curley. When he was around, the pace picked up and life suddenly became quite enjoyable. For example, he annually got the summer off to a bang-up start on Fourth of July Eve with a display of fireworks that lasted almost two hours and ended with some really sensational stuff, "bombs" which burst two or three times in the air and skyrockets which outdid anybody else's skyrockets, partly because a crew of workmen spent the afternoon and early evening setting them up for maximum performance. Mayor Curley did things in a big way. When the hurdy-gurdy man with the monkey came around, our fathers customarily gave the man only enough money for him to crank out one or two selections before he tipped his hat and the monkey tipped his and they went on their way. Mayor Curley must have given him a fortune, for on Fourth of July Eve he played continuous music for two hours and throughout the summer he presented other long evening concerts in the graveled parking space in front of the mayor's stucco house.
December 22, 1958
There were other, if less spectacular, ways in which Mayor Curley's presence irradiated the monotony of the summer with a helpful splash of glamour. He and Mrs. Curley didn't entertain too often, but when they had a dinner party the guests dressed like nobody else who hit the beach; the men wore tuxedos or white jackets and the women were all dolled up and carried fans or feathers. These guests arrived in the biggest, sleekest cars of the era, and each Marmon or Peerless required long and appreciative study from us and a drawn-out consultation with its chauffeur. Sometimes, when someone came in a Rolls-Royce, our loyalty was pushed close to the breaking point, but we always managed to conclude that no car was quite in a class with Mayor Curley's own Pierce-Arrow and that no other chauffeur was really as skillful a driver as the mayor's. As for Mayor Curley himself, whether he was mayor, governor or out of office, he always remained Mayor Curley for us, or, more exactly, he remained Mayorcurley, a phrase as indivisible as damyankee.
I would not be reminiscing about the mayor, however, if there had not been an intimate core to our relationship. We talked a lot together, practically every night except when he had company for supper. The Curleys lived next door to us, and it was my habit, and that of many of the other kids, to set out for the Curleys' veranda after finishing supper. It was a large screened-in veranda set higher than most of the others on Beach Avenue, at the top of a steep flight of stairs banked with boxes of blue hydrangeas. The wicker chairs there were wide and comfortable, and if, upon my arrival, I saw through the front window that the Curleys were still in the dining room, I plunked myself familiarly in a chair and took my-ease, breathing in the stiff whiff of the geraniums in the flower boxes and listening to the tinkle those Chinese strips of glass made when the breeze stirred them. Ostensibly I was waiting for Paul and Leo, the Curley boys my age, to come out, but really I was waiting for the mayor.
I suppose that today, if I were trying to explain Mayor Curley's charm and appeal, I would come up with something on the order of "He liked people" or, "He understood kids" or some such behavior-motivation analysis striking like a sword to the heart of the matter. These would be correct, but I think it would be more correct simply to say that we found him a very interesting man. There were occasional nights when he was tired or preoccupied, but almost invariably he was in expansive good humor when he arrived on the veranda after coffee, a strong-smelling cigar in his mouth. Before you knew it he was telling you something interesting. I can't remember him talking politics ever. He talked about the leading entertainers of the day (like Will Rogers), about travel, about books ("I would advise you, if you are going to read Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu at night, to keep all the lights in your room blazing"), about history, about the movies (Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad was so good, in his estimation, that he refused to discuss it for fear of ruining the enjoyment of the people who hadn't yet seen it), and above and beyond all other subjects he talked sports.
His stories were far more dramatic than those that appeared in the sports pages. Most of them were sketches of the high points in the careers of extraordinary stars we had heard very little about, if we had heard anything at all: Louis (Chief) Sockalexis, the full-blooded Penobscot Indian who had played the outfield for the old Cleveland National League team; Heinie Groh, the Giant infielder who had fashioned his distinctive bottle-shaped bat to help him cure his weakness in hitting the curve ball; Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indians and the year Carlisle beat Harvard by tucking the football under the back of one of the player's jerseys and achieving such total deception that the player walked unmolested until he was out in the clear and then sprinted the rest of the way to the goal without a soul near him; Harry Wills, who the mayor described as "the one man Dempsey was afraid to fight" but who Dempsey could probably beat "now that Wills has grown old and his bones have developed the brittleness of age." The mayor liked a good mouth-filling word like Sockalexis or Paavo Nurmi or Adolfo Luque or Paulino Uzcudun, though I think he was happiest of all when expounding the virtues of Eppa Jeptha Rixey, the tall Virginian who pitched for the Reds. "Eppa Jeptha Rixey," he would proclaim sonorously. "He is a superb control pitcher, this Eppa Jeptha Rixey, and you must tell your father to take you to the ball park when Cincinnati next comes to town, so you can see Eppa...Jeptha...Rixey"—this last intoned oratorically like a man reading the inscription on an important Roman ruin.
The mayor's stories were so deeply fascinating that after more than one session—in which he had related the exploits of Lord Burghley, Roger Peckinpaugh, Joie Ray, Frank Gotch, Suzanne Lenglen, Battling Siki, Loren Murchison, Iron Man McGinnity, Gertrude Ederle or Walter Hagen—I harbored the suspicion that he was just making things up or at least going far beyond the facts, but I inevitably found I was wrong about this. He was simply attracted to the colorful and knew how to transmit his enthusiasm, and that is why, as he opened new and gleaming vistas in the world of sport to us kids, he created in us an enthusiasm on the same wave length as his own.
Mayor Curley's love of sport was not only wide-ranging, it could be extremely detailed. When I learned much later in my life that one of his prime vote-getting techniques was satiric attacks on the Boston Brahmins, I was astonished, for few men ever followed Harvard track (which was first-class) more closely. One summer when the combined Oxford and Cambridge teams came over for a dual meet with Harvard and Yale, we had examined the probabilities so minutely during our sessions on the veranda that we had even concluded who would pick up third place in each event. I have never been that close to track and field since, and I look back with amazement at the depth of our knowledge. I do not know for a fact but I have an idea that part of the mayor's addiction to track and field was the result of his friendship with Arthur Duffey, then a sportswriter for the Boston Post, who had set a new world's record (93/5 seconds) for the 100-yard dash in 1902. Duffey was a fairly frequent visitor to Nantasket, and he had something of the mayor's elicitive friendliness. During one chat with him I remember feeling on such confidential terms that I told him I was a fairly fast runner but was slow off the mark and wondered what I could do to improve this. "I will tell you," he said, and in such a way that I felt he was going to divulge some secret, like shutting your eyes or sucking in your breath, that only a world's record holder could know. "The secret," Mr. Duffey went on, "is to practice starts. Get out there and practice, practice, practice." You should never talk to children that way. They are not ready for the facts of life.
These sessions on the veranda had a rambling form, like the Jack Paar Show, but occasionally an educative strain in Mayor Curley's personality would enter a dominant phase and he would conduct a question-and-answer bee to see how much of what he was telling us was sinking in. At other times, although I don't think it was consciously set up, he would use the interrogative as a means of introducing a new figure of importance.
"All right, then," he said one such evening as he tilted himself to the rest position in a rocker, "who would you say was the world's greatest all-round athlete?"
We told him that was easy. Jim Thorpe. He had talked about him on several evenings.
"No, I am not thinking of Thorpe," the mayor said. "I am thinking of a man who more currently has claim to being America's greatest all-round athlete."
A couple of limping nominations followed of men who played two sports. Seeing we were off the track, the mayor waved a hand through the cigar smoke in the gesture of "Cease." "Harold Osborn. Haven't I ever mentioned Harold Osborn?" he asked. We told him we had never heard the name before and that we never ran across it on the sports page.
"No, you wouldn't at that," he said meditatively. "No, you hear about Harold Osborn only every fourth year when the Olympics come round. Who is Harold Osborn? He has held our national decathlon championship more times than any other man. And what is the decathlon? Well, it comes from the Greeks. It is a cluster of 10 events...." And so on and into a 10-minute disquisition on the decathlon.
One evening while our usual after-dinner group was sitting around, learning, perhaps, that Harry Greb fashioned his ring name by spelling his real name, Berg, backward, or that in one World Series game McGraw instructed his pitcher to throw the next one in the dirt to Babe Ruth, the mayor suddenly stopped the conversation by asking who was the girl on the beach turning the cartwheels. We told him it was only Margaret McCarthy; she was a girl about our age. "Only Margaret McCarthy," the mayor repeated with telling emphasis. "Well, I'll let you boys in on something. You can go where you like, to the stage shows at B. F. Keith's or to gymnastic exhibitions in Great Britain or on the European continent, and I very much doubt if you will see trained acrobats performing more graceful cartwheels than only Margaret McCarthy." He need say no more. We looked again at Margaret on the beach and we could see now that she turned beautiful cartwheels.
My, the mayor could be persuasive when he turned it on! The Curleys had a player piano and some wonderful rolls to go with it, among them, Oh, Katerina, Love Nest, Valencia, and Cherie, Cherie, Je T'Aime (which we decoded as being French for "Cherie, Cherie, you're tame"). One roll I never went for, though, was a mournful ballad whose title I forget but which ended, roughly, with these lines:
The days can't all be sunny
For skies are not always blue.
When the day is done
I'm glad to be alone
At peace with the world
And the evening with you.
I should correct that earlier statement: I never went for that number until one evening when, just as the roll was finishing, the mayor called out to his son who was tending the piano, "Leo, stick that on again. That's a most beautiful tune. I could listen to it endlessly." I don't know quite how the change came about, because I was certain the mayor was wrong about that song, but within a matter of days I found I was beginning to appreciate that it possessed a certain melancholy sweetness that had somehow previously eluded me.
For a man who followed sports with his avidness, Mayor Curley was not conspicuous for his pursuit of physical exercise. He was well into his 50s then and his "bay window," though less majestic than William Howard Taft's, had long been a prominent and permanent part of his personal landscape, and it probably held him back. He contented himself, at any rate, with swimming and golf. The most remarkable aspect of his swimming was the amount of time it took him to cover the 75 to 250 yards (depending on whether the tide was in or out) from his house to the water. Accompanied by his constant cigar, he would start walking across the gravel in his clogs and red-and-blue-striped bathing suit and pause for half a dozen or more unhurried conversations—one with his chauffeur, one with Mrs. Curley (after retracing his steps back to the house), one (as he started forth again) with a neighbor's handyman, a few with his neighbors who suddenly would spring out of the beach grass, and a closing few with the Curley nursemaid and whoever else happened to be gathered around his umbrella. He obviously preferred conversation to the water for after diving into (or more accurately, falling into) two or three breaking waves and executing four or five yards in the Australian crawl (which meant he kept his face in the water), he would come striding slowly out of the ocean.
His golf swing, which he practiced now and then on the lawn, wasn't bad, and I could believe Paul and Leo when they told me he sometimes broke 100 and sometimes drove close to 180 yards. One spring when he formally opened the year's play on the Franklin Park municipal course, the newspaper accounts had his drive off the first tee whistling through the air like a bullet and coming to rest 225 yards down the fairway. I believed in Mayor Curley but there are some points past which your credulity simply will not budge, and I was convinced the newspapers must have made him out to be a better golfer than he was because he was a celebrity. Since that day I have had a hard time altering my suspicion of these things despite the fact that I have once or twice witnessed a celebrity play within seven shots of what was publicized as his average score.
As I say, these things happened years ago and are part of the past I commune with hardly at all. When I was 11 I began going to camp in the summers, and my friendship with Mayor Curley went on the inactive list. Then, around 1932 or thereabouts, they gave up their Nantasket place and not long afterward we gave up ours. I never saw him again until the autumn of 1956. During that long interim I had to modify my boyhood estimate of Mayor Curley somewhat, for I had necessarily become aware of some of the less admirable facets of his political techniques, and these naturally clashed with the relatively idealist concepts of government which are the scars of a liberal education. When he was indicted in the 1940s for using the mails to defraud, found guilty and sent to jail, I felt very bad. He was a better man than that—an oldtime amoral political boss who had outlived his era, yes, but an essentially corrupt man, no. I remember discussing the whole enigmatic problem with my sister Git and at length agreeing that, bizarrely, the only thing we would not wish to do for Mayor Curley was vote for him.
In the autumn of 1956, when I did see him again, the occasion was a Stevenson dinner in Boston during the election campaign, which I attended with a group which included Git. I thought the mayor looked exceedingly well. I had expected to see a very aged man with the patina of someone stepping out of another century, but, aside from his hair being considerably grayer and his gait a shade more shuffling, he was hardly changed. As he was approaching the microphone to begin his address, the thought suddenly flashed through my mind that I had never heard him speak publicly before. That, of course, had been what he had been famous for—his speeches in which, it was said, he combined the rolling periods of the born orator with down-to-earth humor and a flair for story telling. Well, his gifts as a speaker had probably been exaggerated, too, I said to myself preparatively, and after all the old boy was now over 80. I hoped he wouldn't acquit himself too badly.
There was no need for these qualms. Mayor Curley could speak—and then some. He had, in fact, far greater artistry than anyone had claimed for him. The deep voice had the fiber and vigor of youth. His fluidity was astounding. He spoke without notes but there was never once the hint of groping for a word or an inflection. It all came out like a river. But what was really remarkable about the man was his timing. He was like Bob Hope in the way he would deliberately race ahead of his audience, wait for them to catch up with a humorous remark, and then, just as the laughter or applause began, he would embellish his first phrase with another crack and, at the right split second when the audience caught up with that one, he would be off and running again. A little later on he would let the audience rush past him and, standing still, as it were, cap the pause with a serious, slow-paced declaration he punched so hard it ricocheted off the chandeliers.
All I can remember of the content of his speech is one small segment, a rather typical one, fortunately. "If these were the old days," he said with a resonant wink, "I would advise you on election day to vote early and vote often. However, it has become apparent that times have become sadly altered and I must content myself with urging you to vote early."
This led him into a story about one pre-World War I mayoralty campaign in which he was not the candidate but in charge of getting out the vote for the Democratic Party. On election day one of his most faithful disciples, Mike Shea, a man who had fairly recently come over from Ireland and was employed on the city's construction projects, cast 24 ballots for the successful Democratic candidate. "Not too long after this," Curley went on, "Mike Shea came to me and told me he had lost his job with the city. I promised him he would be back on the payroll within the week, and I headed straight for City Hall and an audience with the new mayor.
" 'Now listen, Jim,' the mayor roared at me when I had hardly so much as got my foot inside his office, 'if it's about Mike Shea, forget it. There's no job for that man, and nothing you say will change my mind.'
" 'All right, your honor,' I replied to him. 'But in the interests of the party I think I should remind you that you enjoyed a very small majority in this last election in which Mike Shea voted for you 24 times. Consider this: in the next election he may vote against you.' "
Mayor Curley vanished from the dais immediately after finishing his speech, and so, although I had thought of going up to say hello, I never did get to. I am sorry I didn't. For all my reservations about his approach to statesmanship, as I had grown older I had come to value the lasting pleasures that had resulted, and would continue to, for all of us who had sat around with him on the veranda and had been touched by his zest and the ubiquity of his interest—particularly in the world of sport. Furthermore, as I was getting old enough to realize, the people one gets to know in boyhood are in a special category. Your friendship for them rests on the very simple basis of whether you like them and like being with them, and since there are no secondary purposes involved, you seem to see them wholly and directly and your understanding lasts a lifetime.