cover image The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley, 1874-1958

The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley, 1874-1958

Jack Beatty. Addison Wesley Publishing Company, $25 (571pp) ISBN 978-0-201-17599-8

Read an obituary: ``It is difficult to imagine a time when Boston will cease recalling stories about James Michael Curley.'' This book expands the perimeters of Curley's life, although non-Bostonians of a certain age will remember him as the fictional Frank Skeffington in Edwin O'Connor's The Last Hurrah . In his home town, Curley is remembered affectionately as a rascal king, which, judging by Atlantic senior editor Beatty's finely honed depiction, may be a kinder appellation than is deserved by His Honor, a magnifico who ran for Democratic mayor of Boston 10 times--the last, unsuccessfuly, in 1955 at age 81--capturing the office for four terms, and who served also as governor and in Congress. But the title of Mayor was Curley's favorite, not surprisingly, for it was from that till that this devout Catholic, devoted husband and father of nine children, and student of classical literature accumulated the greatest riches. Born in Boston to Irish-Catholic immigrants, Curley with just nine years of formal schooling early on perceived the efficacy of doing well by doing good. That he succeeded is testified to by the 21-room mansion he built on a mayor's $10,000 annual salary--when Boston purchased 350 The?uppercase ok?/as given in galley Jamaicaway in 1988, the gag around town was that the city had already paid for the property--and by the 100,000 voters who signed a petition to President Truman requesting clemency for their mayor jailed for mail fraud. Curley returned to office after serving five months of his sentence; it was his second imprisonment--the first was in 1903, for taking a civil-service exam for another man. But no matter his offenses, his Irish constituents championed him, for through his politics of ethnic and religious polarization he gave them pride and jobs and they winked at his graft. (In a classic Curley gesture, His Honor equipped City Hall scrubwomen with long-handled mops because, he said, a woman should only get on her knees to pray.) Beatty's portrayal of the era's Democratic party ethos sparkles and edifies, but one takes issue with his attempts to draw contemporary parallels, as when he compares Curley's politics to that of today's ``leading black politicians,'' or writes that Barbara Bush is, like Mary Curley, ``a fine white Christian lady'' who as the wife of a powerful man ``gets pulled along.'' Beatty's intellectual arrogance is annoying as well: ``The sort of people who read editorials were already lost to Curley anyway.'' But these interpolations are infrequent enough not to markedly diminish the impact of a work that will delight and astound the body politic. Photos not seen by PW . (Oct.)