Yeah, here we go again.
Another lovely fall Saturday with no specific plans. Another train trip into the city. Another stroll to the Boston Public Library to dwell on the details and as-you-weres of a historic Boston moment.
I’ve long been interested in James Michael Curley — four-term mayor of Boston, two-term U.S. Congressman, one-term governor of Massachusetts, and twice a convict — especially after reading The Rascal King, Jack Beatty’s retelling of Curley’s life and times. The book does a masterful job of capturing Curley’s colorful personal and political lives without descending too far into political minutiae.
In a common biographical trick, The Rascal King starts at the end, with a description of Curley laying in state at the Massachusetts State House in November 1958. More than 100,000 people came to his extended public wake, and a million were said to have lined the streets on the day of his funeral, making those days one of the largest mourning periods the city has ever seen.
I decided to look at the funeral coverage in Boston’s five daily newspapers of the time. (Curley outlived the Boston Post by roughly two years, but was survived by the Globe, Herald, Record, American and Traveler.)
I didn’t have a point to make or a theory to chase. I just wanted to see how the different papers, with their different personalities, described the passing of an era to their readers. And as always, I wanted to see what other curious tidbits jumped out of the margins, Curley or otherwise.
Curley’s passing was preceded by a deathwatch. He was known to be ill, and through early November, the newspapers checked on him regularly. The Nov. 11 Globe reported that Curley might be home for his 84th birthday on Nov. 20, while the Nov. 11 Record had the former mayor walking the floors of Boston City Hospital.
Instead, Curley’s end came abruptly on the morning of Nov. 12. All the city’s papers — whether they’d been running Curley front-page updates, or respectful briefs on Page Seven — snapped to attention and brought out the big black type.
I’d already perceived the tabloid American as the scrappy little-guy’s paper, laden with crime and cheesecake.
Its Curley coverage did nothing to change my mind. The American seemed determined not to let anyone else outdo it in memorializing the “Mayor of the Poor,” offering plenty of copy in a generally reverent tone.
(Reverence is a difficult thing to make happen when your funeral coverage is surrounded by booze ads and true-crime headlines like “I’d Kill Him Again” and “Wine-Crazed Pair Riots in Vt. Jail,” but the American took its best shot.)
The American, for instance, was first to interview scrubwomen — an image-burnishing interview Curley himself would probably have suggested to the paper, had he been around to do so.
In one of his best-known gestures, Curley as newly elected mayor got the City Hall scrubwomen off their knees by giving them mops; his own mother had been a scrubwoman who wore her knees and hands raw. “It was crucifixion, scrubbing on your hands and knees,” one woman told the American. “Your knees would split open and bleed. But he fought for you.”
The American also showed a particular willingness, more than the other papers, to run photos showing Curley’s mortal remains. I’d been wondering how much of that I would see; some papers (the Globe and Herald) went relatively light, while the American and Record seemed to delight in close-up bier-shots.
The Last Hurrah, the movie based on Edwin O’Connor’s thinly fictionalized depiction of Curley, was playing in Boston theaters at the time of Curley’s death. The American managed to score a picture of a somewhat queasy-looking O’Connor passing Curley’s bier. Of course it ran on Page One.
All the papers ran the long string of obligatory tributes from public officials. They included Mayor John Hynes, who’d ended Curley’s career in office; former President Harry Truman, who’d pardoned Curley for both of his criminal convictions; and U.S. Sen. Leverett Saltonstall, who shows up in this damn blog more than the Bay City Rollers nowadays.
Massachusetts’ other senator kept his official statement brief. He had reasons: For one thing, Curley had used dirty tricks to sideline his grandfather, former Boston mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, and Boston Irish politicians didn’t make a habit of forgetting grudges.
For another thing, the senator was out of town — in Alaska, of all places — in the early days of a campaign that would climax two years later to the month.
I don’t know whether the Traveler and the Herald were usually upper-class papers, but their coverage seemed more even-handed, with headlines such as “Curley’s Oratory Great, but Often Boomeranged,” “Political Acts Often Made Enemies of Warm Friends” and “Curley Eloquent, Sometimes with Fists.”
With Boston awash in Curley anecdotes — there was never any shortage of those — the Traveler tried an interesting angle: “Send Us YOUR Curley Story!” Good stories, with names attached, would be used in the paper.
Basically, the Traveler was crowdsourcing content 50 years before that was a thing, while also maybe getting some fresh material. (I didn’t read deeply enough to find out how it worked out for the paper.)
The Herald checked in with a particularly eloquent editorial, too, bringing to life the essence of Curley’s appeal:
“In his elevation, every little person was elevated. … They could look at a State Street banker with level eye and enjoy the agony of the Brahmins. … The mighty had been humbled and the yoke of inferiority lifted from the downtrodden, and what a sensation that is! … His triumph was their triumph, and you do not vote against yourself.
“We can not say that he left a heritage of sound financial practices in city or state. But he did serve a part of humanity that needed desperately the lift he gave it.”
When you look through old papers, the stuff you weren’t looking for is often as interesting as the stuff you were. So, we’ll close with a look at other news of interest from those few days in November 1958:
-In several papers, Curley updates ran side-by-side with dispatches from the trial of Caril Fugate, girlfriend of mass murderer Charles Starkweather. Fugate and Starkweather inspired the movie Badlands and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, among other things.
-Pioneering rock n’ roll DJ Alan Freed was preparing to stand trial in Boston, facing charges related to a riot at a package show he put on at the old Boston Arena. (It’s now Matthews Arena, Northeastern University’s hockey rink. I’ve never been in, but I will be a week from now.)
-In its first front page after Curley’s funeral subsided, the Traveler announced the promotion of another famous Bostonian, a man whose renown would become still greater in the decade to come.
-The Reaper takes no holidays; and right as the Curley story was winding down, the indefatigable American flung itself into the next shocking bit of news as if nothing had happened.