Mayor James Michael Curley, The Rascal King

Bunker Hill Day parade, 1936. Jamaica Plain Historical Society archive.

Bunker Hill Day parade, 1936. Jamaica Plain Historical Society archive.

Mayor Raymond Flynn's mercurial gyrations in May 1993 to become an ambassador at the pleasure of the President of the United States brings to mind a not-so-distant parallel with the mayor's professional and professed idol, JP's own James Michael Curley of mixed memory. Strangely enough, no mention of His Honor's ambassadorial hopes from President Roosevelt in 1931-32 was made in the Boston press as another mayor pondered his future; so perhaps it is time for a history lesson on the local level.

Mr. Curley was a lifelong Democrat, but his distancing himself from Al Smith of New York when Smith sought the presidential nomination for a second time in 1931 is well known, though he had heartily supported Smith in his bid against Herbert Hoover in 1928. Both of Curley and Smith were ardent Roman Catholics, but the Boston mayor was very sophisticated politically and probably knew well that the spectrum of the United States populace in 1928 or 1932 was not yet able to elect a Catholic president, however well qualified. This ability to read this spectrum made Curley turn his support to the ambitions of another Democratic governor of New York.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an Episcopalian of the New York City and Hudson River Valley aristocracy, schooled at Groton and Harvard. It is hard to believe that Curley, the man from 350 Jamaicaway, could have supported a man of such background, given his well-publicized ethnical stereotypes. Yet there they were in 1936 together on the platform of the Harvard Tercentenary. His Honor supported FDR early on before his presidential nomination in Chicago in opposition to most other Democrats in Massachusetts.

Early in his own career Curley had been in Washington in the Wilson years with FDR and knew the power of the Federal government. Curley served as mayor (1930-34) for the third time and as governor (1936-37). All these machinations began soon after His Honor was elected mayor in 1930 upon his return from a European trip that had included Ireland and Italy (complete with a visit to his hero Mussolini).

Determined to get a prime seat on the Roosevelt bandwagon, for 18 months, Curley was in the fervor of presidential politics with Boston's mayoral duties in second place. By then he could do mayor's job in his sleep, says his most recent biographer. Though he did not in his solitary pro-Roosevelt stance deliver the Massachusetts primary to FDR, the Commonwealth went to the New Yorker in November 1932.

Given his strong backing in a pro-Smith state from day one and his appearances for FDR at the Chicago convention as a delegate from Puerto Rico when the Massachusetts delegation froze him out, something was going to be done for His Honor. Probably the story of FDR offering at an initial meeting "anything you want" as told in "The Purple Shamrock" is purple prose. Initially, on the cabinet level Curley hoped to succeed Charles Francis Adams as Secretary of the Navy just for the sake of ethnic contrast. That bubble of seeming commitment burst at the funeral of President Coolidge in January, 1933, when FDR's son informed Curley that the deal was off, but an ambassadorship was possible.

Rumors of other presidential appointments included Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Governor of Puerto Rico, or Governor-General of the Philippines. On the state level there might be an appointment to fill the senior senator's seat if the current holder was made an ambassador. Ah, that ambassador business! Curley was said to be in the running for Dublin or Rome. City Clerk Joe McGrath was ready to succeed him as mayor.

During his presence at the March inauguration, the shoe dropped. Curley had steadfastly acknowledged that the only man who knew was FDR, though His Honor's choice was the lovely palazzo on Rome's Via Veneto. The events during the Washington stay are much obscured by accounts in "The Purple Shamrock" and elsewhere, published after the Curley-Roosevelt relationship had soured, though they had never been too sweet. In any event the Italian story seems to have an air of unreality about it.

Curley's rejection of the Dublin post (when the Italian one still seemed possible) was fortunately lost in the clamor of His Honor's rejection of Warsaw. Thankful, but with full knowledge of Curley's reputation as a flamboyant Boston brawler, the President sent Curley's name up to the Senate on April 11 as ambassador to Poland with a wry remark to his intimates: "What is there for him to steal?"

Three days later the Boston mayor declined the appointment in a meeting with FDR. "The Purple Shamrock" enlarges the interview with Curley finally telling the President, "If it's such an interesting place, why don't you take it yourself?" In 1951 Curley stated that he looked FDR in the face and said "You double-crossing, two-faced SOB!" This was the start of a revenge motif Curley felt and described in his autobiography. This was not his last disappointment nor his last hurrah; his whole life is a study in these. The governorship of Massachusetts lay just around the corner, but so did his imprisonment, and more.

The Roman post was to be tricky once Mussolini earned America's enmity by plunging the sword into France and became a full member of the Axis Powers. Curley believed that Il Duce was only a New Dealer on a fast track. The later aggression in Ethiopia could have made Curley what Ambassador Kennedy was in London: a believer in appeasement. So it was back to Boston, where so recently he had buried his wife Mary Esmelda and his namesake son.

Until the recent administration of Ronald Reagan there was no ambassador to the Vatican. Until then, the Ambassador to Italy had also served as a link to the Holy See and had never been a Roman Catholic until the Truman administration to avoid any idea of dual loyalty. This alone could have axed Curley's appointment, while others claim he was ousted by Mussolini or Boston's Cardinal O'Connell, a powerful man here and in the Vatican. The whole tale will never fully be known now with all its luscious ingredients. Suffice it to say that an historical twist has brought a Curley student to Rome, and we await his mark there.


J.M. Curley, "I'd Do It Again," chaps. 17-18; J.F. Dinneen, "The Purple Shamrock," chaps. 15-18; J. Beatty, "The Rascal King," chaps. 7-8

Written by Walter H. Marx. Reprinted with permission from the July 16, 1993 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc.