Twice-jailed scoundrel and the people's champion, builder of hospitals and schools and shameless grafter, compelling orator and master of political farce, James Michael Curley was the stuff of legend long before his life became fiction in Edwin O'Connor's classic novel "The Last Hurrah." As mayor of Boston, as congressman, as governor of Massachusetts, Curley rose from the Irish slums in a career extending from the Progressive Era of Teddy Roosevelt to the ascendancy of JFK. Beatty's spellbinding story of this remarkable man--and of his city, his people, and his times--is biography at its best.
A delightful and shrewd biography of four-time Boston Mayor James Michael Curley, the sinner-saint whose "shamrock politics" made his Irish-Catholic supporters cheer and his WASP opponents sputter with rage for half a century. As portrayed by Beatty, a senior editor of The Atlantic, Curley was more complicated than the charmingly roguish big-city mayor of Edwin O'Connor's thinly fictionalized The Last Hurrah. Beatty pays this moat colorful of politicians the ultimate tribute by taking his career seriously. To be sure, the author has a full quota of rollicking anecdotes (e.g., Curley's quip that a ramp built by one of his pet contractors had collapsed because of "an injudicious mixture of sand and cement"). Yet Beatty thinks it a mistake to see Curley as an old-style machine politician. Instead, Curley foreshadowed today's "entrepreneurial candidate": A lone-wolf professional politician, he ran in 32 elections, serving as congressman, governor, and Boston's mayor. Moreover, Curley resembled Marion Barry in using his virtuoso talent for playing upon ethnic resentment to fend off outcries against flagrant corruption (curley served two jail terms, and as governor purged political opponents and paroled and pardoned convicted killers). Beatty's balance sheet on this gifted but flawed politician is detailed and just. On the plus side stood Curley's rococo oratory; his building of such major institutions as the Boston City Hospital; his farsighted advocacy of programs later embodied in the New Deal and the Great Society; and his emphasis on work instead of welfare for constituents. On the other side, his graft; arrogance toward those he claimed to serve as "Mayor of the Poor"; and responsibility for sending Boston into long-term decline by soaking the city's businesses with taxes to pay for municipal improvements. Funny, fair-minded, and refreshingly novel in finding contemporary relevance in a poi long dismissed as an anachronism of the boss era. (Kirkus Reviews)