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.