Few things bring on recollection of times long unremembered as an obituary notice does. Recently, for example, when I was reading of the death of James Michael Curley, "last of the oldtime big-city political bosses," my mind kept darting back over the years to the middle 1920s when I knew Curley well.
Ours was a summertime friendship. In the years following the close of World War I, my family used to spend the summers at Nantasket, a beach about 20 miles from the Boston area. From Nantasket the men could commute to work quite easily, and this, as we kids saw it, was an advantage in more ways than one: they weren't stuck at the beach day after day with nothing to do as we were. I realize it sounds arch or contrived to say this but life was terribly boring. I think the main trouble was that Nantasket was too good a bathing beach. The waves came pounding in and broke beautifully the whole uninterrupted curving length from Hull Hill at one end down to Paragon Park at the other. It was this very excellence of the surf that hampered a kid's style. There was no boating at all. I remember one or two live-it-up guys, who would have been of college age, fooling around with a kayak for a brief time, but that was it.
What you did was go in swimming a couple of times a day (an hour after you finished eating); you broad-jumped (both running and standing) on that in-between stretch of sand that was half wet and half dry, firm enough to jump from and soft enough so you didn't sting your feet when you landed; you strung out a few kids' games like tag or ringaleevo (local pronunciation), in which the best hiding place was the grass, about three or four feet high, that covered the short strip of natural duneland between the houses on Beach Avenue and the beginning of the beach; you fooled around with a little croquet or "ran the bases," neither of which was any fun unless it involved some guy you hated and could handle or some girl you secretly liked; you watched the ships sailing by miles away on the distant horizon of the ocean, and occasionally the New York boat was late; and the rest of the time you spent desperately trying to work up some excitement over things that had long ceased to be exciting, like crawling under the verandas of the houses and, on your hands and knees, exploring those sections which were not built on cement foundations, or seeing how far you could walk without losing your balance on the cement sea walls which bordered the various plots.
In the midst of this drab torpor there loomed one shining citadel of vitality—Mayor Curley. When he was around, the pace picked up and life suddenly became quite enjoyable. For example, he annually got the summer off to a bang-up start on Fourth of July Eve with a display of fireworks that lasted almost two hours and ended with some really sensational stuff, "bombs" which burst two or three times in the air and skyrockets which outdid anybody else's skyrockets, partly because a crew of workmen spent the afternoon and early evening setting them up for maximum performance. Mayor Curley did things in a big way. When the hurdy-gurdy man with the monkey came around, our fathers customarily gave the man only enough money for him to crank out one or two selections before he tipped his hat and the monkey tipped his and they went on their way. Mayor Curley must have given him a fortune, for on Fourth of July Eve he played continuous music for two hours and throughout the summer he presented other long evening concerts in the graveled parking space in front of the mayor's stucco house.
There were other, if less spectacular, ways in which Mayor Curley's presence irradiated the monotony of the summer with a helpful splash of glamour. He and Mrs. Curley didn't entertain too often, but when they had a dinner party the guests dressed like nobody else who hit the beach; the men wore tuxedos or white jackets and the women were all dolled up and carried fans or feathers. These guests arrived in the biggest, sleekest cars of the era, and each Marmon or Peerless required long and appreciative study from us and a drawn-out consultation with its chauffeur. Sometimes, when someone came in a Rolls-Royce, our loyalty was pushed close to the breaking point, but we always managed to conclude that no car was quite in a class with Mayor Curley's own Pierce-Arrow and that no other chauffeur was really as skillful a driver as the mayor's. As for Mayor Curley himself, whether he was mayor, governor or out of office, he always remained Mayor Curley for us, or, more exactly, he remained Mayorcurley, a phrase as indivisible as damyankee.
I would not be reminiscing about the mayor, however, if there had not been an intimate core to our relationship. We talked a lot together, practically every night except when he had company for supper. The Curleys lived next door to us, and it was my habit, and that of many of the other kids, to set out for the Curleys' veranda after finishing supper. It was a large screened-in veranda set higher than most of the others on Beach Avenue, at the top of a steep flight of stairs banked with boxes of blue hydrangeas. The wicker chairs there were wide and comfortable, and if, upon my arrival, I saw through the front window that the Curleys were still in the dining room, I plunked myself familiarly in a chair and took my-ease, breathing in the stiff whiff of the geraniums in the flower boxes and listening to the tinkle those Chinese strips of glass made when the breeze stirred them. Ostensibly I was waiting for Paul and Leo, the Curley boys my age, to come out, but really I was waiting for the mayor.
I suppose that today, if I were trying to explain Mayor Curley's charm and appeal, I would come up with something on the order of "He liked people" or, "He understood kids" or some such behavior-motivation analysis striking like a sword to the heart of the matter. These would be correct, but I think it would be more correct simply to say that we found him a very interesting man. There were occasional nights when he was tired or preoccupied, but almost invariably he was in expansive good humor when he arrived on the veranda after coffee, a strong-smelling cigar in his mouth. Before you knew it he was telling you something interesting. I can't remember him talking politics ever. He talked about the leading entertainers of the day (like Will Rogers), about travel, about books ("I would advise you, if you are going to read Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu at night, to keep all the lights in your room blazing"), about history, about the movies (Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad was so good, in his estimation, that he refused to discuss it for fear of ruining the enjoyment of the people who hadn't yet seen it), and above and beyond all other subjects he talked sports.
His stories were far more dramatic than those that appeared in the sports pages. Most of them were sketches of the high points in the careers of extraordinary stars we had heard very little about, if we had heard anything at all: Louis (Chief) Sockalexis, the full-blooded Penobscot Indian who had played the outfield for the old Cleveland National League team; Heinie Groh, the Giant infielder who had fashioned his distinctive bottle-shaped bat to help him cure his weakness in hitting the curve ball; Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indians and the year Carlisle beat Harvard by tucking the football under the back of one of the player's jerseys and achieving such total deception that the player walked unmolested until he was out in the clear and then sprinted the rest of the way to the goal without a soul near him; Harry Wills, who the mayor described as "the one man Dempsey was afraid to fight" but who Dempsey could probably beat "now that Wills has grown old and his bones have developed the brittleness of age." The mayor liked a good mouth-filling word like Sockalexis or Paavo Nurmi or Adolfo Luque or Paulino Uzcudun, though I think he was happiest of all when expounding the virtues of Eppa Jeptha Rixey, the tall Virginian who pitched for the Reds. "Eppa Jeptha Rixey," he would proclaim sonorously. "He is a superb control pitcher, this Eppa Jeptha Rixey, and you must tell your father to take you to the ball park when Cincinnati next comes to town, so you can see Eppa...Jeptha...Rixey"—this last intoned oratorically like a man reading the inscription on an important Roman ruin.
The mayor's stories were so deeply fascinating that after more than one session—in which he had related the exploits of Lord Burghley, Roger Peckinpaugh, Joie Ray, Frank Gotch, Suzanne Lenglen, Battling Siki, Loren Murchison, Iron Man McGinnity, Gertrude Ederle or Walter Hagen—I harbored the suspicion that he was just making things up or at least going far beyond the facts, but I inevitably found I was wrong about this. He was simply attracted to the colorful and knew how to transmit his enthusiasm, and that is why, as he opened new and gleaming vistas in the world of sport to us kids, he created in us an enthusiasm on the same wave length as his own.
Mayor Curley's love of sport was not only wide-ranging, it could be extremely detailed. When I learned much later in my life that one of his prime vote-getting techniques was satiric attacks on the Boston Brahmins, I was astonished, for few men ever followed Harvard track (which was first-class) more closely. One summer when the combined Oxford and Cambridge teams came over for a dual meet with Harvard and Yale, we had examined the probabilities so minutely during our sessions on the veranda that we had even concluded who would pick up third place in each event. I have never been that close to track and field since, and I look back with amazement at the depth of our knowledge. I do not know for a fact but I have an idea that part of the mayor's addiction to track and field was the result of his friendship with Arthur Duffey, then a sportswriter for the Boston Post, who had set a new world's record (93/5 seconds) for the 100-yard dash in 1902. Duffey was a fairly frequent visitor to Nantasket, and he had something of the mayor's elicitive friendliness. During one chat with him I remember feeling on such confidential terms that I told him I was a fairly fast runner but was slow off the mark and wondered what I could do to improve this. "I will tell you," he said, and in such a way that I felt he was going to divulge some secret, like shutting your eyes or sucking in your breath, that only a world's record holder could know. "The secret," Mr. Duffey went on, "is to practice starts. Get out there and practice, practice, practice." You should never talk to children that way. They are not ready for the facts of life.