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On Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah

By (April 1, 2016) One Comment

I would like to do for the Irish in America what Faulkner did for the South . . . to do a novel on the whole Irish-American business. What the Irish got in America, they got through politics; so, of course, I had to use a political framework.

—Edwin O’Connor

 

9780226321417You who are reading this novel for the first time—how I envy you!
Oh the delights in store—the send-up of old-time big-city Irish-American politics, the sustained literary pleasure, the steady laughter, the final tears. Since The Last Hurrah was published in 1956, the title has entered the lexicon of American cliché. In the novel it refers to the final campaign of Frank Skeffington, the 72-year-old mayor of an unidentified yet identifiable Eastern city. “I got interested in the political set-up of an American city when in the Coast Guard during the war,” Ed O’Connor told the New York Times. “My station happened to be in Boston. Before that I had been at Notre Dame with the sons of some Chicago politicians, and I suppose that started it.” After the war O’Connor settled in Boston, where he worked as a radio announcer and newspaper freelancer for a hardscrabble decade until striking it rich with The Last Hurrah. Another link to Boston lies in Skeffington’s resemblance to the Great Cham of Boston politics. But more on James Michael Curley later.

1.

O’Connor thought of The Last Hurrah as breaking new ground: “I began to say to myself, ‘Where the hell is the humor?’ It was sullen stuff, depressed. Now the Irish writers—O’Casey, Joyce—they have humor, but the Irish-Americans never seemed to capture it. . . . I thought I’d try.” He succeeded despite the billowing monologues of his “terrible old men”—Skeffington, but chiefly his long-time political enemies, Charlie Hennessey and Festus “Mother” Garvey. Of their page-eating rambles, Dr. Johnson on Paradise Lost is in order: none would wish them longer. The humor resides in the repartee.

Skeffington, sharing unexpected biographical information on a skinflint Yankee newspaper publisher:

“Was he a Ku Kluxer?” Gorman said. “That I didn’t know.”
“Not many people do. . . . I never did know why he quit, exactly: I always suspected it was because he found out he was expected to buy his own sheet.”

At Knocko Minihan’s wake, a bravura forty-page set-piece, Skeffington runs into a friend of the widow Minihan:

“How’s Gert taking it?”
“Pretty good. She cries a little,” said the woman. . . . In explanation she added, “She remembers all the nice things he done.”
“She has a remarkable memory,” Skeffington said drily.

Skeffington’s only child, the chronologically adult Francis, is hardly a chip off the old block, as this exchange suggests:

“I’m a little busy these nights,” [Skeffington said]. “You see, there’s talk that we’re going to have an election in November . . .”

Faint lines of perplexity, the blemishes characteristic of these baffling interviews with his father, now touched the boyish face. “Sure we’re having an election in November,” the son said. “The first Tuesday. Teddy Thornton was talking about it only tonight.”

“You can’t keep a secret from Teddy,” Skeffington said.

Some of Skeffington’s one-liners have a partisan tilt. Skeffington is ill but recovering:

“Only yesterday . . . I looked so poorly the casual observer might have taken me for a Republican.”

2.

O’Connor’s friend, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., remarked on “that marvelous O’Connor fusion of gaiety and melancholy.” The gaiety has been sufficiently indicated. The melancholy arises from the sense of loss, individual and social, brooding over the narrative. Skeffington’s last hurrah is emblematic. It not only marks the end of a political career but of a storied moment in the American immigrant experience—the era of tribal solidarity against prejudice and exclusion. That his young opponent, an all too assimilated Irish-American, is a flagrant vacuity (“a six-foot four hunk of talking putty”) underlines what was being lost: “The old buccaneer, for all his faults, had at last been a capable, vivid, unforgettable personality; he had been succeeded by the spearhead of a generation of ciphers.”

Why did big city “bosses” like Skeffington disappear after the war? Ed O’Connor was a novelist, but in his answer in The Last Hurrah, he speaks as a historian of urban America. A—what else?—windy political operative is addressing Skeffington’s nephew:

“All you have to remember is one name: Roosevelt. . . . He destroyed the old-time boss. He destroyed him by taking away his source of power. He made the kind of politician your uncle was an anachronism. . . . The old boss was strong simply because he held all the cards. If anybody wanted anything—jobs, favors, cash—he could only go to the boss. . . . What Roosevelt did was to take the handouts out of local hands. A few little things like Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the like—that’s what shifted the gears, sport. . . . So you can see what that would do in the long run. The old-timers would still string along with the boss, of course, because that’s the way they always did things. But what about the kids coming along? . . . To begin with, they were one step further away from the old country; he didn’t have the old emotional appeal for them. You know, the racial-spokesman kind of thing. For another, a lot of them had been educated away from home. . . . It was a new era, sport, and your uncle belonged to the old.”

3.

edwino'connor Edwin Greene O’Connor grew up in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, across the Blackstone River from Massachusetts. The fading textile city was “not one of those fortunate communities in which every prospect pleases,” O’Connor wrote in “A Love Letter to Woonsocket.” His father was a physician; his mother, Mary Greene O’Connor, curtailed her career as a teacher to raise and educate Ed and his two siblings. An early reader, by the time he reached Notre Dame Ed O’Connor was a coming writer, contributing articles to the Woonsocket Call. As with so many writers, there was a key teacher in his life: Frank O’Malley, a young English professor who encouraged him to write stories for the campus literary magazine.

“One in November 1938 called ‘Friends are Made in McCabe’s’ suggests that Ed was already moving toward a distinctive voice,” Arthur Schlesinger wrote in a memoir about his friend. “It begins: ‘Everybody that hung around Jimmy McCabe’s Place knew Ollie Moran and Phil Rotardi. I knew them best of all. I still know them, only now they aren’t friends, and the three of us never go out together.’” The O’Connor melancholy echoes in the last clause.

That O’Connor graduated cum laude in English is not surprising; that he considered entering the priesthood is. Or perhaps not: the Church rivaled politics as a well-trod path up for the American Irish. But times were changing. The loss of vivid personalities like Mayor Skeffington was balanced by the vistas that assimilation was opening up for the Irish. Ed O’Connor, a third generation Irish-American, belonged to the “generation of ciphers.” So did John F. Kennedy. Two examples that should make us question the sweep of the generalization.

In the Coast Guard, besides discouraging Hitler from invading Cape Cod, Ed developed a sideline in lifesaving. He spent his postwar summers in Wellfleet on the Lower Cape, and on at least three occasions braved riptides and rough surf to save swimmers. Marion Cannon Schlesinger recalled one of these rescues: ‘“That’s the last time I’ll ever do that,’ he said, coming up to the beach more dead than alive. Well, perhaps, but one would not lay a bet on it.” Until The Last Hurrah put him in a Back Bay mansion, O’Connor lived in Boston rooming houses, but in those days even garret-dwelling scriveners took summer vacations; and Wellfleet, now posh, was then Bohemian.

Woonsocket had been a mostly Yankee town, with a fringe of French Canadians; but Boston was by way of being the capital of Irish America. These were the people of his blood, and in telling their story through Skeffington’s, Ed O’Connor found his voice as an Irish-American novelist.

4.

It was mischievous of the Boston Globe to ask James Michael Curley to review The Last Hurrah. The four-time Boston mayor and one-time Massachusetts governor returned the review copy with a note saying that “the matter was in the hands of his attorneys.” Soon, O’Connor recalled, “threats of lawsuits were coming regularly from [Curley’s] house on the Jamaicaway, all filtered through a succession of middlemen whose appearance, to put it mildly, did not inspire trust.”

The 80-year-old Curley was furious at O’Connor for making “my mother” a thief. Mrs. Skeffington steals a banana for her children from the Yankee prunes who employ her as a maid. The sainted Sarah Curley would sooner starve than steal a morsel. Curley’s sons persuaded him to call off the lawyers. People all over America, they told him, had fallen in love with Skeffington. That gave the old rogue an idea. He decided to identify himself with Skeffington, to use the novel to renovate his reputation (he had been jailed twice). Skeffington would whitewash Curley.

The reviewers left little doubt that Curley was O’Connor’s model. In the Saturday Review, Howard Mumford Jones commended The Last Hurrah to “anybody who wants to read large generous-minded fiction, and to anybody else who wants to know how American politics really operated in the generation of J-m-s M. C-r-y.” Reviewing the novel for the New Republic, Thomas Eliot offered a more measured judgment on the relation of art to life, Skeffington to Curley: “Nobody like Skeffington could be as consistently delightful, warm-hearted, learned and generous. . . . The utterly ruthless politician is sure to be, at least occasionally, a brutal human being.”

atlanticprizehurrah Tom Eliot knew from ruthless politicians. The grandson of Charles Eliot, a legendary president of Harvard University, he was dislodged from his seat in Congress in a vicious campaign by James Michael Curley, who smeared the young New Dealer as a communist. At one rally, Curley boasted that “there is more Americanism in one-half of Jim Curley’s ahss than in that pink body of Tom Eliot!” Skeffington would have been a lot less love-able if he had been more like Curley, a point underlined by Eliot: “The big boss of a big city is likely to brush up against unmitigated evil more than his book indicates. . . . In so far as Mr. O’Connor has failed to portray evil and brutality in all their darkness, he has painted too happy a picture.”

In The Last Hurrah Ed O’Connor is a romancer of big city politics. His Wellfleet friend, the critic Edmund Wilson, caught O’Connor’s innocence of the real thing in this observation: “It was The Last Hurrah . . . that stimulated Curley to write an account of his life [I’d Do It Again]. He there confessed to misdeeds that profoundly shocked Ed: Ed could never have invented such unscrupulous wickedness as Curley’s public support of the Ku Klux Klan, let alone a public official who was shameless enough to tell of them.” Wilson got the Klan business wrong. During his 1924 campaign for governor, Curley hired plug-uglies to dress up as Klansmen and burn crosses on hills within eyeshot of where he was giving speeches denouncing the Klan. Hardly wicked, but plenty bad. Ed O’Connor was too decent to imagine such a thing.

5.

Coming out of the Parker House (which features a bar named The Last Hurrah) a few weeks after publication of The Last Hurrah, O’Connor spied Curley getting into a taxi and ducked his head into the window to introduce himself.

“Well, well,” Curley said, extending his hand. “Nice to see you. You’ve written quite a book.” Ed said he was happy to hear that but, given the rumblings of litigation, also surprised. “No, no,” Curley said, dismissing such concerns. “Do you know the part I enjoyed most?” Ed did not. “The part where I die,” Curley said.

“Isn’t it strange, Governor, how so many people confuse fact with fiction?” Ed came back. “Skeffington with yourself, for instance? I know and you know, the difference between the two, that the one isn’t like the other . . .”

“Yes,” Curley pressed on. “Yes there I am in my bedroom dying. Breathing my last. I’m lying flat on my back with my eyes closed when . . .” and went on to narrate Skeffington’s death-bed scene.

They parted on amicable terms but “the threats of lawsuits . . . continued.” Curley had no luck with O’Connor’s publisher, the Atlantic Monthly Press. But, two years later, just before his own death, he managed to cadge thousands out of Columbia Pictures for the John Ford movie version of The Last Hurrah, which he charged had violated his privacy, Skeffington being “a pale and distorted carbon copy of myself.”

Curley took on The Last Hurrah as “a full-time occupation,” giving interviews and talks on Skeffington/Curley. Speaking at the University of New Hampshire, with Ed O’Connor smiling up at him from the audience, Curley returned to “the part where I die”:

I feel that the last paragraph of that book contains everything that is worthwhile in that book. I am supposed to have received the last rites of the Catholic Church and I’d been in a state of coma for about 12 hours when the owner of the Boston Herald comes in and looks at me in that sad state, and he said, “I suppose, Skeffington, if you had to do it all over again, you’d do it different.” And I replied to him . . . “The hell I would.”

After losing office in his last hurrah in 1949, Curley had worked up a memoir of his fifty-year career. Publishers weren’t interested. Then came The Last Hurrah. Publishers became interested. Prentice- Hall offered to put out his autobiography and hire a ghostwriter to whip it into shape. Curley agreed. Ed O’Connor was making a fortune off his life. Why shouldn’t he cash in? There was enough Curley to go around.

The result was I’d Do It Again. Arthur Schlesinger saw the book just the way Curley wanted. “Nature often imitates art,” he wrote in the Saturday Review. “One cannot help wondering what the Curley autobiography might have been like had Edwin O’Connor never written last year’s best- selling The Last Hurrah.” Noting Curley’s initial threats of a libel suit, Schlesinger said that “Curley has now contrived a subtler revenge. He has appropriated Skeffington for his own purposes, rebaptized him Curley, and done his best to transform art into nature.”

6.

all-in-the-family-by-edwin-o-connor-1966-hardcover-1st-edition-ad4b94c48e4c31dc0dd42a4b2a53d6f6 In 1962 Ed O’Connor won the Pulitzer Prize for The Edge of Sadness, his most Catholic novel. Father Hugh Kennedy’s parish in the “red brick city” is permeated by “spreading, endless despair, hanging like a low blanket, the fatal slow smog of the spirit. . . .” Father Hugh, a recovered alcoholic, is in danger of drying up spiritually. This is melancholy O’Connor. The novel goes to the edge of sadness before it pulls back. Father Hugh finds redemption through involvement with the family of a terrible old man of Skeffington’s generation. He rededicates himself to the non-Irish immigrants of his parish. To his surprise, he even arrives at a generous estimate of the assimilated Irish of the cipher generation: “If the new might not seem equal to the old, that might be because the two were not to be compared.”

O’Connor’s last novel, All in the Family, appeared in 1966. Some reviewers read it as another political roman à clef, with the Kinsellas standing in for the Kennedys. Arthur Schlesinger, who worked in the Kennedy White House and wrote a prizewinning biography of JFK, denied any connection. Schlesinger’s remembrance of his friend does include one savory Kennedy anecdote: “Edward Kennedy reading the jacket description of Jimmy Kinsella [the patriarch of the family]—‘a tough, irascible little tycoon whose pride in his sons is matched only by his determination to get them what he wants: high political office’—said to Ed with Kennedy irony, ‘I never knew anyone like that.’”

Ed O’Connor enjoyed the fruits of his success. They allowed him to marry. To buy a brick pile on Marlborough St. (“When we first went to dinner there,” Edmund Wilson remembered, “Ed said as he showed us in—referring to the mansion itself—‘We have to go through this gatehouse first.’”) To drive a Mercedes. To take his lunch at the Ritz. And to dress the part of a distinguished author. According to his biographer, “he was surprised to discover that Filene’s Basement, Boston’s chaotic bargain basement, actually had an upstairs.”

We come to the part where he died.

On March 22, 1968, O’Connor was working on an autobiographical novel set in Woonsocket. He typed: “But one day, about a month or so after school started, instead of going to Dewey’s to play or playing after school, I went down—Hethering’s store on Main Street . . .” It was his last sentence. In his sensitive biography, A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O’Connor, Charles F. Duffy calls our attention to that dash. O’Connor “only needed to substitute ‘to’ for clarity.” Duffy surmises that the dash signaled the onset of the massive cerebral hemorrhage that killed him. Ed O’Connor was 49.

Five hundred people attended the funeral mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Among the mourners was Professor O’Malley from Notre Dame. O’Connor saved the note O’Malley sent him after publication of The Last Hurrah, which read in part: “All my life I have never been so happy as a teacher, never so proud.” Also on hand was a busload of Ed’s friends from the Atlantic Monthly, which had run Ed’s pieces since 1945 and, through its press, published the novels. No doubt the Atlantic bus stopped a few doors down Arlington Street to pick up Ed’s favorite waiters from the Ritz.

“Edwin O’Connor was more than a writer of rare gifts, he was a man of rare goodness,” his friend Monsignor Francis Lally, editor of the diocesan weekly The Pilot, said in his eulogy. “Each of us remembers the ways that goodness touched us, the ways in which we were better for having known him. . . . We cannot today say goodbye to the happiest man we have ever known.” Lovely. It is no disrespect to the Monsignor to observe that for a reminder of the “gaiety” of Edwin O’Connor, which unlike his goodness survives him (see inside), we must eavesdrop on a moment before the service. Struggling with the casket on the steep stone steps of the Cathedral, one of the pallbearers, the playwright Abe Burrows, turned to another, Arthur Schlesinger, and delivered a line that belongs in The Last Hurrah: “If O’Connor knew you and I were carrying him in, he’d get up and walk.”

____
Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic. His books include The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1874-1958).

A version of this essay appears as the introduction to Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, published by the University of Chicago Press in April of 2015.

One Comment »

  • ROB says:

    The review hits the novel’s high points and they are high indeed. But O’Connor, son of a doctor and Notre Dame graduate, stands, through his alter ego narrator, more than slightly aloof from Skeffington and Skeffington’s world. When I read it many years ago, and reread it last year, I had no idea that O’Connor was a friend of Scheslinger and Wilson. I think those relationships explain why the novel does not succeed in telling the story of big city Irish machine politics from the inside. O’Connor’s sympathies are with them and not with a man like Curley.

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