The managerial touch: Jim Carmody, vice president and general manager at the Seaport Hotel & Seaport World Trade Center. Bill Brett photo
By Jack Thomas
Jim Carmody is manager of the elegant Seaport Hotel overlooking Boston Harbor, and from the Irish enclave in Dorchester, where he grew up in a lower middle-class two-decker as one of eight children in a family living paycheck to paycheck, the distance, geographically, is a 14-minute drive, but culturally, it’s about a million miles.
The pilgrimage began when he was a pupil at St. Ann’s grammar school, and then went on to Cathedral High School in the South End, and on for degrees from the Culinary Institute of America and Cornell University, followed by assignments in the food and beverage industry at the Four Seasons in Chicago and Dallas, the Omni International in Atlanta, the Boston Harbor Hotel, Tufts-New England Medical Center, where he was head of general services, and, finally, since 2004, Boston’s Seaport Hotel and Seaport World Trade Center.
It has been a long odyssey impossible to navigate without the moxie Jim has exhibited since boyhood.
“When Jim was five years old,” recalls his older brother, Charlie, “he was playing in the street near our house when a car came along. Jim ignored the car, kept playing in the street. The car slowed, and when the driver beeped, Jim turned and – remember, he was five years old – he glared at the driver and yelled, “Go around me!’ ”
Audacious, to be sure, but as time would show, not out of character.
A few years later, at age 14, Jim was caddie at the old Wollaston Golf Club in North Quincy, and he bristled to hear Pecksniffian golfers address him patronizingly -- “Be quiet, boy.” One blistering day, he was assigned to caddie for a physician in a party of three playing for big money. The physician was a good golfer, but he was having a bad day. So was Jim.
“I lost his ball twice, once because I ducked to avoid getting hit, and the ball disappeared in deep grass. The physician was furious, and the amount he left for me was $2. I told the caddie master I was classified as an “A” caddie, and the fee was $2.50. He told me to get lost. Caddies were not allowed in the clubhouse, but I marched into the locker room, demanded to know where the physician was, then walked into the shower and told him he owed me 50 cents. I was suspended for two weeks, but I got my 50 cents.”
The Carmody family of Dorchester is another colorful entry in the remarkable tale of the Irish in the United States, and one more narrative about immigrants who struggle to make it to America, and then to find a home in a strange land, adapt to a new culture, cope with prejudice, work at two or three menial jobs to stave off poverty, and then, often, raise large families and educate their children so that, eventually, in a generation or two, they assimilate.
The Carmody Family’s chapter begins with a coincidence.
One day in 1929, the German steamship S.S. Karlsruhe glided into Boston Harbor and tied up at Commonwealth Pier, 500 yards from the site of today’s Seaport Hotel. Among those disembarking were a little girl, Mary O’Grady, who would become matriarch of the Carmody family, and her brother, John. She was ten, he was eight, and they made the crossing unchaperoned.
As they trudged down the plank to take their first steps on United States soil, she waved an American flag and he the Irish flag.
Mary was 22 when she married an Irish bus driver named Joe and moved to a modest house on Narraganset Street in Neponset, where they raised eight children in a setting so traditional it makes Norman Rockwell paintings seem heartless.
Over a lunch of tuna niçoise at the Seaport Hotel, Jim, at age 66, is eager to describe his cheerful childhood. “When it came to parents, I hit the jackpot. My mother was a great cook and amazingly smart. She seemed to have an answer for everything, and my father could fix anything. He built a room in our house, fixed televisions, cars, appliances, and he worked hard.
If there was a code in the Carmody home beyond their Roman Catholic Church and Irish heritage, it was a work ethic personified by Jim’s father, who held three jobs, full-time as bus driver, and part-time in the repair of televisions and service in the National Guard.
One inducement to work was pervasive: a shortage of cash.
“One Saturday morning when I was 10,” recalls Jim, “my father took me grocery shopping. I asked for this and that, and he’d say no. At the register, he showed me the bill, about $95. At home, he pulled out a pay stub that showed a take-home pay of $85.
“How can that be?” I wanted to know. “You just paid $95 for groceries. How are you going to pay the other bills?”
His message: Stop asking for things we can’t afford.
“Raising eight kids on a bus driver’s salary? A lot of men would have packed it,” says Jim. “My brother Joe says our father was “constructively oblivious.” He ignored mundane pressures, and led a happy life.
“I didn’t know we didn’t have any money. None of us did. We all went to St. Ann’s with ironed shirts, our shoes shined, and as altar boys, our cassocks were clean, our surplices wrinkle-free. With three boys clustered in age, my mother would sew colored thread into the toe of socks so we’d would know whose sock was whose. My color was purple.”
As Jim learned, older brothers like Joe can be a blessing. “When I was 10, I asked some construction guys for work. They told me to clean a crawl space under the building. I worked three days, six hours a day, and when I asked to get paid, they said to beat it.
“I went home in tears. Joe was in high school. My mother told him to take care of it. So, Joe and I went to the site. He told me to stand back in case trouble broke out. He asked for my money, and they told him to beat it. ‘Suppose I go to the press and tell them you’re hiring under-age kids and not paying ‘em?’ Well, we got our money.”
Jim worked odd jobs to pay high school tuition, caddying from age nine and canvassing the neighborhood for bottles to redeem, sometimes in batches of 20 cases. At 14, he answered a newspaper ad and after assuring Howard Johnson’s in Dorchester that he was 16, he was hired to cook. To pay for courses at Boston State College, he cooked overnights shift at Hayes-Bickford, and when short for tuition, siblings May, Joe, and Charlie chipped in.
“A guest speaker at Cornell was Isadore Sharp, founder of Four Seasons Hotels, who talked about excellence and uncompromising quality. I was mesmerized, and I decided that was my career.”
Jim’s conversation is crowded with references to food, rhubarb pie, and soda bread, and his mom’s prune souffle and working on menus at Tufts to keep a promise to Julia Child to improve hospital food.
A waiter approaches to ask if he wants to take home the remainder of his tuna niçoise. “No, thank you,” said the manager of the hotel, which enables him to head upstairs to a board meeting without a doggie bag.
Bostonians like to pick on Seaport District, dismissing it as a mobocracy of traffic, and a hodgepodge of architecture devoid of the traditional bricks of Back Bay and South End. Not Jim Carmody.
“The Seaport is a phoenix rising from a sea of old parking lots, where Pier 4, Jimmy’s, and the No Name were the only attractions,” he says. “The partnership of Fidelity and John Drew was a catalyst. Strategic investments by government have led to explosive development. Roger Berkowitz, Joe Fallon, and Barbara Lynch sent market signals that we were ready. The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and Vertex Pharmaceuticals were so large the nation took notice. It’s an expensive place to live, work, and play, but reflective of the investment required in today’s market to develop.”
And who lives there? “The demographic is skewed to the young with fair representation of empty nesters,” he says. “The population is international, diverse, highly educated, socially active. Within a year 2,000 units of housing will come on line within a block of the hotel.
“Like every other neighborhood, Seaport has its challenges,” he concedes. “One battle is what retail survives, given high rents and online competition. Traffic is another conundrum, but I hope for a monorail, North to South Station, connecting through the Innovation and Design Center. Fidelity’s redevelopment of Commonwealth Pier will bring an iconic building and new vibe to old bones, and the water sheet will see more ferries and water taxis.”
When you arrive for lunch at Jim Carmody’s small home on a side street in Milton, you are not surprised to be told that he is in the yard, grilling chicken for lunch. But you are startled to see him rush into the kitchen, having burned himself on a side grille, and what’s pressed to his blistering finger for relief is a frozen pouch of green peas.
The home is where Jim and his wife, Theresa, raised their four children: Casey, 37, of San Jose, a speech therapist; Michael, 34, of Falmouth, a bartender at Bucatino Restaurant; Frances, 31, of South Boston, catering sales manager at Boston Harbor Hotel; and Mary, 29, of Germany, who is studying for her doctorate at the University of Freiburg.
After introductions to three of Jim’s siblings – Ellen Joyal, of Marshfield, Joe, of Oxford, and Charlie, of Middleborough – you settle down at the dining room table for lunch of an exquisitely grilled chicken marinated in tangy Dijon