December 31, 2014
A recent stop at The Last Hurrah whiskey bar at the Parker House (now Omni Parker House) got me thinking about the classic novel it is named after, a personal favorite and one synonymous with the battling “boyos and Brahmins” of yesteryear. Even now, it the visage of “Himself” – James Michael Curley – that stands out at the bar among the images of famed congressman, senators, and other politicians then and now. It was that very face that inspired a struggling novelist named Edwin O’Connor as 1955 dawned 60 years ago.
In January 1955 and throughout that year, the lights stayed on late in the evening at an old red-brick apartment at 10 Marlborough St. O’Connor was hard at work in his modest flat, the furniture his landlord’s, writing a masterpiece that would capture the final campaign of a fictional politician named Frank Skeffington. Skeffington was, of course, the thinly disguised counterpart of James Michael Curley. Entitled “The Last Hurrah” and published the following year, O’Connor’s work would be acclaimed in many circles as the finest American political novel.
“I wanted to do a novel on the whole Irish-American business,” O’Connor said. “What the Irish got in America, they got through politics, so, of course, I had to use a political framework.” In Boston he found his theme.
The son of a doctor and a school teacher, both of them Irish American, O’Connor was born in Providence in 1918. Raised in Woonsocket, he would later write, “To see it is not to love it.”
He went on to Notre Dame, intending to study journalism. However, one of his professors opined, “You can learn all you need to know about journalism in six months. English literature takes a little longer.” His imagination charged, O’Connor switched his major to literature.
After graduation, he served in the US Coast Guard during World War II before moving to Boston full of plans to write novels and short stories. In the early 1950s, he worked for a pittance as a reviewer for the Boston Herald. Catching the eye of Edward Weeks, the editor of The Atlantic, O’Connor was hired by him to edit radio great Fred Allen’s memoir, “Treadmill to Oblivion,” in 1953, and began a lifelong relationship with the magazine. Another Atlantic editor, Robert Manning, wrote that the magazine was O’Connor’s “club” on Arlington Street, the place where he would drop in when “a few steps from our door.”
O’Connor, who had also worked as a radio announcer and producer in Boston, was noted by literary critics as a man who possessed an “ability to write with his ears.” As he labored on Marlborough Street in 1955, his keen ear for dialogue gave voice to Skeffington and other unforgettable characters. A reviewer would write of the novel: “I find myself remembering…its talk, its spate of wild, outrageous talk cascading down every page.”
When “The Last Hurrah” was published a year later, it shot quickly to the top of the nation’s bestseller list, catapulting O’Connor to fame and financial success. Still, not all reviewers embraced his portrait of Curley/Skeffington. A New Yorker reviewer contended that O’Connor had polished up the “barbaric” Boston politician into a “fairy godmother of widows and orphans” and had turned “vices into virtues.” Despite the naysayers, the novel proved an immense hit, as most readers concurred with The New York Times’s assessment of O’Connor’s work. “[He] has no doubts about what Skeffington cost the city or the Irish….He also makes it clear, however, that the tragedy is collective, the failure…to have the courage of [one’s] own qualities and to make better use of them”
Less than two years after the novel’s publication, O’Connor’s book received the big-screen treatment with Spencer Tracy playing Skeffington.
Author Shaun O’Connell (UMass Boston) notes: “After “The Last Hurrah” became a financial and critical success, O’Connor moved, but not far from the center city of his imagination. In Boston he always lived within the elegant circle of Beacon Hill and Back Bay: on Beacon Street, then on Chestnut Street, finally back on Marlborough Street, where he bought a mansion across from his old rooming house. Throughout these moves, he came to The Atlantic daily, full of wit and charm.”
Robert Manning recalled: “He would deliver a marvelous story with a mimicry that was devastating but never unkind, or shift his big frame into a brief soft-shoe to the humming of “Keep working America.”
“Edwin O’Connor’s fiction stands,” says O’Connell, “as his oblique spiritual autobiography: the discovery of his true subject – the record of his own kind, the story of their religious and political seizure of a city – and his renunciation of the city which seized his Irish-Americans: Boston. Like other writers before him, O’Connor was both inspired and disappointed by the city upon a hill, but he took to heart its lasting lesson: the need to quest for spiritual transcendence.”
In 1962, O’Connor won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with his work “The Edge of Sadness.” The novel, rendered through the eyes of an aging, reformed-alcoholic priest named Hugh Kennedy, presented the saga of the Carmody family over three generations, the clan’s resemblance to the real Kennedy family unmistakable. A New York Times reviewer asserted that the Pulitzer Prize went to the “right writer – if for the wrong book.” The book he liked better was “The Last Hurrah,” written at 10 Marlborough St. and, to this scribe’s mind, one of the best political novels in American literature.