The Last Hurrah: A Novel

The Last Hurrah: A Novel

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Overview

“We’re living in a sensitive age, Cuke, and I’m not altogether sure you’re fully attuned to it.” So says Irish-American politician Frank Skeffington—a cynical, corrupt 1950s mayor, and also an old-school gentleman who looks after the constituents of his New England city and enjoys their unwavering loyalty in return. But in our age of dynasties, mercurial social sensitivities, and politicians making love to the camera, Skeffington might as well be talking to us.

Not quite a roman á clef of notorious Boston mayor James Michael Curley, The Last Hurrah tells the story of Skeffington’s final campaign as witnessed through the eyes of his nephew, who learns a great deal about politics as he follows his uncle to fundraisers, wakes, and into smoke-filled rooms, ultimately coming—almost against his will—to admire the man. Adapted into a 1958 film starring Spencer Tracy and directed by John Ford (and which Curley tried to keep from being made), Edwin O’Connor’s opus reveals politics as it really is, and big cities as they really were. An expansive, humorous novel offering deep insight into the Irish-American experience and the ever-changing nature of the political machine, The Last Hurrah reveals political truths still true today: what the cameras capture is just the smiling face of the sometimes sordid business of giving the people what they want.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226321417
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/22/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 392
Sales rank: 235,906
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Edwin O’Connor (1918-68) was an American radio personality, journalist, and novelist. Among his many books are The Edge of Sadness, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and I Was Dancing.

Read an Excerpt

The Last Hurrah

A Novel


By Edwin O'Connor

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 Jack Beatty
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-32155-4


CHAPTER 1

IT was early in August when Frank Skeffington decided — or rather, announced his decision, which actually had been arrived at some months before — to run for re-election as mayor of the city. This was a matter about which there had been public speculation for a good while: for, in fact, four years, ever since he had been inaugurated for what his opponents had fondly hoped was the last time. Since the beginning of the current year, however, the speculation had increased, not alone because the deadline was drawing nearer, but also because there were no other elections of importance coming up — the municipal elections took place in off years politically and so did not have to share the spotlight with national or state contests. Thus interest had mounted, and as it had, so had the hopes of Skeffington's opponents. For while he was admittedly among the most durable of politicians, he was just as admittedly getting older, and in recent speeches and press conferences he had expressed little interest in continuing his long political career. On one memorable occasion he had gone so far as to speak with a certain dreaminess of the joys of retirement, of the quiet time of withdrawal which would follow a lifetime spent in the service of the public.

"Far from the madding crowd," he had said, gazing at the reporters expressionlessly. "The declining years spent in solitude and contemplation. Possibly in some rustic retreat."

This hint had not been received without a measure of cynicism; one reporter from the chief opposition paper had led the questioning which followed.

"Tell us, Governor," he had said (for, as Skeffington had twice been governor of the state, the courtesy title lingered long after the office itself had been lost), "just how would you propose to adjust yourself to this rustic life? Wouldn't it be pretty quiet? What would you do?"

"Read," Skeffington had replied promptly. "And reflect." At this his pale blue eyes had closed, and an expression of extraordinary benignity crossed the full, faintly veined and rather handsome face; the long, heavy head inclined perceptibly forward, and the reporters found themselves looking at the silver crown of his hair. It was almost as if, in anticipation, he were paying pious tribute to the time of ultimate retreat.

The reporter had coughed. "We know you've always been a great reader, Governor," he had said, a trifle sardonically. "Any idea of the kind of books you'd take with you?"

Skeffington's reply, made with eyes still closed, had been characteristically elusive. "The great books," he had said.

The reporter had been persistent. "Which great books, Governor?"

Skeffington's eyes had opened, the silver head had lifted, and once more the reporters met the deadpan look. "I don't know whether you'd know them or not," he had said thoughtfully. "The Bible, which is a book composed of two parts, commonly called the Old and the New Testaments. The poems and plays of Shakespeare, an Englishman. And during the winter months I would also take the paper which you represent."

The reporter had said warily, "Thanks for the compliment, Governor. I suppose there's some special reason?"

Skeffington had nodded. "During the long winter months a glowing fire might be welcome," he had said, "and I have found from long experience that your paper burns very well. Makes grand kindling. I don't imagine, by the way, that most people are aware of that. If they were, your paper's very small circulation might be substantially increased. Any more questions, gentlemen?"

It had been a typical enough interview, save for the suggestion of retirement. None of Skeffington's opponents quite believed in this, but on the other hand, neither could they afford to discount it. On the whole, any hint of this kind was felt to be encouraging rather than otherwise, especially when related to certain other signs. For example, there were the heartening rumors of Skeffington's ill health: among the true optimists it was confidently whispered that a mysterious disease was devouring his brain bit by bit, so that now there occurred intervals in every day during which he reverted to the habits of his childhood and expressed a desire to play marbles or hide-and-seek. The newspaper for which his nephew, Adam Caulfield, worked — the same newspaper whose combustibility Skeffington had praised — offered support of a more oblique kind. It began to run editorials reminding the voters that while the life span of man undoubtedly had been prolonged, the problem of senectitude had by no means been conquered, and that aged men in positions of public trust could constitute a definite hazard (Skeffington, at this time, was approaching his seventy-second birthday). As the year wore on, obituary notices of well-known septuagenarians had been given increasingly prominent display. The paper conducted this campaign with some circumspection, as Skeffington was notoriously quick to strike in all matters of suspected libel, and in the past had actually secured two judgments against this very paper. But as the months went by he paid absolutely no attention to the partially concealed attack; this, taken with his own statement and the persisting rumors, was thought to be all to the good — and hopes which at first had been merely wistful now ripened and grew strong.

But Skeffington smashed them all in a matter of minutes.

On his seventy-second birthday Frank Skeffington had lunch with his nephew, and over the meal told him of his plan to run again. He then swore him to secrecy, and, following this — and almost as an afterthought — revealed the reason which, more than any other, had determined his decision to stay in public life.

"I want to," he said.

That night, at a birthday dinner given him by the party leaders, he made the announcement public. It was substantially the same announcement that he had delivered in private that noon; only the reason behind it had been suitably modified.

"My decision represents a submission to the will of the populace," he said, "and is against my every personal desire. I had hoped, at the end of my current term, to retire to a well-earned rest, but unfortunately one look at the names of those who have declared themselves as candidates for this office forced me to change my decision. Why, the mind positively boggles at the presumption of these men! As one looks down this bold list one would think that the only qualification necessary to run for mayor of this great city was to be without any qualification whatsoever. This is a time for experience, for leadership; I cannot abandon this fine city to the care of such fumbling hands. And so, dutifully if reluctantly, I submit my name to you once again, realizing full well that while my own health and rest are important, it is far more important that this city of ours should not be allowed to revert to Government by Pygmies!"

This announcement had been carefully timed so that it would appear in the city edition of all morning papers; in this way — Skeffington had explained to his nephew that noon — the maximum desirable effect would be achieved; the majority of his opponents would learn the bad news over their morning coffee. It was a thought which appeared to afford him a virtually limitless satisfaction.

"I hesitate to appear vindictive," he said, chuckling softly, "but what a pretty picture it makes: all those red and angry faces sputtering over the coffee cups! The day ruined before it begins ... I don't mind telling you that that's the kind of thing that warms the cockles of an old man's heart on his birthday. ... Have some more lobster."


The next morning Skeffington awakened early, as he always did; for half an hour he lay in bed, waking slowly, watching the first pale flush of daylight. He knew that the day would be exactly like the great majority of his days in its routine, yet coming as it did at the beginning of both his seventy-third year and the start of another campaign, he found it particularly exhilarating and even significant. An omen, he said to himself. A happy augury.

He rose, said his morning prayers, and had his breakfast brought up to him. He breakfasted lightly on tea and toast, for although in earlier days he had been something of a gourmand, he had of late become more prudent in his diet. Over the past few years he had slowly modified his regimen of living to conform to the requirements of his age; he did this without hesitation or regret, for he was a realist who meant to keep alive for some time to come, and he knew that at his time of life the list of permissible pleasures dwindled steadily, year by year.

After breakfast he picked up a book and settled down by the long front bedroom window to read; this had been his morning custom for nearly fifty years. When his wife was alive, much of the time he had read aloud to her; for the last ten years he had read silently to himself. He read poetry for the most part, and he read chiefly for sound, taking pleasure in the patterns of words as they formed and echoed deep within his brain. His taste was highly personalized and uneven; if, in the reading of a morning, there was likely to be "I have been half in love with easeful Death," there was just as likely to be "Let me live in my house by the side of the road, and be a friend of man." Adonais and Sam Walter Foss, yoked in uneasy fellowship: both were old favorites of Skeffington, and he read them again and again.

It was an incongruous picture: the aging political boss, up shortly after dawn, preparing for the daily war of the wards by reading a volume of verse; it was a picture from which Skeffington — who was capable, at times, of great detachment — derived considerable amusement. He knew that the widely publicized habit had given rise to indignation, even fury, among his opponents; in several campaigns it had cropped up as a major issue.

Twenty years before, it had been the principal target of Festus "Mother" Garvey, a crafty little volcano of a man who, in middle life, had been given his nickname because of his habit of carrying his mother about with him for purposes of endorsement. She would appear by his side at political rallies; the opening dialogue was unvarying:

FESTUS: Good evenin', Ma.

MA: Good evenin' to ye, Festus me son.

FESTUS: Ma, I'd like to have you meet all these grand folks out in the audience who came all the way here to see what I had to say for myself this evenin'.

MA: Well, God love them all, Festus.

FESTUS: And I'd like all you grand folks to meet the lovely mother to who I owe everythin' I have and ever will have. You'll always be my best girl, Ma!

MA: Thank ye, Festus. And I'd like to tell all of yez that me son Festus has always been the grandest son in the world to me, and if yez vote for him yez'll be makin' no mistake !


The preliminaries over, Festus would leap into battle. Skeffington, who had shared many a platform with him, now recalled vividly his little antagonist racing up and down the stage, red-faced and screaming, hurling his charges of abuse, mismanagement, and corruption. Eventually and inevitably, he would come to the poetry.

"Here we are in this grand city of ours, payin' the highest tax rate we've ever paid, and the garbage hasn't been collected for weeks!" he would cry. "Our back yards are bein' turned into vertable bedlams of nauseous perfumes, and where is the mayor while all this is goin' on? I'll tell you where he is; he's up in his mansion on the Avenue, readin' pomes! The city smells to the high heavens and Frank Skeffington's got his nose in a book! Not a one of us dares to take a deep breath for fear of bein' killed off by the poisons around us, and our mayor is readin' how Louisy May Lovebreath thinks vi'lets has a dainty smell in June! Oh, shame upon him, dear folks! Turn this shameful scoundrel out of office, him and his pomes both!"

And Skeffington recalled, too, his own rebuttal:

"I have sat here this evening and been warmed by the sight of this good mother, speaking so eloquently on behalf of her son. It was touching. Moving. Mother love is always edifying. Seeing her here tonight by her son's side, I cannot avoid thinking of those beautiful lines:

And 'mid the cheerless hours of night
A mother wandered with her child."


He had smiled benignly at the fierce, diminutive old lady who, hard by the side of her fifty-five-year-old child, sat glaring at him; then, in a thoughtful tone, he had added: "Still, we must not get carried away by emotion. We must remember one thing: everybody has a mother. Creatures of the field have mothers. The despised reptiles have mothers. The viper, the scorpion, the asp, all have mothers. Presumably their mothers believe in them. All of us would doubtless admire their tender trust; we would not necessarily share it. And so, this evening, while I'd like to congratulate my opponent on possessing such a loyal parent, I'm afraid I can't congratulate him on much else. You heard with your own ears what he had to say. It only proves what I have long suspected: that while responsible civic leaders are preoccupied with grave and serious problems, Festus Garvey continues to think of municipal affairs in the terms of the simple device he loves so well — the garbage pail!"

He had beaten Mother Garvey handily; he had been beating him handily for thirty years; but Mother, himself motherless now and Skeffington's age, still clung on, an undying enemy whose ferocity had mounted with the years. And Skeffington knew that in the coming campaign he could depend upon few things as surely as he could upon the unrelenting, frenzied opposition of his ancient foe, coming at him from street corners, from the radio, from television.

It was a prospect which, at this stage of the game, did not alarm him greatly.

The morning poetry reading, regarded with rage by his enemies, had been championed by his supporters: they saw the habit as an awesome and barely attainable ideal, like celibacy or telling the truth, and they were proud of Skeffington for his dedication to it. And he, for his part, had continued to read — primarily, if by no means exclusively, for pleasure; as in most of his activities, there was in his reading a strong secondary purpose. His memory was both accurate and retentive, and thus his reading had provided him with a ready reservoir of quotation and epithet which had served him handsomely through numberless campaigns. Long ago he had discovered the rich potential in the mother lode of classical invective; properly used, it was a weapon to elevate and decimate the foe. (One had only to roar suddenly, "Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend!" at perfidious Martin Hooley of Ward 2, and poor dumb Martin, anticipating abuse but of a more prosaic kind, would stand gaping and abashed; the crowd would shout its delight, and from isolated throats would come the proud, identifying gasp: "Shakespeare!")

It was a valuable technique, but one which could backfire badly if misused. Skeffington, who understood his people thoroughly, knew their virtually bottomless capacity for suspicion and ridicule; he had seen other leaders, popular men all, who, when suddenly suspected of pretension, of getting a bit above themselves, had been turned on with a savagery which could scarcely be believed. The trick was, he knew, to space the grand phrases properly, to use them always with an air of winking complicity; to suggest, in other words, an allowable erudition untinted by the dangerous streaks of self-inflation. It was quite a trick, but Skeffington could say, without conceit, that it was one which he had mastered years ago.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor. Copyright © 2016 Jack Beatty. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Last Hurrah 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
People born after John F. Kennedy and modern politics would probably have difficulty understanding this book and the colorful characters that are presented so well here. I lived it and I know these people. They are as rich for me today and they were 30 years ago when I first read the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a political science student at Rutgers University my first impression of seeing this book on the syllabus was a little abstract, to say the least. However, once I found myself reading the book I could not put it down. The characters as well as the politics are portrayed in a humorous yet serious manner. For anyone who shares a curiousity in American political ethics and political morality I strongly recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Well, I am biased. I am from Boston and Irish. This is a fictionalization of the last days of Mayor Curley. The last great, pre-television Mayor in Boston. The Irish/Yankee feud portrayed in this book is an accurate telling of a hatred passed down from generation to generation. Read the book for fun, but understand that the politics was and is real.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the worst book I have EVER read. I would NOT recomend this book to ANYONE. I don't see how this thing could have pasted as a book, that is how bad it is. I read it over 3 times & I still don't understand it. If you would like to know more about how bad this book is, just e-mail me at CLG7985@aol.com I would enjoy reading what you have to say about this book.