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Remembering author Edwin O'Connor

March 16, 2011

WOONSOCKET — He never smoked or drank. No one can recall that he ever raised his voice in anger. And the khakis and loafers he was fond of wearing were as low-key as his personality.
In many ways the Pulitzer Prize was a crown that never quite fit Edwin O’Connor, author of “The Last Hurrah,” and the city’s most famous Irish-American native son.
And, sadly, perhaps its most forgotten.
“Aside from the catch-phrase ‘last hurrah,’ which has become part of the English language, he really has been forgotten,” says Robert Rose, an independent TV producer from Lincoln.
O’Connor produced a prodigious amount of work in his lifetime, much of it inspired by his memories of growing up in the North End. Rose admired him so much he hunted down an unpublished short story of O’Connor’s in a Boston library called “The Greatest Salesman in Rhode Island,” believed to have been based on O’Connor’s recollections of working at Providence radio station WPRO in the 1950s. Rose turned the story into a stage play and put it on videotape for PBS stations.
But O’Connor’s most enduring work, of course, was “The Last Hurrah,” published in 1956. Many thought its lead character, Frank Skeffington, was modeled after the Bay State’s James Michael Curley, the Irish-American political boss who ruled Beacon Hill for decades, serving variously as mayor and governor. Unlike Curley, the rule-bending Skeffington never went to jail, though many of his fictitious political enemies thought he should have.
Born in 1918, O’Connor grew up at 247 Gaskill St., a stately brick colonial that still bears a tiny oval plaque that reads, “The O’Connor House.” His father, John O’Connor, was a prominent physician who practiced medicine in the city for over four decades and his mother, Mary, was a city schoolteacher for a couple of years — until she got married.
O’Connor went to public schools in Woonsocket until he reached high school, eventually graduating from LaSalle Academy in Providence.
Charles F. Duffy, a retired professor of English at Providence College, wrote a biography of O’Connor in 2003 entitled “A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O’Connor.” Officially, he says, O’Connor was honored with the Pulitzer for his novel, “The Edge of Sadness,” published five years after Skeffington captured the public’s imagination. Although it’s a more polished work of literary art, many critics believed the award was actually retroactive recognition for “The Last Hurrah.”
Its lasting significance, says Duffy, is that it captured a snapshot of a type of ethnic politics practiced by Irish political bosses in the early part of the century. It was an era when horsetrading was taken for granted and deals were made in smoke-filled backrooms, when power-brokers traded jobs for votes rounded up by the ward heelers who served as their street soldiers. It was a portrait of machine-style politics that was already going the way of the dodo as O’Connor splashed on the scene, when TV was the Twitter of the day and constituents were demanding more transparency from government.
Some academics thought the book was so vital to understanding the evolution of retail politics in America that it was on the syllabus of countless political science courses in college classrooms around the country. It is still believed to be required reading in a few.
But even if Skeffington was a crook — and O’Connor strongly suggests he was — he was a crook with a conscience, a soft-spot for the Irish-American immigrants who were still working their way up from the Potato Famine through the underbelly of American society.
“Skeffington had a gentle side to him,” says Duffy. “He was a good family man. He was loyal at home. While he was corrupt, he didn’t do anything for personal gain. He played fast and loose with political ethics but not for his own enrichment.”
O’Connor lived in Woonsocket until he was 17 years old, when he left home to study at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, though he continued to visit relatives in Woonsocket for years to come. After graduating from college he returned to the local area briefly to work in the radio business before joining the Coast Guard in Boston in 1942.
He didn’t get serious about writing until after World War II and spent the next decade or so eking out a living as a freelancer. Little of note comes out of this period, though Duffy says O’Connor’s dedication during this epoch of self-imposed poverty is “an amazing testimony to his ambition.”
With the publication of “The Last Hurrah,” O’Connor hit the lottery. The book was a national smash, spending 20 weeks on the bestseller lists.
“Within six months he became a millionaire,” says Duffy. “He went from rags to riches.”
Later, the book was made into a critically acclaimed movie starring Spencer Tracey. Though the film was also a hit, “O’Connor hated that movie. He really disliked it,” said Duffy.
Margaret Carroll, 87, a retired schoolteacher from Millville, remembers all the excitement about the film, which she saw at one of the theaters in Woonsocket — probably the Stadium, she says. But the buzz wasn’t about O’Connor — that would come later. Everybody assumed the movie was about Curley, a subject of intense fascination in those days, particularly among Irish-Americans like Carroll.
“Everybody read the Boston papers and we all knew what was going on with James Michael,” recalls Carroll. “I think everyone was interested in knowing what the storyline would be and how that story was going to be told. He’d fallen out of grace with a lot of people by that time.”
As much as O’Connor may have disliked the film, “I really think he caught the attention of a lot of people who might not have,” says Carroll.

WITH ALL the dough he collected from the publication of “The Last Hurrah,” O’Connor did something extravagant – he bought a sprawling tract of seaside land in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, where he built a custom summer house. It was there that he met a striking divorcee named Veniette Weil, with whom he fell in love and, at the age of 44, bade bachelorhood farewell.
O’Connor’s stepson, Stephen G. Weil, is 58 years old now and living in Arlington, Mass. O’Connor lived for just a few years after he became Weil’s stepfather, but his unbending work ethic made an indelible impression on the boy, who was just 12 years old when he met O’Connor.
O’Connor rose early and started each day at the typewriter, a stack of clean paper on one side of the machine and another pile, smaller, on the other, in which O’Connor had pecked out a few words on each page.
“He would start a sentence and there might be sixteen or seventeen pages in that box, already written with just one sentence, being recrafted, recrafted and recrafted,” says Weil. “It was amazing to me he would put that kind of effort into 13 words.”
Weil says he “adored” his rangy, baseball-loving stepfather, calling him “one of the most gentle men I ever met in my life.”
It’s a portrait that jibes with biographer Duffy’s years of research, during which he never found anyone who described O’Connor as anything but “a decent person.”
“To be sure, he wasn’t like Hemingway — there’s almost nothing sensational about his life,” says Duffy. “He’s a bit of a square, a very clean-living guy, didn’t drink, didn’t’ smoke, didn’t even swear. He’s a very moral guy, a devout Catholic who always tried to do the right thing. Even after he became wealthy and famous, he didn’t change that much. It didn’t go to his head.”
If there’s one character trait that rose above all the others, it was his personal loyalty to a friend, says Duffy. There’s an anecdote that circulates about him that he once broke off a dinner invitation from President Kennedy at the White House because he had already made plans for that night with Veniette, whom he had just begun courting at the time.
For a kid growing up in a mill town where the predominant ethnic group was no longer Irish-American when O’Connor came of age — it was French-Canadian — the author’s body of work is eerily silent on the latter, at least until the very end of his life. There are a number of factors that might have caused this, says Duffy, including tensions between the Irish-dominated leadership of the Diocese of Providence and the breakaway French-Canadian clerics in his hometown, who spearheaded an independence-minded insurgency within the church known as the Sentinellist movement.
But Duffy says the credit for whetting O’Connor’s appetite for politics may go to a half-French, half-Irish lawmaker from Woonsocket who lived in the North End. Ambrose Kennedy (no relation to the famous Massachusetts clan) was a former state legislator who also served five terms as a congressman, from 1913-1923. As a child, Duffy was friends with Kennedy’s son and used to spend time at his home, where Kennedy regaled the boys with political war stories.
“This might be one of the things that piqued his interest in politics, where he found out that it was a very colorful occupation, especially in Rhode Island, as we all know,” says Duffy.
O’Connor died unexpectedly of a massive stroke at his home on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston when he was just 49 years old. The last of his works was published posthumously by his friend and former JFK aid Arthur Schlesinger in 1970 as “The Best and the Last of Edwin O’Connor.” In it were the first three chapters of an unfinished novel in which critics felt that, for the only time in his literary career, O’Connor was writing openly about French-Canadians in a mill town that was unmistakably Woonsocket, though he called it something else. And there was a refreshing crispness in his prose that was more in keeping with the cutting-edge writers of his day, says Duffy.
While O’Connor’s attitudes about Woonsocket are rarely addressed directly in his works, there is one major exception. In 1951, at a time when he was still barely known, he wrote an homage to his idyllic childhood in the North End that appeared in the now-defunct Providence Sunday Journal Magazine. In the piece, entitled, “A Love Letter to Woonsocket,” he talks about playing baseball in Hoyle Field — a vacant lot donated to the city by a wealthy merchant — and walking to school along “Dump Road” to catch girl-scaring snakes. Dump Road, incidentally, is now tony Woodland Road.
Still, it’s plain that O’Connor had mixed feelings about his hometown.
“Let us face it at once: Woonsocket is not one of those fortunate communities in which every prospect pleases,” he wrote. “To see it is not to love it. No stranger, walking down Main Street, along the hodge-podge stretch from Monument to Market Squares, has ever stood in danger of perishing before beauty.”
Ever the political analyst, he goes on to liken the city to “the successful man of state.” In its time it has been “many things to many people, and to me, it was primarily a good place to grow up.”

Comments

Edwin O'Conner

March 17, 2011 by chris12 (not verified), 3 years 39 weeks ago
Comment: 239

"....grew up at 247 Gaskill St., a stately brick colonial that still bears a tiny oval plaque...."
Nice article about Mr.O'Conner.
My husband and I are currently the proud owners of the O'Conner house. It is an honor and a privilege to continue to maintain this beautiful piece of Woonsocket history.
Yours truly,
Christine MacWilliams

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