A Gallery of the Famous and Infamous

A Gallery of the Famous and Infamous

In Eminent Bostonians, O'Connor captures the personalities who made the Hub a unique city

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

Former Boston Mayor John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald is on the list. His famous grandson, John F. Kennedy, is not.

University Historian Thomas H. O'Connor. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
The list does include a president (John Adams), as well as once-prosperous paupers (boxer John L. Sullivan and portrait artist Gilbert Stuart), and a host of others who have contributed to the history, folklore, mystique and occasional infamy of the City of Boston.

They are among the 130 well-known - and not so well-known - denizens of the Hub who are profiled in University Historian Thomas H. O'Connor's latest book, Eminent Bostonians.

"I tried to incorporate two large factors in the selection of subjects for the book," said O'Connor. "First, I wanted to cover the entire 350 years of Boston's history, and, I wanted to choose people who would represent as many vocational categories - such as politics, the arts, charities, sports and the like - as possible.

"Next, I wanted subjects to be as representative as possible of Boston's diversity, so you have men and women, Catholics, Yankee Protestants and Jews, the Irish, Italians, Jewish and African-Americans," he said.

"Hopefully when someone reads this, Boston's diversity will come through," said O'Connor, who has written a dozen books on his hometown and its people. "I think it is important to see Boston as homogenous, not as some old-fashioned 'colonial' city."

The result is a sparkling blend of subjects ranging from traditional Boston icons, such as Paul Revere and James Michael Curley, to those whose names may be familiar to today's generations, such as Peter Faneuil and Charles Bulfinch, even if their specific contributions are not.

There are entertainers - maestros Arthur Fiedler and Leonard Bernstein and radio comedian Fred Allen - along with sports notables Ted Williams, Bobby Orr and Red Auerbach.

Religious leaders from Cotton Mather to Cardinal Richard Cushing are included, along with Boston's two renowned cooking mavens, Julia Child and Fannie Farmer.

O'Connor says he purposely omitted living politicians from his listing. "Once you start with that where do you end?" he asked. "I think in these cases it is best to wait for the end of their lives to make a full assessment."

Likewise, O'Connor avoided politicians who made their mark on the national level rather than on the local scene, explaining his decision not to include JFK in Eminent Bostonians. "John Kennedy maintained a voting address in Boston [Bowdoin Street on Beacon Hill], but he really didn't do anything for Boston," O'Connor said. He pointed out that JFK's grandfather, "Honey Fitz," had to personally guide the young candidate for Congress through the streets of the North End during Kennedy's 1946 campaign.

"I deliberately wanted to choose those people who made a real contribution to Boston over the years," explained O'Connor. "Bostonians have always had a sense of obligation to their city, giving something back - whether it be their money, their talents or their service," he said.

"When I got down to the final group, I didn't know if I wanted to arrange them chronologically, by vocation or by ethnic groupings, such as the Irish. Finally I settled on an alphabetical listing.

"I found I had lots of A's and M's, but when someone asks me why Carl Yastrzemski made it, I can say 'I needed a Y,'" he said with a laugh.

Several of the book's subjects have ties to Boston College, including Cardinal Cushing, who was part of the first freshman class to attend class at the Heights in 1913 before leaving for the seminary at the end of his sophomore year.

Doug Flutie, the Eagles' diminutive and fleet-footed quarterback and 1984 Heisman Trophy winner, is included, as is Elliot Norton, a highly regarded and widely read theater critic for several Boston newspapers who taught in the old Evening College. There is also popular South End jazz musician Preston "Sandy" Sandiford, whose talent drew famous artists such as Cab Calloway and Count Basie to join him for jam sessions in clubs along Columbus and Shawmut avenues during the 1940s and '50s. Sandiford's daughter Sandra is a program assistant in BC's Black Studies Program.

As part of the campaign to promote sales of Eminent Bostonians, Harvard University Press has placed advertising placards in trolley and subway cars on the MBTA's Green and Red lines - routes O'Connor once rode from his native South Boston to Chestnut Hill, where he returned after World War II to graduate from Boston College in 1949.

"Who would have ever thought?" mused O'Connor. "Back in 1942, when I made my first 'official' trip to Boston College as a freshman, I remember the thrill of taking the Commonwealth Avenue trolley up over the hill in Brookline and seeing the 'Towers on the Heights.'

"In those days, it wasn't called the Green Line. The car simply said 'Boston College - Commonwealth.' We used to take it to mean 'Boston College - Come On Wealth!'"


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