It is the most infamous desk in Boston politics, a
mahogany antique with exquisite hand-carved detail and a history as murky as the Charles River.
The desk has been celebrated, stolen, and investigated. It sparked a political firestorm, forced a former mayor to open his home and vacation cottage to a reporter, and was found after 14 years in a suburban garage, where, according to legend, a divorce triggered a tip to the attorney general.
It is known as the Curley desk, named after James Michael Curley, the legendary Boston politician revered as a hero and disparaged as a scoundrel. This week, the desk took its place back in a mayor’s office for the first time in at least 30 years, hand-chosen by Mayor Martin J. Walsh as the centerpiece of his office.
“It’s about history,” Walsh said as he sat at the desk, a stark counterpoint to the sterile concrete walls of a City Hall that opened in the late 1960s. “When you look in the office here, nothing is really historic.”
But Walsh’s nod to the past will invariably unearth old questions. Skeptics remain dubious about the provenance of the antique.
‘I searched high and low, and we couldn’t find it.’
“That may not be the real Curley desk,” said George Regan, press secretary to former mayor Kevin H. White. “There’s more than one Air Force One. There’s two or three Air Force Ones. There are two or three Curley desks.”
The story is befitting of Curley. He served four terms as mayor, four terms in Congress, one term as governor, and two terms in jail. Curley inevitably had any number of desks, but there was one style that garnered particular attention.
The desk now sitting in Walsh’s office is about 4 feet by 6 feet with an intricate pattern tracing the perimeter. The front features two panels carved with City of Boston seals and adorned with oak leaves, acorns, and bayberries. The sturdy drawers have clamshell handles and work well despite marks of wear.
In his office Wednesday, Walsh said he identified with Curley’s legacy. Or at least part of it.
“The positive part of his reputation,” Walsh said, “being a mayor of the poor.”
The desk touched off an imbroglio in 1983 when it went missing from City Hall as White left office. The incoming mayor, Raymond L. Flynn, wanted to use the desk as a symbol of populism and the plight of immigrants, especially the Irish.
“I had people searching for it,” Flynn recalled Wednesday in an interview. “I searched high and low, and we couldn’t find it.”
The Suffolk district attorney’s office got involved. The story made national news. Some alleged that White took the desk to his Beacon Hill townhouse. Curley’s former driver, City Councilor Albert “Dapper” O'Neil, accused White of hiding it at his summer home on Monument Beach in Bourne.
“Before I die, I’d like to sneak down to that scoundrel’s cellar some night with a big flashlight and prove it once and for all,” O’Neil once told the Globe.
As years dragged on, the search for the desk became a political parlor game.
“It’s a fun game, and it amuses people to play it, but there never was a real Curley desk,” White told the Globe in 1996. “What is it about people that gets them so interested in something they never saw in their damn lives?”
The next year, there was a break in the case. Attorney General L. Scott Harshbarger announced that the desk had been found in a Belmont garage. Acting on a tip, State Police launched an investigation that lead to the home of George Tecce Jr. The desk was in his garage, where it was being used as a workbench.
Tecce once worked as a low-level Boston employee and said he was given the desk when it was about to be thrown out by the city in the early 1970s. The Globe reported at the time investigators were trying to determine whether Tecce may have gotten the antique from his former father-in-law, a top White administration official. Tecce could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
The desk was returned to City Hall, where former mayor Thomas M. Menino kept it on display in the fifth-floor lobby. In an interview Wednesday, Menino said at one time there were three desks with similar carvings in different offices at City Hall.
But Menino said he believed that the desk now in Walsh’s office was used by Curley. When police returned it to City Hall in 1997, Menino said an envelope bearing Curley's name was found stuck underneath one of the drawers. It is fitting, Menino said, that a mayor is again using the desk.
“Boston politics always comes back to the same circle,” Menino said. “No matter what happens, some things always stay the same.”