Tom McParland looks back on the life and career of one of Hollywood’s all-time greats, a hugely talented all-round actor who was best known for playing tough guys.


Who was the fiery blue-eyed redhead and chorus-line dancer who came to bewitch Hollywood’s golden age? Myrna Loy? Lucille Ball? Rita Hayworth or Susan Hayward? The name James Cagney surely must be the wrong answer. But it isn’t.

Most of we baby boomers only knew Cagney’s best work through television. Such titles as Sinner’s Holiday, The Public Enemy and Smart Money made us long to have witnessed his on-screen shady doings at the time. In most of those movies he played outrageous characters outrageously; and with such easy aplomb no one but him could get away with such explosiveness. He lived up to his public nickname, sock-on-the-jaw Cagney.
All this had started on Monday, July 17th 1899 when James Francis Cagney was born in New York City to James Francis Cagney Sr. and redhead Carolyn Elizabeth (née Nelson). His parents were of Irish and part Norwegian descent – his maternal grandfather being a Norwegian sea captain.

He inherited a stolid meticulousness from his mother and his fighting implacability from his father. Although Cagney’s father was an amateur boxer and bartender at the time of his son’s birth, Cagney Sr. listed the ‘more respectable’ occupation of telegraphist on the birth certificate.

Young James was the second of seven children (two had died shortly after birth). Because the infant was a sickly child his parents worried that he mightn’t live to get baptised. But he survived. The family lived mostly in a variety of tenement apartments in Yorkville on the Upper East Side, which was populated by poor multi-ethnic families. An important element of his upbringing was that he never felt poor or deprived. He made his confirmation in Manhattan’s St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church.

In 1918 he graduated from Stuyvesant High School, then an all-boys institute offering tuition-free specialised education to gifted children. From there he attended Columbia College intending to become an arts graduate. However, after six months he returned home because his father died, victim of the 1918 world ‘flu epidemic.

Education paled beside Cagney’s sense of family loyalty that characterised the rest of his life. A plucky, unafraid street-fighter, Jimmy instinctively took on the role of big brother and defended his brothers Harry and Eddie.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own