“The Judge Can Drop Dead!” – The Story of Mike Quill, Labor Leader

My first book (of eleven) was a biography of labor leader Mike Quill, the feisty head of the Transport Workers Union of America who led a twelve-day strike of all bus and subway workers in New York City in January of 1966.

My first book - A Biography of Labor Leader Mike Quill (1905-1966) of the Transport Workers Union of America

The book, published in 1968, was entitled THE MAN WHO RAN THE SUBWAYS – THE STORY OF MIKE QUILL, but I had wanted to call it THE JUDGE CAN DROP DEAD because that’s what Quill said when reporters asked him about the judge’s orders to stop the strike or go to jail:

“The judge can drop dead in his black robes, and we would not call off the strike.  Personally, I don’t care if I rot in jail!”

In fact he died soon afterward, of congestive heart failure, on January 28, 1966, at age sixty.  I had decided to start looking into Quill’s life with the notion of writing a book only a week before, having become fascinated by his character in the midst of that tumultuous strike, and upon his death I continued to pursue it.  During the early months of  research I worked for a living as City Hall Reporter for the Reporter Dispatch in White Plains, NY, then as Public Information Officer for that city’s Urban Renewal Project, and then as News Director of WVOX Radio in New Rochelle, NY.  I kept gathering material whenever possible in various Westchester County libraries including the New York Public Library on 42nd Street in Manhattan.

Michael J. Quill addresses a throng of workers outside the IRT Subway’s 59th Street powerhouse in 1935.

Bertha Himber, a kindly woman who worked in the office at the White Plains Urban Renewal Agency, offered to tell her daughter Jane about my project, which, frankly, appeared to have no chance of ever becoming a published book.  Jane worked in the Audio Visual Department of Holt, Rinehart and Winston in New York.  She passed along the idea of a Quill biography to the editorial staff; and soon Charlotte L. Mayerson, Senior Editor, called to say that she loved the idea and would work with me to develop it.

The process was long and difficult, but with Ms. Mayerson’s help I received a contract and found myself going out to conduct interviews and eventually flying to Ireland to interview Quill’s relatives and friends.  The book was published with the initials of my name (“L.H.” for Louis Henry), because they said “Hank” was too informal.  (The result is that five books of mine have “L.H.” and six have “Hank” — so that most libraries operate under the assumption that “L.H.” and “Hank” are two separate authors.  So it goes!)

Here’s my Prologue for the book:

Few people, if any, got the best of Mike Quill. He was a poor man’s version of James Bond, Charles de Gaulle and Casey Stengel, all in one. A pumpkin-shaped elf, he haunted the sub way tunnels of New York and transit systems around the country, wooing his fellow workers to a radical vision.

A Blake Hampton caricature of Mike Quill

For more than thirty years, he was both their royalty and their fool. The slave of an impish humor, he stood in the center of the storm he created and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He seemed to swallow new ideas as easily as a turnstile swallows tokens, and to change direction as often as the Times Square shuttle. To the general public, he assumed the proportions of a loose-lipped braggart, a brawling advocate of violence whom the papers called the “master of the half-truth, the advance deal, and occasionally, the Big Lie.” Most people thought he would just as soon have shut down New York’s subway system as draw breath, and Quill did nothing to discourage the image. He interwove legend and fact as they came to his tongue until he became, in his own words, “an elder statesman of public monsters.”

No book can do justice to the full flavor of Mike Quill with out a built-in recording of the rolling Irish brogue and the lilting speech that could quickly win an audience of angry workers to cheers and laughter. Behind the brogue was a brain, how ever, and Quill’s brain needed no Gallup poll to tell him that he was distinctly in the public’s disfavor. “I’ll begin to worry,” he chuckled, “the day the papers say something nice about me.” He never had to worry for long.

Quill was bad news, and for that reason he was on the front pages almost as often as the weather. He scorned respectability, partly because it was not newsworthy. It was dull, and Quill could never have been dull even if he had tried—and there is little evidence that he ever tried. The advent of black-and-white television made Mike Quill a figure to reckon with, although by that time he was already known as the Abbey Theatre’s gift to the American labor movement. He became a household picture and to many a housewife his homely face seemed to light up the screen. “There’s Barry Fitzgerald,” she would say with a trace of ‘affection. “Let’s listen to his lilt.” There was the big blackthorn stick and the deep blue eyes twinkling behind black, horn-rimmed glasses; and the moon face barely concealed his amusement, as his listeners took in the blarney, the tough wit, and the outrageous pyramid of illogic from this amiable rogue.

The best and the worst was said about Mike Quill. Carl Sandburg once described him as an “impossible-ist.” New Yorkers generally knew him as “the man you love to hate.” City Hall reporters referred to “the high cost of Quillism.” The transit workers of the city hated and loved him, and among friends there was a strange kind of reverence that is usually reserved for a saint.

At the end, Mike Quill did the unthinkable. He brought New York, the nation’s greatest city, to the brink of chaos and went to the grave in a swirl of public bitterness. Still, friend and foe could reach a consensus about this turbulent, irrepressible Irishman who worried all his life that the fire would go out of him: Michael J. Quill was one of the most controversial men in America’s labor history. As Mayor John Lindsay said at Quill’s death, his passing marked the end of an era.

My adventure into Quill’s life included an eye-opening education in how the Communist Party USA helped in 1934 to get the New York transport workers’ union on its feet (before he eventually kicked the Party out in 1948); and I’ll get around to that episode  another time…

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30 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Hank,
    My name is Stephen Ryan and I am doing research on Mike Quill. I would appreciate it if you could drop me an email as I would like to talk with you.
    Regards,
    Stephen

  2. Hank,

    Great story behind a terrific book. I’ve heard some interesting tales about sources for the book. Would love to hear the real story. I worked for TWU for 30 years as their Education Director (just retired). Their records are now down in the Wagner Archives at NYU.

    Bob

    • Good to hear from you! Would love to hear some of those “interesting tales” about the sources. I recall interviewing Paul O’Dwyer and former Mayor Wagner, and took a trip over to southern Ireland, where I met up with Mike Quill’s sister as well as a number of other relatives. A fascinating part of the research involved the role of the Communist Party in the early Thirties in helping unions such as TWU to get off the ground. Lots of fun reading the old Daily Worker and TWU Express, and finally John Santo testifying before HUAC about the Party and its workings. He had been there at the beginning. There’s a whole history that young people seldom learn.

  3. I am typing up the family history that my father, Thomas Kelliher, wrote for our family. My father passed away three weeks ago. He was from Castlegregory, County Kerry and works for MaBSTOA for 34 years. He wrote: “I retired with 60% of my last year’s salary. God Bless Mike Quill, R.I.P.”
    Thanks for your article!

    • Your very welcome. These days many people don’t realize the good that individuals such as Mike Quill did for so many workers, who would otherwise have been left with little or nothing to show for their labors. May your father now rest in peace and may your family history be remembered by generations to come. Happy New Year – Hank

  4. Dear Hank;

    I am writing the memoir of Sol Jacobson, the press agent for “Take Her, She’s mine.” It was only after reading your memoir that Sol learned why Richard Jordon was in the production in the part of Alex Loomis and not you.
    Your story fills in a void in Sol’s memoir. I would like to use your story about why you were fired and would like your permission to use a quote from your memoir. You will of course be given credit.

    Sincerely, David A Long

    • Good luck with the project, David!

  5. Hi Hank,

    I really enjoyed reading this. I believe my last name may get your attention. Mike Quill was my great-grandfather’s (Jeremiah) brother. Jeremiah died at a young age due to a horrific accident so you probably never got to interview him. I’m passing this along to my father.

    Best,
    Alexa Quill

    • Hi Alexa — I don’t know if I ever saw this comment, and sorry for not replying! I believe I met a “Jeremiah Quill” when visiting Kilgarven. He brought me to see Mary Quill, sister of Mike. By the way, I truly regard Mike as an American hero. With the political atmosphere we have these days, the history of the labor movement in the U.S. is often overlooked and young folks may never get the chance to know about the great courage and struggles that it took. Thanks for writing and, again, sorry that this seems to have eluded my attention.

  6. Hi Hank,

    Just ordered you book on amazon, very excited. I am a graduate student at columbia university, studying oral history, and am in the midst of conducting life history interviews with TWU local 100 members. Would love to chat sometime (email) about my project, and if you are in New York, would love to sit down and talk about your interview methodology, and interview you with an eye toward you experience as a new yorker–i’m sure you have some great tales to tell.

    Best,
    Taylor

  7. Hi Hank,
    My grandfather passed away in 1994. He often told me that he came from America from Ireland on the same ship as Michael Quill. It was on St. Patrick’s Day in 1926. I would love to know the name of the ship that my Grandfather came to America on. I appreciate your assistance in this matter.

    • Hi Tom –

      Originally Mike was going to sail with Patsy Quill and family from Queenstown [now it’s Cobb] on the S.S. Cedric — but he had trouble getting papers in order and so got booked to sail a week earlier, on the Red Star Line’s S.S. Pittsburgh.

      It was the eve of St. Patrick’s Day in NYC. Mike had been met by Dan O’Leary, a cousin, who took him on the El up to E. 104th Street. Mike spent his first full day in the U.S. watching the St. Patrick’s Day parade on Fifth Avenue.

      So I guess your grandfather was on the Pittsburgh.

      (See link to image in my next reply)

      All best, Hank

    • Tom, this one works –

      http://images-00.delcampe-static.net/img_large/auction/000/033/397/730_001.jpg?v=1

      Hank

  8. I had just finished reading this book. To say the least it was excellent. I would like to know if I could actually get a signed copy for my local?

    • Send an address if you like and I’ll get one to you

  9. […] consequently, a quick resolution, with a settlement being reached on January 13.. Fiery TWU leader Mike Quill, jailed for several days during the strike, then hospitalized, died three days after his release […]

  10. My Great Grandfather, Daniel Hehir, was the first Irish train engineer to refuse to operate British Troop Transports. His son (my grandfather) was a Sein Fenner who fought the British in the Irish War of Independence, barely escaping to America with his life. I fondly recall his Irish Brogue, uniformly sweet, warm and welcoming—with one single exception. “Beakie” (an Irish informant for the British) was always uttered in a brogue of unmitigated disguist.
    Grandpa Pat was proud to be Irish. But his Irish Republicanism was a badge of honor. His IRA comrades were his brothers who lived, fought, died and enjoyed life together, not merely for themselves, but for a Free Ireland for all Irish. He expected loyalty from his fellow Irish. But the solidarity of his IRA brothers was his very essence.
    It was no accident then, that the Transport Workers Union, founded by expatriate IRA members, my grandfather among them, exploded seemingly overnight as one of American Labor History’s most militant and successful unions. Solidarity was paramount, and while, as followers of James Connolly there were socialists, they quickly learned that the Communist Party USA was the only American organization which offered their brand of unitary and solidarity. They were always, eternally in spirit, Irish Republicans, who for several years carried CP membership cards.
    Under pressure in the late 40s, the union leadership disassociated from the CP. My grandfather, who was President of his towerman’s local, stuck with Mike Quill and his ladies.
    Shortly after the formation of the New York State equivalent to the House Unamerican Activites Committee in the fifties, my grandfather, along with several other rank and file leaders, was served a summons to appear. “Don’t worry Paddy, it’s all taken care of. You show up, you take the fifth, they give you immunity, and you give them names they already have.
    Paddy appeared at the hearing with famed constitutional lawyer Leonard Boudin at his side.
    The usual and expected formalities never transpired. Like Pete Seeger,. who, as a self-proclaimed proud “American Citizen,” refused to answer, Paddy Hehir stood his ground as a proud Irish Republican and defied the tryant.

    Q: Were you ever in the past a member of the Communist Party.
    A. Sir, if I answered your question I could never show my face to the the ladies in Sallypark (his Irish hometown). I refuse to answer your questions.
    He lost his job. The union abandoned him. He lost his pension. My grandmother, a Irish peasant who cleaned upscale New York City hotel rooms for the wealthy, had to postpone here retirement and worked part time into her seventies. She never complained about her postponed retirement. She understood the dignity of work. But she suffered the profound hurt of betrayal until her death at age 92.
    Mike Quill was once a Sinn Fenner. Eternally, and forever, he is a beakie. .
    UP THE REBEL.

    • A beautiful statement and tribute and we thank you!

  11. doing research on this great man -does anyone know if he was ever interned by the British in Ballykinlar Camp 1921 ?

    • Sorry to be late publishing this comment. I’ll see what I can find…

      • A chara ,

        I am doing some research on the great Mike Quill from Kilgarvan

        I have a 2016 project to raise money for special need kids.

        See below – it is self explanatory

        http://motherjonescork.com/2013/07/30/ May 1921-barry-signature/

        There is a Micheal O Cuill further down the page

        Could he have been in Ballykinlar in May 1921 ?

        Kind regards

        Owen Smyth

  12. Hank: your book is a real page-turner. Did you ever option the book? It seems like a solid project for a mini-series or movie. If not, are you interested in an option?

    regards

    Rick Jorgensen

  13. My father, James G. Cummings worked for the Transit Authority since he was 14 years old… Before it even WAS the NYCTA… Originally, it was just the Interborough Rapid Transit… The “IRT”.
    As the oldest of 5 children he was “given” the job of inter office messenger when his father, an IRT night watchman, suffered traumatic & life threatening injuries when the shack he worked in collapsed during a winter storm outside the west side power plant in the winter of 1927-28.

    My father was as proud of his ID & subway pass as any soldier takes pride & honor in his medals of valor & bravery. Mike Quill’s word was as much gospel in our house as any decree out of the Vatican, maybe even more so, as my father personally “knew” Mike Quill, had been in his company on several occasions, rallies, and Union Meetings. A few beers in & my dad would “become” Mike Quill, and if I had a dollar for every time my father’s parting words or argument-ended with the words ” You can drop dead in your black robe” I would now be a very, VERY rich man.
    May God have mercy on both of their soal’s …as well as my own.

  14. […] consequently, a quick resolution, with a settlement being reached on January 13.. Fiery TWU leader Mike Quill, jailed for several days during the strike, then hospitalized, died three days after his release […]

  15. My mother came to this country when she was 13 years of age. She came from County Kerry Kilgarvan, Mike Quill was her cousin. I recall her telling me when Mike gave a speech he frequently got hit with tomatoes and that she should never loose her barogue. Good luck to you on your book. Wish I could help on the research

    • Thank you Kathleen!

  16. Hank, have you read “In transit.”

    • Hi Bob – sorry I didn’t see this till now. Yes, I’ve read through most of it — subtitled “The Transport Workers Union in New York City, 1933-1966.” For the sake of readers here, I’ll add that the author, Joshua B. Freeman (publishing in 1989, some 21 years after my biography of Mike), does a completely thorough job and the book is packed with great details. For anyone who wants those kinds of details, I highly recommend it. Thanks for the mention.

  17. Hello Hank – I was ill in bed with pneumonia when I was 15 and watched the entire NYC transit strike unfold on television. Even with the limited coverage in those days and only a high school student at the time, having family in both Cork and Mayo, I was fascinated by Mike Quill. In college as a senior, I did my final paper of 30 or so pages on “Michael J. Quill and the NYC Transit Strike.” As I scroll through Amazon, it appears that the most inexpensive copy of your book is $99 – any idea where I might get a copy a bit less expensive?

    Neil Moran


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