“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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A Stint in “Take Her, She’s Mine” on Broadway – 1961-62

In the summer of 1961, after sophomore year at the University of Notre Dame, I landed a lead role in Take Her, She’s Mine, by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, with Art Carney, Phyllis Thaxter and Elizabeth Ashley, under the direction of George Abbott and produced by Hal Prince.  I got the role Of Alex Loomis, a sarcastic Harvard guy in love with Mollie Michaelson, the role played by Ashley.

Art Carney

It didn’t last long, folks, because I got fired midway through the second act rehearsals in November (Richard Jordan took over the role).   I did get back in the show the following summer, however, after returning to Notre Dame to catch up with my classes.

Elizabeth Ashley

It had started after a wonderful agent named Hilary Holden, at the Deborah Coleman Agency, got me the audition that summer.  I recall standing in line with dozens of other guys in the stage-door alley of the Biltmore Theatre on 47th Street.  When it came my turn I went out on the stage and read a short scene with the stage manager.  For some reason I caught onto the sarcasm in the lines and, to my surprise, I could hear Abbott and Prince laughing out there in the darkened theater.  The next day Hilary telephoned me to say I’d gotten a callback.  And so it went, several times, until I actually got the role.

We began rehearsals that fall and I figured things were going pretty well.  The stage hands were laughing at my lines, a good sign.  But I was just turning twenty at the time and Liz Ashley, though just a few years older, was far more mature and sophisticated and confident that I was.  And of course she was a terrific actress on her way to becoming a great star.  And I could feel the end was coming…

George Abbott

We were in the middle of Act Two rehearsals.  The scene was a pizza parlor with Carney, the father; Ashley, the daughter, working there as a waitress; and me, the fiance.  I had a line to say and Carney was to ask her, “What’s so funny?”  But every time I said my line, Ashley stared back stone-faced until Carney shouted to director George Abbott, “How can I say my line unless she smiles?” At which point Liz turned to me and snapped, “Well, make it funny!”

That was it.  Producer Hal Prince called a break and bounded up on stage to tell me they were giving me two weeks’ pay.  “She has a run-of-the-play contract,” he said, referring to Ashley, “so obviously we have to let you go.”

Johnny Weissmuller as Jungle Jim with Marty Huston

I was crushed, of course.  Devastated.  Suddenly one of the cast members, Martin (Marty) Huston (who as a youngster had played Jungle Jim’s son in the TV show) came over and put his arm around my shoulder and shouted that he thought it was wrong to fire me and he was taking me across the street to the bar to get drunk.  And that is what we did.  I never forgot that gesture from Marty, who had been a child star and had enough stature to know he could get away with it.  We remained friends for a couple of years afterward.

(The television series of Jungle Jim, produced in 1955, starred Johnny Weissmuller; and Marty, 14, played his son Skipper.  He and the chimp “Tamba” were friends and played together like kids during rehearsal breaks.)

(During those rehearsals for Take Her, another young actor, Barry Primus,  also left the cast.  If I recall correctly, he just wasn’t right for the role in which he’d been cast; but in fact he continued on with a solid career, proving to be one of the best actors of his generation.)

Take Her, She’s Mine opened at the Biltmore on Dec. 21, 1961 and it would run for nearly a year.  In the spring, Judy Abbott called to ask if I wanted to return to play another role.  I was grateful, but had to wait until my classes at Notre Dame were over in June.  Then I did get into the play, in a very small role.  It was an interesting summer, however, to be racing around New York City taking classes in singing, Yoga and creative writing while also acting on Broadway.

By that time Marty Huston had replaced Joel Gray across the street as Buddy in Come Blow Your Horn, the hit comedy that was Neil Simon’s first play.  On those hot summer nights, Marty would dash out the stage door of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and we’d play stick ball with the stage hands right there on 47th Street.  Suddenly one of the guys would yell, “Marty, you’re on!” — and he’d race back through the door and keep running right onto the stage and back into the play in front of a huge audience.

He was an amazing guy, rough around the edges, full of life and laughter, never taking himself or anything else too seriously — and I should add that the girls always seemed to fall for him.  (Marty died of cancer in August 2001, at age sixty.)

There’s much more about all this, but that’s it for now.

Remembering November 22, 1963…

November 22, 2009 will mark the forty-sixth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.  On that terrible day of November 22, 1963, I was in New York City…

New York on Nov 22, 1963

New York City - November 22, 1963

Earlier that year I had graduated from the University of Notre Dame.  On the third of November, I had celebrated my twenty-second birthday.  Now I was in Manhattan having lunch with a fellow actor, Richard Fithian, at 666 Fifth Avenue.

I had met Dick in the summer of 1959 when I was seventeen and he was several years older, in his twenties.  We had acted together in Blue Denim at the Barn theater of Mount Kisco, NY.  Heading the cast was the beautiful and talented Eileen Fulton, then just twenty-six years old, who would go on to become a great TV star as Lisa in the long-running soap opera As The World Turns.

After lunch we divided the tab and Dick went up to the cashier to pay while I made a call.  I sat inside one of the several large wooden phone booths with folding glass doors along the wall.  When I hung up and turned around, I saw through the glass that long rows of patrons were lined up at the booths, mine included.  It was a strange sight that made no sense.  Why would so many people be making calls all of a sudden?

I opened the door and made my way to the cashier’s desk, where Dick was waiting.

JFK in New York City

Jackie and Jack - this is how it had been in New York - this is how we thought of them

“What’s going on?” I said.

“The president’s been shot!”

“What?”

“He was shot in the head, I think.”

We were already out on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue.

“My god,” I said.

The city was gray and bleak.  It seemed that everything had come to a standstill.  The street seemed to be covered with silence.  People appeared to be moving in slow motion.  At street corners, men had stacks of newspapers with freshly printed headlines for sale.  The papers reported that Kennedy had been shot, but there were few details.

Dick and I wandered up Fifth Avenue until we came to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  A crowd was out in front of the huge church, on the steps.  People were waiting around for something to happen and we automatically joined them.

235px-Saint_Patrick's_Cathedral_by_David_Shankbone

St. Patrick's Cathedral

“Is he dead?” a man in the crowd yelled out.

“If he’s dead,” another man hollered out, causing all heads to turn in his direction, “the bells will ring!”

Just a few seconds later the bells of St. Patrick’s Cathedral began to ring.  They rang loudly and the entire crowd on those steps fell to its collective knees.  We all dropped down, kneeling together, knowing at once that our young vibrant president was gone.  Some began praying aloud; others wept; nothing made sense and we knew the world would never again be the same.  The world would be forever different than what it had been a second ago.  It was impossible, it could not have happened, but President Kennedy was dead.

Later, along the West Side Highway, many cars heading north out of the city were parked over on the side, their drivers hunched over as they listened intently to their radios.

I kept driving back north to Larchmont, where I had grown up, and where I was now living with my young wife and our baby girl, Eva, who had been born just two months earlier.   Some time in the future, I told myself, I will tell her about this day.  I will try to tell her the meaning of November 22, 1963, if only I could learn what it was.