“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…