MIKE QUILL--HIMSELF by Shirley Quill


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New Yorkers of mellow years, and old-time unionists, remember Mike Quill (1905-1966) as the cocky, contumacious boss of the Transport Workers Union (TWU): a leprechaun dandy with an Auld Sod brogue and Communist backing. That memory is effectively preserved in L.L. Whittemore's 1968 The Man who Ran the Subways. This is a different, complementary quantity: a memorial to Quill the Irish revolutionary and scourge-of-all-oppressors--less true-to-fact than true-to-life--by the long-time aide and ""constant companion"" whom he married after his wife's death, in 1961. Shirley Quill, a radical Jewish firebrand, first relates the story of the Kilgarvan-rebel Quills (hunted by Black and Tans, then by Free Starers), and of Mike's 1926 coming to America, his ""long, dreary, dusty nights"" in subway change booths, his catalyzing discovery of Irish socialist/unionist James Connolly--inspiration to ""raise an army to fight the exploiters as once the Irish had fought the British tyrants."" The Communists would provide the means--but Shirley Quill insists throughout on Mike's independence: he forbade them to distribute CP circulars at TWU rallies; the TWU breakthrough seizure of a subway power plant (1937) was done over their objections. How much Mike was used, and how much he was the user, can't be sorted out here: we're told that he later regretted supporting the Hitler-Stalin Pact (but not how much later); we also hear that when he finally broke with the Communists, over their opposition to raising the nickel fare (so the workers could have a raise), ""the majority of TWU's International Board were members of the Communist Party."" From both before and after Shirley's meeting with Mike--during his 1943 City Council campaign--there are TWU/City Hall reverberations: brickbats for liberal-hero LaGuardia, for abrogating the union contract in taking over NYC transit lines; bouquets for luckless Bill O'Dwyer, who raised the fare, supported a payroll checkoff and ""other major union objectives."" On the national scene, Shirley discloses ""the long-suppressed and painful story"" of how John L. Lewis tried to recruit anti-British Mike as a Nazi propagandist (as alleged in William Stevenson's A Man Called Intrepid, for one); and she depicts the 1955 CIO/AFL merger as ""the second major political tragedy of Mike's life"" (after the Irish debacle). . . presaging his massive heart attack and, on the heels of the 1966 NYC transit strike, his death. Worked in is Shirley's story: uneasy secular-Jewish childhood in cozy gentile Woodside; role-switch from family cynosure (in contrast to her difficult older sister) to argumentative, defiant teen; early failed marriage to neighborhood boyfriend Morton Gould, the pianist/composer (and two subsequent failed marriages, in futile attempts to break away from Mike). Some inevitable sentimentalizing apart, the double, Irish-Jewish insurgent voice has an exuberance and abrasiveness that's history now too.

Pub Date: March 17th, 1985
Publisher: Devin-Adair