Early in his memoir, Peter Quinn shares what his mother told him and his siblings when they were growing up: “Wherever we went we should bring back a story.”
Quinn took his mother’s advice to heart, collecting and crafting stories from his native Bronx and the political backrooms and corporate boardrooms he later inhabited. A speechwriter for New York Govs. Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, he later did the same for executives at Time Inc. and, in between, authored the American Book Award–winning novel Banished Children of Eve: A Novel of Civil War New York. His memoir, which he started writing during the pandemic, is as much a celebration of his beloved borough as a recounting of his days penning important—and not-so-important—speeches for some of the twentieth century’s most influential politicians and power brokers.
In the memoir’s first section, Quinn concentrates on his childhood. He writes evocatively about the Bronx, specifically his native Parkchester neighborhood, a planned community of twelve thousand apartments and forty thousand tenants conceived, financed, and built by Metropolitan Life Insurance. “When I think back to my early childhood, most of all I remember brick. My mother pushed the baby carriage with [my twin brother] Tom and me through canyons of brick. Learning to walk, I held her hand and looked up at walls of brick.”
Noting that he likely traveled the circumference of the Earth without leaving the Bronx, he boasts that no matter where he went later in life—Albany, Belfast, the White House, Kansas City, Hot Dog Beach—he always took the borough with him. “Geography is the place we’re grounded, the place we never leave, the mind’s terrain, our native land.” (Quinn is such a part of the Bronx that, as an infant, he urinated on Babe Ruth’s white duck pants.)
Looming over his childhood was his father, Peter A. Quinn, an imperious and imposing figure who was about as emotionally available as the red brick surrounding the younger Quinn. A New Deal Democrat fully committed to Roosevelt’s progressive agenda, Peter A. Quinn was a member of the New York State Assembly and served one term as a congressman. After serving as a justice on the municipal court of New York City, he was elected to the New York Supreme Court.
He delivered the first speech Quinn ever saw. It was at the Communion breakfast of the NYPD Holy Name Society, held in the “football stadium-sized grand ballroom” of the Commodore Hotel, when Quinn and his twin brother, Tom, were in the second grade. Initially embarrassed by the performance, Quinn believed for years the loud applause his father received that morning was an “appalling mockery,” and he was afraid his father might blame his mother for making his sons bear witness to his failure. “If we had the kind of relationship we didn’t, I’d have tried in some way to let him know that, whatever the audience thought, we were proud of him.”