He did it his way

Remembering writer Jim Quinn, Philadelphia’s apostle of change

6 minute read
A hippie before the term was invented. (Photo: Daisy Fried.)
A hippie before the term was invented. (Photo: Daisy Fried.)

Imagine yourself born in 1935 into a world without TV, computers, mobile phones, or the Internet. Imagine growing up in a country where nothing seemed to change—where, as far as you knew, Franklin D. Roosevelt was always president, J. Edgar Hoover always ran the FBI, Connie Mack always ran the Philadelphia Athletics, and Joe Louis was always the world heavyweight boxing champion.

Imagine that your childhood hometown remains dominated by the same corrupt Republican political machine that Lincoln Steffens in 1903 pronounced “the worst-governed city in the country”—a city boxed in physically and psychologically by the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Chinese Wall” along Market Street; a city whose upper classes have fled to the suburbs to escape Philadelphia’s polluted air and chlorinated water; whose professional baseball teams finish last in their respective leagues, year after year; a city whose idea of culture begins and ends with the Orchestra and the Art Museum; a city whose idea of cuisine begins and ends with the two Bookbinder’s seafood houses.

Worst of all, imagine coming of age during a traumatic 16-year run that began with the stock-market crash of 1929, followed by the desperate poverty of the Great Depression and ultimately by the sheer existential terror of World War II.

This was the world that Jim Quinn, the fiercely brilliant Philadelphia writer, first encountered.

The rebel

Now imagine it’s 1945 and the most destructive war in history is finally over. If you’re like most young Americans, you’re grateful to live at last in peace and prosperity—so grateful that you slavishly worship your elders and reflexively celebrate the new status quo. In movies and pop songs of the late ’40s and early ’50s, teenagers and college students aspire (incredible as it may seem today) to emulate and please their parents.

Jim Quinn was the exception. In an age of conformists, he was a rebel. His Catholic high school in Northeast Philadelphia suspended him for “preaching communism.” At Temple, he created an alternative paper in competition with the Temple News, and led a boycott of the campus cafeteria when it raised the price of coffee. As early as the 1950s, when most young men sported ties and crewcuts and sold their souls to large faceless corporations, Jim was already growing long hair, dressing in a poncho, and working independently. As a freelance writer he attacked the materialism, conformism, and racism of his elders. In the Collegiate Guide to Philadelphia, he skewered what then passed for culture and cuisine in Philadelphia. He was a hippie long before that term was invented in the ’60s. And he remained true to his counter-culture principles long after most other hippies had grown up and sold out.

Are they charging?

I first met Jim in 1972, when I was an editor at Philadelphia magazine and Jim was our caustic and uncompromising restaurant critic.

At a time when most local food critics functioned as defenders of Philadelphia’s then-pathetic dining scene, Jim approached his role with brutal clarity. He once described a restaurant’s mussels in white wine sauce as “redolent of the ladies’ restroom at an abandoned Exxon station.” I once asked Jim for his rule of thumb about reviewing new restaurants. “How long do you give them to iron out the kinks before you review them?” I inquired. Jim replied: “Are they charging for the meals they serve?”

Puncturing pomposity

The phenomenon known as the “alternative press” first surfaced in the mid-1960s as the “underground press”—an outlet for rebellious hippies and antiwar protesters eager to speak truth to power, or scribble a poem while smoking a joint. The thought of turning a profit never occurred to the scruffy but feisty founders of these haphazardly published papers, like the Seed in Chicago, the Boston Phoenix, or the Drummer in Philadelphia. Throughout the 1970s I harbored a vision a step or two beyond that: a weekly paper where sophisticated writers and readers of all ages and backgrounds could argue about topics like religion, sex, and politics that were off-limits in the mainstream media.

The problem was that most prospective publishers and writers had no idea what I was talking about. When I finally found a willing partner in Susan Seiderman of the Welcomat in 1981, the number of Philadelphia journalists who “got” alternative journalism could be counted on one hand. (One aspiring contributor routinely labeled his submissions “Hot News!”) So I needed to enlist the few Philadelphians who sensed what I had in mind.

Luckily for me, Jim Quinn had just quit Philadelphia magazine following a quarrel with its new editor, Art Spikol. The Welcomat proved an ideal fit for Jim, who was not about to modify his anti-establishment posture just because he was then well into his mid-forties. Jim’s massive girth, flowing hair, bushy moustache, and flamboyant ponchos perfectly suited his colorful but uncompromising approach to politics, art, language, and food—all of which he combined in his restaurant reviews in chatty digressions that delighted his readers and exasperated his subjects. (In one of my favorite Quinn detours, Jim described the pompous conservative president of a local business college as “a man who has never sweated with his clothes on.”) When I moved on to launch Seven Arts magazine in 1993, Jim moved with me, this time contributing pointed features and interviews about Philadelphia’s arts scene.

Late new beginnings

Throughout those years, most Philadelphians knew Jim through his weekly food columns in the Inquirer’s late lamented Sunday magazine. He also produced four well-received books about food and language. To keep his blade sharp, in his mid-60s he turned to writing fiction, producing short stories and two novels. Exactly how Jim supported himself all those years without corporate fringe benefits or a pension plan baffles me.

Long before I knew him, Jim was involved in a conventional marriage that produced two children. As far as I know, that was Jim’s only concession to convention, and it didn’t last long. He spent much of his adult life in serial monogamy with a succession of women who mostly seemed to remain on good terms with him after they broke up. Then, 20 years ago, when he was 65, Jim married a much younger woman—the Philadelphia poet Daisy Fried—and 13 years ago he flouted convention once again by fathering a daughter at age 72. This became his opportunity to reinvent himself as a parent through games like “Animal Psychiatrist,” in which Jim would speak in the voices of various animals seeking his daughter Maisie’s help with their emotional problems.

When he died on September 30 at the age of 85, it could honestly be said that Jim reached the finish line with both his principles and his youthful spirit intact. Philadelphia is a much more exciting place today than ever before, especially in food and the arts. For that, Jim deserves some of the credit. By courageously and consistently asserting his right to be different, he emboldened many habitually cautious Philadelphians to do the same. In the process, he taught us an important lesson: change can be fun.

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