William George Meany has been one of the most private of public figures. The just-retired, 85-year-old man has made his public reputation one-dimensional: a cigar-chomping, finger-stabbing, table-pounding, tough-talking champion of labor.
Yet Meany reveals a lot about himself on canvas. His diverse oil and acrylic paintings -- landscaped, seascapes, still lifes, and abstracts -- portray a side of him that is sensitive, solitary, whimsical, gentle.
A self-taught painter who experiments in many modes, Meany employs proportion techniques from his line drawing lessons in apprentice plumbing school. The thick hands which once wielded a Stillson wrench now make delicate strokes with tiny sable brushes, creating a colorful pastoral world: A favorite vase of roses created for his late wife. A whimsical portrait for his grandson, Jeffery. A Christmas clown. An abstract doodled at a "boring" government meeting. Scenes of summer, winter, water and of his adored Ireland and other travel spots.
"I was expecting primitive work because he's self-taught, but his paintings are charming -- much better than Eisenhower's and Churchill's," said art historian Joan Walsh Goldman, who organized a one-man show of Meany's paintings at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies. "Now they'll know," Meany told Goldman, "that I do things other than bark at employers and politicians."
Serious health problems forced him to forego a 13th term as the only president of the merged AFL-CIO, a federation of 104 unions representing 13.6 million workers. Meany suffered a serious psychological blow: His razorsharp mind and tongue are imprisoned inside an aging body. "And I want to retire," he told associates, "while I still have all my marbles."
An uncharacteristic months-long depression stemmed from Meany's physical problems and the death in March of Eugenie (Gena), his wife of nearly 60 years, following a lingering illness. The chair where she waited for his daily return to their Bethesda home -- which he's consequently leaving for a condominium -- is vacant. There is no longer anyone to say in her equally caustic wise-cracking way, "I'm sure if we weren't married, he'd take that cigar to bed with him."
Gena Meany was primarily responsible for erecting an impenetrable barrier around their private life. When calls and visitors interrupted the Meany's home life during his early New York union days, she laid down the law. "My home is my castle," she decreed, "and I am the queen here. If you want to work, do it at the office because I can't raise a family this way." She banned reporters from coming to the home after the late Edward R. Murrow and his Person to Person TV crew in 1954 trampled her flowers and tracked mud into the house.
Home was for leisure and family -- a prime Meany interest: the office for work. Virginia Tehas, Meany's personal secretary for 39 years, partially credited Meany's durability to his "working normal hours and leaving the office behind when he goes home. He always said, 'What's the sense of worying about it? It'll be here in the morning.'"
Since his wife's death, the octogenarian, who is allergic to antibiotics, has been plagued with bouts of bronchitis, a knee injury and related reaction to a cortisone injection which complicated long-standing hip and ankle problems. When he discovered that his hip surgery of 13 years ago gave out, he decided to retire since he could no longer do the work. Severe pain from multiple physical problems over the years made Meany "seem like a public grump," retreating further into his privacy, noted Joe Goulden, author of the unauthorized 1972 biography, "Meany." Frequently, pain would drive Meany from his bed to learn the chords of a new Irish tune on the organ -- which he'd later sing in a booming baritone -- or paint in isolation, eyes weakened with cataracts, into the week hours of the morning.
Meany began painting 22 years ago when the eldest of his three daughters bought him a paint-by-numbers kit for Christmas. As with everything else, the labor leader determined, "If I'm going to paint, I'm going to do it right." He stretches his own canvas, sketches with charcoal pencil -- often from a favorite photo he has taken on global visits -- applies fixative and "dabbles away with paint."
"At first," recalled Tehas, "he didn't feel as if his painting from photographs was original. He was encouraged when I told him that Maurice Utrillo, his favorite artist, often copied post cards." Meany has produced some 60 paintings for family and friends. They're modestly initialed "G.M." "A collector was impressed that Mr. Meany had a Grandma Moses painting that he never saw before," reminisced Tehas. Actually, it was Meany's first effort, "Summertime," a delightful vision of flowers and trees. mThe tales differ as to Meany's proud response, with the best being "Grandma Moses, hell. Grandpa Meany."
Ten Meany originals hung in his sunny eighth-floor office overlooking the White House where the $110,000-a-year labor boss "kept an eye on the president."
Only the Meany family and selected intimates have seen the range of Meany's other faces. The difference between the public and private Meany is best illustrated when Meany's official AFL-CIO painting was being done. Tehas thought it looked too jolly; a Meany daughter too grim. The artist got so tired of turning the corners of the mouth up and down to accommodate the different perspectives that he painted two, a smiling one for the home and a solemn one for the building.