Where Thurber and Co. Knocked It Back
In an excerpt from Cast of Characters, his book about the golden age of The New Yorker, Thomas Vinciguerra guides us through the magazine’s preferred saloons.
Simply put, drinking suffused The New Yorker. “Everyone seemed to drink back then,” said Helen Stark, the magazine’s longtime librarian. The extent of this activity astonished Thurber’s brother, Robert. “I never could figure out how all those people could drink all that stuff and stay so sharp,” he said. “I don’t think I finished one dinner on theater night before curtain time, so much was spent on cocktails.” (Instancing Robert Benchley, E.B. White once remarked, “A man can do a lot of drinking and still turn out a lot of work.”)
The young writer Walter Bernstein once saw A. J. Liebling in action: “He ordered a martini straight up and drank it down like a glass of water.” Every night Russell Maloney would come home with a bottle of gin, once prompting his toddling daughter Amelia to lisp, “Bat’s mo,” i.e., “That’s more.” These were among her first words.
As the speakeasies morphed into respectable outlets, The New Yorker’s leading lights moved readily among them. For straightforward cocktails and dinner, the Algonquin, “21,” and Martin and Mino’s on East 52nd Street were the destinations of choice. For slightly more exclusive surroundings, the personnel gravitated toward those hallmarks of café society, El Morocco and the Stork Club. The former became famous for its zebra-striped motifs, commemorated in myriad photographs by Beebe’s photographer boyfriend Jerome Zerbe. The latter is today remembered for its equally famous pictures of notables clustered at tables that were graced by its trademark ashtrays and top-hatted stork centerpieces. This was where Winchell held court, and from which Wolcott Gibbs’s Fire Island nemesis Leonore Lemmon reportedly became the first woman to be ejected for fist fighting.
New Yorker people did not necessarily go to these places to see and be seen. (Peter Arno, in the company of Brenda Frazier, was a notable exception.) Their preferred watering holes were both conveniently located and tended to have a quirky ambiance. An Italian immigrant named Tony Soma, a former waiter, opened a namesake restaurant at 57 West 52nd Street that drew [New Yorker founding editor Harold] Ross and his brood in part for his outlandish stunts. Soma was an early yoga fanatic, frequently doing headstands on the premises during the height of business hours and even on the sidewalk to attract customers.
Another immigrant, this one from Ireland, also operated an establishment named for himself. Tim Costello, though possessed of little formal education, was a devotee of the English language and often conveyed his literary tastes as might a college professor. Costello’s was far from classy; its food was often terrible, with green vegetables simmered beyond recognition into a pulpy mess. Physically, it was “a long narrow shoebox of a space, with the bar itself running along the south wall and a number of cheap wooden booths facing it on the opposite wall,” recalled Brendan Gill. “In the space that remained between the last booth and the serving pantry were a few tables, covered with white, much-mended tablecloths.” But it achieved a certain kind of perverse immortality thanks to a few mainstays of The New Yorker. In one often-retold story, a drunken John O’Hara, equipped with a blackthorn walking stick, encountered Ernest Hemingway there in the wee hours. Supposedly a bullying Hemingway, not believing an equally bullying O’Hara’s assertion that he possessed the best blackthorn walking stick in New York City, bet O’Hara that he could break it over his head and proceeded to do so. Costello saved the pieces and mounted them over the bar.
Costello’s, located first at the corner of Third Avenue and 44th Street and then next door at 699 Third Avenue—under the shadow of the El— was a forum for “some of the best arguments” in New York City, the journalist Charles McCabe recalled after presenting the place with a copy of The World Almanac:
“I remember one about what the ‘B' in Rutherford B. Hayes stood for. This one was settled when Dick Maney, a theatrical press agent, entered the joint … One day I asked Tim Costello, who with his brother ran the place, why he didn’t invest a half buck in the invaluable reference book of which we are speaking. Tim was visibly taken aback. “What!” he said indignantly, “and have them settle all those arguments?” There spoke the true Irish tradesman. All Tim thought of was selling spirits and beer, and prolonged arguments increased his income. Having a World Almanac in his pub would in his view be in the same category as the return of Prohibition.”
One of the major celebrants of Costello’s was the writer John McNulty, who published a series of short stories about the place and its offbeat denizens without ever quite identifying it, employing such euphemisms as “this gin mill on Third Avenue” and “this place on Third Avenue.” His contributions were often rambling yarns with titles almost as long and shaggy as the stories themselves, e.g., “Barkeep Won’t Let Anybody at All Shove This Handyman Around” and “They’d Have Taken Him If He Was Only a Torso.” Thurber wrote an affectionate introduction to his collected stories, which were gathered under the title The World of John McNulty.
Thurber made his own literal impression on Costello’s—on its walls, in the form of his customary doodles. Among them were three rabbits chasing a Thurber dog downhill and a Thurber Woman tackling a Thurber Man. So flattered was Costello by this artistry and its consequent publicity that he ordered that the place was never to close as long as Thurber was there. This could be rather tiresome to the staff when he stumbled in at two or three in the morning, “prepared to talk and sing until dawn.” When Costello moved his establishment around the corner in 1949, he transported the wallboard with particular care. (As the years went by, and cigarette smoke and grease darkened the murals’ contours, attempts were made to brighten up and retrace them. When Costello’s closed for good in 1994, the originals were believed to be lost. However, a patron rescued a sketch that Thurber had drawn on a tablecloth stained with whiskey and steak juice and presented it to Helen, the writer’s widow.)
Just as popular as Costello’s, if not more so, was Bleeck’s (pronounced “Blake’s”) at 213 West 40th Street. It was the de facto retreat for the Herald Tribune, which had an employees’ entrance just a few feet away. When a Trib man said, “I’m going downstairs,” he meant he was on his way to Bleeck’s. So close were the two institutions that “when the presses rolled, the walls of Bleeck’s trembled symbiotically, and reporters and editors would leave their martinis on the bar and go upstairs to check their stories in print. Their drinks would be waiting when they got back.”
The owner, John (“Jack” or, less frequently, “Dutch”) Bleeck, was born in St. Louis in 1880 and made his way east via boxcar at age twenty. He opened his place in 1925 and, under the pretense of legality and with a dubious dispensation from Albany, christened it the Artist and Writers’ Club. It soon acquired about six thousand members, all of them men; the only female allowed was a cat called Minnie. When Prohibition ended, Bleeck tried to keep things stag. But after customers began patronizing coed establishments, costing him an average of five hundred dollars a month, he relented. In 1934, when the first anonymous woman entered Bleeck’s, one charter member muttered, “There’ll be mayonnaise on the steaks next week.”
Actually, the only major change in the place was in its name. It was rechristened the “Artist and Writers’ Restaurant (Formerly Club),” leading many to call it “The Formerly Club.” Its name notwithstanding, Bleeck’s remained a mainly male citadel, its clientele comprising not only writers and editors but actors, publishers, painters, cartoonists, publicists, singers, and all manner of those somehow associated with the arts and letters—so much so that it was commonly known as a latter-day Mermaid Tavern.
As was the case with Costello’s, the decor, described as “early Butte, Montana,” was not designed to impress. “The tables and chairs were battered dark oak and the walls a particularly ugly shade of brown, darkened by years of exposure to billowing cigar smoke,” said Leslie Midgley. “It was grand.” The bar itself was a staggering 42 feet long; along the wall facing it was a single row of small tables devoid of tablecloths. Just past this arrangement were two dining rooms separated by a partition, in front of which stood a suit of armor that once belonged to the nearby Metropolitan Opera. Perhaps to keep it erect, it was filled with cement, and many a boisterous drunk broke his knuckles on it. Above the bar was a stuffed fish caught by J. P. Morgan off Newport. Other odd memorabilia included a radiogram sent by the Times reporter Russell Owen from the South Pole during Admiral Byrd’s first Antarctic expedition and a painting by the Trib cartoonist Clare Briggs that depicted a golfer lifting his glass on the nineteenth hole. Radios and jukeboxes were verboten, as were certain foods. Heavy German fare like sauerbraten, red cabbage, and potato pancakes were Bleeck’s staples; anyone who wanted to indulge in French fries or ice cream was curtly informed to patronize Schrafft’s, down the street.
The booming, florid-faced, white-haired Bleeck was devoted to his patrons. He was especially pleased when it began raining around dinnertime, which encouraged them to linger. His “subterranean grotto” had only one window that looked out onto the bottom of a 12-story airshaft, an arrangement that he used to his advantage, as Nunnally Johnson attested: “Jack fixed up a kind of shower bath effect over this one window and would turn it on around 5 or 5:30, whereupon the customers would glance toward the window, see the downpour and decide to have another until the shower passed over.”
Bleeck probably didn’t need the fake rain. When his clients were in his care, time stood still, much to the consternation of many wives; whenever they would ring up to ask where their husbands were, the standard response was, “He just left.” But Richard Maney’s feisty wife, Betty, was not easily put off. Once, when her husband did not come home for his evening meal of cherrystone clams and bluefish, she stomped over to Bleeck’s, put it before him, and announced, “All right, Mohamet, here’s your dinner.” When Maney declined to eat, she began lugging the clams and fish to bewildered customers at the surrounding tables, “suggesting to them both items were better than anything on the menu, and could be had for a fraction of what Bleeck would ask.”
“Bleeck’s, when you analyze it, is very much like a front line dug-out—the noise, the dogged courage of the men holding on till zero hour, the fits of hysteria, the sitting around in sullen gloom,” said Thurber. One New Yorker editor stood on a table and, denouncing Isaac Newton, declared that he would fly to the men’s room. Only quick intervention kept him from breaking his neck. There was organized horseplay as well: the regulars enjoyed their own form of the Dead Pool, which they called “The Ghoul Pool” and “The Grim Reaper’s Sweepstakes.” For two dollars apiece, participants would draw one of a hundred names of celebrities “who were either aged or likely to die through violence,” for a payout of two hundred dollars, two or three times a week as they expired. Darts, too, were popular, until Gibbs boasted that by using a mirror, he could score bull’s-eyes by throwing them over his back. But after he nearly skewered a relative of Saturday Evening Post editor George Horace Lorimer, the game was played no more.
Far more pervasive than the Ghoul Pool or darts was the match game, “one of the daffiest pastimes ever devised by man for his own confusion.” The idea was simple, based on guessing how many matches— from zero to three—the other players were holding in their closed hands. But the execution could quickly become complex and expensive, as Maney recalled:
“Each of the fanatics guesses at the total of matches concealed in all the visible fists. If seven are playing, the possibilities range from nothing to 21. The player guessing the correct number is eliminated. Further rounds with further eliminations continue until but two players are left. The finalists play best two out of three guesses. The doomed man then pays each of his jeering opponents the sum fixed at the start, usually compounding his fiscal folly by buying a round of drinks. The flaw in the game, by any mathematical standard known to Einstein, Euclid or Copernicus, is that with seven playing, a competitor can lose as much in one game as he can win in six.”
This childish nonsense was so addictive that it spawned its own subculture. Stanley Walker, the Trib’s legendary city editor, once played a hundred straight games to see if there was an advantage to going first or last. (He found a slight advantage to the former.) A few of the game’s better practitioners toyed with the notion of making a career of it. Some were good enough that they attributed their success to clairvoyance; others, less successful, resorted to voodoo in an attempt to turn their fortunes. Lucius Beebe would play with his own solid gold matches, complete with diamond heads. For less well-heeled players, Bleeck would distribute thousands of sets of plastic matches at Christmastime. When the bar closed at four in the morning, diehard matchers would sometimes continue their game on the sidewalk. When John Lardner died and was laid out, Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly put three matches in his hand.
At one point, though, even as devoted a gamesman as Maney decided he had had enough during a particularly riotous bout involving nine people, including himself and Gibbs. Gibbs was so drunk that he couldn’t recognize his opponents. Still, it befell him to be the first one to venture how many matches all nine participants were clutching. Against all logic and experience, he guessed none. “And before God, he won!” said Johnson. “Not even Ripley would have believed that.” Whereupon Maney bowed out, explaining that “he wouldn’t play in a game subject to miracles.”
There was a downside to this drinking culture, of course. Some of it is—in retrospect—funny. On an occasion when Frederick (“Freddie”) Packard, longtime head of the fact-checking department, was cat sitting, he found himself so deeply hung over that he couldn’t be bothered opening a tin of cat food. So he reached into the refrigerator, grabbed a dish of cooked peas, and set it down. The disgusted cat whapped the peas with a paw, sending them across the floor. Gibbs found himself on the floor any number of times; once, when his steak slipped off his plate, he simply swore, bent down, and continued to carve it. Another time, after heckling his nemesis Leonore Lemmon in a nightclub, he ended up practically prostrate. This prompted Lemmon to shout, “Hey, Wolcott! You’re out three days before your magazine.”
Reprinted from Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E. B. White, James Thurber, and the Golden Age of The New Yorker by Thomas Vinciguerra. Copyright © 2016 by Thomas Vinciguerra. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Thomas Vinciguerra is a founding editor of The Week magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Times. He is the editor of Conversations With Elie Wiesel and Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs From The New Yorker.