11/18/14

A Quick One at the Jumble Shop


New York City is a boîte boneyard, a nite-spot necropolis, a potter’s field of cabarets, oyster palaces and hotel lounges.

Some names of past hotspots live on in popular lore — your Stork Club, your El Morocco. But there were so many others, maybe smaller in size and fame, that were at one time just as legendary with a certain clientele. Today they are nearly unknown. The heyday of these storied joints can never be recreated. Well, if we can’t step inside, let’s loiter outside and toast, in salute to good times past. We may be a little late, but we have time for a quick one.


Today's Stop: The Jumble Shop


Maeve Brennan (the Long-Winded Lady to her fans) begins a Talk of the Town piece in the December 3, 1960 New Yorker,
“One night about ten years ago, very late at night, I was sitting in the big, square bar of the Jumble Shop when Jean Gabin walked in and sat down.”
We are to be surprised at the great French actor’s appearance in a humble Greenwich Village hangout, as the point of her story is that movie stars turn up in the oddest places. But the Jumble Shop attracted its own luminaries—not always the sort to set a Hollywood marquee ablaze, although just as important in their own scene, the art world.




The Jumble Shop served its first dinner in 1922 at 21 West Eighth Street. It had opened as an antique shop the previous year. The owners, Frances Russell and Winifred Tucker, hospitable folk, served tea in the front room to friends and customers, but when it became apparent that more people were dropping in for a snack than to buy they decided the restaurant business might be a better bet. They kept the same sign out front, and the antique collection became décor. Soon more space became necessary and in 1926 The Jumble Shop moved across the street to number 28.

28 West Eighth Street today.
Greenwich Village in the ‘Twenties being the epicenter of the arts in New York the place drew a clientele heavy with writers, sculptor and painters. Guy Pène du Bois,  Reginald Marsh and Ashcan ace William Glackens were early regulars. The Jumble Shop became a space for informal art exhibitions and also a meeting place for painters and critics; Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis, and Arshile Gorky could be found frequently holding court. The avant-garde in performing arts was represented by Deems Taylor and Martha Graham.

The tan building was Fraser's studio on MacDougal Alley.
Sculptor Daniel Chester French, most famous for the Seated Lincoln in Washington, DC’s Lincoln Memorial, was an early regular, as was another sculptor of monumental portraiture, James Earle Fraser, who ate lunch at the first Shop daily. His studio was a converted 1854 stable in MacDougal Alley, just behind Eighth Street.  When he moved out, the Jumble Shop claimed the vacancy, and expanded 28 West Eighth Street back through the former studio.  In 1933, after Repeal, they had the opportunity to take over the storefront at 176 MacDougal on the corner of the Alley.  Their landlord offered the bar from a saloon on the corner of Eighth and MacDougal and this space became the Tap Room.

176 MacDougal, the Jumble Shop Tap Room.
In the ’Thirties and ‘Forties, for the painters that would soon become the “New York School,” Greenwich Village bars came to fill a social role akin to the cafés of Paris. These were important venues to unwind and talk about their work with their peers. Painter Lee Krasner recalls, in a 1964 oral history recorded by the Smithsonian’s Archives of America Art, “The Jumble Shop was a place in the Village where you could sit down in the evening and nurse a glass of beer and talk about your art problems.” By 1949 the group would be codified into a combination lecture series and debating society called The Club, but up until then, The Jumble Shop or Romany Marie’s would be the place to find displaced European painters like de Kooning, Gorky and John Graham mixing with home-grown artists like Barnett Newman and Stuart Davis, and critic Harold Rosenberg, honing the ideas that would become the foundation of Abstract Expressionism.

The literary arts were also well represented. Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Ford Madox Ford, J.D. Salinger and Patricia Highsmith were among the noted scribes to be found here. S.J. Perelman loved to drop the Jumble Shop into his stories, often to satirical effect when he wanted to evoke a genteel bohemianism peculiar to the Village. Thomas Wolfe was a loyal patron, and a handwritten note thanking the owners for their hospitality hung in a frame above his favorite table for many years. Until it went missing. According to Bennett Cerf’s column of May 2, 1955, the thief confessed his crime in a note to the restaurant:
“Will return that Wolfe item as soon as I finish my own novel. I was stuck and about to give up the other night when I read Wolfe’s letter and it gave me new inspiration. It’s on my wall now, but I’ll be through with my book soon.”
Did the Jumble Shop’s artistic credibility fall victim to its own long-standing success? One cranky naysayer, Robert C. Ruark, in a 1946 column syndicated to Scripps-Howard newspapers, complains that the post-war bohemian scene in Greenwich Village had become so tame that “The Jumble Shop now has a sign which says females in slacks won’t be served, and that the men better have a coat on…” Not the artistic orgy Ruark had been on the prowl for.
 
But in some form or another the Jumble Shop lasted another few decades; its bankruptcy notice appeared in the New York Times in 1967.



Last week,  we assembled at 176 MacDougal Street and MacDougal Alley for an informal salute.

A convenient telephone booth served us as a makeshift bar. We chose a Chianti for our toast, a tribute to the commingling of Italian immigrants and artists that shaped the early days of the bohemian in Greenwich Village.





A toast: "To solving your art problems!"


11/2/14

Day of the Lizards


On the last perfect Indian Summer day of the season we decided to make the most of the beautiful weather and go visiting in the neighborhood. We should mention that in our little corner of Queens we’re surrounded by cemeteries, so a lot of our neighbors have been dead for years. There are a couple notable folks interred nearby we had never called on, so we took a mile stroll, past the two enormous halves of New Calvary Cemetery, to Mt. Zion, a Jewish cemetery established 1893.


mtzleftmtzright

Compared to the bigger Catholic cemeteries, Mt. Zion has a very different look; the monuments are placed closer together and many seem smaller and taller, too. Off the paths at Mt. Zion it can feel like you’re walking through a marble labyrinth.




Our first stop of note was at the two monuments to the victims of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, one erected by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the other by the Workingmen’s Circle. Mt. Zion is divided into hundreds of plots, most family owned, but many sponsored by fraternal and social clubs, charities, labor unions or religious organizations. Cast iron gates, most dating from the turn of the Twentieth century, mark entry to the various fraternal and neighborhood societies' sections. The Workingmen’s Circle (known as Arbeter Ring in Yiddish, hence the AR in their logo and on the gate) was founded in 1900 to promote the interests of social justice and the labor movement in the Jewish community. Their sentinels have lost an arm or two, but the organization is still around.


 A short walk brought us to the main attraction for this trip: Night man at many a Manhattan fleabag, and one of our favorite writers, Nathanael West. West managed to write both the quintessential Hollywood satire, “Day of the Locusts,” and one of the best novels about New York City, “Miss Lonleyhearts.” He and his wife Eileen, (an important muse for not only West but also her own sister, author Ruth McKenney) died, far too young, in a car crash in 1940. His contribution to literary art wasn’t limited to his own work, he also often wangled his writer buddies cheap—or free—rooms at the hotels he managed. You can read about it in Writing Manhattan, an essential product from the fabulous Herb Lester Associates (that we happened to write.)



One more famous resident before we end our visit; another wordsmith, this time a maven of the musical theatre, Lorenz (Larry) Hart, the lyrical half, with partner Richard Rodgers, of the most successful duo on Broadway in the ‘Twenties and ‘Thirties.




We met very few people on our long ramble through the cemetery. Unexpectedly, a nature show introduced vibrancy and life into the stillness; birds black and grey and neon yellow chattered and displayed a flash of color, and lizards rustled in the leafy plots. Lizards in Queens? That’s what we thought, too, and we have never seen them in Calvary, just across 58th Street, but they are everywhere in Mt. Zion. This fellow basking on Nathanael West’s headstone seemed to have had an idea similar to ours on how to spend a sunny Sunday.




10/3/14

A Quick One at Billy La Hiff's Tavern


New York City is a boîte boneyard, a nite-spot necropolis, a potter’s field of cabarets, oyster palaces and hotel lounges.

Some names of past hotspots live on in popular lore — your Stork Club, your El Morocco. But there were so many others, maybe smaller in size and fame, that were at one time just as legendary with a certain clientele. Today they are nearly unknown. The heyday of these storied joints can never be recreated.  Well, if we can’t step inside, let’s loiter outside and toast, in salute to good times past. We may be a little late, but we have time for a quick one.

Today’s stop:  Billy LaHiff’s Tavern


It was an occupational bar and neighborhood tavern, linking glitz and guts and newspaper ink.  They intersected in the neighborhood known as Times Square. 

From the day it opened in 1922, Billy La Hiff’s Tavern at 156-158 West 48th Street was a hit. It drew a Runyon-esque crowd; show girls and comedians, professional gamblers and gangsters, columnists of both the gossip and sports pages, ball players, turf accountants, prize fighters and their managers, all made the Tavern their home base. The roaring success owed much to the personality and reputation of host Billy La Hiff, and his expert staff led by the wise-cracking Jack Spooner, with Walter George Gates and Pat Geraty. This trio of star waiters had spent the ‘Teens honing their skills at Jack Dunston’s saloon (across from the famed Hippodrome) where they had a unique method of giving trouble drunks the bum’s rush. Adapted from the gridiron, they called it “the Flying Wedge,” and they would later employ it at La Hiff’s.

At age 16 Billy La Hiff left Providence, RI for New York City, landing a job in the wine cellar of the old Waldorf-Astoria under the tutelage of famous maître d’ Oscar Tschirky. Within two years he had advanced to wine steward, a high status job that acquainted him with all the top movers and shakers in café society: Diamond Jim Brady, Harry K. Thaw, gambler Dick Canfield, and Ward McAllister, the arbiter of New York’s fabled “Four Hundred.” His Waldorf connections would prove useful when in 1905 La Hiff struck off on his own, opening the Gayety Café at West 46th Street and Broadway, with partner Frank Gerety. The next venture, the Strand Café, was a solo effort located a block uptown on Broadway. He later moved off the thoroughfare to West 47th and rechristened his restaurant the Strand Chop House. In 1919 he sold the lease on this property at considerable profit, setting the stage for his most famous eatery.


Adjacent three story townhouses were acquired, numbers 156 and 158 on West 48th Street next door to the Vanderbilt Theatre.  A renovation joined the two structures, added a story, and opened in 1922 as La Hiff’s Tavern, with rental apartments above.

Those rentals would house a cast of Broadway characters over the years. The apartments took on the aspect of a bachelor pad for a time when Walter Winchell and Damon Runyon, both ducking the women in their lives, and cartoonist Bugs Baer lived upstairs from the Tavern. Other notable residents included a pre-Stork Club Sherman Billingsley, and Jack Dempsey. In 1930 newlyweds Ed and Sylvia Sullivan moved in.

Downstairs the Tavern was awash in celebrity. Every major Broadway star of the ‘Twenties made their way to La Hiff’s: Harry Richman, Paul Whiteman, Al Jolson, comics Bert Lahr and Bert Wheeler were regulars. Before Hollywood lured her away, stage star Nancy Carroll could be found there – not surprisingly, since her uncle was Billy La Hiff. When Barbara Stanwyck was still Ruby Stevens, teenaged chorus girl fresh out of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, she and her roommates Mae Clarke and Walda Mansfield knew Billy was an easy touch for a roast beef dinner when money got tight. Presumably he saw the value of decorating his restaurant with vivacious chorines, regardless of their ability to pay. The Tavern was in the English chop house style so popular at that time; the beef was very good, but it was the ale that columnist Westbrook Pelger remembered as about the best you could find during Prohibition. Speaking of the noble experiment, apparently it didn’t matter that Mayor Jimmie Walker was a regular, when the Feds wanted a raid they got it. On July 31, 1932 agents bought a glass of ale and promptly herded the waiters and cashier into patrol wagons.  On the street, a crowd of a thousand, both La Hiff’s diners and Broadway passersby, jeered the cops, according to the New York Sun. La Hiff’s Tavern was reopened for business within the hour.

With a new Madison Square Garden just a couple blocks over on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street, the Tavern drew the top talent in the pugilistic world. The joint got even more interesting. One evening, after Harry “The Pittsburg Windmill” Greb successfully defended his middleweight title against Mickey Walker, both fighters found themselves relaxing at the Tavern. Words were exchanged, and before long the two pugs decided it was best to take a walk outside and, to the delight of sports writers and fans at the bar,  start slugging each other, a bizarre encore to the fifteen grueling rounds they had just completed at the Garden. On another memorable night, Greb was spotted drinking at La Hiff’s before a big bout. The Tavern being filled with professional gamblers, as it always was, his drunken appearance lowered the betting odds in a considerable hurry. But the wily Greb had only been drinking ginger ale that evening and won the bout handily, thus enjoying a bonanza on wagers made much more profitable due to his subterfuge. La Hiff’s was so much a part of the prizefighting world that Jimmy Breslin, in his biography of Runyon, painted a picture of Primo Carnera training in the top floor loft.

Big league baseball players favored the Tavern as well. The last game of the 1926 World Series begat another legend connected with La Hiff’s. Pitching ace Grover Cleveland Alexander had already won two games for the Cardinals. After his victory in game six, and assuming the team wouldn’t need him again, he celebrated so vigorously at La Hiff’s that the morning of the seventh game found him back at the Tavern trying to shake off a monumental hangover. Manager Rogers Hornsby, fearing he might need Alexander, sent a taxi to collect him from the Tavern and deliver him to Yankee Stadium. By the seventh inning the starting pitcher had developed a blister. After scant warmup, Alexander came in with the bases loaded and the dangerous Tony “Poosh ‘Em Up” Lazzeri at the plate. He struck him out, closed out the remaining innings with no damage from the Bombers, and St. Louis won the Championship.

It’s no wonder columnists were drawn to the Tavern as the hub of the Times Square scene. Newspapermen found the goings-on irresistible. Besides Sullivan, Winchell and Runyon, the usual crowd would include Grantland Rice, Gene Fowler, Westbrook Pelger, Mark Hellinger Leonard Lyon, Ring Lardner and Brooklyn Eagle gossip Rian James, who lost badly at checkers to Billy La Hiff but always came back for more.

After La Hiff died in 1934, his son, Billy Jr., hired Toots Shor as manager. Toots had made a reputation as a trusted bouncer and glad-handing doorman in a series of top speakeasies, Owney Madden’s the Five O’Clock Club being the first. In 1936 the younger La Hiff sold out to Shor and a partner, Philadelphia real estate developer Paul F. Herron. Shor and his wife moved into the apartments above the Tavern and enjoyed the established La Hiff Tavern scene, mixing with the sporting and entertainment worlds. This idyll lasted until the end of 1938 when Toots’ gambling losses pushed him out of the job. But the atmosphere at the Tavern suited Shor’s personality so perfectly that when he opened his own joint in 1940 it was to follow the same lively pattern.

Jack Spooner went on to maître d’ the Cub Room at Sherman Billingsley’s Stork Club. Walter George Gates kept on at the Tavern, logging something near six decades as a waiter. La Hiff’s Tavern closed in 1942.

The empty space was filled by another established restaurant, Zucca’s, relocated from 118 West 49th, its home since 1919. In 1965, Rockefeller Center bought the building for Manny’s Music whose original location would be razed to make room for new office towers as the complex expanded across Sixth Avenue. Manny’s reopened in 1969, sold out to Sam Ash music in 2009, and the store at 156-158 West 48th finally closed in 2012.




There’s nothing left of the glory of Billy La Hiff’s Tavern.



And Manny’s is just a name inlaid into the tile in front of a locked roll down gate.


But here on the sidewalk we raised a glass of ale to Billy La Hiff and the memory of one of the brightest spots on the Great White Way.






Next time we have a Quick One, A Little Late we will be taking a peek at another long gone hot spot, one that kept our Bohemian ancestors well lubricated.

9/3/14

A Quick One at Bleeck's


New York City is a jumble of eras. As another glass tower rises, our 1882-vintage underground steam system pokes its head up to laugh. A building comes down and a ghost sign touting hair tonic or whalebone corsets is exposed on the adjoining bricks. At a brand new cocktail lounge we might admire a tile floor dating from three shops ago, or wonder about the path the backbar has taken over the course of a century to arrive here, though it is frustratingly mute to our attempts at an interview. The restaurant we ate at last night could very well be eulogized in Jeremiah’s column this afternoon. Today’s newspaper is already old by the time it hits the newsstand.

When we’re reading —even if it’s fiction— and a notable address is mentioned, we can’t help running down the street to see what’s there now. It’s exciting when some scrap from the past remains, but fat chance these days; odds are everything’s long gone. Sometimes not even street numbers persist if a block has been busted up by an office tower, often sporting a showy new realtor-minted address. In a recent binge-read we gobbled up Jack Finney’s time travel fantasy novels, “Time and Again” and “The Woodrow Wilson Dime.” Even if you never daydream that, by some clever mind game or simply squinting real hard, you could maybe (maybe, maybe) trick a parallel world into view, Finney style, the many strata of city history are there in plain sight, waiting for you. Our city is a boîte boneyard, a nite-spot necropolis, a potter’s field of cabarets, oyster palaces and hotel lounges.

Some names of past hotspots still live on in popular lore — your Stork Club, your El Morocco. But there were others, maybe smaller in size and fame, that were at one time just as legendary with a certain clientele. Today they are nearly unknown. The heyday of these storied joints, long departed, can never be recreated. But if we can’t step inside, let’s loiter outside and toast, in salute to good times past. We may be a little late, but we have time for a quick one.

Our first stop, Bleeck’s.

 

 

by Jon Hammer ©2014
Interior décor at Bleeck’s featured a full suit of armor swiped from the prop department of the old Metropolitan Opera, and a marlin said to have been caught by J.P. Morgan.

“I’m going downstairs.”

In the offices of the New York Herald Tribune these words always signified a field trip to Bleeck’s, the bar at 213 West 40th Street, just “a stein’s throw” away from the newspaper’s back door. The Herald Tribune was at 230 West 41st Street from 1924-66, but the employees’ entrance was one block south at 219-220 West 40th; today, fittingly, this is the entrance to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Bleeck’s was destroyed by fire in 1981 and 213 is now a link in the Hale & Hearty Soup chain.

In 1925 Jack Bleeck (pronounced ‘blake’ in the Dutch manner) finagled a charter for a social club he named The Artist & Writers Club. No one was ever quite sure the reason for that singular artist. The private club angle was a dodge to skirt Prohibition. Soon there were 6,000 members on the rolls, a sizable proportion of these were ink-stained wretches from the Trib. At this point everyone just called it Bleeck’s. Ace Broadway press agent and Bleeck’s regular Richard Maney told Life Magazine readers in 1945,
Even those skilled in distinguishing shadings in the spectrum find it difficult to determine where the Herald Tribune leaves off and Bleeck’s starts in, and vice versa.
It is said that when the walls of the saloon would begin to shake as the presses upstairs started their run, the bar would clear out as newsmen ran to check their copy. The New Yorker offices were also nearby, and soon Joe Mitchell and A.J. Leibling were leading James Thurber and their co-workers along a well beaten path to Bleeck’s door. Eventually reporters, columnists, writers and press agents from all over town made the bar a favorite literary hangout. Dick Schapp interviewed Norman Mailer there to coincide with the publication of “An American Dream.” The Newspaper Guild union was practically formed there in 1933 when Heywood Broun encouraged Bleeck’s habitués to join.

Bleeck’s was a busy joint. In the early days it attracted opera singers from the old Met, just a block away, and sundry thespians and stagehands from the National Theatre (later the Billy Rose, now the Nederlander) at 208 West 41st Street. Tallulah Bankhead is remembered wearing mink with slacks while she shot dice with French sailors during her 1939 run at the National in Lillian Hellman’s “Little Foxes.” Bogart brought Bacall to learn the famous “match game.”

As described in Life, the match game was born in Bleeck’s and the fierce competition became the stuff of legend. A game for any number of players, each hides in his fist from zero to three matches. Contestants guess the total number of matches held, and a correct guess means you are eliminated. This continues until there are two players left. From this point, the best two out of three rounds wins, and the loser pays out a predetermined stake to each of the winners.

The local color at Bleeck’s was not restricted to its famous patrons. The staff had its characters, too, according to Lucius Beebe, in “Snoot If You Must,”

It was at Bleeck’s that Harry McCormack, the demented barkeep, imagined he maintained a complete poultry farm and apiary behind the bar. The premises, in his fancy, were filled with white leghorns and bees in clover, and he was forever scattering imaginary cracked corn to his flock among the duckboards back of the ice bins. He was an excellent barkeep.

Some Regulars: Herbert Asbury, Lucius Beebe, Heywood Broun, Jimmy Breslin, Walt Kelly, John Lardner, A.J. Liebling, Arthur Miller, Joe Mitchell, John O’Hara, James Thurber, and Herald Tribune owner Jock Whitney.


Shall we have a look at the place today?








The Artist [sic] and Writers Club (later Restaurant), or more familiarly, Bleeck’s. Today you can get turkey gumbo to go instead of knockwurst, beer and camaraderie.


Two doors west, once the backside of the New York Herald Tribune and currently the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Cocktails on West 40th Street with the ghosts of Bleeck’s, while commuting hordes advance towards Port Authority and Times Square. Bleeck’s Martinis were preconcocted at 5-to-1 and kept on ice behind the bar, chilled and ready to be served undiluted. Ours are similarly readymade and thermos-cooled for sidewalk quaffability.

The match game begins. We keep an eye out for John Law as dollar bets are placed.

While talking occupational bars, guest illicit imbiber Paul Lukas reminds us of his piece in Beer Frame mentioning a past New York Times local, Gough’s Chop House, 212 West 43rd Street (1947-1993, R.I.P.) Surreptitious sipper Heather McCabe also relays memories of another dearly departed saloon, a home-away-from-home once favored by the staff of Sports Illustrated.


“Wanamaker Pfeufferneuse Knickerbocker Benchley!” (Our own Grade “A” Fancy version of “Down the hatch!”) And a toast to the memory of Jack Bleeck, and to the grand tradition of New York City trade bars.




In the next installment of A Quick One, A Little Late, we’ll drop by a chophouse that was a second home to all the Broadway Babies in the Roaring Twenties.

6/18/14

¡Viva El Quijote!

When the Chelsea Hotel was sold, we all saw that El Quijote, the adorable Spanish restaurant just off the lobby, may be living on borrowed time. Not that it necessarily has to disappear, but the climate being what it is, things are likely to change, and sweet and old-fashioned are not at a premium in Manhattan. We will have to wait and see. In the meanwhile, Grade "A" Fancy invites you to enjoy with us a visit to El Quijote. Meet you at the bar?