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.


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.


¡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?


Season's Drinkings

This Saturday, December 21, it's time for our favorite holiday tradition, the Bartender of the Airwaves! As the "hep" elves know, every year WFMU radio personality Rex hosts a Christmas-themed swingin' office party on his Fool's Paradise program. The Grade "A" Fancy crew will be there once again, and Karen will create a brand new cocktail in honor of the occasion. Live, on-air mixamotology means this will be a broadcasting milestone, one you will be proud to share with your grandchildren one day when they ask you, "Mee-maw and Grampop, what's a radio?"

Rex will deliver his special brand of festive novelty tunes guaranteed to curdle your figgy pudding. Everyone's holiday traditions are represented — be they bop, slop or schlock — Fool's Paradise will never stoop to the corrosive debate currently poisoning our children about whether Santa is a "hillbilly" or a "soul brother".

Tune in Saturday from 1 to 3pm on the Fun 91! In the New York City area it's WFMU 91.1 fm Jersey City, and 90.1 in the Hudson Valley. Children of any land can listen in real time via the miracle of the internet, or sample the archived show any time, any season.

Attention Do-It-Yourself-ers! Play along at ho-ho-home!

Want to mix up this year's new holiday cocktail during the show? Here is everything you will need:
  • Bourbon, your favorite brand
  • Cherry Heering Liqueur
  • Linie Aquavit
  • Benedictine
  • Bitter Truth Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters
  • Toasted sliced almonds
  • ice!

That's your shopping list! Good luck and good mixing.


A Manhattan Bar for All Reasons

Have you ever thought to yourself:

"What the World needs most in these troubled times — more than a better mousetrap, more than a good ten-cent cigar, even — is a guide to some of the most distinctive bars in New York City. I mean the kind of real inside dope that only Grade "A" Fancy magazine can provide. Naturally, if this vital scuttlebutt could be conveyed to a grateful public in the form of a handy map, one with the eye-pleasing design sense Herb Lester Associates is famous for, well, that would just be so much gravy!"

Sure, we've all ruminated along these all-too-familiar lines through countless sleepless nights. But it has always seemed too idealistic, too quixotic, a chimera more than a real world possibility.

Until today.

As if in answer to your prayers, A Manhattan Bar for All Reasons is now available on the web and at select retailers. With this guide Grade "A" Fancy adds a third New York City title (along with Truly Greenwich Village, and Writing Manhattan) to our collaboration with the aces at Herb Lester Associates. The map steers the reader to a wide variety of bars, taverns, cocktail lounges and gin mills in the Big Town, each with its own unique charm. These locations were chosen not merely because they’re great places to quaff a drink but because there is something out of the ordinary about each: that could mean a location, an object or perhaps an activity, and joints suitable for an eye-opener, a quick one, or a digestive tonic.

As Herb himself says, “A guide for the connoisseur as well as the thirsty.” (Except he would place the period outside the close quote because they’re freaky like that in London Town.)

The design of this map is by Jim Datz. You'll dig it.

Herb Lester product is available on the web and at smart stores around the world. In New York City that includes Bookmarc, Flight 001, Eventi –  a Kimpton Hotel, McNally Jackson Books, The New York Public Library Shop, and the inimitable Strand Book Store.