Sunday, September 17, 2017

318. A Venerable New York Institution: the Saloon


Reading at Jefferson Market Library, 425 Avenue of the Americas (near West 10th Street), on Sunday, October 8, 2-4 p.m.  I will read excerpts from my novels and New York stories, sign books, and take questions.  Books will be available for purchase.  I'll be glad to see a friendly face or two there.

Dark Knowledge: Release date January 5, 2018, but copies now available from the author.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. More excerpts to come.

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?


Early reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.


         New Yorkers have always liked to guzzle.  Prohibition doesn't stand a chance in the Big Apple; it was tried twice, once in the nineteenth century (briefly) and once in the twentieth, and both times it failed. 

File:(Charlie's Tavern, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948) (LOC) (5189944534).jpg

         Back in Dutch days residents guzzled in taverns, to the extent that Peter Stuyvesant, the one-legged governor of New Amsterdam, complained in 1648 that one house in four was a tavern, and then imposed strict limits on their hours of business – perhaps the first attempt to discipline imbibing New Yorkers, and far from the last.

         When New Amsterdam became New York, the English tavern became the norm: a big room heated by a large fireplace that provided both heat and cooked food, with the bar itself a small cabinet not accessible to the public, so as to secure liquor from brawls and theft.  A hot dinner was offered at noon, and a cold supper in the evening.  There being no hotels in those days, out-of-town visitors were lodged in small rooms on the second floor or, failing that, on pallets near the fireplace where they could snore snugly with feet outstretched to the fire.  Ales and porters were popular, but rum, brandy, and Madeira were also available.  Stagecoaches might stop there, and taverns lured patrons – men only – with lectures, bear baitings, cockfights, and rat killings.  So from the very start, the tavern was central to the social life of the city, or at least, to the social life of males.  And the women?  They were home tending the kids, churning butter, putting up preserves, doing the wash, and gossiping with neighbors.

         The tavern continued as the site of public drinking into the nineteenth century, when that new phenomenon, the hotel, emerged as a place of lodging, and luxury hotels soon followed.  From then on the tavern’s successor, the barroom or saloon, could devote itself to moistening the gullets of customers, and otherwise keeping them happy.  The word “saloon,” by the way, derives from the French salon, meaning a large hall; by the nineteenth century it indicated a large compartment on a steamboat where passengers could lounge, and then, in the U.S., a public bar.  And that bar existed on every level, ranging from the liquor groceries of the slums to the luxury bars of the fanciest hotels.

         In slums like the notorious Five Points almost every corner housed a liquor grocery well stocked with everything the neighborhood might need for daily living: heaps of cabbages, potatoes, turnips, dried apples, chestnuts, and beans; bins of coal, nails, plug tobacco; shelves of firewood sold by the stick; other shelves with candles, crackers, sugar, tea, pickles, and mustard; casks of lamp oil, molasses, rum, whiskey, brandy, and any number of cordials concocted in a back room; hams, sausages, and strings of onions hanging from the ceiling; and maybe in one corner a short counter offering fresh-baked pies, hot coffee, and cheap cigars.  So much for the “grocery” part of “liquor grocery.”  And the liquor?  Across one end of the room ran a counter, maybe just a plank of wood on top of a couple of barrels, offering liquor at three cents a glass.  And to this all-purpose enterprise the neighbors flocked, the missus as well as her hubby, and often enough a merry time was had by all.  The proprietors prospered, often even to the point of buying a nearby tenement and renting out slivers of rooms to the indigent (Hugo’s miserables), while alcoholism in the neighborhood raged. 

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The Five Points slum in 1827.  Look close: a liquor grocery on almost every corner.

         A notch or two up in the hierarchy of watering places was the stand-up saloon, often with a long bar backed by a mirror, and shiny glasses and an array of bottles on display in front of it.  There might be sawdust on the floor to cushion the patrons’ feet and absorb spat tobacco juice and spilled beer, while  a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room put out waves of thirst-inducing heat.  On the walls were pictures of pugilists in noble poses, sleek racing horses, a local politician, and maybe a bevy of buttocky female nudes. 

         Conspicuous by its presence was the free lunch, offering spiced ham, pickles, olives, pretzels, sauerkraut, crackers, and tangy sardines: fare well calculated to keep the working-class customers – again, all men – thirsty.  Conspicuous by their absence were tables and chairs, so the establishment could accommodate hordes of workers who flocked there on their lunch break or after work.  The saloon was their place of recreation, a refuge from the harsh reality of their lives, a place for conviviality, for drinks and jokes and gossip.  And on pay day also a place to spend generously of their wages, downing their whiskey neat or wetting their whiskers in foam-topped mugs of beer, while their wives waited anxiously at home, wondering how much money would be left for groceries, clothes, and the rent.  Little wonder that middle-class female reformers, fighting for the vote, saw the saloon as a bastion of male intemperance and irresponsibility, prompting working-class males to close ranks against this assault on their sanctuary.

         The saloon owner was often a Tammany alderman who used the place as his headquarters at election time, when anyone coming to him able to deliver a hundred votes would be invited to a back room with a table and chairs, so the caller could state what he wanted in exchange for those votes.  Many an alliance was sealed in that legendary smoke-filled room, and many a betrayal conceived.  With an election approaching, a rally might be held outside on the street, with fiery campaign rhetoric topped off by an offer of free drinks that sent hordes of voters surging to the beer spigots and bottles of whiskey inside.  Despite periodic middle-class calls for reform, in this way many a Tammany man recruited votes and assured his re-election.

Image result for hoffman house, bouguereau

The Hoffman House bar, with the famous painting on the right.

         But there were fancy saloons also, often in luxury hotels.  Foremost of these in the 1870s and 1880s was the elegant seven-story Hoffman House at Broadway and 25th Street, whose barroom was a must for male visitors, not because of the handsome carved mahogany bar, or the tapestries allegedly once made for Napoleon, or the Turkish rugs on the tiled floor, but because of a huge painting by the academic French artist Bouguereau on the wall opposite the bar.  Topped by a red-velvet canopy and lit by a large chandelier, the painting, Nymphs and Satyr, showed four voluptuous female nudes cavorting around a satyr.  Needless to say, it wasn’t the goat-legged satyr that attracted the gaze of the patrons.  There were tables and chairs for guests, but gentlemen standing at the bar, with one foot on the requisite brass-plated foot rest while sipping a vermouth cocktail or creamy Hoffman House Fizz, could feast their eyes discreetly on the reflection in the bar’s huge mirror.  Reproduced in miniature on boxes of Hoffman House Cigars, the painting spread joy and titillation throughout the country, thus guaranteeing more visits to the bar by eager out-of-towners. 

Image result for hoffman house, bouguereau

         In their heyday Boss Tweed and his more presentable cronies were seen at the Hoffman House bar, as well as Buffalo Bill Cody, assorted specimens of European nobility, Texas cattle barons, Chicago hog butchers, and Colorado mining kings made rich by a strike in silver.  Resident there was the dapper man-about-town and perennial race track loser Ned Stokes, who for murdering financier Jim Fisk spent four dreary years in Sing-Sing before being released and allowed to resume his high living at the Hoffman House, of which in time he became part owner and, by purchase, owner of the painting as well.  Other residents at one time or another included Ulysses S. Grant, William Randolph Hearst, Sarah Bernhardt, and Grover Cleveland, who was living there when elected President in 1892.

         The twentieth century was not kind to the Hoffman House.  As the city continued to expand northward and elegance went with it, the hotel languished financially, declared bankruptcy, and closed in 1915, following which it was demolished to make room for a 16-story office building.  And the painting?  Following Stokes’s death in 1901, it was sold at auction to a buyer who stored it in a warehouse so as to keep its “offensive” content from the public.  In 1942 it was discovered in storage by the art collector Robert Sterling Clark, who remembered seeing it years before in the Hoffman House and now acquired it.  Subsequently it became part of the permanent collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, but when the institute underwent renovations, it returned to New York in 2012 and for two years was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  No longer scandalous today, at best it elicits giggles from groups of visiting school kids.  If Bouguereau’s painting is not as highly esteemed as the works of his more adventurous contemporaries, the Impressionists, at least it had an interesting history as the memorable top attraction in one of New York’s fanciest bars.

         In stark contrast with the elegant bars of the fashionable hotels were the dives of the Bowery, a neighborhood that by the late 1900s had achieved its reputation as the last sanctuary of booze-ridden down-and-outers, a nest of cheap saloons, cheap hotels, prostitutes, and drunks, and the missionaries trying to reclaim them.  Especially infamous was McGurk’s ill-lit Suicide Hall at 295 Bowery, between Houston and East 1st Street, which, minus that name, opened in 1893.  The proprietor, John H. McGurk, was a veteran in the business, have already run a string of saloons that, each in turn, had been shut down by the police.  Claiming to be a hotel so it could serve liquor on Sundays, the ground-floor saloon was patronized by soldiers, sailors, and longshoremen who did their imbibing at tables, and by prostitutes eager to entice them to a room upstairs.  Keeping order was the head bouncer, “Eat-’em-up Jack” McManus, an ex-fighter, who survived knife and gun attacks while felling unruly patrons and ousting them, while the owner sat quietly at another table, sipping a mug of ale in the company of a painted lady.

         McGurk’s saloon, one of many notorious Bowery dives, acquired its name when, in 1899, six prostitutes frequenting the place committed suicide and seven more attempted it, some by jumping out a fifth-floor window, and others by ingesting carbolic acid, a disinfectant used in surgery.  Bodies on the sidewalk were lugged to the corner of East 1st Street and the Bowery, soon christened “Suicide Corner,” to be removed from there by an ambulance.  Especially notable were Blonde Madge Davenport and her partner Big Mame, who agreed to exit together via carbolic acid.  Blonde Madge succeeded, but Big Mame only managed to spill the acid on her face, disfiguring her for life and causing her to be barred from the premises. 

         Said McGurk, “Most of the women who come to my place have been on the down grade too long to think of reforming.  I just want to say that I never pushed a girl downhill any more than I ever refused a helping hand to one who wanted to climb.”  But he then capitalized on the suicides by renaming his establishment McGurk’s Suicide Hall.  Which might seem weird, until you learn that other Bowery dives of the time were named the Plague, the Hell Hole, the Fleabag, the Bucket of Blood, and Paresis Hall, this last a hangout for male prostitutes, paresis being a form of paralysis then believed to be transmitted by homosexual acts.  All of which brings to mind the S&M bars of the Meatpacking District in the West Village in the 1980s, prior to gentrification: the Mineshaft, the Anvil, the Spike, the Hellfire, and the Toilet.

         The police, community leaders, and City Hall finally had had enough, and they pressured McGurk accordingly.  Arrested and out on $1000 bail, he left town for California with his wife and daughter and half a million in cash; in 1913 he died of heart failure at age 59.  Suicide Hall closed down as a bar in 1902 and became a hotel catering to bums – in other words, a flophouse.  Occupied by a co-op of women artists from the 1960s on, it was demolished by developers in 2005, to be replaced by the steel and glass marvels of Avalon Bowery Place, a luxury apartment building with a doorman, private terraces, and programmable heating and air-conditioning controls.

File:McSorley's Old Ale House 001.jpg
Leonard J. DeFrancisci
         One survivor of the old days that is still thriving today is McSorley's Old Ale House at 15 East 7th Street in the East Village, which claims to date from 1854, making it the oldest continuously operating saloon in the city.  Founded by an Irish immigrant named John McSorley, it was an Irish working men's saloon for years and a men-only bar by tradition, with the motto "Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies," until in 1970 it was forced by a court ruling to admit women.  Its walls are adorned with memorabilia from another age, and only in 2017 was its menu altered for the first time in over 50 years, with the addition of Coney Island hot dogs (there's no accounting for taste).  Described by poet e.e. cummings as "snug and evil," it still has sawdust floors and still offers ale and onions.

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McSorley's today.
         On this note I will end my survey of New York City saloons, a subject too vast for a single post.  Omitted are many other species, including the pretty-waiter-girl saloons of nineteenth-century Sixth Avenue, the speakeasies of the 1920s, the Mafia-run gay bars of the twentieth century, and the singles bars of today.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon.

3.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Coming soon: 569 Hudson: from farm to speakeasy to grilled octopus to romance.

©   2017   Clifford Browder

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