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The Inn Crowd

The Two Greenwich Village Bars That Mattered

The White Horse Tavern
White Horse Tavern Sign
Built in 1880 at the corner of Hudson and 11th Streets on the western edge of Greenwich Village, the White Horse Tavern is one of the few wood-framed buildings remaining in the city. For decades, its proximity to the warehouses and docks of the Hudson made it a longshoreman's hangout with no literary ambiance whatsoever. The White Horse became famous in '50s literary circles when it began to attract visiting Englishmen reminded of pubs back home.

The Scottish poet Ruthven Todd introduced Dylan Thomas to the bar, and the great Welsh bard was soon quaffing oceans of ale in the Horse's back room. Thomas made the place his headquarters on his tumultuous stateside forays, and soon tourists were lining up eight deep at the bar to watch him carouse. Today a plaque on the wall commemorates the November night in 1953 when the poet, still only 39, downed one last shot, staggered outside and collapsed. After falling into a coma at the nearby Chelsea Hotel, he was whisked to St. Vincent's Hospital where he died.

Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern
Dylan Thomas at the White Horse
Photo Credit

Thomas' boozy soirees inevitably attracted other writers. Novelists Norman Mailer and James Baldwin drank at the White Horse. Vance Bourjaily (his The End of My Life was an influential novel of the period) organized a regular Sunday afternoon writer's klatch. Anais Nin was one of the few notorious women writers who hung out at the Horse. Seymour Krim, the now all-but-forgotten early Village Voice writer whose collected pieces, Views Of A Near-Sighted Cannoneer, helped spawn the "New Journalism" of the late '60s, hung out there. Village Voice staffers came over from their original offices on nearby Sheridan Square. Delmore's publisher, James Laughlin of New Directions, kept an apartment for visiting writers nearby.

While Jack Kerouac was living in a dilapidated Westside townhouse with the model Joan Haverty, writing On The Road on a roll of teletype paper, he used to drink so heavily at the White Horse that he was 86'd a number of times. In his book Desolation Angels he describes discovering "Go Home Kerouac" scrawled on a bathroom wall. Like Delmore, Kerouac also put in time at the Marlton Hotel -- where he wrote Tristessa, a bittersweet reminiscence of an affair he'd had with a Mexican junkie prostitute.

The White Horse action had a political dimension as well. In the '50s, Michael Harrington, a lanky guy with freckles and a broad grin who would go on to write The Other America (the book which inspired America's short-lived "War On Poverty"), and writer-organizer Dan Wakefield would hit the White Horse after Dorothy Day's militant pacifist lectures at the Catholic Worker's "Hospitality House." They'd knock back pints and join in songs of the Irish rebellions and the Spanish Civil War with the Clancy Brothers or Mary Travers, the leggy blonde who became one-third of the popular ‘60s folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. As Wakefield would later recall of the joint in his memoir New York In The '50s, "you could always find a friend, join a conversation, relax and feel you were part of a community."

The San Remo
      Photo of Greenwich Village brownstones
New York City in 1958 and 1959 may have been, in Ruth Steiner's words in Collected Stories, "teeming with beatnik-poets and old lefties," but there were only two literary bars that mattered: the White Horse and the San Remo. With its pressed-tin ceiling, black-and-white tile floors and dollar salads with all the bread and butter you could eat, the San Remo attracted a younger, hipper crowd more into experimenting with drugs than The White Horse's habituées. The San Remo, which used to be at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal in the heart of the Italian part of Greenwich Village, was cool rather than politically and alcoholically inflamed. Delmore's fellow drinkers at the White Horse were "hotter," more engaged, their ideas forged by the political struggles of the 30's. The apolitical San Remo crowd were children of World War II and more alienated from mainstream culture by the Cold War.

In The Subterraneans, Jack Kerouac's tale of interracial love at the San Remo, his Allen Ginsberg character, Adam Moorad, describe the denizens of the 'Remo (transposed in the book to San Francisco and re-named "The Masque"). "Hip without being slick, intelligent without being corny, they are intellectual as hell and know all about Pound without being pretentious or saying too much about it. They are very quiet, they are very Christlike."

In the early '50s, Judith Malina, co-founder of the Living Theater, the most radical American troupe of its time, was at the San Remo -- or the "Sans Remorse," as she often refers to it in her diaries -- nearly every night. Among the people she met there were all four founding Beats, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso (who was born practically across the street from the San Remo in an apartment above the funeral parlor at 90 Bleecker). Malina met Miles Davis and Tennessee Williams at the San Remo, and Maya Deren, the first important woman independent filmmaker and an initiate in Haitian voodoo. Artist-composer John Cage taught Malina how to throw the I Ching in one of the San Remo's scarred wooden booths.

It was in the San Remo in 1960, that writer-to-be Ron Sukenick saw a woman wearing blue jeans for the first time. At a time when thirty states still had laws banning miscegenation, the San Remo was one of the few places in the U.S. where interracial couples knew they could enjoy themselves unhassled.

     Photo of Greenwich Village brownstones
Though Delmore Schwartz was as much a Villager as any Beatnik, they didn't share a lot of social geography or literary terrain. In 1958, Hettie Jones was married to the poet LeRoi Jones, (later to become Amiri Baraka). The two of them co-edited Yugen, a magazine that published a nexus of poets gathered loosely around Black Mountain College, the Beats and the New York school, poets like Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, who were still shut out of establishment literary magazines. Hettie Jones worked as a secretary at Partisan Review, and tried to get the magazine to publish her friends' poetry, but with little success.

Delmore dismissed the Beats as the "San Francisco Howlers," but the crowds sometimes overlapped. Judith Malina had an affair with one of Delmore's White Horse drinking companions, James Agee, who was drinking himself to death while writing A Death In The Family (which would win a posthumous Pulitzer Prize). Malina and Agee would meet at the San Remo and retreat to a candle-lit room in a backyard house on Cornelia Street to make love.

Photograph of Dylan Thomas by Bunny Adler, copyright © 1978 by Rollie McKenna, from the book "Dylan Thomas' New York" by Tryntje Van Ness Seymour, copyright © 1977, reproduced by permission of Stemmer House Publishers, Owings Mills, MD.




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