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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Telling the Story of McSorley's

McSorley's: view of the barroom
illustration by Thurber
(The New Yorker, 1940)
no copyright infringement intended

(click here for the Romanian version)

It was February 1860, and Lincoln was not yet well known in the country. All this would change very soon, as the electoral campaign was approaching: by the end of the year he would be elected the sixteenth President of America, called to lead the nation in some of its most difficult moments ever. But in that morning when he came to New York to deliver a speech at the Cooper Union, Lincoln was fearful he would fail to convince the audience. After all he could appear to these sophisticated New Yorkers as just some Mid-Western guy, nothing more.  It didn't happen that way. His discourse was extraordinary and it would remain in history as one of Lincoln's most important statements, the Cooper Union Address. Later that day, several men that had been in the attendance, took him to a pub nearby, on the Seventh Street (I found this story told in The Examiner). They spent there a good couple of hours with  lots of ale mugs and much fun, and Lincoln proved to be a fine fellow in all respects. People definitely sympathized with him and decided that he was the man to be their leader from then on.

That pub is still in operation, it's the oldest Irish saloon in New York (even if it's maybe not been running exactly since 1854, as the signboard is boasting, it was anyway there on February 27, 1860, the day when  Lincoln came in). It was founded by an Irish immigrant, John McSorley (Old John, as he would remain known in the local folklore). The name of the tavern was at the beginning The Old House at Home and it would remain so till 1908, when the old signboard failed in a storm. They changed the signboard, and they changed the name, into McSorkey's Old Time Ale House. Later the Time was removed and the saloon kept only the remainder,  McSorley's Old Ale House, and so it's been since then, and so it is today.

The clientele has always been motley. As Joseph Mitchell describes it, students from Cooper Union, internes from Bellevue, the hospital on First Avenue, then all kind of mechanics and salesmen, truck drivers and clerks, also old guys living in poor hotels on the Bowery, but the hardcore were the Irish immigrants, be them carpenters or tanners, teamsters, slaughter-house butchers or bricklayers, that kind of workforce. Except for a few years at the beginning of the 20th century when they tried to sell also some spirits, there has always been only one kind of drink, ale, and only on tap, and only one brand of ale, McSorley's Cream Stock. The license has passed across the years through three or four brewers, eventually they started to produce also bottled beer, labeled with the McSorley's name (while the tavern has been keeping to the tap rule). Is it today the same as it used to be in the old days? More or less. I just found a review stating that, the beer is less Irish than it thinks it is, and the taste is like a hoppier version of a cream ale (http://www.beeridiot.com/?p=203). So it goes.

no copyright infringement intended

But let's go back to the old days. Some liked the beer as cold as it could be, others preferred it warm, and were keeping their mugs on the hove of the stove that was in the middle of the barroom. There was also a free lunch of soda crackers, raw onion and cheese (the patrons have always been complaining that the cheese was still the one served in 1854 at the opening,  but you know how picky patrons can be sometimes). Old John was crazy about raw onion (according to Joseph Mitchell, he liked to fit a whole onion into the hollowed-out heel of a loaf of French bread and he ate it as if it were an apple). His motto was Good Beer, Raw Onion, and No Ladies. And so women were not allowed, as Old John believed that men couldn't drink in tranquility in the presence of the other sex. The interdiction remained in place many years after he had passed away. It has been necessary a court order to reverse this interdiction, and it came only in 1970. But in the old days there had been only one woman willingly admitted inside, an old peddler who was going from bar to bar on the Bowery hawking peanuts. In warm days Old John was even selling her a beer. She was so grateful that she embroidered for him a little American flag that was put above the brass-bound  ale pump and it is still there. There has been also another woman, only this one was kept framed on the wall in the back room and is still there today: a nude with a parrot, a copy of a famous painting by Courbet (not a perfect copy: the man who did it took some liberties from the original).

Overall it was good in the old days. Old John was keeping a set of clay and corncob pipes, plus an amount of tobacco, and the purchase of one beer entitled you to a smoke on the house. He had his moments of affability, he had also his moods. He had been a heavy drinker for many years, then he decided that he had had his share and got sober. He was a big eater. Each evening he liked to cut for him a huge steak of three pounds or so, and to place it on a coal shovel over the fireplace, in the back room.

(Vintage Anchor)
no copyright infringement intended

Old John had also a horse, as he enjoyed surfing sulky. He kept the horse in a stable on St. Mark's Place, where it was sleeping along with a nanny goat: Old John considered that during the night horses needed company.

There have been notable patrons along the years. It has been Abraham Lincoln, as I said, also another great American President, Teddy Roosevelt. Then Peter Cooper, the founder of Cooper Union, who was coming often and was a good friend of Old John. He liked to stay in the back room, chatting with the working men, and a stool was reserved for him. It remained known as Peter Cooper's stool after he passed away and it is still there in the back room.

With so many stories, and so notable presences, the tavern enjoyed a well deserved fame along the years and naturally it came in the artists' attention. In 1882,  McSorley's Inflation, a play by Ed Harrigan, scored by David Braham, opened on Broadway and had over hundred performances (by the way, Old John was in turn a great lover of Harrigan 'n Hart songs).

By 1911 a group of artists started to be regulars at McSorley's. It was John Sloan, who immortalized the atmosphere of the tavern in some paintings, now well known. It was also  George Luks, also Glenn O. Coleman.  They all belonged to the Ashcan School of painting, interested to capture in their works the essence of  NY neighborhood life. It was then Stuart Davis, the modernist, he also left a watercolor celebrating the McSorley's.

Stuart Davis, McSorley's Ale House
watercolor with traces of charcoal on paper, 1917
(Sotheby's Catalog)
no copyright infringement intended

An etching that Sloan made in 1916 shows the back room. The old man seated in the chair near the window, facing the others, could very well be Peter Cooper, or maybe Old John, anyway both of them were then long time dead, so Sloan used his imagination. There is another painting by Sloan showing the back room, it was made in 1912, and it seems to me that here the man seated by the window was a contemporary of the artist.

Old John passed away in 1910, and the business was inherited by his son Bill (who would soon get known as Old Bill, that stiff and surly he was officiating at the bar). This guy was absolutely sober and always moody, but he had the gift of understanding ale, of knowing ale's tricks and caprices, like no one else. Joseph Mitchell explained it, he understood ale, he knew how to draw it and how to keep it, and in warm weather he made a practice of chilling the mugs in a tub of ice, so even if a customer would nurse an ale a too long time, the chilled earthen ware mug kept it cool. A painting made by Sloan in 1912 shows Old Bill officiating at the bar, with black bow-tie and reddish hair.

John Sloan, McSorley's Bar
oil on canvas, 1912
Detroit Institute of the Arts
no copyright infringement intended

He was surly, as I said, but the old customers were fond of him and even proud of his moods: they all had grown together, and Bill's outbursts made them believe they were young again. Sometimes, when a newcomer entered the picture, one of these old guys was going to Bill saying, hey Bill, lend me fifty dollars, don't be stingy, there ain't no pockets in the shroud! Bill was replying with gamy epithets, and the customer was turning to the newcomer, see? Anyway, when the closing hour was coming, Bill called everybody and bought them a round. It was a habit inherited from his father, and Bill was keeping it scrupulously. He worshiped his father, and didn't make any change in the tavern, to keep it as it had been in the old times.

Here are two other paintings by Sloan, made by 1928/29. In one of them we can see Old Bill surrounded by cats: it was one of his passions, he was keeping cats in the bar and was feeding them copiously. And the other painting is just celebrating the spirit of McSorley's, the clients gathered there one Saturday night.

John Sloan, McSorley's Saturday Night, 1928
no copyright infringement intended

One of the artists who were regulars there brought one evening a friend who was an anarchist, a guy always in trouble with the police for his incendiary speeches. Though Old Bill was a staunch reactionary, he took a liking for the anarchist and they became good friends. Once a policeman warned him about that long-haired nut. - Why? asked Bill. Hell, man, this guy wants to blow up every bank in the country! - So am I, answered Bill, who actually did not have any confidence in banks, and was always operating only with cash. Definitely the old school guy.

After 1930, Bill (then in his seventies) sold the business to a retired policeman who promised not to make any change. The new owner was a very gentle guy. If one patron was starting to make trouble, instead of throwing him out (as Old Bill would have done), the new landlord was trying to sober the drunkard with soup, saying that the man was not faulty if the beer had been bad.

And the saloon remained as it was in the old days, with its ceiling, low, shrunk, and cobwebbed, with its floor, covered with sawdust, with its rickety armchairs around the stove, and with all its memorabilia: portraits and photos and excerpts from newspapers covering any inch on the walls. The oldest excerpt was a paragraph from London Times from 1815, informing that the British and French armies started what would become the Waterloo battle. Apart from that, a rack with many wishbones. There is a history with them. America had a number of wars during all these tens of years, and any patron who was called into the army was leaving here a wishbone to find it when he would come back. The wishbones that remained were those left by the people who died in the wars.

In 1940 Joseph Mitchell told the story of this place. He named the story The Old House at Home and published it in The New Yorker. Later he would compile it in a book named McSorley's Wonderful Saloon. It is a great story, and I used here largely its flow and even sentences from it, trying to make them distinct by use of italics (to the point that my post should rather be named Mc Sorley's, Reading It Together with Joseph Mitchell). What I found special, beside the story itself, was the way Mitchell subtly changed the words and expressions he used as he was passing from one generation of McSorley's guys to another. There were several generations, beginning with 1854, and naturally the language evolved, and Mitchell followed with passion and an immense pleasure all changes that had happened in the main vocabulary across the decades and across the generations.

e.e.cummings also came here and wrote a poem about the place. It is in a very different note that the story of Mitchell.

And what happened after Mitchell wrote his essay (and cummings his poem)? Well, the chain of wonderful stories went on. It was the episode of 1970, when the women were admitted inside. Then the presence of women led to some changes in the logistics, they tried to make them as less as possible (for a while they maintained a unisex bathroom). There were also other things that happened. In 1964 the owner of the tavern (a descendant of the policeman) was visiting Ireland and his car broke up on the road. He was picked up by a guy whose name was Mathew Maher. They got friends and Mathew came to New York to work as a bartender to McSorley's. He bought the business in 1977.  Overall, today McSorley's is still there, full of memorabilia, boasting its cream stock ale, and being now (for better or for worse) a tourist trap.

McSorleys Old Ale House, New York City - Bucket List Bars
(video by drunkenhistory)

(Joseph Mitchell)

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