156 years ago this week, Henry Clapp, Jr. founded the newspaper that brought the idea of bohemianism into American culture and popularized some of Walt Whitman’s most beloved poems. The New York Saturday Press has more or less faded from memory – but two new books tell how the paper and a legendary counterculture clique emerged from Pfaff’s, a subterranean saloon on Broadway and Bleecker.
This month’s publication of Whitman Among the Bohemians, a collection of essays by Whitman scholars and literary academics, was celebrated last week with a discussion featuring co-editors Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley (you can watch the event below). The book is worth a look, if only because Whitney is the co-founder of the recently relaunched The Vault at Pfaff’s, an online repository for biographies of Pfaff’s regulars, reprintings of their work, and even back-issues of the Saturday Press.
Since we haven’t yet read that book, however, this article draws its information entirely from Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, a narrative history by Justin Martin that was published last month. Martin (biographer of Alan Greenspan, Ralph Nader, and Frederick Law Olmstead) makes the case that “Pfaff’s Bohemians” – a motley crew of writers, actors, artists, and even America’s first stand-up comic – paved the way for everyone from the Beats to Lady Gaga. What’s more, he argues that Pfaff’s itself was a trailblazing establishment, as it welcomed gays and women far before it was customary to do so.
The name Pfaff’s may sound familiar. A few years ago, a bar calling itself The Vault at Pfaff’s opened at 643 Broadway, complete with menus printed on paper inspired by the Saturday Press. Several bars inhabiting that subterranean space have claimed it’s the former home of Pfaff’s. But according to Martin, that’s incorrect: the original Pfaff’s was actually accessed through a hatch in the sidewalk in front of 647 Broadway, a couple of doors down. In what’s now the basement of a shoe store, Henry Clapp, Jr., an abolitionist lecturer from Massachusetts, created his salon within a saloon. (During last week’s launch of Whitman Among the Bohemians, NYU’s Karen Karbiener, a contributor, revealed that the famous vault below 647 Broadway has collapsed, but the one next-door, which also belonged to Pfaff’s, still exists as the basement of Han’s Deli.)
How did Clapp, an avowed teetotaler, become “the King of Bohemia”? According to Martin, it happened during his years in Paris, where he became engrossed in café society and discovered the custom of spending hours in conversation with creative types. At the time, Parisians were referring to an influx of Romanian immigrants – whom they mistakenly believed were from the central Europe kingdom of Bohemia — as “Bohemians.” Conservative Parisians also applied the term disdainfully to scruffy artists – hence La Bohème, the opera of the time that would become the basis for Rent.
When Clapp came to New York City, he was “hell-bent on recreating la vie bohème that transformed him so completely,” Martin writes. The gaslit, sawdust-blanketed cellar known as Pfaff’s was just the place for that. For one thing, its lagers were kept ice-cold – a rarity in a day when beer was usually kept at room temperature. But more importantly, its proprietor, German immigrant Charles Ignatious Pfaff, gave Clapp reign over a 30-seat table located in a vaulted area under the Broadway sidewalk.
That’s where “the person who brought bohemianism to America, both the word and the way of life” began cultivating a group that included writer Fitz James O’Brien (the “walking definition of Bohemian”); actor Edwin Booth (brother of the man who would assassinate Lincoln); “master of effervescent verse” George Arnold (known as “the Poet of Beer”), political cartoonist Thomas Nast (who would go on to popularize the elephant and donkey symbols); novelist William Dean Howells (“The Dean of American Letters”); psychedelic pioneer Fitz Hugh Ludlow (author of The Hasheesh Eater, a book that would influence the likes of William S. Burroughs); and, of course, Walt Whitman.
Rebel Souls recounts some of the entertaining tiffs and trysts that occurred at Pfaff’s. (During one tussle, Arnold yanked Whitman’s beard and the two splashed “a beautiful mixture of rum, claret, and coffee on the knees of our trousers,” according to one account.) But for the most part, the book isn’t a narrative of life at the bar; instead it recounts the tempestuous careers of each of these seminal mavericks, portraying Pfaff’s as the glue that held them together. Until they all fell apart.
Of course, the most engrossing figure is the Good Gray Poet. According to Martin, between roughly 1858 (when he was 39) and 1862, Whitman was “in the saloon virtually every night,” and his “time spent among the bohemians was essential to his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass.” In 1859, he had lost his job at the Brooklyn Daily Times after penning controversial editorials endorsing licensing for prostitutes and pre-marital sex for women. Nearly every afternoon, after “loafing the day away,” he’d make the six-mile trip to Pfaff’s from the basement of his mother’s apartment at 106 North Portland Avenue, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Martin’s description of Whitman as the “ultimate Broadway rambler” is fascinating. The journalist and poet — who had by then published the first two edition of Leaves of Grass to no great fanfare – frequented lower Broadway establishments like Dr. Abbott’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities and the Phrenological Cabinet of Fowler & Wells, a store featuring sex-positive literature and plastic casts of the skulls of murders and celebrities. (Whitman had his skull read there and was declared a “well-rounded modern man.”)
Bleecker Street, meanwhile, was the domain of “poor scribblers and scholars, painters and engravers, actors and poets,” according to a guidebook of the day.
At the intersection of Broadway and Bleecker was Pfaff’s. For all the time Whitman spent eating beefsteak there and nursing a lager (he wasn’t an excessive drinker), he remained above the bohemians’ witty banter, which could often turn competitive and caustic. According to one account, Clapp’s table was “the site of quip and quirk and queer conceit, of melancholy mirth and laughing madness.” Whitman was considered the guest of honor – or, as one account put it, “the shrine to which Clapp led the faithful” – but according to the poet himself, his role was merely “to see, talk little, absorb.”
According to Martin, Whitman actually lived a kind of double existence at Pfaff’s. When he wasn’t drinking lager and rubbing elbows with the bohemians in the vault, he was drinking rum in another part of the saloon, often with his lover (who, true to Whitman’s fondness for working-class men, was a stage driver) and, after that relationship crumbled, sometimes with the other gay men who frequented the place. Those men – Whitman’s “darlings and gossips” – provided the “quiet lambent electricity of real friendship,” the poet wrote.
“The two sections of Pfaff’s appear to have served separate social needs for Whitman — as a poet and as a gay man,” Martin writes. “Where Clapp’s circle offered artistic fellowship, albeit met by Whitman with much standoffishness, the poet showed a warmer, more playful side to his beautiful boys.”
According to Martin, there’s an argument to be made that Pfaff’s was the first gay bar in America, though it was more of a mixed bar. It was also one of the few bars that openly welcomed women. At a time when the motto of McSorley’s was “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies,” Clapp welcomed (to both his table and the Saturday Press) female journalists, novelists, and poets. Among the women who sat at Clapp’s table smoking cigarettes (also verboten for women at the time) were a couple of actress-writers. Ada Clare was an early feminist essayist who “brought a needed touch of refinement” to the proceedings and came to be known as “The Queen of Bohemia.” Adah Isaacs Menken, a curvaceous wild child, made her name as the star of a play in which she rode a horse seemingly naked. During her travels, Menken had her poems endorsed by Charles Dickens, was rumored to have slept with Alexandre Dumas, and even inspired a “femme fatale” character in one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
Whitman described the Ada(h)s as his “sturdiest defenders, upholders,” and made it a point to sit next to Clare. But, Martin makes clear, Whitman’s true champion was Clapp.
From the moment the Saturday Press – the “organ of bohemia” – launched in October 23, 1858, the paper “devoted ample space in every issue to bohemianism itself – defining, defending, celebrating and mythologizing the movement,” Martin writes. That meant everything from a poem titled “Beer” to a theater review in which Hamlet was compared to a bohemian (he is “at times a roysterer” and is “familiar with the carousal and the wassail… the wild revel, the midnight debauch”). Even George Washington and, later, Abraham Lincoln were described as bohemians.
The paper had a small circulation of 5,000 at most — but its essays, arts criticism, satire, poems and short stories were widely reprinted nationwide. “Thanks to the Saturday Press’s ubiquity,” Martin writes, “bohemianism became a full-blown cultural phenomenon.” And so, before the word was in the dictionary, Harpers would come to define bohemians as shaggy-headed “men of an indomitable irregularity and indolence, who live by their wits and for self-indulgence.” And the New York Times wrote that the true bohemian – who “cannot be called a useful member of society” – “has either written an unsuccessful play, or painted an unsalable picture, or published an unreadable book, or composed an unsung opera.” (Yes, the cliche existed even back then.)
Other publications sent their reporters straight into “the capital of bohemia” – the vault at Pfaff’s. “This little room is the rallying-place of the subjects of King Devilmaycare,” wrote the Boston Saturday Express. “This is the anvil from which fly the brightest scintillations of the hour; this is the womb of the best things that society has heard for many-a-day; this is the trysting-place of the most careless, witty, and jovial spirits of New York, – journalists, artists and poets.”
Sometimes, Whitman would recite his work at Pfaff’s – when he read an early version of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” Clapp “seized on it,” Martin writes. Its appearance in the SP marked Whitman’s first publication in several years following the second edition of Leaves of Grass.
“The poem is notably darker than Whitman’s earlier work,” Martin observes. “In creating it he seems to have drawn on the darkness that moved through those gatherings in Pfaff’s basement.”
According to Martin, Pfaff’s Bohemians had a “fixation on all things bleak and morbid” (after all, their “patron saint” was Edgar Allan Poe, who had died about a decade earlier). That’s readily apparent in the case of Ludlow, the 21-year-old wunderkind who had gained fame as the author of The Hasheesh Eater. The book – which documented his experiments eating “heroic doses of hashish” as a teenager and through college – turned the drug into a fad (at one point three of the lady bohemians at Pfaff’s even took it together). But its author remained a “dirt-poor celebrity” living in a dingy rooming house on Clinton Street.
Ludlow is one of the many bohemians who, as the Civil War began, left Pfaff’s behind and headed west to places like San Francisco. For a time, his future looked bright as he wrote about his travels with painter Albert Bierstadt. But then (spoiler alert) Ludlow’s wife left him for the famed landscape artist and the writer descended into opium addiction.
Some found fame as they toured the land – most notably Charlie Brown, a humor columnist who came to Pfaff’s after moving from Cleveland to take a magazine job at Vanity Fair. While living in a rooming house on Great Jones, Brown developed a stage persona, Artemus Brown, meant to parody famous public speakers like Ralph Waldo Emerson. The bumbling lecturer eventually became so popular that his fans included President Lincoln and Mark Twain. (Twain met several of the bohemians before becoming famous, as Martin recounts in a chapter titled Twain They Shall Meet.)
But while Ward found success as perhaps America’s first stand-up comic, Martin notes that many of the Pfaffians died prematurely and morbidly, succumbing to everything from drug overdoses to rabies. Fitz-James O’Brien, the notorious brawler and bon vivant who was Clapp’s first recruit at Pfaff’s, may have taken his own life after he was shot and injured during the Civil War. Menken also attempted suicide. After she was abandoned by her husband (whom she initially kept secret, since he was a famous prize fighter who was the antithesis of bohemianism), she had to move from East 14th Street to a dingy apartment in Jersey City. Martin writes that she found dubious employment “performing double entendre-filled skits” in one of the “concert saloons” where waitresses wore titillating outfits and offered “more intimate services, discretely available.”
Whitman, meanwhile, remained “hermetically sealed at Pfaff’s” – even starting a poem, “Between Two Vaults,” that seemed to imagine himself between the vault at Pfaff’s and the burial vault.
But he was moved to action in 1862, when his brother was injured at war. After visiting him in Virginia, Whitman developed an intense empathy for the wounded soldiers laid up in the overburdened hospitals around Washington D.C., and he began dedicating his days to attending to them and advocating for them. “That whole damned war business is about 999 parts diarrhea to 1 part glory,” Whitman wrote, referring to the war’s leading cause of death by disease.
After moving to Washington D.C., Whitman would make a brief return to Brooklyn in the summer of 1864. But according to Martin, he steered clear of Pfaff’s because “the carnage Whitman had witnessed had changed him.” Instead, he worked on a set of self-described “unprecedentedly sad” war poems titled “Drum Taps.”
The Civil War hastened the end of the Saturday Press, as advertisers and subscribers left the financially tenuous paper. But after the war, Clapp managed to briefly revive it. By that time, Pfaff’s had moved a few doors down to 653 Broadway, where the proprietor would feed pretzels to a pet eagle in the back garden. (By 1881, when Whitman paid one last visit to Pfaff’s, it had relocated again – to 9 West 24th Street.)
Though the original bohemians had mostly dispersed, the relaunched SP quickly gained some claims to fame: it was the first to publish Whitman’s most famous poem, “O Captain! My Captain!”, and it brought Mark Twain his first bit of national notoriety with the publication of what would become “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” (“The Saturday Press was a cocoon, and I the worm in it,” Twain recalled).
But just as 9/11 marked the “death of irony,” the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination didn’t bode well for Clapp’s cheeky journal. Even before it folded for the last time and its publisher descended into severe poverty and alcoholism (at one point, Clapp was seen selling his clothes on the Bowery) many were taking jabs at the bohemians. The New York Leader described Clapp’s remaining followers as “a peculiar mixture of the seedy, bloated, whiskey-sucking, kid-gloved, airish and pretentious.” All at once, Martin writes, “bohemianism seemed irrelevant – a movement that had enjoyed its ascendency in an earlier era.”
Versions of that description — “seedy, bloated, whiskey-sucking, kid-gloved, airish and pretentious” — are still used to describe the “hipsters” of today. Ultimately, Rebel Souls is a riveting reminder that nearly 100 years before the Beat Generation, bohemia was already passé.