On the quiet corner of West 10th Street and Waverly Place, one of New York’s oldest watering holes has been operating since around 1864. It bore the name Julius’ sometime in the 1920s. Even Prohibition, during which the tavern transformed into a bustling speakeasy, had minimal impact on Julius’ operations. On April 21, 1966, three years before the riots at Stonewall occurred a block away, a gay rights milestone gave the West Village bar its status as legend, paving the way for the city’s legitimate LGBTQ establishments.
“Things go up, they never come down,” says Joseph Lyons, one of the managing hands, as he energetically tells me bits of the stories layered in the picture frames that crowd together to form the decor of Julius’. The framed, yellowing photos — many of them signed — depict race horses, sportsmen, one-time celebrities, and newspaper clippings about Julius’ and LGBTQ activism in New York. Together, they reveal overlapping vignettes of the establishment’s many colorful past lives. Its past visitors include many of the Village’s famed gay celebrities, such as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Edward Albee and Rudolf Nureyev.
Despite the star factor, Julius’s fame is a quiet one stemming from a homeyness that has over time made different kinds of people feel welcome and in good company. Over the decades, patrons, guidebooks, and newspapers have raved about its good food and drink, especially the “peerless” hamburgers.
The land Julius’ stands on was once the undivided Greenwich Farm, the west portion of which belonged to Sir Peter Warren, a decorated Vice Admiral of the British Navy who owned 300 acres of it by 1744. While Warren eventually returned to England for good to be a Member of the Parliament and is buried in Westminster Abbey, his estate in Greenwich Village was divided between his three daughters. Property records show that a David Mallows acquired part of it from a trustee of one of Warren’s son-in-laws, the Willoughby Earl of Abingdon, whose name is still in Abingdon Square Park. By 1794, Abijah Hammond became owner of the part of the farm where, about 50 years, hoary Julius’ now stands.
Property records show that Samuel T. Whittemore, a rich and influential New Yorker, banker and one-time state assemblyman, came to own the block in 1822. In 1826 he erected the first building in the lot where Julius’ is now located. It was one in a row of ten frame houses with brick fronts that lined the block, and the only one that remains. On the same block stood Whittemore’s carding factory; it produced textile equipment for the weaving industry and became the namesake for “Factory Street,” which was eventually rechristened “Waverly Place” in 1833.
Longworth’s New-York Directory of 1834-35 notes that a grocer named William White lived at the corner of 18 Factory Street and 27 Amos Street (now West 10th Street), and in 1837-38, an Irish immigrant, the grocer Adam McCandless, was running his dry-goods store from that address. By 1839, McCandless had also bought the lot from a son of Whittemore’s, shortly after the former owner’s death in 1838; he remained in this location until his own death in the 1880s. He also erected a two or two-and-a-half story building in the rear in 1845, per a National Register of Historic Places document.
In 1919, the tavern in this location — possibly named “Seven Doors” or “John and Andy’s” — became a speakeasy after the Volstead Act was passed. Around this time, it began to be known as Julius’ — either in honor of the owner’s dog or a popular bartender from the previous establishment, no one is quite sure. “A madhouse without keepers,” the entry about Julius’ in The Speakeasies of 1932 reads, “It is to New York what Cafe Dome is to Paris. And by that token, if you can stand to remain here long enough, everybody you ever hoped to see, and a lot you hoped you wouldn’t, will come in.” The establishment was so packed that the patrons who managed to bring their cups to their lips “one time out of three tries” deserved prizes, the authors felt.
By 1932, prohibition enforcers had already padlocked Julius’ four times. One police raid in particular caused such a sensation that it made headlines in more than half a dozen newspapers in New York state. Shortly after midnight on July 26, 1928, a half-dozen detectives showed up at this hub of the “village intelligentsia” and declared everyone under arrest. But just as the officers were herding the clients into patrol wagons, someone turned off the lights — plunging the venue into darkness and disarray once more. While a few managed to slip away during this uproarious interlude, 15 women and about 32 men were arrested on charges of “disorderly conduct” and the bar proprietor and a waiter were booked for the violation of the Volstead Act. The patrons — a “collection of artists, writers and students” — would only be released after spending around 12 hours in cells and being lectured by a magistrate that “It isn’t decent to go to such places.” A few months later in December, the feds struck, ordering 100-odd customers inside Julius’ out and arresting a different waiter and bartender this time.
In the long run, these incidents read as eventful blips in the lore of a seasoned venue. One of its patrons in the early 1940s was folk singer Woodie Guthrie. According to Bruce Kayton’s “Radical Tours of New York City,” the itinerant Communist Party member and creator of “This Land Is My Land” wrote “The Sinking of Reuben James” while living just a few blocks away from the establishment.
The landmark application shows that the photographer Weegee took at least four photographs at the bar in 1946 — documenting its merry patrons and a jolly-faced bartender, known as Joe. He captioned Julius’ as the friendliest bar, where the affable bartender always wears a smile, “answers your phone calls, solves life’s complicated problems, and even cashes your check.” Still a rendezvous of artists and writers, it was described in another caption as “a hangout for newspaper folks” as well as for jazz musicians playing at the venue across the street. It was so popular among newspaper types that a framed Village Voice cartoon in Julius’ backroom suggests that the publication was founded in a meeting that took place there in 1955 between co-founders John Wilcock, Ed Fancher, and Dan Wolf.
As far back as the 1890s, there were establishments in the Village catering to lesbians and gays, writes historian George Chauncey in Gay New York. Their presence was firmly established by the 1920s and kept growing as they “appropriated as their own many of the other social spaces created by the bohemians of the 1910s.” This was illustrated by a denigrating description from New York Confidential in 1948: “Not all New York’s queer (or, as they say it, ‘gay’) people live in Greenwich Village. But most of those who advertise their oddities, the long-haired men, the short-haired women, those not sure exactly what they are, gravitate to the Village.”
By the 1950s, many gay men had begun frequenting Julius’, even though the bar was not especially hospitable to them and the crowd remained mixed. The landmark application illustrates a memoir about gay life in New York during this period. A writer with the pen name Caco Velho wrote, “There’s always Julius’ of course. But by this time the charm of its cobwebbed beams and nostalgia decor had paled, and more to the point I’d lost patience with the place’s anti-gay atmosphere. For my money I wanted a real gay bar . . . After all, if I wanted homophobia up close and personal, I could stay home, sit in a comfortable chair and call my parents.”
In his 1959 Village guidebook, Richard Lewis described Julius’ as a “venerable place … with an assortment of customers ranging from Madison Avenue Bohemians to Villagers, from college boys to strays from other boroughs.” Its live jazz performances continued until the jukebox replaced them in the 1960s, wrote Terry Miller, a chronicler of the Village. Another guidebook from 1963 said Julius’ “is the most popular with the young man about town who takes his girl here after midnight for a hamburger and beer.” To prevent cruising on premises, gay men inside Julius’ were required to face the street and not look into the bar.
Julius’s disavowal of itself as a gay bar helped it survive a battery of discriminatory campaigns to “clean up” Greenwich Village. Liquor licenses were frequently revoked on the basis that bars permitted “disorderly persons, homosexuals and degenerates” on their premises who “conduct themselves in an offensive manner contrary to good morals,” local newspapers frequently reported. As stated in the landmark application, “Julius’ was one of the only bars with gay patrons that survived this purge, undoubtedly because much of its clientele was straight and because its management was inhospitable to its gay patrons.”
Thus, even in the relatively protected environment of the Village, gays and lesbians faced difficulties getting served in bars in 1966. One of the earliest gay men’s organizations in the US, the Mattachine Society, had chapters in a number of cities and turned its attention to this matter. Dick Leitsch, its New York president, and his colleagues were determined to challenge discrimination and make sure that gays and lesbians could congregate in public places and order drinks. So on April 21, they organized what became known as the “sip-in.”
Inspired by the lunch counter sit-ins organized by African Americans in the south as part of the civil rights movement, the plan was for a few members to gather at a bar, announce that they were homosexuals and wait to be denied service. Reporters were invited to witness the actions that would “challenge New York State Liquor Authority to clarify their regulations concerning serving homosexuals in places of public accommodation,” a press release stated.
That morning, Mattachine members Leitsch, Craig Rodwell and John Timmons set out for a Ukrainian-American restaurant at 12 St. Marks Place [currently a vegan restaurant called V-Spot], because it prominently displayed the rhyme “If you’re gay, please go away.” However, the owners, tipped by a reporter who arrived first, chose to close rather than become the site of the public test. So the three Mattachines moved on to Howard Johnson’s on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street. Another member, Randy Wicker, joined them here. All sat down, asked to see the manager and announced that they were homosexuals and wished to be served drinks or else they would file a complaint with the State Liquor Authority. The manager laughed at this request and said there was no reason not to serve them, and proceeded to have drinks brought to the table. A similar response occurred at the next venue.
And so, frustrated by hospitality, the foursome settled on Julius’. The activists were hopeful that the establishment had to refuse them; because police officers had recently entrapped customers there for “gay activity,” serving the men would have put the bar in jeopardy of having its liquor license revoked.
The Mattachine members asked for drinks and, as they were beginning to be served, announced that they were homosexuals. The bartender said that he could not serve them and dramatically placed his hand over a glass, an act that was captured in an iconic photograph taken by Village Voice photographer Fred W. McDarrah. Before the reporters disbursed, the members announced that they would file a complaint with the State Liquor Authority against Julius’s, contending they were unfairly discriminated against. But they also told the reporters that they bore no ill-will against the bar or management and that the Mattachine Society would offer to pay the bar’s legal expenses.
The “Sip-in” became an early example of organized demonstration for LGBTQ civil rights in New York, and also a relatively early one in the United States. “It was a challenge to one of the remaining citadels of bias, and a citadel of bias backed up by law, at that. The actors in the odyssey were three homosexuals, with four reporters and a photographer as supporting players,” wrote Lucy Komisar of the Village Voice — who witnessed the events that day.
Leitsch, the “Sip-in” leader, died at 83 in June 2018 after a year-long battle with multiple melanoma. Historian and activist David Carter told Gay City News that “without Dick Leitsch, there would have been no Stonewall.” Leitsch’s funeral was followed by an open-to-all reception and celebration of his life at Julius’.
Rodwell, who would go on to play a leading role in the Stonewall riots, succumbed to cancer in 1993. He also established the Oscar Wilde Bookshop (1967-2009), the world’s first storefront gay and lesbian bookstore on Mercer Street (later moved to Christopher Street) and helped organize the first Gay Pride Parade in 1970.
Randy Wicker is 81 years old and a living history of the gay rights movement in the United States.
“I’m gonna go run into my bathroom and put in my dentures so I talk more clearly,” he said when I reached him on his landline in Hoboken. “Little tiny details of old age, you know,” he added as we both laughed.
Wicker remembers the Julius’ of the sixties as a quiet, neighborhood bar where many local gay people would stop by on the way home from work to have a beer, or to talk with people. But Julius’ was wary of police harassment. “On weekends, if it got to be too many men and not enough women, they would not allow you to come … unless you were with a woman,” he recalls.
In the aftermath of the sip-in, he said, “An interesting thing happened is that the court said, ‘This is ridiculous. These people have a right of assembly and they have the right to be served a drink…’ That effectively legalized gay bars.” Thereafter, little remained in the way of Julius’ to openly accept the gay presence on its premises. A few years later, the Stonewall rebellion followed and Greenwich Village along with its gay bars like Julius’ gained an international reputation in the 1970s as the place to experience gay life and meet gay friends.
But that heady decade was followed by the grim reaper of AIDS, which ravaged the gay population of the neighborhood in the eighties. “People were dropping like flies,” recalled Wicker, adding that he lost 11 out of the 12 most important people in his life to the disease. Bernárd Lynch, an openly gay priest and psychotherapist, worked during this time with Dignity/New York — a nonprofit for LGBTQI Catholics — and remembers that the back room of Julius’ had become his unofficial office as a counselor-minister. “Hours and hours and hours I spent there with young men, newly diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, sometimes in a flood of tears and desperation and panic,” he said.
It was not happenstance that these conversations transpired at Julius’.
“It was a bar totally without attitude. Totally,” said Lynch. “You weren’t judged on your appearance, you weren’t judged on the color of your skin, you weren’t judged on your religion, if you revealed it, you weren’t judged in your orientation. Good looks or your non-good looks, you were accepted for who you are and people chatted to you and were friendly.”
Michael Korrie, the multiple-award-winning librettist and lyricist, chose Julius’ as the setting for his song “Kieran McHugh Remained Abroad,” in which gay veterans of World War I gathered at the bar during Prohibition to describe their return from the battlefield.
Merrily played the marching bands
Welcoming home the straight.
Avenues teemed with patriots
Who now crusade for hate
Saturday nights at Julius’
Drinking to comrades lost —
Our hairy-chested widowhood
Gets sentimentally sauced
Julius’s historic character is captured in several movies where it played itself. Notable among them are The Boys in the Band (1970), the first movie to focus exclusively on the lives of gay men, Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976), Love Is Strange (2014) and Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), which garnered an Oscar nomination for actress Melissa McCarthy, for her performance as the author and literary forger Lee Israel. Not only were Israel, who died in 2015, and McCarthy both patrons of Julius’, they very likely overlapped in the 1990s, McCarthy told Entertainment Tonight. Such things continually flag the bar to a newer, younger clientele, says Julius’ owner, Helen Buford. Every month, the bar also has two parties which draw crowds from different ages and walks of life. One of these is called Mattachine Nights in the honor of the Sip-in activists.
A day before the 50th anniversary of the “Sip-In” at Julius’, on April 20, 2016, the bar was added to the National Register of Historic Places, a recognition of its place in American history due to “association with an important early event in the modern gay rights movement.”
“The bar has gone out of its way not to change, now that it’s a historic place,” said Wicker, who credits Buford for it. Even though there is no longer sawdust on the floor, Julius’ tables, barrel-stools, and bar bear the stamp, “Jacob Ruppert” — a marker of the famous Jacob Ruppert Brewery that existed on the Upper East Side between 1867 and 1965. The foot rail along the bar is a string of brass basset hounds standing nose to tail. As I was leaving the bar one afternoon, a middle-aged couple had come in looking to specifically lunch on Julius’s hamburgers.
“Most bars don’t come with a history. The trends are going to come and go and bars will open and close,” said Buford, “But when you have a history and you open it up to everyone to explore and be more of a neighborhood place than a trendy bar, I think is what makes it work.”
“The only concern would be if the lease is over and then the renewal of a lease is … it’s so high that it’s not affordable to be able to stay open,” she added.