What is it about divey writer’s bars? Dark-horse watering holes with stubby tables in back and a shortened bar that’s usually up front and center when you open the door. When one of my plays was produced at Circle Repertory Company, I hung out at the Red Lion. I didn’t just drink there; I ate there too; and God knows why, but I loved the food.
But then bar food has always been my guilty pleasure. Give me a burger and fries any day over the most gourmet meal imaginable and I’ll gladly scarf the burger. I hardly do any more, but if given half the chance (and the promise of no calories) I promise you—I would.
I knew about the Red Lion and the White Horse all through my childhood and teen years but somehow missed out on Chumley’s. Worse, I heard about it from a friend who moved to New York from the Midwest—but then again all the best stuff is discovered by people who aren’t from the city. I think it’s because they grow up noticing what’s around them, unlike New Yorkers who are trained to walk fast and avoid eye contact.
I put a verion of Chumley's into The Beat on Ruby's Street because my friend said Chumley’s had been a famous speakeasy during Prohibition, with not one but two secret entrances, trap doors and tunnels. I just loved the idea of Ruby finding her way to this "secret" place where she finds the poet she idolizes.
Being a speakeasy also meant there was no sign outside to identify the bar (keeping prying eyes away). Because Chumley’s was at 86 Bedford Street in the Village, it also became known for the term “86” which came to mean throwing out or getting rid of something. That something might either have been the 86th person to come to the bar or just anyone who’d had too much to drink.
When I think of Chumley’s, it doesn’t seem like a place that would throw its patrons out. I think it’s much more likely that 86 became some kind of code to get in and out, which would have made sense during Prohibition. The original owner Leland Stanford Chumley was an anarchist and labor organizer who somehow had the money to buy New York real estate in the 1920s. His bar might never have become famous without the writers who turned up there.
Willa Cather, E. E. Cummings, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay (who lived close by) all drank there (and could have eaten burgers too). My novel’s Ruby Tabeata finds some of the famous poets of her time there: Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsburg, Charles Butkowski and Jack Kerouac.
In 2000, the bar became a literary landmark with a plaque commemorating its writers. Posted on the walls were pictures of writers and the covers of books that supposedly had been written there. That’s what Ruby first sees when she gets inside Chumley’s, though being Ruby, she’s trying hard not to look.
People who know the area are starting to ask me which door Ruby would have gone through because there were a few of them. The most famous secret entrance is on 58 Barrow Street, which opens onto a shabby courtyard. Another is at 86 Bedford; if you can find others, I’d love to hear about them. I think Ruby’s was on Bedford, because it was one of my favorite streets in the Village (and a dear friend lived there.)
Have to interrupt with a word about my friend. She lived in a courtyard, below a flight of stairs underneath a gypsy fortuneteller’s shop. Her name was Vay and she was originally from Sacramento—though I honestly believe she was born to live on Bedford Street. And if it hadn’t been for her I might never have written The Beat on Ruby’s Street.
I met Vay while I was working at the New York Renaissance Faire as a storyteller; she billed herself as Queen of Bawds and every day at three or so we’d fake a brawl to entertain people standing on line for beer. She was an actor, singer and Renaissance woman with a husky voice like my character Blu from Blue Skies. And when the fair ended, all the actors started gravitating at Vay’s.
There were lots more famous people bringing artists together, but I can’t believe anyone had more grace or hospitality or style. When I think of Ruby’s line in my book about a party where the hosts had “put their hands around the city’s throat and squeezed” I am remembering life at Vay's place.
I tend to imagine Chumley's as a bigger version of Vay’s place. You could bring your work, read something out loud, listen to someone else’s words or just drink and flirt. I don’t believe it was just “the” place to be or a place you went to be seen. I see it as a place that supported artists, not because of who they were but because of the work they did.
And though it’s closed right now (a chimney collapsed in 2007) I hope it opens again. I hope new writers will be welcome there and that it will always be a dark, divey, writer’s bar.