Walt Whitman’s Watering Hole: Pfaff’s Cellar, NYC

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Whitman became a regular at Pfaff’s after getting fired from the Brooklyn Daily Times in 1859. The years before the Civil War were a decadent period where Whitman played the bon vivant, finding friends and lovers among the New York counterculture.

“The Two Vaults” an unfinished poem c. 1861

The vault at Pfaffs where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse
While on the walk immediately overhead pass the myriad feet of Broadway
As the dead in their graves are underfoot hidden
And the living pass over them, recking not of them,
Laugh on laughers!
Drink on drinkers!
Bandy the jest!
Toss the theme from one to another!
Beam up—Brighten up, bright eyes of beautiful young men!

—Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman thought Leaves of Grass, his love letter to America, would heal the divided country and make people see everyday beauty around them. But the 1855 and 1856 editions sold poorly. Bruised and rejected by the mainstream literary community, he did what so many people would do – he went out and had a drink with his friends.

Though he wasn’t actually much of a drinker, Whitman for a time took nightly refuge beneath the streets of New York at Charles Pfaff’s beer cellar, an underground spot at 647 Broadway near Bleecker Street. From the mid-1850s to the late 1860s, Pfaff’s was the center of New York bohemia. As writer Allan Gurganus has said, “Pfaff’s was the Andy Warhol factory, the Studio 54, the Algonquin Round Table all rolled into one.”

Prior to Whitman, Boston—the headquarters of Thoreau, Emerson, and Alcott —was the literary center of the United States. The crowd that gathered at Pfaff’s helped make New York into the literary, publishing, and theatrical center it has been ever since.

Charles Pfaff’s cave-like basement beer hall was modeled on the German rathskellers (below street level drinking establishments) that were popular in Europe. Patrons entered by traveling down a set of rickety stairs. The hall had long communal tables, dim lighting, and was filled with smoke. Light filtered into the depths through glassed over vaults in the sidewalk. Whitman called Charlie Pfaff “a generous German restaurateur, silent, stout, jolly, and I should say the best selector of champagne in America.”

Whitman became a regular at Pfaff’s after getting fired from the Brooklyn Daily Times in 1859. The years before the Civil War were a decadent period where Whitman played the bon vivant, finding friends and lovers among the New York counterculture. He is now a giant of the American canon, but as his contemporary William Dean Howells remembered, his celebrity in the 19th century was often “largely the infamy resulting from what many considered to be his obscene writings.”

The crowd that gathered at Pfaff’s was inspired by the bohemian literary culture of Paris’s Latin Quarter, which Henri Murger had chronicled in his 1851 collection of stories Scènes de la Vie de Bohême. Bohemians were lovers of art, and drink, and witty conversation, and rejected mainstream paths to success and fulfillment. They accepted poverty as a matter of course. The Pfaff’s group loved the idea of Paris. But in New York, with its dirty streets and jostling crowds, they also found beauty.

Walt Whitman and William Dean Howells meeting at Pfaff's.

Whitman loved New York. Some days, he’d ride up and down Broadway, chatting with the omnibus drivers and jostling with fruit sellers. In the season, he’d go to the opera. As transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott remembered, Whitman ‘lived to make poems, and for nothing else in particular.’ And at night, beneath his beloved streets, he went to Pfaff’s.

The “King of Bohemia” at Pfaff’s was Henry Clapp, Jr., who had gone to France in 1850. He had been a noted New England antislavery and temperance advocate. But after France, he was done with social reform. He came to New York and gathered artists, poets, actors, and interesting types together to meet and discourse and be fabulous. The group’s unofficial mascot was the recently dead Edgar Allen Poe, whom Clapp admired for his wanton troubled lifestyle, dramatic death, public denouncement of establishment Boston, and, of course, his writing.

In a Brooklyn Eagle interview, Whitman said:

“When it began to grow dark, Pfaff would politely invite everybody who happened to be sitting in the cave he had under the sidewalk to some other part of the restaurant. There was a long table extending the length of this cave; and as soon as the Bohemians put in an appearance, Henry Clapp would take a seat at the head of the table. I think there was as good talk around that table as took place anywhere in the world. Clapp was a very witty man.”

Clapp, the former teetotaler, loved to drink and surrounded himself with clever types with whom he’d exchange taunts and repartee.

At the time, there weren’t many literary magazines in New York beyond the venerable Harper’s. So Clapp started The Saturday Press (later called The New York Saturday Press), which was a weekly celebrating the literary and artistic lifestyle, and filled with the work of the Pfaff’s crowd. He intended the paper to be New York’s answer to Boston’s Atlantic Monthly. But, in fact, it was more of a countercultural zine, with a mix of poetry, stories, radical politics, and an enthusiastic spirit of personal freedom and sexual openness. Before it folded in 1868, it published numerous poems by Whitman and a short story by Mark Twain. The Saturday Press championed Leaves of Grass, a move that many view as a significant factor in the success of the 1860 edition.

William Dean Howells, the popular realist novelist and Atlantic Monthly editor, first heard about The Saturday Press as a young man and was excited to visit Pfaff’s.  The experience did not impress him. “Nothing of their talk remains with me, but the impression remains that it was not so good talk as I had heard in Boston.” He recollects upon the arrival of a group of latecomers thusly:

I was given to understand they were just recovered from a fearful debauch; their locks were still damp from the wet towels used to restore them, and their eyes were very frenzied. I was presented to these types, who neither said nor did anything worthy of their awful appearance, but dropped into seats at the table, and ate of the supper with an appetite that seemed poor. I stayed hoping vainly for worse things till eleven o’clock, and then I rose and took my leave of a literary condition that had distinctly disappointed me.

Still, Howells did recall fondly that he had met Whitman there, whom he admired.

Though Whitman is really the only member of the Pfaff’s bohemians who is much remembered, other voices echo. Notable writers, journalists, and personalities of the time frequented Pfaff’s, such as Thomas Nast (the cartoonist who helped create the modern notion of Santa Claus), satirist George Farrar Brown (aka Artemus Ward), and writers for the short-lived humor magazine Vanity Fair (1859-1863), and the free-spirited heiress Ada Clare.

Clare, known as Clapp’s “Queen of Bohemia” was a Southern expatriate who was the unapologetic single mother of an illegitimate child. She and Whitman were said to have been an item for a time. Along with Whitman, she was a Pfaff’s superstar, thumbing her nose at convention and decorum.

Broadway in Whitman's Day.

Pfaff’s was also very much the place for Whitman to explore his attraction to men. Whitman was said to be part of a loose collective called the “Fred Gray Association,” a group of men who gathered there and unapologetically enjoyed male-male romantic and sexual relationships. It was at Pfaff’s that Whitman met his love Fred Vaughn, whom he lived with for several years and who likely inspired some of Whitman’s most romantic verse.

Cross-dressing was also not uncommon at Pfaff’s. According to Karen Karbiener, Whitman started wearing bloomers, the controversial women’s pants. They were fluffy and loose and Whitman wore them showily and tucked them into his boots.

But Whitman knew when it was time to grow up and crawl out of the rabbit hole. He left New York in 1862 to work in the hospitals of the Union Army in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, personally nursing the injured and dying. He stayed on there after the war before eventually settling in Camden, New Jersey, where he spent his final years.

The building at 653 Broadway was torn down in 1870 and Charles Pfaff moved his business uptown. Pfaff lived until 1890. Clapp died in poverty in 1875 in an asylum on Blackwell’s Island in the East River, now Roosevelt Island.

Though little remembered, the story of Pfaff’s is that Whitman wasn’t just a solitary shouter of ecstatic verse; he was a player in a pulsating community of artists and writers. As Whitman said to a biographer:

I can recall it all now, and, through a vista of cigar and pipe smoke and dim gaslight, see the scores of kindly faces peering at me, some in love; some in question, but all friendly enough; for, while ‘Bohemia’ might differ as to a man’s work or its results, she usually, once he was in, accepted the man, idiosyncracies and all. ‘Bohemia’ comes but once in one’s life. Let’s treasure even its memory.

***

Sources:

The Vault at Pfaff’s. Lehigh University Digital Library. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.

“Walt Whitman: America’s First Bohemian.” PoetryBay. Winter 2003-4. n. pag. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.

Gurganus, Allan. “American Experience: Walt Whitman” PBS. (2009): n. pag. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.

Karbiener, Karen. “American Experience: Walt Whitman” PBS. (2009): n. pag. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.

Kray, Elizabeth. “Walking Tour: Walt Whitman’s SoHo District in New York City.” Poets.org. (2005): n. pag. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.

Whitley, Edward. “[email protected]: Bohemia on the World Wide Web.” Mickle Street Review Issue 19/20: Sights and Sounds (2010): n. pg. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.


Sara Oliver Gordus is a writer and editor in New York City. Her fiction and essays have previously appeared in the Jamaica Observer, the Blood Orange Review, the Wilderness House Literary Review, and Open Pages. Find her online here. More from this author →