One of the lesser known facts of the life of America's Good Gray Poet, Walt Whitman, is that in the late 1850s, he was one of the central figures a group of "Bohemians" who hung around Greenwich Village.

Whitman, who had a book to his credit when he strolled in among the alternative literary types at Pfaff's, near the corner of Broadway ant Bleeker Street - putting him a leg up on the other journalist/creative writers at the basement bar.

The crowd at Pfaff's was, say most sources, the first group of Bohemians in America.

The term "Bohemians" originally referred to wandering gypsies, but according to the Greenwich Village Gazette, in the 1840s the word came to be used to criticize the poor artists who lived in the side streets of Paris.

In 1845, however, that all changed. Romantic stories of a class of "starving artists" began to circulate in a Parisian magazine and "Scorn was turned into fascination."

One of those fascinated was Henry Clapp Jr. of New York.

It seems Clapp was the publisher of the Saturday Press, an urbane, venturesome NYC weekly. Before it failed in 1868, the Press was America's first counterculture newspaper with a mix of radical politics, personal freedom, naivete, comedy, realism, sexual forthrightness, and enthusiasm. It heralded much of the art and modern literature that surfaced over the years in Greenwich Village, and then the nation (not to mention publishing a couple of dozen poems by Whitman, and a short story by Mark Twain called "Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog.")

According to author Louis M Starr, In 1856 Clapp returned from Paris where he had been infatuated with Henri Murger's Scenes de la vie de Boheme, with the idea of inculcating a Bohemian literary society in New York.

As it happened, he ran into Charlie Pfaff, a prototypically 'fat jolly innkeeper,' who had opened a basement beer hall at 653 Broadway, a few doors south of the Winter Garden. The cave-like location was modeled on the German Rathskellers that were booming in Europe. Pfaff set up long tables in the dark recesses of the cellar, a vault like space that was under the sidewalk of Broadway above. Though Pfaff's was dim, smoky and literally underground, it was also known for having some fine fare. One historian notes that Pfaff served the best coffees, the finest beers and cheeses, and the wine cellar was well stocked with fine wines from all over the world. (Whitman called Charlie Pfaff "a generous German restaurateur, silent, stout, jolly, and I should say the best selecter of champagne in America.")

When Clapp discovered it, he knew he had his place. Pfaff's soon became a gathering place for a bunch of like minded rebels. "In Pfaff's Cave, a dim and dusky tavern at 653 Broadway not listed in the guide books, Clapp set himself up as the "King of Bohemia," writes Starr. It was in Pfaff's that Clapp claimed that a true Bohemian should live by his art, spend lots of money, spit upon the prim little gods of Boston, scorn respectability, exalt the devil-may-care, cultivate wit and women, affect a pipe and outlandish peaked cap and consider the world his own.

Clapp lionized the work of Edgar Allen Poe, recently deceased, making him the group's spiritual mentor, "not so much for art's sake but rather to esteem his dissolute life style, his spectacular death and his hate for Boston," noted one historian.

In a sense, Clapp's notion of Bohemians was more a matter of manners than morals. But whether it was manner or mode, the place soon became a mecca for writers and others who wished to flaunt convention among like-minded individuals.

According to historians Ed Fosam and Ken Price, Whitman became a regular at Pfaff's saloon, after getting fired from the Brooklyn Daily Times, a Free Soil newspaper. "At Pfaff's, Whitman the former temperance writer began a couple of years of unemployed carousing; he was clearly remaking his image, going to bars more often than he had since he left New Orleans a decade earlier," they write." Henry Clapp would help publicize Whitman’s work in many ways, including publishing in 1859 an early version of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."

Whitman became friends at Pfaff's with many writers, journalists and personalities, some well known at the time -- such as Fitz-James O’Brien, Edmund Clarence Stedman and Ada Clare.

Whitman and Clare, a particularly winning ex-Southern Belle known as Clapp's "Queen of Bohemia" (she had an illegitimate child, thought to have been the son of Louis Gottschalk, the New Orleans composer, and proudly proclaimed herself an unmarried mother), were apparently an 'item' for some of this time. The pair, according to some, became two of the most notorious figures at the beer hall, flouting convention and decorum.

It was Ada Clare who stated that "A Bohemian is not, like the creative of society, a victim of rules and customs, he steps over them all with an easy, graceful, joyous unconsciousness." The New York Bohemians paid adoring homage to Miss Clare's interpretation of the "New Woman."

Others who frequented Pfaff's?

Thomas Bailey Aldrich. Thomas Nast, the cartoonist who "invented" Santa Claus. Bayard Taylor.

George Arnold, the poet, was a visitor, and one night he saddened the crowd by his story of the suicide at the Stevens House of a friend of his, a young Englishman named Henry W. Herbert, who wrote under the pseudonym of "Frank Forrester." Another friend of Arnold, who introduced him to the coterie at Pfaff's, was the homespun satirist George Farrar Brown, better known to the reading public as "Artemus Ward."

Carmine Sarracino, writing on the life of naturalist John Burroughs, notes that the upstater also was also a frequent visitor to Pfaff's, perhaps because hoped to become a writer, especially in 1862. "He championed Whitman in literary arguments, anticipating at every moment a meeting with the poet himself. That meeting did not take place at Pfaff’s," writes Sarracino, "but rather by chance on the streets of Washington, D.C., as Whitman made his way to an army hospital to tend wounded soldiers."

One who was not quite so enamored of the place, however, was William Dean Howells.

Howell's visited Pfaff's, and in First Impressions of Literary New York, writes that he was not amused. "I felt that as a contributor and at least a brevet Bohemian I ought not to go home without visiting the famous place, and witnessing if I could not share the revels of my comrades. As I neither drank beer nor smoked, my part in the carousal was limited to a German pancake, which I found they had very good at Pfaff's, and to listening to the whirling words of my commensals....Nothing of their talk remains with me, but the impression remains that it was not so good talk as I had heard in Boston."

Howells recalls that at one point a group of late arriving writers showed up, and the others made a big scene over their arrival: "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 recalled with warmth having met Whitman at Pfaff's, many years later, though he made it clear that Whitman had already by the time of their meeting become something of a celebrity, even if his fame was "largely the infamy resulting from what many considered to be his obscene writings."

As for Walt Whitman, he said of Pfaff's "there was as good talk around that table as took place anywhere in the world," and even penned an unfinished poem about the place: "the vault at Pfaff's where drinkers and laugher/smeet to eat and drink and carouse/While on the walk immediately overhead pass the/myriad feet of Broadway." (fr. The Two Vaults, ca 1861).

And in fact it was at Pfaff’s that Whitman joined the "Fred Gray Association," a loose confederation of young men who seemed anxious to explore new possibilities of male-male affection. The name was from one of the members, a young man named Fred Gray, the son of a doctor, who went on to become a doctor himself in the Civil War. Among those in the association were Gray, Hugo Fritsch, who was the son of the Austrian consul, and Nat Bloom, who became a successful merchant, and eventually had a store on Broadway.

After the Civil War, Charles Pfaff moved his business up to midtown, with the migration north, in 1870. That year the building at 653 Broadway was demolished. (A W & J Sloane Store replaced it, and its marble facade still stands there. In 1979 fire gutted the building that at that time housed The Infinity Disco, among the first dance clubs to cater to hetero and gay people).

Pfaff lived until 1890, and his passing was noted with respect. The same fate didn't wait for the publisher of the Press. Henry Clapp ended his days as a pauper in an asylum on Blackwell's Island, now Roosevelt Island.

As for Whitman, he remembered Pfaff's long into his old age, writing about it in Specimen Days after a visit to the restaurateur's newer location many years later:

"An hour’s fresh stimulation, coming down ten miles of Manhattan Island by railroad and 8 o’clock stage" wrote Whitman. "Then an excellent breakfast at Pfaff’s restaurant, 24th Street. Our host himself, an old friend of mine, quickly appear’d on the scene to welcome me and bring up the news, and, first opening a big fat bottle of the best wine in the cellar, talk about ante-bellum times, ’59 and ’60, and the jovial suppers at his Broadway place, near Bleecker Street.

Ah, the friends and names and frequenters, those times, that place. Most are dead - Ada Clare, Wilkins, Daisy Sheppard, O’Brien, Henry Clapp, Stanley, Mullin, Wood, Brougham, Arnold - all gone.

And there Pfaff and I, sitting opposite each other at the little table, gave a remembrance to them in a style they would have themselves fully confirm’d, namely, big, brimming, fill’d-up champagne-glasses, drain’d in abstracted silence, very leisurely, to the last drop."




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