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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."