Greenwich Village is one of the most unique communities in New York City. Located in Manhattan, it has served as a center for artists, writers, musicians and actors for well over a century. That means Greenwich has been a cornerstone of NYC’s cultural scene for a long time—and that means there are some great stories to be told about some of the greatest storytellers to live there. The established watering holes of the Village have layers upon layers of lore about just about everyone. The Greenwich Village Literary Pubcrawl, the Village’s oldest walking tour, helps unearth those tales.
9. The Tour
The Greenwich Village Literary Pubcrawl was founded in 1998, making it the oldest walking tour in the neighborhood. Originally founded by a small theater company as a way to help finance their productions, the tour today is primarily about illuminating the history of Greenwich Village and the artistic greats that have lived—and drank—in the bounds of the Village. The tour attracts a small number of people, usually literary aficionados like myself. Our group was about five people and our knowledgeable guides led us through three of the taverns, several landmarks, numerous stories and many of the winding Village streets on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September. We met on the corner of Hudson Street and 11th Street, just outside the White Horse Tavern, our first stop.
8. The White Horse Tavern
Our first stop on the tour was the White Horse Tavern, which is quite possibly the oldest pub still in operation in Greenwich Village. In fact, only one bar in the whole of NYC is older than this establishment. The White Horse has long been a favorite haunt for writerly types, including famed 20th-century poet Dylan Thomas, a Welshman who made many tours of the U.S. The business is still cash-only and the building belies its age, with its tiny bathrooms clearly speaking to a bygone era. We met up at this cozy location, where the servers know the Pubcrawl staff by name and also enjoy listening to them recount the lore surrounding the pub—and even do a couple of dramatic poetry readings.
7. The White Horse and Dylan Thomas
Although the White Horse has been around for a long time and has had a reputation for many writers, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is perhaps the man most associated with the tavern. That’s because Thomas reportedly drank himself “to death” in the bar. Rumor has it that after 18 whiskeys, Thomas stumbled back to his hotel room and passed out. Accounts vary on whether or not Thomas simply never woke up again or went back to the bar upon rising, but the fact of the matter is that he died soon after his bender, in the nearby St. Vincent’s hospital, allegedly of an “insult to the brain.” The White Horse still pays tribute to Thomas, whose most famous poem is “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Some say Thomas’ ghost still inhabits the tavern.
6. Kettle of Fish
We took a bit of a winding path to arrive at our next pub. That was fine, since the path was sprinkled with literary landmarks and tales of the kind of Bohemian debauchery that can only happen in a place like the Village. Arriving at Kettle of Fish, we knew there were some more stories to be told. This bar has its own winding history—one that starts on McDougall Street and hops around to two or three other locations, before finally landing in the former home of another bar, the Lion’s Head. Lion’s Head, owned by a former NYPD officer, became a literary hangout in its own right, even though Kettle of Fish had been doing the same thing years before. When Lion’s Head closed down in the late 1990s, it was only right that another hub for writers took its place on the Greenwich bar scene.
5. Kettle of Fish and Jack Kerouac
Before moving to its current home, Kettle of Fish was a hangout for literary types; in the 1950s, it was a hub for the Beatniks, including the likes of Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as Kettle of Fish was located in a sort of rough place, one of the tales involves the On the Road author getting himself into a bar fight. Kerouac had played football during his academic career, so he was a fairly imposing fellow, but he picked a fight with two guys who happened to be piano movers. Kerouac was smart enough to bring back up—but unfortunately, he brought a poet as his wing man. Allegedly, the fight ended with the poet, Gregory Corso, yelling, “Oh my God, stop, you’re going to kill him!
The Greenwich Village Literary Pub Crawl originally had more stops, but since the tour was founded in 1998, many establishments have folded. One of the bars that hasn’t gone under is Chumley’s, although the bar has been closed for renovation since a 2007 restoration accident caused the chimney to fall in. We spent a good while standing outside of Chumley’s nonetheless—and for good reason. The bar has a storied history: it opened in 1922, during the Prohibition era, and quickly became a gathering place. The bar was a hub for both the political and artistic communities; lawyers and authors would rub elbows here, and, as the bar was operated by a socialist activist, the politically minded were also welcome. Chumley’s remained relevant to the literary scene in Greenwich Village into the mid-20th century and beyond.
3. Chumley’s and NYC Slang
Given that Chumley’s has such a long history, you can bet that there are some great stories associated with this place. Although it remains to be seen what the bar looks like when it re-opens after renovation, one of the defining features before closure was that the jackets of books were pinned to the walls—books that local authors had allegedly worked on at the bar. Writers who are known to have frequented Chumley’s include William Faulkner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. Cummings, Eugene O’Neill and John Steinbeck. Chumley’s is mentioned in an episode of Mad Men and an episode of Sherlock. Not only that, but Chumley’s added to NYC slang: during Prohibition, the cops would give advance notice about raids and have patrons “86 it”—use the front door, rather than the building’s underground tunnels.
2. Marie’s Crisis
Marie’s Crisis isn’t much to look at, but as the locals know, this is one of the best places to be. A bar has stood in this same spot for a long time; the first one was opened by a woman named Marie Dumont, shortly after the Revolution. Later on, the property and the watering hole changed hands, eventually becoming Marie’s Crisis today. The bar is well-known today for its pianist, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the American Songbook. This makes it a popular hangout for members of Broadway choruses, who often head down to the bar to partake of a drink and practice the solos they dream of someday singing on the Broadway stage. Marie’s Crisis also has a long literary history. One writer in particular, however, is known to have both drank and done some very important writing in the very place the bar stands.
1. Marie’s Crisis and Thomas Paine
Marie’s Crisis is named for Marie Dumont, who opened the first bar on the property, and for the first pamphlet that Thomas Paine wrote in the series known as the “Crisis Papers.” Paine’s Common Sense had been very popular in colonial America. But now, in the midst of the revolutionary war, the troops were demoralized by cold winter weather, inadequate clothing and a lack of food and supplies. George Washington knew he needed to inspire them—so he asked Paine to pen a little something. Paine began working on a series of 16 pamphlets, titled The American Crisis, which were published between 1777 and 1783. The first volume, penned in what is now Marie’s Crisis, begins with the famous words “These are the times that try men’s souls.”