From the Chelsea Hotel to the Strand, a writer takes a tour through literary New York — home of luminaries like Dorothy Parker, Dylan Thomas, Leonard Cohen, O. Henry, and more.
It’s fair to say I look at things through a literary prism — I’m a writer by profession and I work at a museum that honors another one. So when I set out for New York City this spring, images of chain-smoking figures hunched over ancient Underwoods in Greenwich Village walk-ups were foremost on my mind.
Writers have long been drawn to live and work in the city, attracted by the proximity to publishing houses and fellow artists, and the combination of inspiring streetscapes and gritty humanity that defines it.
I knew I wanted to experience literary Manhattan, but the list of writers who’ve drawn inspiration from the city is dauntingly long and varied. I needed to narrow my focus, and I knew how: I opted, like any writer worth her salt, to go barhopping.
Having arrived by train at the glorious Grand Central Terminal, I started my literary pilgrimage just a few blocks down 44th Street at the legendary Algonquin Hotel. Here, starting in 1919, a group of working writers and wits including Dorothy Parker and Harold Ross gathered regularly to eat lunch, swap writing-life war stories, and, well, be witty. Their conversations around a round table gave rise to the founding of the New Yorker magazine in 1925. Eventually, they needed a table big enough to accommodate 25 members of what they dubbed the “Vicious Circle.” (Although many of the regulars were known to be big drinkers, the sessions weren’t alcohol-fueled — at least not overtly. Prohibition didn’t end until 1933, by which time the group had largely disbanded.)
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The Algonquin takes its landmark status in literary history seriously: Each guest room gets a copy of the New Yorker, and its “Do Not Disturb” signs read, “Quiet please. Writing the Great American Novel.”
Nowadays, in the Round Table restaurant in the hotel’s lobby, a much smaller, but still round, table sits beneath a painting of the members of the Algonquin wits; alas, it’s only available for parties of four to six. Since I was traveling solo, I sat a few feet away, savoring my Dorothy Parker cocktail (a sassy sip featuring Dorothy Parker Gin crafted in Brooklyn), under no pressure whatsoever to be witty.
Next up, the Strand, the equally legendary mecca of book lovers and writers, featuring 2.5 million new, used, collectible and rare items — enough to fulfill the store’s longtime slogan: “18 miles of books.” The store’s four floors are organized by topic. For instance, military, law, and religion in the basement; rare books are on the third floor. A set of tall shelves on the main floor holds hundreds of volumes by New York writers and others about the city itself. I picked up E.B. White’s “Here Is New York,” a slim and bittersweet tribute to mid-20th-century Manhattan, and Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” a love letter to the author’s youthful New York escapades (and her then-lover, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe). Read them both to see the city through two very different writers’ eyes.
I also bought Delia Cabe’s “Storied Bars of New York,” an anecdote-packed roundup of establishments where writers past and present have hung out and imbibed. The book includes write-ups of nearly three dozen such bars, plus cocktail recipes.
Smith is just one of the scads of writers, famous and otherwise, who have occupied rooms at my next stop, the Hotel Chelsea; others include Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas and Thomas Wolfe. Mark Twain lived at the Chelsea for a brief time, when it was a co-op apartment building before it became a hotel; it still has a number of permanent residents. At this writing, the hotel is under renovation, strapped in scaffolding and closed to the public. But it’s still worth a visit, just to stand on the sidewalk under its iconic awning, reading the brass-plaque tributes to residents such as Arthur Miller, Arthur C. Clarke and Leonard Cohen.
The Chelsea’s reopening, initially set for October, has been pushed back to 2019. By all accounts, the interior is going to be spectacular, while the exterior will retain its historic understated charm.
You don’t have to be a bibliophile to appreciate a visit to Pete’s Tavern in Gramercy Park, where O. Henry said he wrote the classic Christmas short story “The Gift of the Magi.” A framed letter in which O. Henry — whose real name was William Sydney Porter — claims that he wrote it there in 1905 hangs in the very booth in which he said he worked. Sitting in that booth, knocking back a Pete’s 1864 Ale (named for the year the tavern opened), I thought about how utterly uninspiring my surroundings were; Pete’s is a perfectly serviceable, garden-variety tavern, but hardly the kind of place where you’d think literary history would be made. Or maybe that’s the point: Inspiration can strike anywhere.
Ludwig Bemelmans also was a nightly dinner customer at Pete’s; he dreamed up his Madeline picture books here, drafting illustrations on the backs of Pete’s Tavern menus. Bemelmans, who spent his life moving from hotel to hotel, painted a mural in the Carlyle Hotel — in what is now known as the Bemelmans Bar — in exchange for an 18-month stay there. In addition to its charming scenes of people and animals cavorting in Central Park, the mural features Madeline herself, marching with her fellow orphans in the original “two straight lines” of Bemelman’s beloved picture books, this time in Manhattan instead of the original Paris.
Another classic watering hole for writers is the White Horse Tavern, the corner pub in Greenwich Village where poet Dylan Thomas, who gave us the epic poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and beloved prose of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” fed the growing and increasingly extreme alcoholism that eventually killed him. The White Horse’s literary life extended beyond Thomas’s presence in the early 1950s; other luminaries who’ve tippled there include the aforementioned musical Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Anaïs Nin, Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, James Baldwin, Marguerite Young and Frank McCourt. The walls of the tavern, which has dark brown pressed-tin ceilings and equine silhouettes galloping across every surface, are lined with paintings and ephemera paying homage to Thomas. But it was crowded when I arrived on a sweltering June afternoon, and nobody seemed interested in anything beyond their drink orders.
Much of New York’s literary legacy is centered in Greenwich Village and Chelsea, but beyond the Algonquin, midtown Manhattan has a few writerly haunts worth visiting. Toward the end of my pilgrimage, I stopped by the dark and tiny King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel, so named for the 30-by-8-foot Maxfield Parrish mural of the merry old soul stretched along the wall behind the bar. Many writers, including Ernest Hemingway, have raised glasses here, but John Cheever, who lived right around the corner and frequented the dimly lit, intimate space, wins pride of place for his claim that he was also conceived in a room at the St. Regis.
I made my rounds in a single day, and about halfway through I recognized that it was probably time to stop sampling a drink at each of the venues. Back on the train, I skimmed through my new books and scribbled notes for this story until I nodded off to sleep in my seat.
That’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to feeling like a real writer.
If you go
The Algonquin Hotel: Centrally located just down the street from Grand Central Terminal, the Algonquin is a luxury hotel with a wide range of accommodations, each one fancier than the next. Times Square and the theater district are an easy walk away. Rooms from $369. 59 W. 44th St., 212-840-6800, algonquinhotel.com
St. Regis Hotel: An opulent landmark near Central Park, Fifth Avenue, Times Square and Broadway theaters, the St. Regis is a good special-occasion stay. The house car is a Bentley; it’s available on a first-come, first-serve basis to take guests to destinations within a 10-block radius of the hotel. Rooms from $613. 2 E. 55th St., 212-753-4500, stregisnewyork.com
The Algonquin Hotel Round Table restaurant: While the food is delicious — I had a way-better-than-average Cobb salad — you really go to this restaurant, located in the Algonquin’s lobby, to commune with literary spirits past. Call ahead to snag the Round Table for your party of four to six. Entrees start at $25. 59 W. 44th St., 212-840-6800, ext. 137, algonquinhotel.com/dining
Pete’s Tavern: A classic wooden-booth-and-bar pub serving a modest menu of burgers, pastas and other meals, some of them Italian-inspired. The O. Henry booth is not far from the entrance, just to the right. Entrees start at $17.95. 129 E. 18th St., 212-473-7676, petestavern.com
White Horse Tavern: The White Horse serves standard, unremarkable pub fare — burgers, sandwiches and fries — for very reasonable prices, especially by New York standards. Sit on the patio on a nice day, but don’t forget to visit the Dylan Thomas memorabilia inside. Entrees start at $10. 567 Hudson St., 212-989-3956
Strand Book Store: Four floors full of new, used and rare books in a wide array of categories, plus (sometimes remotely) book-related gifts. Don’t miss the bargain carts on the sidewalk out front. Free. 828 Broadway, 212-473-1452, strandbooks.com