White Horse Tavern

In the 1950s, there was a profusion of bars, coffee houses, cafes and cafeterias that served as incubators of the literary scene of the new Bohemians. These included such places as the Gaslight Cafe and Kettle of Fish on MacDougal Street, the Caravan on West 3rd Street, Les Deux Megots coffee house on 7th Street, Cafe Le Metro on 2nd Avenue (between 9th and 10th Streets), and the Waldorf cafeteria at 8th Street and 6th Avenue or the Bickford’s on 7th Avenue at 14th Street. While each establishment has its own place in the cultural, literary and artistic ferment of the Village in the time period immediately following World War II, one establishment stands out in the history and mythology of the 1950s Village: the White Horse Tavern, on Hudson Street at 11th Street. Today, the White Horse is one of the few wood frame buildings still extant in the city and it is one of the few major gathering-places for writers and artists from this period that still remains open in Greenwich Village.

Founded in 1880, the White Horse had long been the establishment of the longshoremen who worked the nearby piers and warehouses along the Hudson River. The White Horse began attracting visiting Englishmen in the 1950s as it reminded them of pubs back home. By most accounts, its transformation into a literary hangout started when the Scottish poet Ruthven Todd introduced Dylan Thomas to the bar during his first reading tour of America in 1950.1 The great Welsh poet, known for his abundant drinking habits, took up virtual residency in the Tavern’s back room, holding court. He quickly became a fixture, albeit a brief one, of the literary scene of the early 1950s. It was here that crowds would gather and listen as Dylan told tales of "his native Wales, bawdily recalled the professors' wives he bedded, recited from his favorite poets, savagely satirized literary critics, burst into music hall ditties … and answered questions with self-deflating aphorisms, deadpan wit, and ebullient laughter."2 According to a contemporary account "When [Dylan] settles down to guzzle beer, which is most of the time, his incredible yarns tumble over each other in a wild Welsh dithyramb in which truth and fact become hopelessly smothered in boozy invention”.3 While Dylan's presence was certainly good for business, his behavior on several occasions resulted in him being tossed from the bar.4

One particular story involving Dylan Thomas and the White Horse has reached the heights of myth and legend. As the tale has been famously told, Thomas arrived in New York on his fourth visit to the United States in October 1953. The facts, as best can be determined, are that on November 4th, Dylan returned to his rooms at the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street after drinking at the White Horse, declaring "I've just had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that's the record." In the early morning hours of November 5th, Thomas was rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital, little more than three blocks along 11th Street from the White Horse, where he slipped into a coma. Thomas died on the afternoon of November 9th at the age of 39 years old.5

After Thomas’s demise, writers continued to gather at the White Horse, including Norman Mailer, Michael Harrington, William Styron , Jack Kerouac , Pete Hamill, James Baldwin, Dan Wakefield and Frank McCourt. As Wakefield described it in his memoir of the 1950s, “for writers, the one place where you could always find a friend, join a conversation, relax and feel you were a part of a community was the White Horse”.6 He recounts one episode that highlights the literary contemporaries that crossed paths in the White Horse, as well as sets the scene of what the bar was like in the 1950s The incident described is his first encounter with fellow writer, and future friend, Seymour Krim. One evening at the bar, he overheard a woman put down Murray Kempton of the New York Post, so Wakefield walked over and poured his beer on the woman’s head. Not letting this incident go unchallenged, two men rose to defend her honor. As Wakefield describes it in New York in the 50s:

Then one of the men, a tall intellectual-looking guy wearing horn-rims, grabbed me by the
collar and said, “I know who you are Wakefield.” … Now I grabbed his collar and demanded,
“Who the hell are you?” When he told me he was Seymour Krim, I said, “No kidding? I read
your stuff in the Voice,” and he said, “Yeah? I read your stuff in The Nation.” We were still
gripping each other by the collar and snarling through our teeth. “Great piece you did on
Bellevue,” I said, and he said, “I dug the one you did on Kerouac” … We both admitted later
how relieved we were when a big waiter came over and broke us apart …7

Jack Kerouac is arguably one of the most important literary figures of the 1950s, having been the originator of the term “beat” to define a generation.8 His association with the White Horse is not as well documented as that of Dylan Thomas, but like his fellow writer, he was banned from the establishment on several occasions and also found the words, “Kerouac go home!” inscribed on the bathroom wall.9 Kerouac’s one-time girlfriend Helen Weaver lived across the street from the White Horse and their brief relationship is featured in his novel Desolation Angels. After Weaver kicked him out of her apartment, Kerouac moved in with Joyce Johnson , who was living uptown at the time. Yet Kerouac still returned to the White Horse to drink. In Desolation Angels, he describes a a turning point in his relationship with Johnson in 1957: “I saw it the night I got drunk at the White Horse (Norman Mailer sitting in the back talking anarchy) … and in walks Ruth Heaper [Weaver] … persuading me to go home with her … But Alyce [Johnson] somehow arrives at the White Horse and drags me out forcibly as if by the hair, to a cab to her home, from which I learn: Alyce Newman is not going to let anybody steal her man from her, no matter who he will be."10 Johnson recounts the incident differently in her novel Minor Characters, which details her relationship to Kerouac:

… one night he almost went back to Virginia [Helen Weaver] …. He'd been drinking in a bar
called the White Horse … I hailed a cab. It was one o’clock in the morning, I was on my way
to the White Horse…. when I walked into the White Horse and didn't see him, I marched to
the phone booth in the rear. I knew her last name and got the number….When he got on,
I told him where I was and … that I'd sit and wait for him in the bar for fifteen minutes, and
that if he didn't come it would be good-bye for good.11

Despite Kerouac’s appearance at the White Horse, their relationship didn’t last much beyond the publication of On the Road shortly thereafter.

While the White Horse continued to host literary crowds into the early 1960s, its aura soon faded. Traces of Kerouac and other writers who spent time drinking and debating the issues of the day at the White Horse are long gone, though Dylan Thomas continues to reign from the many portraits on the walls. Today it still caters to a diverse crowd, though one is more likely to encounter tourists, well-heeled locals from the nearby gentrified Meatpacking District, and New York University students. Owner Ed Brennan once asserted that, “To this day every English major in the tri-state area comes into the White Horse to see where Dylan Thomas used to hang out and where he died.”12

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