Trails Of Bohemia
( Originally Published 1918 )
Trails of Bohemia—The Avenue and its Tributaries—The "Musketeers of the Brush "—The Voice of the Ghetto—South Fifth Avenue and the Old French Quarter—The Garibaldi—" A la Ville de Rouen "—The Restaurant du Grand Vatel—The New Bohemia—The Lane of the Mad Eccentrics—Sheridan Square—" The Pirate's Den "—Absolam, a Slave—Gonfarone's—Maria's.
ONCE upon a time an over-astute critic found grave fault with the title of a novel by Mr. William Dean Howells. There was to his mind at least an unfortunate suggestion in calling a book " The Coast of Bohemia," even though " Bohemia " was used in its figurative sense. What if the title had been derived from a line in Shakespeare? That did not alter the fact that ascribing a coast to Bohemia was like giving the Swiss Republic an Admiralty and alluding to Berne as a naval base. What would that censorious critic have to say of the association of Bohemia with stately Fifth Avenue? For to him and his kind it is not given to realize that Bohemia is a state of mind, a period of ardour and exaltation, a reminiscence of youth rather than a material region.
The great stream has its tributaries. To Fifth Avenue belong the side streets that feed it and in turn draw from it flavour and inspiration. To it belong Washington Square, the south side as well as the north side, and the street beyond, that today is known as West Broadway, and yesterday was South Fifth Avenue, and before that, in the remote past, was Laurens Street; and the crossing thoroughfares that constituted the French Quarter of the late seventies and early eighties; and the northeastern part of Greenwich Village, that was once the " American Quarter," and is now masquerading as a super Monmartre, with its " Vermillion Hounds," and " Purple Pups," and "Pirates' Dens."
Nor for the flavour of Bohemia is there actual need of leaving the Avenue itself. It was more than twenty years ago that the writer, turning into Fifth Avenue at Twenty-sixth Street of a sunshiny afternoon, was confronted with an apparition, or rather with apparitions, direct from the Latin Quarter of Paris. Three top-hatted young men were walking arm in arm. One, of imposing stature, wore conspicuously the type of side whiskers formerly known as " Dundrearys." The second, of medium height, was adorned by an aggressive beard. The third, small and slight, was smooth shaven. A similar trio was encountered a dozen blocks farther up the Avenue, and in the neighbourhood of the Plaza, a third trio. It was a time when George Du Maurier's " Trilby " was in the full swing of its great popularity, when the name of the sinister Svengali was on every lip, and certain young eccentrics found huge delight in attracting attention to them-selves by parading the Avenue attired as " Taffy," the " Laird," and " Little Billee."
There is a stretch of the Avenue upon which the Fifth Avenue Association frowns; which the native American avoids ; and which the old-time New Yorker regards with passionate regret as he recalls the departed glories of the Union Club and the jutting brown-stone stoops of yesterday. At the noon hour the sidewalks swarm with foreign faces. There is shrill chatter in alien tongues and the air is laden with strange odours. Even here Bohemia may be. Perhaps, toiling over a machine in one of the sweat-shops of the towering buildings a true poet may be coining his dreams and aspirations and heartaches into plaintive song; another, like the Sidney Rosenfeld of a score of years ago, who, over his work in the Ghetto of the lower East Side, asked and answered:
"Why do I laugh? Why do I weep? I do not know; it is too deep."
The attic, the studio, the restaurant, the cafe are the accepted symbols of Bohemia. What reader of Henri Murger's Scenes de la Vie de Boheme " has ever forgotten the Cafe Momus, where the riotous behaviour of Marcel, Schaunard, Rodolphe, and Colline brought the proprietor to the verge of ruin? Who has not in his heart a tender spot for Terre's Tavern, in the Rue Neuve des Petits Champs, where the bouillebaisse came from—the bouillebaisse, of which some of the ingredients were " red peppers, garlic, saffron roach, and dace "? It is of no great importance whether the particular scene be on the "rive gauche" of the River Seine, or in the labyrinth of narrow streets that make up the Soho district of London, or in rapidly shifting New York. All that is needed is youth, or unwilling middle age still playing at youth, and the atmosphere where artistic and literary aspirations are in the air, and poverty wearing a conspicuous stock, and the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome," and the relative merits of Tennyson and Browning being talked over to the accompaniment of knives and forks rattling against plates of spaghetti and the clinking of wine glasses.
Years ago, to find the tangible New York Bohemia would have been a matter of crossing from the Avenue's southern extremity, and diving into the streets that lie to the south of Washington Square. There was the old French Quarter, and there foregathered the professional joke-makers and the machine poets who contributed to " Puck," and the " New York Ledger " when that periodical felt the guiding hand of Robert Bonner. Of that group Henry Cuyler Bunner was probably the most conspicuous. In his early days he was a twenty-four-hour Bohemian. In later life, when he had moved to the country, he remained a noon Bohemian. He was the prime spirit of the little Garibaldi in MacDougal Street of which James L. Ford wrote in " Bohemia Invaded." Not often did he stray over to Greenwich Village. He disliked what he called its bourgeois conservatism.
For a period of years that section immediately to the south of the Square was the French Quarter. There were the peaceful artisans, and also there were political refugees of dangerous proclivities, men who had had a share in the blazing terrors of the Commune, and who, in some cases, had paid the price in years of imprisonment under the tropical sun of Cayenne. In all their wanderings they had carried the spirit of revolution with them and spouted death to despots over their glasses of absinthe in cellar cafes. William H. Rideing, in an article which was published in " Scribner's Magazine " for November, 1879, de-scribed these men as he had found them in the Taverne Alsacienne in Greene Street : " gathered around the tables absorbed in piquet, ecarte, or vingt-et-un . . . most of them without coats, the shabbiness of their other garments lighted up by a brilliant red bandanna kerchief or a crimson overshirt." Keen glances were shot at strangers, for the tavern had a certain clientele outside of which it had few customers and suspicion was rife at any invasion. " They are drinking wine, vermouth, and greenish opaline draughts of absinthe. Staggering in unnerved and stupefied from the previous night's debauch, they show few signs of vitality until four or five glasses of the absinthe have been drunk, and then they awaken; their eyes brighten and their tongues are loosened —the routine of play, smoke, and alcohol is resumed."
Pleasanter to recall are the sober, industrious men and women who were denizens of the neighbourhood in the years gone by—Mademoiselle Berthe and her little sisters, fabricating roses and violets out of muslin and wax in their attic apartment, Madame Lange, the blanchisseuse., ironing in front of an open window, Triquet, the charcutier, Roux, the bottier, Malvaison, the marchand de yin. Then there were others of the colony, higher in the social scale and less prosperous in their finances, the impecunious music-teachers and professors of languages who maintained themselves with a frosty air of shabby gentility on a very slender income, and the practitioners of literature and art who maintained themselves somehow on no income at all. For the leisure hours of these there were the innocent wine-shops of South Fifth Avenue, such as the Brasserie Pigault, which Bunner introduced to the readers of " The Midge " with a quaint conceit. The sign of the little cafe from without read: " A LA VILLE DE ROUEN. J. PIGAULT. LAGER BEER. FINE WINES AND LIQUEURS." But its regular patrons knew it best from within, from the warm tables they liked to scan the letters backward, against the glass that protected them from the winter's night. It was a quaint haunt, where gathered Doctor Peters and Father Dube, and Parker Prout, the old artist who had failed in life because of too much talent, and M. Martin, and the venerable Potain, who had lost his mind after his wife's death, and Ovide Marie, the curly-haired musician from Amity Street.
But the prize exhibit, the piece de resistance, of that old Bohemia of the French Quarter to the south of Washington Square was the Restaurant du Grand Vatel in Bleecker Street. Not only the French strugglers, but American artists and authors in embryo used to dine there substantially and economically. As Mr. Rideing described it : " The floor is sanded, and the little tables are covered with oil-cloth, each having a pewter cruet in the centre. A placard flutters from the wall, announcing a grand festival, banquet, ball, and artistic tombola in celebration of the eighth anniversary of the bloody revolution of March 18, 1871, under the auspices of the ` Societe des Refugies de la Commune '—` Family tickets, twenty-five cents, hat-room checks, ten cents '—from which we gather that the ` Restaurant du Grand Vatel has some queer patrons. The landlady sits behind a little desk in the corner. She is a woman of enormous girth, with short petticoats which reveal her thick, white woolen socks; her complexion is dark, her eyes are black and deep, and large golden rings dangle from her ears."
The regular patrons begin to come in. The poor professor, after his unprofitable labours of the day, enters, and bows to the landlady, who is cordial or severe in her greeting according to the items on the little slate which records her accounts. He begins his meal. " He has coupe aux croutons, veau a la Marengo, pommes frites, a small portion of Gruyere, and a bottle of wine. He eats appreciatively after the manner of a bon vivant; he uses his napkin gently and frequently ; he glances blandly at the surroundings; watching him, you would suppose the viands were the choicest of the season, exquisitely prepared, while, in reality, they are poor and unsubstantial stuff, the refuse, perhaps, of better restaurants. Having finished the edibles, he calls for a ` gloria,' that is, black coffee and cognac; and, sipping this, he communes with his fancies which come and vanish in the blue waves of cigarette smoke. His aspect bespeaks perfect complacency—Fate can-not harm me; I have dined today."
To Mr. Rideing we are indebted for certain items indicating the very moderate scale of prices at the Restaurant du Grand Vatel. Outside there was a sign that read : " T ous les plats, eight cents ; plats extra varies; cafe superieur, three cents; cafe au lait, five cents." Here is a list of some of the dishes and their cost: Soup and a plate of beef and bread, ten cents ; soupe aux croutons, five cents; boeuf, legumes, ten cents; veau a la Marengo, twelve cents ; mouton a Ravigotte, ten cents ; ragout de mouton aux pommes, eight cents ; boeuf braise aux oignons, ten cents; macaroni an gratin, six cents; celeri salade, six cents; compote de pommes, four cents ; fromage Neufchatel, three cents; Limbourg, four cents; Gruyere, three cents; bread, one cent. Thus, Mr. Rideing figured out, the professor's dinner, wine included, cost him the sum of forty cents, and with five cents added for a roll and a cup of coffee in the morning, his daily expenditure for food was less than half a dollar.
The trails of Bohemia, or of pseudo-Bohemia, have never been so flaming and flagrant as they are today. From that corner of the Avenue facing the Arch cross the Square diagonally to the head of Washington Place. A hundred yards to the west lies the Lane of the Mad Eccentrics. Two or three years ago the little triangle of a park known as Sheridan Square was surrounded by structures of red brick that dated from the days when Greenwich Village preserved some-thing of its proud individuality. Then a plan of transformation, involving a new avenue, cleared a wide path with the suddenness of a Kansas cyclone. Bits of the picturesque past went tumbling down before the onslaught of the demolishers. But in various nooks and corners that remained there sprang up bits of a picturesque although probably ephemeral present.
It is easy to regard the Lane of the Mad Eccentrics from the point of view of metropolitan sophistication; to dismiss the Vermilion Hound and the Hell Hole and the Pirate's Den and the Purple Pup and Polly's as clap-trap and tinsel designed for the mystification of yokels and social investigators from Long Island City. But it is impossible to deny that the crazy decorations have added a touch of real colour to what had been a drab corner of the town. The present writer has no intention of going into a detailed sketch of this fragment of Bohemia for the reason that Anna Alice Chapin discussed it so well, so buoyantly, and so sympathetically in her book on " Greenwich Village " published a year or so ago. A few lines from her description of the Pirate's Den will give the flavour of any one of the enter-prises that line the Lane of the Mad Eccentrics and are to be found, here and there, in the neighbouring streets.
" It is a very real pirate's den, lighted only by candles. A coffin casts a shadow, and there is a regulation ` Jolly Roger,' a black flag ornamented with skull and crossbones. Grim? Surely, but even a healthy-minded child will play at gruesome and ghoulish games once in a while.
" There is a Dead Man's Chest, too—and if you open it you will find a ladder leading down into the mysterious depths unknown. If you are very adventurous you will climb down and bump your head against the cellar ceiling and inspect what is going to be a subterranean grotto as soon as it can be fitted up. You climb down again and sit in the dim, smoky little room and look about you. It is the most perfect pirate's den you can imagine. On the walls hang huge casks and kegs and wine bottles in their straw covers—all the sign manuals of past and future orgies. Yet the ` Pirate's Den ' is ` dry '—straw-dry, brick-dryas dry as the Sahara. If you want a ` drink ' the well-mannered ` cut-throat ' who serves you will give you a mighty mug of ginger-ale or sarsaparilla. If you are a real Villager and can still play at being a real pirate you drink it without a smile, and solemnly consider it real red wine filched at the end of a cutlass from captured merchantmen on the high seas. On the big, dark centre table is carefully drawn the map of ` Treasure Island.'
" The pirate who serves you (incidentally he writes poetry and helps to edit a magazine among other things) apologizes for the lack of a Steven-son parrot. ` A chap we know is going to bring back one from the South Sea Islands,' he declares seriously. ` And we are going to teach it to say: " Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!"
Then there is the Bohemian trail that leads along three sides of Washington Square. In the red Benedick much literary ink has been spilled. Until a few years ago there were several studios of artists along the south side of the Square. One of the artists, highly talented but quite mad, boasted for a brief period the possession of a slave—a huge Riff from the mountains of Morocco, acquired in some mysterious manner. All Bohemia flocked to the studio to witness the anachronism. For the benefit of those of New York who did not belong to Bohemia the artist delighted to promenade the streets followed at a respectful distance by his serf. Absolam—so the chattel was called—bearing his chains lightly, considered his main duty to be to make love to the ladies of Bohemia. The artist's real troubles began when he undertook to rid himself of his slave. Absolam, waxing greasily fatter and fatter, basking in the warmth of delightful celebrity, refused to be lost.
Long before the days of Absolam and his master there were painter men about the Square. Morse, according to Helen W. Henderson's " A Loiterer in New York," was the first artist to work there. He lived in the old New York University building, and when he was not before his easel, was experimenting with the telegraph. In that building also Draper wrote, and perfected his invention of the daguerreotype, and Colt invented the revolver named after him. The old grey castellated structure, erected in 1837, stood on the east side Of the Square until 1894.
Of a restaurant that played a part in one of his stories O. Henry wrote: " Formerly it was a resort of interesting Bohemians; but now only writers, painters, actors, and musicians go there." The same topsy-turvical irony might have been directed with equal happiness at the cafe of the Brevoort, or the Black Cat on West Broadway, or Gonfarone's at the corner of Eighth and Mac-Dougal Streets, or at old Maria's. Whatever else it may be Bohemia is a democracy, and regardless of condition or occupation any one who so wishes may lay claim to and enjoy the privileges of immediate citizenship. We have become more tolerant with the years. He who prates of Philistines is himself a Philistine.
Formerly it was different. To escape the reproach of the uplifted eyebrow, the quizzical look, the " que liable allait it faire clans cette galere? " expression, it was necessary to be one of the Mr. Lutes or Miss Nedra Jennings Nuncheons, of Stephen French Whitman's " Predestined," who were regular habitues of " Benedetto's," under which name Gonfarone's was thinly disguised. Mr. Lute wrote a quatrain once every three months for the " Mauve Monthly," and Miss Nuncheon, tall and thin, with a mop of orange-coloured hair, contributed somewhere stories about the " smart set," " a society existing far off amid the glamour of opera-boxes, conservatories full of orchids, yachts like ocean steamships, mansions with marble stairways, Paris dresses by the gross, and hatfuls of diamonds, where the women were always discovered in boudoirs with a French maid named Fanchette in attendance, receiving bunches of long-stemmed roses from potential correspondents, while the men, all very tall and dark, possessed of interesting pasts, were introduced before fireplaces in sumptuous bachelor apartments, the veins knotted on their temples, and their strong yet aristocratic fingers clutching a photograph or a scented note."
Gonfarone's, the " Benedetto's " of the tale, is an old, converted dwelling house. There are the brown-stone steps, flanked by a pair of iron lanterns, giving entrance to a narrow corridor; and, beyond, to the right, the dining room, extending through the house, linoleum underfoot, hat-racks and buffets of oak aligned against the brownish walls, and, everywhere, little tables, each covered with a scanty cloth, set close together. In the days when Felix Piers was in the habit of patronizing the place there floated to his ears such phrases as " bad colour scheme!" " sophomoric treatment!" "miserable drawing!" "no atmosphere! " But all that was years ago. When the writer dined there last, a month or so back, fragments of conversation caught from the clatter of the tongues of the Bohemians were: " Take it from me, kid!" If old man Weinstein thinks he can put that over, he's got another guess coming! " " And then I give her the juice and we lost that super-six in the dust ! " " Yes, Huggins has got some infield ! "
Fifteen or twenty years ago the trail of Bohemia would have inevitably led to Maria's in West Twelfth Street. For there to be found, among others, was a certain Mickey Finn, as celebrated in his day and town as Aristide Bruant was in a section of Paris of the nineties. About Finn gathered a group of newspaper men and journalists. The distinction was that the news-paper man was one who earned his daily bread on Park Row, while the journalist had written a sketch for the New York " Sun " in 1878, and still carried and proudly exhibited the clipping. The original Maria, a large Italian cook who pre-sided autocratically over the kitchen of the basement restaurant, long since migrated somewhere to the north. She had exacted her share of the homage and the substance of her clients. After her departure there was still the attempt to keep up the ancient fire of witticism, and la la la la! " was still uttered in what was thought to be the best Parisian accent, and the judgments of magazine editors, and the achievements of the painters who sold their portraits, and the writers whose novels crept into the lists of the " six best-sellers " continued to be damned in no uncertain tones. But the old spirit seems irrevocably gone.