- Historic Sites
Moriarty’s Wonderful Saloon
August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
The bar itself, of plain redwood, was on the left as one entered. It occupied the better part of the length of the room and ended against a bank of tall windows that gave onto a diminutive patch of soot optimistically called the garden. As in the case of the subcellar, it was never recorded that anyone ever went into the garden, and the windows were probably sealed. At the right rear was the men’s retiring room. A dozen tall barstools and three or four small tables where nobody sat, except customers hopelessly bogged down in wine and awaiting a cab, completed the furniture. The back bar, too, was austere, devoid of the usual sentimental ornaments that accumulate in a saloon, such as the Thurber drawings at Costello’s; it contained only the stacked glasses and a cash register that must have been one of National’s primordial products, deserving of a place in the Smithsonian. Behind the cash register the house cat had kittens at regular intervals, and the customers made book of modest sums on the exact time of their emergence. Dan Moriarty for some reason spoke of them as “little small cats.” foe Morgan, the swamper and handyman, called them “kattens.”
Joseph Bryan III of Brook Hill, Richmond, Virginia—one of the few members of the planter aristocracy whom the writer associates in memory with Moriarty’s—recalls that Joe Morgan was popularly supposed by naïve patrons to be the illegitimate issue of a liaison between John Pierpont Morgan and a French soubrette. In cold weather, Joe wore under his derby hat a pair of what he called “ear muffins.” Sometimes he tended bar at bachelor gatherings, and it is certain that he accepted an unguarded and casual invitation to be present when Lloyd Smith of Yale and Wall Street married Gertie Vander Poel of New York. Joe turned up at the church in a brown derby and Prince Albert coat, smoking a long cigar which he refused to discard on the reasonable ground that he had just lighted it and which he attempted, ineffectually, to conceal in a cupped hand throughout the service. My friend Hryan also recalls that lor some reason lost to posterity ham sandwiches, for which Joe had to he sent to a delicatessen around the corner, were always listed on the Moriarty bill of fare as “Long Island duckling.”
The big event of Bryan’s life at Dan’s was his introduction at the bar to the eccentric Mike Romanoff. His reminiscences also include the night when a collegian named Randy Burke (whose contemporary lame derived in part from having been carried away to France in a midnight sailing of the Paris in dinner clothes and not having returned for two years) tottered from Dan’s and threw himself into a waiting taxi. “Randolph Hall,” he directed grandly. Without batting an eye the driver, who knew his social geography, headed for Cambridge, Massachusetts, and deposited his passenger at Randolph Hall, a part of the real estate of Harvard University.
The three Moriarty brothers, Dan, Mort, and Jim, were second-generation East Side New York Irish, Tammany regulars, and reputedly powerful in local ward politics. Certainly no policeman in uniform ever darkened the doorway of the saloon, although ranking ofRcers in mufti were frequent customers. They always ostentatiously paid for their drinks.
For many years the Moriartys had maintained an old-time saloon on Third Avenue in the Fifties, but with the coming of Prohibition its corner location —with several doors, including the traditional “family entrance”—made it vulnerable in case of a raid, and the business was removed to No. 216 in 1924 or ’25.
The three Moriartys were a hierarchy. Dan, the senior, was unquestionably the head of the family, and his word was law with Mort and lim. Dan was slightly plump, wore a tea-strainer mustache, and was cheery, smiling, and benevolent. Mort was the reverse until you knew him: austere, slightly hostile, with a complexion blotched from drinking his own liquor and a bogus truculence which frightened newcomers to the club but which they found out eventually was largely hangover and disappeared by noon.
Jim, the youngest, was red-haired, something of a boxer, and fancied himself, mistakenly as it appeared later, a cut above his lace-curtain brothers. After Repeal, he left the partnership to run a pretentious resort in Madison Avenue, and died in a mental hospital.
The rest of ihe staff at No. 216, besides Toe Morgan, consisted of Old Joe, last name unknown, an alternate or relief bartender who often opened up in the morning after an elaborate ritual of preparation that included removing and hanging up a cast-iron derby hat, donning a black alpaca jacket, changing into carpet slippers, and adjusting his false teeth, which had a habit of becoming dislodged on the way to work and required a deal of face-making in the back-bar mirror for the correct alignment.
Like many veteran barkeeps, Old Joe professed a profound contempt for the customers, whom he characterixed as “no-good, boardinghouse-type trash” while being secretly overwhelmed by the august social status and financial rating of many of them. He was specially awed by practitioners of letters, of which the house had a lion’s share in the |jersons of Frank Sullivan, Corey Ford, Bob Kenchley, and Harold Ross. “That Ross feller was in last night and drank ten bourbons without saying anything,” |oe once remarked. “Now why would a high-toned literary feller do that? Unsociable, 1 call it. Anyway, he could do with a new set of choppers. 1 offered to let him try mine Io get the general effect, but he wouldn’t.” The suggestion that they try his false teeth for sixc was the highest accolade that could be extended to customers in Old Joe’s book.