- Historic Sites
Moriarty’s Wonderful Saloon
August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
The image of the New York speakeasy in its finest flowering during the fourteen years of the Great Foolishness—an interval when Americans were joined together in a blood brotherhood of revolt against bondage as they will never be again—has with the passing of time been distorted to a degree scarcely recognizable by veterans of those heroic years.
Admittedly, this image had its original, or paradigm, in individual establishments. There were the handful of supercostly, ornate, and very plush restaurant-speakeasies of which Jack & Charlie’s 21 West Fifty-second Street, then known as the Puncheon Club and now simply as “21,” may be taken as the exemplar. Here manners, dress, and decorum were what had been required at Sherry’s or the Waldorf in happier days. The food was superlative, prepared by a kitchen staff under the direction of a $20,000 chef de cuisine , and the wine card impeccable. The vintages no less than the Scotch were what the labels promised, and you paid a great deal of money for them.
Then there were the more Bohemian resorts such as Tony’s, where the liquor was potable but the decor ran to red-checkered tablecloths. Evening dress was not the rule, and fist fights were not unthinkable, though by no means was the scene constantly embattled. The food was Italian, the tariff moderate, and the premises shrouded in the gloom the management seemed to think appropriate to illicit enterprise.
Downtown in the Village there was an almost infinite variety of home-style French restaurants where liquor was available, such as that of Mile. Petitpas, who ran a rooming house upstairs and set a creditable bourgeois French table that achieved celebrity because, for a number of years, the king of the premises was a swaggering Bohemian wit, Jack Yeats, younger brother of the Irish poet.
Still another type of speakeasy was the illegal liquor dispensary operating as a gentleman’s club, with or without restaurant service. It rarely made the grade in the contemporary literature of the gin age, probably because no women were admitted and such a dub therefore found no place in romantic letters. Jack Bleeck’s Artists & Writers in Fortieth Street, next door to the New York Herald Tribune , was probably the most widely celebrated of this type of masculine Mermaid Tavern; but because of the qiiintessentially articulate character of its clientele, Bleeck’s could scarcely escape immortality.
Another was Matt Winkle’s, which catered to the Park Avenue and college-boy trade from a highly accessible address at the northeast corner of Fifty-third Street and Park Avenue, where now a tall, modern office building stands. Strategically situated just across the street from the Racquet Club and handy to the Ritz Carlton and other tie luxe resorts of formal fashion, Matt’s was a microcosmic synthesis of the Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Dartmouth clubs and so well known to the undergraduates of the Scott Fitzgerald generation that its advertisements in the Yale Daily News and Harvard Crimson merely showed a halftone cut of the proprietor attired in a coonskin overcoat and leaning against a Stutz Bearcat roadster; underneath was the simple caption: “Matt Winkle Himself.”
There was one New York speakeasy that did not quite fit into any of these categories, but was a place apart. Dan and Mort Moriarty’s at 216 East Fiftyeighth Street had something of Bleeck’s and Winkle’s about it, but still had a character which made it unique.
Its clientele derived from just two classes of society, and the management would tolerate no others. The first was the neighborhood Irish: doormen from the adjacent apartment houses, janitors from Third Avenue department stores, police lieutenants from the precinct house. The second included what Dan knew beyond all doubt to be “gintlemin”: senior partners in reputable brokerage houses, members of the board of governors of the New York Yacht Club, and undergraduates from New Haven and Princeton with the most exalted social and fraternal affiliations. There was nothing in between the categories, and there were two prices for drinks—fifty cents for the Irish and six bits for the “gintlemin.”
Nobody ever took exception to this scheme of things or appealed the management’s decree that placed him in one price range or the other. Well, hardly anybody, although there was the celebrated occasion when Martin Curran, the doorman at a nearby apartment house, flushed with winnings on the sixth at Latonia, startled the inmates at the bar by roaring, “Dan, can a Protestant mick be allowed to buy the house a drink in this goddamned dump?” Mr. Curraii was the only Protestant Irishman permitted in the club.
The premises at 216 East Fifty-eighth were plain of decor, even Spartan. Access was through a stout steel door, with the conventional judas hole and chain locks, under the stoop of a brownstone house whose façade was brilliantly lit by a strategically placed arc lamp—possibly the management had had the Edison Company locate it where it would reveal the nocturnal customers plainly.
The establishment consisted of a long basement room occupying the entire depth of the building. Beneath this was a subcellar, accessible through a trap door behind the bar, where none of the patrons ever penetrated except Prince Michael Romanolf upon one of the occasions when he was a fugitive from the fmmigration officers; he maintained residence in the coal bin for three days, subsisting on sardines and Scotch.