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Hangouts: The Place Downstairs

4 minute read

To Novelist John O’Hara. it was “a kind of cave inhabited by giants of journalism.” To generations of New York Herald Tribune men, it was the place they meant when they said they were “going downstairs.” To Boulevardier Lucius Beebe, it was “an arena fragrant with the souvenirs of mighty contests with bottles, wits and fists.” Its formal name was the Artist & Writers’ Club, but to its habitues it was simply Bleeck’s. Last week Longtime Owner John Bleeck. the ruddy, white-maned Dutchman who for three decades made the place on Manhattan’s West 40th Street a haven for newspapermen and magazine writers, pressagents and Broadway actors, died at 83 in his Long Island home.

Latter-Day Mermaid. Born in St. Louis in 1880, Bleeck (he insisted on the German pronunciation, as in Blake) traveled east by boxcar at 20, began tending bar, and by the time Prohibition arrived, had saved enough to open a speakeasy opposite the Metropolitan Opera House. A drugstore was his front, but the number of customers who reeled out onto Seventh Avenue after stopping in to fill “prescriptions” invited too many raids. In 1925 Bleeck opened less conspicuously situated quarters behind a Greek coffee stand in a shabby building alongside the Trib.

It was not long before a Tribman discovered the oasis next door. Soon the place was crawling with his colleagues—from O’Hara, who got drinks on credit, to Publisher Ogden Reid, who could take his stand at the bar with the best of his boys and, on occasion, would decide then and there that he personally should pen the next day’s lead editorial.

“Many an issue of the Trib was put out right over there at that table,” Bleeck once said with pride, and with a sort of reverse snobbery he would keep celebrities waiting for tables while he tended to his journalistic charges. On any night, the late City Editor Stanley Walker could assemble a staff just by phoning downstairs—when he was not there himself.

Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, Heywood Broun, Henry Cabot Lodge (then a Trib editorial writer), Wolcott Gibbs and Gene Fowler regularly turned up at the peephole, giving rise to its nickname: “the latter-day Mermaid Tavern.”

Try Schrafft’s. If not Shakespearean, the conversation was at least spirited, thanks to Bleeck’s ban on radios and jukeboxes. Also barred were French fries and ice cream. Customers gauche enough to request either were caustically advised to try Schrafft’s down the street. Furnished in what historians of the day termed “early Butte, Montana” style, Bleeck’s boasted mahogany-paneled walls and clustered electric globes, a suit of concrete-filled armor on which many a combative drunk broke his knuckles, a stuffed sailfish that had been caught by J. P. Morgan, and some of the best broiled chicken in town. For years no female was admitted except Minnie the cat, and Bleeck offered his hungry male customers hearty German fare served on clothless tables by waiters with wiener-schnitzel accents.

The restaurant’s real trademark was the match game, immortalized by the late James Thurber in a panel of line drawings. Under the rules, any number of players conceal any number of matches up to three in their fists; whoever comes closest to guessing the total number of matches held by all the contestants drops out, and the luckless fellow left at game’s end pays off. With customary flair, Lucius Beebe played with a set of solid-gold Tiffany matches while other customers settled for the plastic matches that Bleeck gave out by the thousands.

Rows were rare, but a memorable fight shook the joint in 1938 when an enraged playwright named Jack Kirkland stalked in and pasted Trib Drama Critic Richard Watts Jr. (now with the New York Post) for panning his latest creation. Bleeck rushed to the scene shouting “We don’t allow overly intoxicated people here, and no fighting neither.” With that, he beat a smart tattoo on Kirkland’s skull with a blackjack he just happened to be carrying.

Steaks & Mayonnaise. Prohibition’s end robbed the speakeasies of their glamour, and in 1935 Bleeck renamed his joint the “Artist & Writers’ Restaurant, Formerly Club” (Dorothy Thompson dubbed it “The Formerly Club”). To the horror of regulars, Bleeck also began admitting ladies. Groused one male: “There’ll be mayonnaise on the steaks next week.”

In 1953 Jack Bleeck sold out to a couple of Manhattan restaurateurs and retired. The name is the same, but not the clientele. “Buyers and lacquered models from the garment center outnumber newspapermen,” said the New York Times last week, with a trace of regret. “There are more dress designers than cartoonists. Some of the current waiters even speak unaccented English.”

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