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Moriarty’s Wonderful Saloon

July 2024
18min read

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.

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.

It required all the authority of one of the senior partners to dose up at the accustomed hour of two in the morning.∗ As the hour approached, the reluctant patrons began shouting in unison: “House wolf, house wolf,” which was in effect a demand to be bribed with a lree chink on the house before making a comparatively orderly departure. 1 never heard the phrase elsewhere, and students of Manhattan folklore believe it had reference to the label on Cordon’s gin, then the universal elixir of life, which includes a picture of a wolf’s head with menacing jaws agape and lolling red tongue.

∗ Closing time was sometimes extended on football nights, on certain other occasions of special alcoholic rejoicing, and, of course1, on St. Patrick’s Day—when, it was said, “the Irish marched up Fifth Avenue and fell down Third.”

“Have you no homes, gintlemin?” was Dan’s despairing cry as closing hour approached, and, like antistrophe in a Greek chorus, the roaring shout came back, “House wolf, house wolf.” It was a ritual.

If Martin Curran was the acknowledged dean of the University of Dublin contingent at Dan’s, a ranking faculty member would have been Joe O’Grady, also a doorman by profession but one more socially exalted, since he worked for Bendel the dressmaker.

Mr. O’Grady in the full uniform of his calling had a definite nautical appearance; indeed, he was once introduced by the yachtsman Sherman Hoyt to the crew of the British America’s Cup challenger as Admiral O’Grady, U.S.N. Legend has it that Joe played the part so well that he was taken in tow and ended in an apartment at the La Forge Cottages at Newport for Race Week.

Joe, as became a Moriarty regular, was resourceful. In those days of vanishing horses on the streets of New York, a small pile of horse manure was believed by many to bring good luck, much as fortune followed touching a hunchback, and Joe made it a practice, whenever the street outside Bendel’s was so favored, to bribe the Department of Sanitation whitewing not to remove it. Almost invariably it brought O’Grady luck in the form of rain, which, of course, netted him liberal tips for securing taxis and assured his appearance at Dan’s with his splendid marine overcoat loaded to the Plimsoll with silver currency.

It would have been difficult to name the dean of “gintlemin” at Moriarty’s. Highly regarded both for his pleasing ways and his professional eminence was Paul Palmer, today senior editor of Reader’s Digest but in those years Sunday editor of the New York World and a journalist of important dimensions. It was Palmer who introduced such literary eminences as William Bolitho and J. C. Squire to Dan’s at a time when both were editorial contributors to the World . Palmer often arrived with Sullivan, also a World staffer, and Sullivan’s boon companion and collaborator, Corey Ford.

Although not in the category of a Moriarty regular, Scott Fitzgerald put in an occasional appearance with Noel Busch, another Princeton man, though of a later vintage. Fitzgerald did not hold his liquor with the distinguished aplomb that Mort and Dan considered necessary to the ton of their premises, and he was several times asked to take himself elsewhere.

On one of these occasions, Palmer, Sullivan, and Jack Thomas, as a gesture of organized if ineffectual protest, insisted on leaving with the disbarred author of This Side of Paradise and took themselves and their dudgeon, which was momentarily high, to a more tolerant speakeasy somebody knew in Forty-second Street near the East River. Palmer recalls vividly that there was a large steel engraving behind the bar of George Washington, and Fitzgerald, in an unmannerly moment, made an unflattering remark about the Father of His Country. The bartender, quite unresponsive to the finer nuances of the literary life, reached for a bung-starter and swung it viciously at Fitzgerald’s head, only narrowly failing to put an end then and there to the career that was later torpedoed by Zelda.

Thomas, a promising novelist of the early Twenties, was one of the most memorable of the Moriarty regulars. He lived and, almost literally, died in the club. His first novel, Dry Martini , revolving largely about the men’s bar of the Paris Ritz, was an instant best seller and was made into a highly successful motion picture that catapulted Thomas into fame and fortune which were promptly translated into terms of wine and roses.

Fifty-eighth Street in the Twenties was a remarkable cross section of New York. It ran the gamut from expensive apartment houses at its East River terminus through slums and department stores until it passed Lexington Avenue, when it flowered into such luxury resorts as the Savoy Plaza, Madison, and Plaza hotels, Reuben’s delicatessen, and Sherman Billingsley’s first Stork Club. Then came a midtown Broadway Tenderloin and again a decline into slums and gashouses as it approached the Hudson River.

Thomas undertook to do an epic study of New York life with Fifty-eighth Street as its symbolic microcosm. He started out bravely and spent the better part of his first year covering the ground from First Avenue to No. 216. There he bogged down and never made further progress westward, his will and ambition completely dominated by the character of Moriarty’s wonderful saloon.

Paul Palmer remembers that Jack used to get up, with some difficulty, at 6 P.M. , don a dinner coat and proceed to work, returning to his cubicle at the Hotel Tuscany at eight or nine next morning to retire to a good day’s sleep. After Moriarty’s martinis had corroded a rather large hole in the lining of his stomach, his doctor advised him never to drink without eating. From that time on, Jack carried a sandwich in his coat pocket and would carefully place it on the bar alongside his drink. The same sandwich lasted him eighteen months. He only emerged from Moriarty’s, after three years of intense research, to be carried to a Broadway undertaking parlor.

All the regulars went to Jack Thomas’ funeral. Dan closed the bar for an hour so that the entire staff might attend, an accolade comparable on a somewhat abated scale to a day of national mourning for a public figure.

Moriarty’s was resolutely and successfully an altogether masculine resort. No woman ever, so far as any of its alumni can recollect, penetrated its premises, all legends to the contrary notwithstanding, including the one that Connie Bennett, in the Twenties the town’s first prom-trotter, had gained access to the bar in masculine attire. Knowing they were barred, innumerable flappers of the John Held period demanded that their gentlemen friends should secure entry for them to this notorious preserve of masculinity, but Dan turned a deaf ear to all importunities.

“They can wait in the cab outside,” he said severely, and they did.

One of those who waited outside with the least disguised impatience, Frank Sullivan remembers, was Ruth Hale, wife of Heywood Broun and a Lucy-Stoner with firmly rooted ideas about equality of the sexes and in particular about her own ability to hold up her end in any masculine company she might find herself in. She and Dorothy Parker, sometimes parked by careless escorts who were trapped into tarrying in the convivial precincts, could be an abusive pair after waiting in the cold interior of a Yellow cab for the better part of an hour.

Sullivan, who had originally been introduced to Dan’s by one of the institution’s most aristocratic patrons, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, was an earnest and thoughtful drinker who at times suffered from the delusion that the other customers were making mock of his alcoholic capacity, which, in all truth, was entirely sufficient. Once this writer recalls being at one end of the bar while Sullivan in lonely glory at the other kept darting savage glances of distrust and annoyance in our direction. At length he was moved to speech. “I know what you’re all saying about me up there, you smug sons of bitches and Princeton men. You’re thinking old Frank Sullivan is stoned and doesn’t know what’s going on. But I’ll tell you one thing: I’m a thick qitinkcr, I am!

Paul Mellon, as a Yale undergraduate in the late Twenties when his father was Secretary of the Treasury, was a distinguished patron at No. 216 who occasionally became bogged down in wine there, as who did not? His most shattering contretemps was on the occasion when, suffering from Irish palsy to a disastrous degree and extremely averse to travel, he woke up in a bedroom at the Commodore Hotel in Manhattan the morning after he was supposed to have been in Pittsburgh as a member of a first cousin’s wedding party. Paul, whose absence had been conspicuous and who, in any event, lived in terror of the frosty Midas who begot him, got on the phone to explain to his parent that he was bedded with an acute attack of bronchitis and had been forbidden by his doctor to move. At that moment a sympathizer who had rushed from Dan’s to the Commodore with a restorative bottle of champagne pulled the cork with an explosion that must have been clearly audible at the Mellon National Bank.

Mellon was of two minds whether ever to go home.

As I have noted, romantic passion seldom intruded upon the almost wholly masculine preoccupations of the Moriarty regulars, but everyone felt that a high level of romantic tragedy had been reached in the Wagnerian overtones that attended the death of Jeanne Eagels, a Broadway actress who had achieved sensational acclaim in Rain not so many years before. Miss Eagels, it was widely understood among the Broadway gossip columnists, was the affianced of Icky Outhwaite, a real-estate salesman who was a daily customer at the bar.

Miss Eagels died in the midst of their romance, and lier demise set off a chaos of public grief second only to the taking oft of Rudolph Valentino a few years earlier. Miss Eagels lay in state at Campbell’s, a favorite undertaking parlor among members of her profession, and maudlin thousands pressed around her bier to be photographed for the tabloids in attitudes of stricken bereavement.

Icky was shattered, and friends gathered at Dan’s bar to help shore up his morale against the day—postponed for the better part of a week on account of public demand to view the deceased—when, as her bereaved betrothed, Icky should be the principal official mourner at a state funeral of formidable dimensions.

On the dread day Icky hired from the O’Toole rental agency a suitably upholstered Rolls Royce of funereal hue with a driver to match and borrowed a morning coat and silk top hat with a tall tweed. Confronted with extra editions reporting that the crowd in Broadway had already stopped traffic and was battling the mounted police, Icky decided that a quick one at Moriarty’s was indiLJ cated before joining the funeral pomps. Kind friends crowded around, anxious to assure the bereaved of their understanding and devotion, and Icky’s halfhearted attempts to adjust his top hat and make for the Rolls Royce outside were thwarted time and again by the admonition that just one more was what he needed to see him through.

Just at noon, as the undertaker’s henchmen were bearing Miss Eagels to a flower-swamped hearse, sympathizers took Icky home in the rented car and put him to bed. It was, everyone agreed, a practical solution to everything.

It used to be said of Rosa Lewis’ Cavendish Hotel in London that within its precincts the hangover was better understood and more healingly nursed than anywhere in England. If this was the case, Dan’s was an American clinic for outpatients of the Cavendish. The strictest imaginable protocol governed the afflicted as they assembled at the bar on Sunday morning. Noise was abated to the irreducible minimum; conversation was limited to the briefest possible amenities of greeting, and Dan or Mort, whoever had the duty, set down the heavy bar glasses and returned bottles to their racks without perceptible clinks.

When a newcomer arrived to join the ranks of the maimed and contused, all heads turned as one to identify him, subdued recognition was muttered, and then, as he eased himself onto a stool, the communal gaze was again concentrated front and center in a profound silence broken only by heavy breathing and an occasional moan of unendurable anguish.

It was an age when many gentlemen dressed formally for Sunday, and some of the communicants were on the way to St. Thomas’ or St. Bartholomew’s, where they would have to pass the plate. The tails of their morning coats trailing from the bar stools suggested a convention of undertakers, and their silk top hats, carefully brushed, gleamed from the hatrack like symbols of reproachful rectitude.

By noontime, as a general thing, the therapeutic virtues of brandy milk punches (the Bloody Mary had yet to be invented as a sovereign remedy for katzenjammer) had begun to manifest themselves, and by Sunday afternoon the usual cheery atmosphere of Moriarty’s would have been re-established, conversation returning to its normal pitch of modified hooray. But the opening hours closely resembled those of the emergency ward at Bellevue.

As became what was essentially a gentleman’s club, masculine attire was a matter of some concern at No. 216. On evenings when debutante parties of consequence, such as that of Barbara Hutton, were in progress at Sherry’s or the Ritz, Dan’s blossomed with opera hats and Chesterfields, evening tail coats and smoking jackets. Dan and Mort, magnificently contemptuous of fashion, indiscriminately lumped all evening attire as “soup and fish” or “dress suits,” but Jim Moriarty, who early evidenced the penchant for aristocratic amenities which was to be his undoing, took to turning up behind the bar in a dinner jacket on the pretext that he had an important rendezvous with an heiress at the Central Park Casino. In an age of flaming college youth, undergraduates from New Haven and Princeton, which were geographically handy, sometimes came to town with only the dinner clothes they wore and remained thus through Sunday, their wing collars gradually wilting, their shirt fronts becoming a record of gastronomic Waterloos.

Such lapses from propriety particularly outraged Mort, who had a low boiling point anyway.

Because Harvard was more distant and he had fewer occasions to encounter members of the Porcellian Club in full cry, Mort came to imagine Harvard as a sort of resort of the proprieties. Having learned that appearing at early-morning classes or lectures at Harvard in evening dress was a violation of college rules and subject to severe reprimand, he would glare menacingly at Noel Busch, still in his shawl-collar tuxedo in the full light of Sunday afternoon, and cry: “Have you no shame, Mr. Busch? There is a return train to Princeton in half an hour. Try and behave like a Harvard gentleman.”

There was seldom trouble at Moriarty’s, but if it materialized, any one of the three brothers was tough enough to take care of anything short of a St. Patrick’s Day riot. Paul Palmer remembers the time that Mort, who on special occasions made it a point of pride to drink glass for glass with his customers, got to sparring with Jack Carpenter and inadvertently broke that valued customer’s jaw. Jack spent several weeks in a hospital and several more in drugstores drinking CocaCola through a straw before he felt strong enough to put in a reappearance at No. 216. Anticipating a penitential reception from Mort, all he got was an earlymorning-type glare and the salutation, “Glad to see you, Jack. I hear you been sick!”

Of the quality of Moriarty’s liquor, it is impossible to say much at this remove. Scotch, gin, bourbon, and champagne were about all the variety stocked and, in all probability, they represented the best talents of local New York distillers and vintners. Uncut, authentic imported spirits could be had at such exalted resorts as Jack & Charlie’s, but their price would have inhibited the college trade at Dan’s and been completely beyond the reach of the neighborhood Irish. Sometimes case goods were delivered boldly from a large truck during business hours with no more attempt at concealment crossing the sidewalk than would have been accorded so much furniture or groceries; but mostly deliveries were made at night.

In retrospect, it may be said that nobody died of the liquor at Moriarty’s who wouldn’t have come to the same end at any other establishment he might have cared to frequent.

Nor is it possible to remember any crises of a major order with law enforcement officers. Whatever fixing of federal and local officials may have been necessary was accomplished with such finesse that there is no record of any raid or attempted raid on the premises, although Dan or Mort may well have had to bar known federal agents. Now and then there were ominous periods when traffic through the front door was briefly suspended “until somebody went away.”

With Repeal, of course, the reason for the existence of Moriarty’s vanished into thin air. Mort, I believe, was already dead and Dan made no attempt to carry on as a legitimate saloonkeeper under the new dispensation that saw so many well-established New York speakeasies convert to legality.

Sometime in the late thirties the city desk of the Herald Tribune called me over and said: “Your old friend Dan Moriarty is dead. Will you write his obituary? All the space you want.” A record of Dan’s many benevolences and fraternal affiliations, his political connections, and other aspects of lawful citizenship was available to camouflage judiciously the essential fact, known to all New York, that Dan had been one of its foremost bootleggers. But all of us were mindful of the sacrosanct nature of the Tribune ’s obituary page. At long last a solution suggested itself. The last line of my obituary read, “Long after prohibition had become the law of the land it was Mr. Moriarty’s sentimental whim to conduct the business of his restaurant amidst the atmosphere and physical properties of an old-time saloon.”

This, until the Doomsday Book is opened, should do as well as any other for Dan’s memorial.

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