BWW Interview: Delia Cabe, author of STORIED BARS OF NEW YORK
Delia's new book, Storied Bars of New York, offers a visual and historical look at the city's most writerly taverns. Naturally, Delia had to sample some signature cocktails from those watering holes so she could more accurately describe them.
BWW recently asked Delia to share with us some of her inspirations, favorite stories, and other tidbits behind Storied Bars of New York.
BWW: First, tell us a little about the book. What was your inspiration?
I wish I could say that this book's focus was my inspiration. My original proposal was for a book about bars around the world that were like libraries (with literary-themed cocktails). My agent, Jean Sagendorph, sent it around to numerous publishers about five years ago. Cocktail books had been trending, but my proposal arrived too late. Jean noticed renewed interest in cocktail books in April 2016 and asked me if she could send it around again. I agreed, even though I was already researching another book-on my other passion, gardening-and had planned to work on the proposal that summer. I seriously didn't think anything would come of the other cocktail book.
A few weeks later, Jean texted me: CALL ME. An editor at Countryman Press, a division of W.W. Norton, was interested in my writing a book, but not this one. Could I write a book about literary bars of New York City? I mulled it over and convinced my husband that I should pass on this. I woke up the next morning and thought, "Duh, the editor's idea was a perfect fit for me." I grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, attended grade school on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, one block down from the literary watering hole, Lion's Head, and went to high school in the same brownstone where Dorothy Parker went to grade school. What's more, I am bookworm and a New York City history buff and have read much about authors' lives in my hometown. I have wandered its many streets reading historic plaques and its many museums. If a book takes place in New York City, I read it.
So I submitted two sample chapters and a table of contents and the publishing team really liked it. By mid June, I had signed a contract.
BWW: How many of the bars have you visited? How many of the cocktails did you sample?
In all, I went to 25 bars out of 31. Three of the bars are long gone, but were an important part of New York's literary scene. I open the book with Pfaff's, which was the birthplace of American Bohemia and Walt Whitman's preferred haunt. The San Remo, a Beat favorite, is now a tea shop, but I did visit the plaque marking its place in history. While Elaine's closed several years ago, The Writing Room, which reopened in the same space, pays homage to its predecessor. The walls are covered with photos of the authors who were regulars at Elaine's. I had plans to visit Chumley's, but the owners postponed the opening date until after my manuscript was due. During my book launch, I will have time to go to the ones I couldn't visit during my research. I interviewed most of the owners, managers. and reading series curators of the bars in my book, as well as several authors.
I've written for newspapers and magazines throughout my entire career, but this book was the first time anyone offered to help me research. I had to turn down their numerous offers of "help." I tried all the cocktail recipes in my book because I had to ensure that they were tasty. Several of the bartenders were generous enough to share their recipes for signature cocktails for the book. The Acerbic Mrs. Parker, anyone?
BWW: What are a couple of your favorite stories?
The Algonquin was famous for its Round Table habitues, which included theatre critics, playwrights, and actors because of its proximity to Broadway. I learned that during the height of the Round Table lunches, the owner didn't serve alcohol-and that was a few years before Prohibition. A few years after Prohibition, the owner gave in and decided to add a bar. John Barrymore suggested that he add blue lighting, which is used on theater stages, because it makes people look good. The Blue Bar at the Algonquin has since been renovated, but they kept the blue lighting. The room feels as if one is in perpetual twilight.
Arthur Miller, for some reason, liked the seedy Hotel Chelsea and its El Quijote bar on 23rd Street. After visiting Dylan Thomas in his squalid room there, Miller moved in, where he wrote his play After the Fall. Following his divorce from Marilyn Monroe, he returned for six years. He wrote in his memoir, "This hotel does not belong to America." He added, "There are no vacuum cleaners, no rules and shame...it's the high spot of surreal. Cautiously, I lifted my feet to move across bloodstained winos out on the sidewalks-and I was happy."
The Monkey Bar, which is attached to the Hotel Elysee, may have gotten its name from actress Tallulah Bankhead, who lived at the hotel for 18 years. She kept an array of pets, including a mynah, a lion cub, and a monkey. The story goes that she brought her monkey to the bar where she held wild parties. She drank. The monkey roamed around. And hence, the bar's name-unless you prefer the two other stories as to the origin of the bar's name. By the early eighties, the bar had become somewhat of a dive as did the hotel. In 1983, the bar and hotel were in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons. Tennessee Williams died of an overdose or due to choking on the cap of a medication in his hotel room above the Monkey Bar.
BWW: What's a story that you wanted to include but couldn't?
When my editor told me that I had to cut my manuscript back, he suggested the chapter on the West End Bar on Broadway across from Columbia University. There, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs had first met. Over drinks, they would sit for hours talking about art, philosophy, and life, eventually planting the seeds of the Beat movement. That chapter had a fight and a murder, with Kerouac and Burroughs jailed briefly as accessories to murder. But wait, there's more. A certain Pulitzer Prize-winning author hung out there during his years at Columbia: Barack Obama. Alas, the bar shuttered its doors years ago and another took its place. We had no photos of the place, so cutting the chapter made sense. But I still wish I could have kept it in the book because of its place in American literary history. I'm tearing up as I write this.
BWW: What was your signature cocktail while writing the book?
I researched and wrote the book all last summer, and the Rhubarb Sophie at Minetta Tavern, another watering hole for literary luminaries, seemed like the perfect summer cocktail. It's made with rhubarb bitters, muddled cucumber slices, vodka, agave nectar, and lime juice. It's like summer in a glass. With each sip, I remember traipsing around Greenwich and West Village on hot days, going from one place to another doing interviews and scoping out bars. Usually, I limited myself to a sip or two of cocktails at the places I visited. By the time I arrived at Minetta's, I was ready for their famous burger and the Rhubarb Sophie.
Storied Bars of New York by Delia Cabe will be released in hardback on June 6, 2017.