Literary Legend Shaken & Stirred Back to Life

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:15

  In his new book, Justin Martin takes us into the scintillating world of Pfaff's saloon in the 19th century

The corner of Broadway and Bleecker was once home to a subterranean bar where wit and rebellion was just as important as lager. What happened in Pfaff's saloon in the 1850s is stuff of literary legend, as the progressive writers of the time, like Walt Whitman, Henry Clapp, and Ada Clare, gathered not solely for a drink, but to exchange their views on pivotal issues of the day.

On September 1st, the Greenwich Village saloon was finally paid the homage it deserves with the release of "Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians." Biographer Justin Martin spent two years unearthing the tales of this fascinating cast of characters that assembled, who he referred to as, "the rebels of their small towns who made their way to the big city, just as people do today."

You got the idea for the book from a professor.

I was chatting with a university professor and he said to me, "Have you ever heard of Pfaff's saloon?" And he told me a little bit about it and it sounded kind of interesting. It didn't click right there, but then he sent me an email saying I should really look into it. He was a professor with a specialty in 19th century history and he perceived this as an unturned chapter.

Why do you think no one has ever written about Pfaff's before?

It's really, really hard, as I can now attest, to do all the digging. It's kind of like a cold case in a way. Whitman has achieved artistic immortality, but the rest of the people in the scene, a lot of them faded into obscurity. The other thing is, it's a saloon, and what happens there is so ephemeral. And so I really had to figure out ways to create an organizing principle and bring these people together.

Describe the bar's location and atmosphere.

It was located at the intersection of Broadway and Bleecker in the 1850s. Broadway, in that day, was great entertainment for New Yorkers. This was a few years before Central Park even existed. This was obviously before television, radio, and high literacy rates. You would just wander around and could go to the theater, a saloon, a weird curiosity shop. You could go see P.T. Barnum's various freak shows. Pfaff's was this subterranean saloon located at 647 Broadway and the only thing that marked it was on the wall it said "Pfaff's" in dim lettering. You entered by opening up this hatchway in the Broadway sidewalk, then you went down this narrow ladder, and you were in this ample space that extended the whole length of the Coleman Hotel, which was above it. The hotel disavowed itself from the saloon below it. It was modestly appointed, sawdust on the floor, tables scattered about, no musical acts or anything. It was dimly lit with gaslights, so everyone was kind of cast in shadow. Henry Clapp, the King of Bohemians, the guy who imported the idea of Bohemia from Paris, they set him up in a little vaulted room separate from the main one. The proprietor, Charles Ignatius Pfaff, gave him this long table that could seat 30 people and that is where he started assembling this group of Bohemian artists.

You focus a lot on Whitman. I never knew that he lived in Brooklyn with his mother.

At the time he joined this group of Bohemian artists, he was adrift professionally. He was unemployed. He was 39 years old. He was living home in a basement apartment with some of his siblings and siblings' kids. He hadn't published a poem in a couple of years, so he was really in an artistic and personal slump.

You bring up the argument that Pfaff's may have been the first gay bar.

Pfaff's was opened at a time when "gay" meant lighthearted, thirty years before the term "homosexual" came into wide use. The best way to describe it is as a libertine bar. It was just a place where if you were a social outlier of any kind, you might be walking along Broadway and see that dimly lettered sign, or you may have heard of it through the grapevine. You had these two separate rooms. You had the vaulted room, where Clapp formed his rigorously curated collection of Bohemians. Then you had another room, with Bohemian odd and ends. Those of them that were gay didn't called themselves that, but the bar was a place where you could find a person like yourself. For Whitman, it was a six-mile round trip to get to the bar from Brooklyn. There was a reason that he traveled there. It was a perfect place for a gay poet who was struggling. Half of the time, he was hanging out at that long table with the artists, and the other half, he was in that other room, meeting men.

Tell us about how the bar treated women, which was progressive for that day.

One of the things that really distinguished Pfaff's was that it was a saloon that welcomed women. McSorley's, which everyone knows, is from the same time period, and their slogan in those days was, "Good food, good ale, no women." Pfaff, the man who owned the saloon, he came from Germany and had libertine, European values, kind of like the French Bohemians. And Clapp, he was real open to having women in his coterie. At that long table, you had a nice representation of female artists, including a woman named Ada Clare, who was a trenchant essayist and wrote for the "Saturday Press." She was known as the "Queen of Bohemia." I remember coming across an essay she wrote which was an attack on the 19th century media for portraying women as skinny. She was really ahead of her time.

Explain the "Saturday Press," which was one of the most influential papers in America in the 19th century.

Clapp, who was its editor, grew up in New England and had an incredible antipathy for it. In 1858, a magazine which is still with us, The Atlantic, was founded in New England. His newspaper was the antidote to The Atlantic. His journal was New York-based, and full of these wild and wily Bohemians writing satire and experimental poetry. It was a little bit like The New Yorker, with its sense of urbaneness and putting art at a premium about all else, although it was a lot more mean-spirited. They have the paper at Lehigh University. It doesn't have many pictures or illustrations. On the face of it, it doesn't look very radical. But I read probably all of the 157 issues and I'll tell you that the articles, after 150 years, still retain their sting and their wit. That only told me that in their day, they must have been scathing and hilarious.

You're part of a kind of modern-day version of the Pfaff's Bohemians, the Gotham Biographers Group.

It's just eight or nine of us which includes a group of really accomplished writers like Will Swift, who wrote a joint biography of Pat and Dick Nixon, Kate Buford who wrote a great biography of Jim Thorpe, and Stacy Schiff, who wrote the well-regarded book on Cleopatra recently. We're all New Yorkers and we meet at various bars around the city. It's really great because it's so specific, it's a group whose members are all struggling with the topic of biography. It's about five years old and I was invited by one of the members, a woman named Anne Heller, who wrote a fantastic biography on Ayn Rand. I was thrilled because, as you know, writing is such a sort of lonely pursuit and to have a group of people who are not only fellow writers, but also biographers, sometimes I feel like I'm dreaming.

For more information on Justin, visit

Justin will be appearing at the Strand Book Store, on Broadway at E. 12th St., on November 11th.