30 August 2011

Charles Pfaff Died Broke

I had read many a yarn about the great hosts, dandies, swells, bon vivants and society men of New York's history prior to World War II. And one thing they all seem to hold in common is this: they die broke. Or in debt.

Charles Ignatius Pfaff was a jolly German who set up one of the first—or certainly one of the first famous—bohemian gathering places in New York City. Pfaff's was located at 653 Broadway near Bleecker. He ran a couple of places before that, and one after, but this was the famous one, the basement space that attracted, from 1860 to 1875, the likes of Walt Whitman, William Winter (the leading American dramatic critic of the 19th century), George Clemenceau (French statesman and journalist), Artemus Ward (humorist and editor of Vanity Fair), Fitz-James O'Brien (a writer of early examples of science fiction) and Henry Clapp, Jr. (a publisher of the Saturday Press—for which almost everybody else at Pfaff's wrote—promoter of free love and "Leaves of Grass" and the "King of Bohemia"). Also writer and actress Ada Clare, one of my favorite bohos of all time because of her bizarre death: she died of hydrophobia after being bit by her favorite terrier while visited her agent's office.

Charles Pfaff serves superlative German food and Rhine wine in shabby, but clean environs modeled on a German rathskeller. He made a good deal of money, but, being a soft touch, gave a great deal of it away. When he moved his business to 24th Street, the new restaurant lost money. He tried to call in all his many loans, but found it hard to collect. He worried a lot over this betrayal and some thought it hastened his death, at 72, in 1890.

Whitman wrote about the later location of Pfaff’s in his story "Specimen Days." His description of Pfaff and he toasting their now-deceased friends is particularly touching: "And there Pfaff and I, sitting opposite each other at the little table, gave a remembrance to them in a style they would have themselves fully confirm’d, namely, big, brimming, fill’d-up champagne-glasses, drain’d in abstracted silence, very leisurely, to the last drop."

Pfaff is still remembered enough to have had a recent speakeasy named after him. The Vault at Pfaff's opened at 643 Broadway in June. Wrong address, but it hardly matters. Pfaff's building was torn down years ago.

1 comment:

everettsville said...

Great post. There's something about these ancient-history character portraits that make you realize the... depth, for lack of a better word, of the city we live in.

This post reminds me of David Freeland's evocative book Automats, Taxi Dances & Vaudeville.