Tom Deignan reminisces about the Lion’s Head, a legendary New York City bar that was a haven for Irish writers, musicians and artists
It’s been years now since the famous Lion’s Head bar in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, closed. Long known as the watering hole for drinkers with writing problems, the Head also became a second home for a veritable “greatest generation” of Irish-American writers and raconteurs, not to mention poets, politicians and musicians.
As Pete Hamill writes in his memoir A Drinking Life: “I don’t think many New York bars ever had such a glorious mixture of newspapermen, painters, musicians, seamen, ex-communists, priests and nuns, athletes, stockbrokers, politicians and folksingers, bound together in the leveling democracy of drink.”
Novelist Fred Exley called it “America’s last great saloon.” The Head was “Greenwich Village’s most lionized literary bar,” as The New York Times put in the paper’s obituary for jocular Irish-American co-owner John Wesley Joice, who died just eight months after the Head closed in the fall of 1996.
Many still speak with awe of the Head’s famous wall of book covers, posted by regulars who’d gotten their works published.
The Head may or may not have been an “Irish pub,” but it counted Hamill, Frank McCourt, the Clancy Brothers and Newsday columnist Dennis Duggan among its colorful cast of regulars. It’s even said that Bobby Kennedy decided to run for the Senate while at the Head.
Like Elaine’s or the Stork Club or “21,” the Head was a quintessential New York joint. It was unique, however, because it managed to be blue-collar and ethnic, as well as artistic and intellectual, a vibrant combination which may never be seen again.
Ten years after the Head closed, here are some Irish memories, based on interviews or privately published recollections:
FRANK McCOURT: Paddy Clancy lived around the corner from me in Brooklyn Heights. He called me up one day and said there was a new bar opening up on Christopher Street. The Head became my home away from home. If I was troubled, if I was lonely, if I didn’t know what to do with myself, I’d head to the Lion’s Head.
DENNIS DUGGAN: I know what I liked about the Head. Its cut and shape, its lighting, the size of the bar, the whiskey-soaked color of the wood, its bartenders and, finally, its owners, starting first with Leon Seidel and then later with the unlikely duo: ex-cop barman Wes Joice and Al Koblin, the Irishman and the Jew. Maybe that’s how the story got around that the Head (no one ever refers to it as the Lion’s Head, that would be like saying the Protestant Reformation) was a place where the Irish came to think like Jews and the Jews came to drink like the Irish.
PETE HAMILL: The Head was so seductive because the people who were in there were brilliant and so was the conversation. It was not a bunch of guys just exchanging clichés. The arguments were pushed in ways that made you think on a level you ordinarily would not. And you learned a lot from people who were not writers, about the kind of lives they led. You got to know something about the way people lived lives [which] were totally different from your own. There was a cop named Bobby Adams I’d talk to. A smart guy, came from my neighborhood. That could have been me. I could have taken the cops test and become a cop instead of what I am now. It was terrific to learn from those guys, the density of their jobs. Their jobs were not just a civil service paycheck. They had interesting, complicated visions of what it was they were doing. This was important especially at that time [the late 1960s], when cops were being painted [negatively]. We knew from the evidence all cops weren’t like that.
McCOURT: When Bobby Kennedy came, it was frenzy. They scrubbed all the graffiti off the bathroom walls. He was revered. His political journey meant a lot to people.
HAMILL: You wanted to be in a place where all sins were forgiven. If you got drunk and fell on your nose it didn’t matter. You came back the next day, what the hell was the disgrace? And I think that’s true of any place in which friendship is at the heart of the matter. I never thought of it as an Irish bar. There were a lot of Irish guys, but I could name a whole bunch of Jews who hung out there! When it became an Irish bar was when the Clancy Brothers would sing. And even they were not singing exclusively Irish songs. But you could end up with Larry Merchant sitting with the Clancys, and everybody was singing “The Leaving the Liverpool” or “Isn’t It Grand, Boys.” They would come in late at night, they all had places there in the Village, or after a gig at Carnegie Hall they’d come down. They loved to sing. They had all been shaped, particularly Tom and Paddy Clancy, by the Village of the 1950s –the revival of O’Casey and things like that.
McCOURT: One of the main attractions was the Clancys. There was a big round table in the back and they’d just start singing. And they’d sing until the early hours of the morning. Which for them was fine but for me was disastrous. I had to get up the next day and go to Staten Island and teach. If the Clancys were there it was an Irish bar. No one sat back there singing Yiddish songs. There was also the transient Irish crowd. Poets like Seamus Heaney, Jon Montague and Ben Kiley would come . . . they were not regulars but they’d be considered among the faithful. They’d always head to the Lion’s Head when they were around.
GEORGE KIMBALL: I had been in Ireland for a few weeks . . . when the McCourt brothers arrived in Limerick to open their road company version of A Couple of Blaggards. So the morning Frank got to town I dropped by the Belletable Arts Center, where the play was performing, to welcome him back to his home city, and had a cup of tea with him and the theater manager before I had to rush off for some errands. We agreed to meet later that night after Malachy arrived, and Frank, who wished concomitantly to look up some old friends, suggested that he might be found in a pub further down O’Connell Street called South’s. “Ah, I don’t know, Frank,” protested the theater manager, whose name was Jerry. “A lot of the lads won’t go into South’s any more ever since they put in a ladies toilet.” Just as the arcane qualities that comprise a good pub defy definition, so do the subtle alterations “beyond the installation of a ladies john” that can cause a good pub to go bad. But the Lion’s Head survived enough attacks from within . . . Either nailing the dartboard shut or installing a jukebox could have ruined a lesser saloon. Taken together they were . . . almost intolerable, but the 1969 record of 23 consecutive 301 [dart game] victories posted by Finbar Furey and myself remains intact. The most remarkable aspect of this milestone is the corollary accomplishment that in order to achieve it we had to consume the 22 drinks we won in the process.
McCOURT: I think generally there was a kindness in the Head. I lived in Dublin in the early 70s. I used to go to places in Dublin and there was a bitchiness there, parochialism. It could be very witty and cutting, but I was relieved to get back to the geniality of the Lion’s Head. And remember, a lot of people at the Head, like myself and Hamill, came up with the working classes. Here we’re able to buy all the drinks we want and pay for it and so on. If you’re middle class or upper middle class, maybe you’ve learned to handle it. But not when you come from blue collar, where drink is generally done on Friday or Saturday night as a big treat . . . We were untutored in the sophistication of the cocktail world. Many of us couldn’t believe our good luck. Here we were in New York City, in the Village, drinking, surrounded by two-fisted journalists.
COLUM McCANN: When I was 17 years old I had a four-month leave from college in Dublin. I was studying journalism. So I packed my bags for the United States. I did not know what to expect, except I remember thinking of New York as a place where all stories congregated and became real. [An editor told me] if I really wanted to see what the life of a writer was like I should go down and hang out in the Lion’s Head in the Village. When I first visited the Head it was early evening – far too early, in retrospect. The five or six people along the bar were either hammered or stone cold sober, or in that strange hovering state of being both at once. So I bought a bottle of Heineken and sat in the corner and watched and watched and watched. In the end, the people at the Lion’s Head seemed no more nor less magnificent than in any other place. The bartender didn’t look like he might develop into an old-style seanchai [Irish storyteller] before the night unfolded. But then again there was always The Wall. The Wall was magnificent. I wandered around and looked at all of those wonderful book covers, some old and dusty, some brand spanking new. They were a novel in themselves. Therein lay a sense of literary creation. The walls were the things that were alive. I wandered around them for at least an hour or two. That night I left early but I do remember thinking that one day I’d return to the Lion’s Head and have a right to be there, not only on a barstool but behind a dusty glass frame as well. But in the end it was all too late. By the time I returned with a book in hand the Lion’s Head wasn’t the Lion’s Head anymore.
TOM KELLY: My first book jacket [1996’s Payback] would have been next to go up on The Wall before the Head closed.
DERMOT McEVOY: The first jacket I remember on the wall was Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. It was stuck to the wall with scotch tape. Pretty soon there were so many book jackets that Al Koblin [one of the owners] started putting them in frames and screwing them to the wall. So they wouldn’t be stolen. And then the wall became the thing to see. I couldn’t make the wall because by the time my book got published the wall was gone.
McCOURT: Every time you’d sit there at the end of the bar your eye would wander over to the wall. You’d see Mailer, Pete Hamill, Dennis Smith, Joel Oppenheimer. I was not writing at the time. I was scribbling. But I was always looking at the wall. My great ambition was to have my book jacket on the wall. [Just before the Head closed, bartender] Mike Reardon called me. I was flying off to Germany [to promote Angela’s Ashes]. Mike called me and said, “Why don’t you come down and have a drink?” I really had to go, but Mike said, “Come on, have one drink.” So I went down. Mainly because Mike had cancer. I sat at the bar and he poured me a double shot of whiskey. And he said, “Turn around.” And I saw the [Angela’s Ashes] book jacket on the wall. For me that was better than a Nobel Prize. I’m just sorry now I didn’t take a picture. ♦