Category Archives: American writers

The Hell Hole: Manhattan bar from the 1910’s & 20’s

Dorothy Day, before she was a Catholic worker, hung out in a glorious dive with Eugene O'Neill

Charles-Demuth-The-Golden-Swan-aka-Hell-Hole-

 

This painting is At The Golden Swan (a.k.a. Hell Hole), by Charles Demuth, and I ran across it while researching this bar, a gathering point for artists in Greenwich Village during its heyday from 1913 to the early ’20s (about the time housing prices started driving the poorer bohemians out).  I’d read many memoirs that referenced this joint, which was hardly the kind of place you’d expect a crew of artists to be.  The Hell Hole was not fake tough of the sort that brings in today’s hipster wannabes.  No, it was a true lowdown tavern owned and beloved by Irish gangsters.  Apparently there was a time when Greenwich Village was a diverse mix of old rich, poor artists, hopeful immigrant families, and flat-out thugs.  The bar’s seediness and peculiar mix is exactly what attracted the serious (and curious) artists, writers, journalists, and anarchists who also pursued serious drinking.  The place was situated at 6th Avenue and 4th Street, in the shadow of the El.

Demuth’s painting actually seems to me a brighter and more sedate environment than the one I’ve read about.  Though no doubt accurate, it seems rather bright and optimistic, more like a cool coffeeshop than a seedy bar (except for that shadowy guy in the corner).  In reality, the swan in the background was actually a mouldering, leaning stuffed goose in a dirty case.  The Hell Hole had two rooms — the back room, with a separate glass entrance, allowed women; the front room, where the Irish gang the Hudson Dusters made its home, was more loudly argumentative and more violent.  Prostitutes (or possibly just loose women) were said to make steady appearances, and all women were allowed to smoke publicly, which appealed to some of the more independent ladies of the Village.  The Hell Hole was also interracial — apparently everyone was welcome (except possibly the rich). The incredible hodgepodge of folks and the vague threat of violence and the actuality of various addictions made it especially attractive to artists who enjoyed observing human behavior and were not easily scared off.  Below is artist John Sloan’s version, The Hell Hole, painted in 1913.  Sloan was a more long-time habitué of the bar, having lived in New York longer than Demuth and with a studio right across the street.  This picture reflects in detail the accounts I’ve read.  The two guys in the doorway were apparently tough bouncers, Lefty Louie and John Bull.  The waiter here does not look quite so happy.  The patrons, too, seem more ragged; cheerfully talking, yes, but there’s clearly drinking going on; a woman is losing her hat, possibly because she’s smashed; a woman is getting her leg felt up; there are cigarettes.  The paintings on the wall appear to be accurate, with a racehorse and (I think) a nude and lounging woman. This is the way a bar that’s open after others close ought to look.  (Not saying that I don’t love the Demuth, but historically, I believe Sloan nails it.)

sloan hell hole

Eugene O’Neill, the playwright, (see him in the upper right?) adopted the Hell Hole as a second home on and off for three years, going on all night benders, able to travel the boundary from back room to front, making friends with all kinds.  The Hudson Dusters were his pals, in part because he didn’t condescend to them, and some of them attended his plays when they were performed nearby. From 1917 through 1918, and occasionally beyond, he was joined by his pal, the social activist (and later Catholic near-saint) Dorothy Day.  Another friend and patron was the Village anarchist/gadfly Hippolyte Havel, a wild haired Czech who became the model for Hugo Kalmar in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.  In fact, the Hell Hole is the model for the bar in that play, a place where in the 1910’s people came to celebrate and conspire, and a place where, as time passed, people got drunk and swore over the failed revolution. Another regular in O’Neill’s Hell Hole circle was Terry Carlin, a sixty-something anti-government radical who lived on the streets, obtaining a kind of true bohemianism that the others romanticized.  While he helped O’Neill when he was in the blackest of slides, he began bitter and nihilistic with the failures of his ideas.  (I imagine Carlin as being the like a particular kind of disappointed hippie from our own era.)  Another of O’Neill’s friends there was a dissipated Villager who was a friend of O’Neill’s from college, Louis Holladay.  Louis’ sister ran one of the most popular restaurants for the Village folk, Polly’s; Polly was married to Hippolyte Havel, and, according to one biography, had sexually abused her younger brother.  Louis has the sad legacy of being the one of the few heroin deaths among the intellectual bohemians, literally dying while leaning up against socialist worker Dorothy Day.  The story has it that he got his drug from Terry Carlin at the Hell Hole.  Another patron was Christine Ell; this big red-haired woman becomes the character Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten.  The radical immersion journalist John Reed spent time there, along with his wife Louise Bryant, who had an affair with O’Neill.  O’Neill met one of his wives, Agnes Boulton, there.  It was also frequented by the playwriting and performance group the Provincetown Players, whose Manhattan theater was located nearby; among this group were “Jig” Cook, Susan Glaspell, and Mary Heaton Vorse, all of whom encouraged O’Neill and gave him his theatrical break.

It seems remarkable now that there was a time when such a disparate crew of people actually spent time together, night after night, radicals, artists, thugs, prostitutes, and musicians mingling in the same beer-soaked, sawdust-floored dump.  But it happened.

While the Hell Hole lasted beyond the ’20’s, these were its glory years.

 

A war comedy? – the 1926 version of What Price Glory

gloryI’ve been reading up on World War I memoirs and watching silent films trying to get some sense of depictions of the war during the lifetimes of those who were actually there.  I was looking forward to watching What Price Glory?, as it was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson and Lawrence Stallings.  Based on the title and the credentials of the writers, I figured it had to be a serious anti-war movie.  That it features Victor McLaughlin (who was so great in The Informer) and Edmund Lowe were again pluses in its favor (although I was a bit dubious at the prospect of Dolores Del Rio playing a French woman).  And it’s directed by Raoul Walsh, who just two years before directed The Thief of Bagdad and two years after Sadie Thompson, both movies I love. — Well, maybe I was expecting too much, because I was completely let downsoldier dog what price glory

What Price Glory? tries to make war look fun.  Except for about twenty minutes of battle scenes, it’s a string of gags about sleeping with French girls and/or soldiers laughing at their superior officers.  I guess if it wasn’t a war movie, I would have found some of this pretty funny — though even at that, the jokes wear thin, since they’re awfully repetitive.  It’s frustrating, really, because this movie should have been good.  McLaughlin and Lowe are both excellent as rivals for pretty much everything, particularly the affections of women.  McLaughlin is a big dumb lug (of course) who is entertaining to watch; Lowe is the handsome, serious soldier.  war is fun what price glorywar is still fun

The movie picks up considerably in the second half — once we really get into the war.  That’s when it finally shifts out of the farcical tone and lightweight character development into the real point of the film.  This isn’t to say that even then the film loses its humor; it’s that the humor no longer dominates or seems forced.  Director Raoul Walsh seems to be more confident and involved, and there are a number of great moments.  The battle scenes, while done quickly and not entirely realistically (I was always aware of being on a set), still manage to give a bit of a sense of trench warfare.  (There’s mostly, though, quite a bit of “blowing stuff up” — not nearly as boring as World War I actually was).  The later scenes with Charmaine (Dolores Del Rio) are sometimes moving as she wonders which of her suitors she will be with and what will become of them both.  There’s a good risque moment when it’s clear that she and the sergeant plan to sleep with one another; it’s handled well — it’s clear but subtle enough to slip past the censors, and really quite sweet.  And the scene when she visits the soldier’s grave is lovely and genuinely moving.  blue war what price gloryVictor McLaughlin is particularly excellent throughout this part of the film; in fact, he carries it.  HIs emotions are quietly handled, revealed through quick expressions covered by a show of humor or anger.  Even the cinematography becomes more interesting.  The dialogue is still way too heavy-handed and speech-y, possibly because it’s adapted from a stage play.  But at least it’s trying to finally live up to the promise of its title.

dolores what price gloryI kept wishing I could rewrite this movie, and I found it strange that so many cliches could come from a play by two good writers.  (And I think these were cliches even back then.)  The men who turned the play into intertitles must have been slumming.  Of course, since the film is silent, we’re not going to “hear” most of the dialogue, so it’s possible that much of the real wit and tragedy was lost in the transference to silent film.  It shouldn’t have had to be that way, though; certainly there were extremely effective silent war movies, including some adapted from novels.  It made me curious enough try to find the actual stage play.  Except – wait….It’s very difficult to actually find this play.  It’s out of print and there seem to be no digital copies lurking around on the internet.

Finally I’ve come to accept that I can appreciate the film for its good moments and for its historical value.  The play was, after all, a huge hit on Broadway, so perhaps the humor-battle mix was something that people felt they needed then.  And I think I’m fascinated with the way it uses a kind of unironic slapstick humor and tries to meld it on to a war film with a message.  That doesn’t mean I’d go out of my way to watch it again, though.

This film isn’t currently available on DVD except for some cheap-o versions on movie fan sites (which is how I got mine).

This is Victor McLaughlin's tattoo of "Sapho" -- a pretty good joke, really.

This is Victor McLaughlin’s tattoo of “Sapho” — a pretty good joke, really.

 

 

 

Inspectin like Van Vechten – part one

“So like Van Vechten/Start inspectin’/Go Harlem Go” – Andy Razaf, Go Harlem, 1930

Everyplace I looked when I was researching my book, up popped Carl Van Vechten. (His photographs of some of the famous people he knew in his lifetime are scattered throughout this posting.) I could not shake this troublesome bon vivant who seemed to know nearly all of the important American artists in my time period (which runs from about 1905 through 1932). And he lived for quite some time after this, too. Carl-Van-Vechten Although he’s now known mostly for his role in the Harlem Renaissance, and the authoring of a notorious book, his creative reach actually went far beyond that. I think of him as being a kind of early, less talented version of Truman Capote. (He even looks a little like Capote.) He knew all of the most interesting writers — and musicians, theater and film people, artists, journalists….He made it his business to have his nose in all kinds of business, and the more parties (and alcohol) that involved, the better. He went to all the best soirees; he had the best salon; he snuggled up to rich people (and everyone else); he was gay. (Critics used to hedge here and say “bi” or even “maybe bi” — he was married for years to actress Fania Marinoff —

Fania Marinoff in her apartment

Fania Marinoff in her apartment

but in the period, gossip had it that he was gay, and he left behind a stash of nude male photography and jokes about homosexuality kept in files to be only opened ten years after his death. His sexual identity, of course, had an impact on who he knew, where he went, his willingness to dress flamboyantly (which was ridiculed in print), and how people perceived him (again, he was often ridiculed). It’s also helping to create a resurgence of interest in his work and life.

Carl Van Vechten was a cultural critic, first in Chicago, then in New York. He published essays and reviews about the arts in major New York newspapers and magazines, giving him a great deal of power over the artists who courted his favor. His collections of criticism provide wide ranging information about the arts of the period, and he was willing to shift easily between what was then considered to be high art (Stravinsky) and low art (Bessie Smith).

Mabel Dodge & Tony Luhan, 1934.

Mabel Dodge & Tony Luhan, 1934.

His novels are mostly about Carl Van Vechten, even when he attempts to adopt a black narrative persona. They are, for the most part, romans à clef. My favorite of his books is actually his first, Peter Whiffle, a satire on the salon run by the rich white New York flibbertigibbet Mabel Dodge. He, like Truman Capote, mostly revealed dirt about his friends, most of whom were not only tolerant, but flattered. His specialty was light, rather silly, witty, observational books about social circles. Even Nigger Heaven, the book that cost him his career, was centered around social observation. Van Vechten really was always inspectin’.
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

Lena Horne, 1941

Lena Horne, 1941

Van Vechten is a complex figure, one that I’m still trying to understand. It is less that he himself is difficult — it’s the legacy of his role that creates the problem. Van Vechten shot a hole in his reputation by writing a book from the point of view of a black man, setting it in black nightclubs, basing characters on real people in the black community, and — the real sin — calling that book Nigger Heaven. At the time the book was written, Van Vechten had many friends, among them many close black friends — important black friends. These included Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, James Weldon Johnson, and Countee Cullen. Hughes and Johnson helped Van Vechten with the book, in fact, while Countee Cullen broke ties with him for fifteen years.
James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

n heavenBefore and after the book’s publication, Van Vechten actually did, in practical terms, a lot of good work in promoting black writers, musicians, and actors by giving them positive reviews in white magazines and newspapers. And he began doing this even before the time period of the Harlem Renaissance. While his novel is offensive in some ways, it’s actually more progressive than the work of most whites of the period. I’ve read memoirs, essays, novels, and other accounts by his peers, and the offhand racism expressed in them is truly shocking. Honestly, they would nearly all avoid taking any kind of black art seriously at all, and would not find black people worth writing about. (It’s this dismissiveness that is really creepy.)

Langston Hughes, sharp.  1934.

Langston Hughes, sharp. 1934.

This doesn’t excuse Van Vechten; it only makes the point that he basically meant well. And his information about nightclubs and people from the period is useful from a historical standpoint. He spent much of his spare time hanging out in black clubs, and his descriptions are apparently accurate.
The interior of Connie's Inn, one of Van Vechten's haunts.

The interior of Connie’s Inn, one of Van Vechten’s haunts.

Van Vechten’s favorite club in the 20’s, and a club featured in Nigger Heaven, was Small’s Paradise, which considered kicking him out after he published the novel. The book made him seem no longer a friend, but someone slumming and taking notes. This is a film clip that features quite a few of the Small’s entertainers from 1933, including Roy Eldridge on trumpet, Dickie Wells on trombone, Mabel Scott singing “Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon,” the dancing of Henry “Rubberlegs” Williams, a jazz singer as well as a dancer, and Elmer Snowden on banjo. If I had been around then, I would have tried to hang out here, too.YouTube Preview Image

More to come!