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