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Minetta Tavern

Minetta Tavern

From left to right: Joe Gould and columnist Hedda Hopper at Minetta Tavern. Image courtesy of Greenwich Village Daily Photo

Lit Nerd Wednesday!

Minetta Tavern has a different identity these days, one of wall-to-wall people, expensive meals and cocktails and reservations hard to come by but in the 1940s it was a different story. This modest eatery and bar’s cheap prices attracted the struggling writers and artists who were heading below 14th street for creativity and camaraderie. It was a time between the well-documented boom of the 1920s and 1950s and it could be said the official mascot of this bar, and really of this time in the Village, was Joe Gould, a.k.a Professor Sea Gull, writer of the Oral History of Our Time.

The history of Minetta Tavern goes back to Prohibition when it was known as The Black Rabbit until 1929 and run by Eve Adams who would also open Eve’s Hangout at 129 Macdougal street (now La Lanterrna Caffe). In 1937 it opened as Minetta Tavern and counted some of it’s earliest customers, E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway. Franz Kline, before making his mark in Abstratct Expressionism, drew the caricatures for money most of which can still be seen here. Perhaps the most intriguing customer to step foot in here was Joe Gould, a homeless self-professed bohemian who used to make his home wherever he could and get his meals and drinks from whoever he could bum them from.

Born in 1889 into a prominent New England family, he graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in literature and after extensive travel out west and in Canada settled in New York City in 1917. After a short stint working at the New York Evening Mail, he settled into his homeless bohemian life crashing poetry readings to read off the cuff nonsense and cadging drinks off customers at the many cafes and bars in the Village — one of those cafes, Minetta Tavern, became his “headquarters”. Gould was such a prominent figure, the owners paid him in spaghetti to sit near the window so tourists can see an actual “bohemian”. In 1942 his popularity would skyrocket thanks to Joseph Mitchell whose Professor Sea Gull profiles (a nickname given for Gould’s professed ability to translate any poem into Sea Gull) in the New Yorker made him an international celebrity. It was to Mitchell, and anyone else who’d listen, that Gould bragged about the opus he was writing, The Oral History of Our Time which consisted of conversations overheard at an upwards of 9 million words.

In the article Gould says:

“What people say is history, what we used to think was history—kings and queens, treaties, inventions, big battles, beheadings, Caesar, Napoleon, Pontius Pilate, Columbus, William Jennings Bryan—is only formal history and largely false. I’ll put down the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude—what they had to say about their jobs, love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows—or I’ll perish in the attempt.”

Gould died in 1957 and in 1964 Mitchell wrote Joe Gould’s Secret revealing that this supposed Oral History never existed but was merely a lot of bragging and professing of a project that would never begin. What did exist was a series of diaries up to 11,000 words documenting, not the “informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude” but the most mundane of activities of his everyday life in the 1940s – taking a bath, dollars bummed and meals eaten. Gould gave the diaries to Harold Anton, an abstract painter who lived near the Minetta, for safe keeping — they now reside at the Fales Library at NYU.

What: Minetta Tavern

Who: Joe Gould, Joseph Mitchell

Where: 113 Macdougal Street

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