The Golden Swan Garden
Lit Nerd Wednesday!
It’s hard to imagine when walking past the corner of West 4th and Sixth Avenue that on that little slice of greenery once stood a place that was nicknamed “The Hell Hole,” but that’s just one of the many aliases given to The Golden Swan Café — a haven for the early 20th century Village literary set as well as the downright sketchy. The bar, with its large swan hanging above the door, resided at this spot from the late 19th century until the late 1920s and was known for its cheap drinks and raucous discussions about writing, art and politics.
During those decades, as the famous and infamous clientele drifted in and staggered out, one who often came to people watch and talk literature was playwright Eugene O’Neill, who, being attracted to the rougher side of life, considered this prime real-estate. According to members of the Provincetown Players, if he wasn’t nearby working at the Playhouse on MacDougal Street, he could often be found inebriated at the Golden Swan reciting long poems to gangsters and turning a break into a bender.
In a letter to his wife in 1919, O’Neill wrote:
“Last night I made a voyage to the Hell Hole to see how it had survived the dry spell [Prohibition]. There was no whiskey in the house . . . and it had to be stolen by some of the gang out of a storehouse, and sold to Tom Wallace. All hands were drinking sherry and I joined this comparatively harmless and cheap debauch right willingly.”
In fact, O’Neill loved the cafe and its bartender, Thomas Wallace, so much he immortalized them as Harry Hope and his saloon in his play The Iceman Cometh, which premiered on Broadway in 1946 and was later revived nearby at The Circle in the Square in 1956.
John Sloan worked across the street and captured the bar in the etching above, even including O’Neill in the upper right corner. Surprisingly, another writer who whiled away the nights there was Dorothy Day, who moved from Brooklyn to Greenwich Village to immerse herself in the scene. She would later help found The Catholic Worker when she converted to Catholicism and left the debauched Village literary life behind.
By 1928 the cafe was gone, torn down amidst the construction of the Sixth Avenue subway. In the decades after, the space became a playground and then a recycling center in the 1980s. In 2000 it opened as The Golden Swan Garden.
What: The Golden Swan Garden
Who: Eugene O’Neill, John Sloan, Dorothy Day
Where: The Corner of West 4th Street and Sixth Avenue