It’s fair to say I look at things through a literary prism — I’m a writer by profession, and I work at a museum that honors another one.
So when I set out for New York this spring, images of chain-smoking figures hunched over ancient Underwood typewriters in Greenwich Village walk-ups were foremost in my mind.
Writers have long been drawn to live and work in the city, attracted by the proximity to publishing houses and fellow artists and the combination of inspiring streetscapes and gritty humanity that defines it.
I knew I wanted to experience literary Manhattan, but the list of writers who’ve drawn inspiration from the city is dauntingly long and varied. I needed to narrow my focus, and I knew how. I opted, like any writer worth her salt, to go barhopping.
Having arrived by train at the glorious Grand Central Terminal, I started my literary pilgrimage just a few blocks down 44th Street at the legendary Algonquin Hotel. There, starting in 1919, a group of working writers and wits including Dorothy Parker and Harold Ross gathered regularly to eat lunch, swap writing-life war stories, and, well, be witty. Their conversations around a round table gave rise to the founding of the New Yorker magazine in 1925. Eventually, they needed a table large enough to accommodate 25 members of what they dubbed the “Vicious Circle.” (Although many of the regulars were known to be big drinkers, the sessions weren’t alcohol-fueled — at least not overtly. Prohibition didn’t end until 1933, by which time the group had largely disbanded.)
The Algonquin takes its landmark status in literary history seriously: Each guest room gets a copy of the New Yorker, and its Do Not Disturb door-hangers read, “Quiet please. Writing the Great American Novel.”
Today, in the Round Table restaurant in the hotel’s lobby, a much smaller, but still round, table sits beneath a painting of the members of the Algonquin wits. Alas, it’s available only for parties of four to six. Traveling solo as I was, I sat a few feet away, savoring my Dorothy Parker cocktail (a sassy sip featuring Dorothy Parker Gin, crafted in Brooklyn), under no pressure whatsoever to be witty.
Next up, the Strand, the equally legendary mecca of book lovers and writers, featuring 2.5 million new, used, collectible, and rare items — enough to fill the store’s longtime slogan of “18 miles of books.” The store’s four floors are organized by topic. For instance, military, law, and religion in the basement; rare books are on the third floor. A set of tall shelves on the main floor holds hundreds of volumes by New York-based writers and others about the city itself.
I picked up E.B. White’s Here Is New York, a slim and bittersweet tribute to mid-20th-century Manhattan, and Patti Smith’s Just Kids, a love letter to the author’s youthful New York escapades (and to her then-lover, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe). Talk about seeing the city through different sets of eyes. …
I also bought Delia Cabe’s Storied Bars of New York, an anecdote-packed roundup of establishments where writers past and present have hung out. The book includes write-ups of nearly three dozen bars. Bonus: It features recipes for cocktails served at the bars.
Smith is just one of the scads of writers and musicians, famous and otherwise, who have occupied rooms at my next stop, the Hotel Chelsea; others include Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, and Thomas Wolfe. Mark Twain lived at the Chelsea for a brief time, when it was a co-op apartment building before it became a hotel. The hotel has been under renovation since 2011 — covered by scaffolding and closed to the public — with the latest reopening date in early 2019. It’s still worth a visit, just to stand on the sidewalk under its iconic awning, reading the brass-plaque tributes to residents such as Arthur Miller, Arthur C. Clarke, and Leonard Cohen.
You don’t have to be a bibliophile to appreciate a visit to Pete’s Tavern in Gramercy Park, where O. Henry said he wrote the classic Christmas short story “The Gift of the Magi” in 1905. A framed letter from O. Henry — real name: William Sydney Porter — saying so hangs in the very booth in which he said he worked.
Sitting in that booth, knocking back a Pete’s 1864 Ale (named for the year the tavern opened), I thought about how utterly uninspiring my surroundings were. Pete’s is a perfectly serviceable, garden-variety tavern, but hardly the kind of place you’d think literary history would be made. Or maybe that’s the point: Inspiration can strike anywhere.
Ludwig Bemelmans also was a nightly dinner customer at Pete’s; he dreamed up his Madeline picture books here, drafting illustrations on the backs of the menus. Bemelmans, who spent his life moving from hotel to hotel, painted a mural in the Carlyle Hotel — in what is now known as the Bemelmans Bar — in exchange for an 18-month stay there.
In addition to its charming scenes of people and animals cavorting in Central Park, the mural features Madeline herself, marching with her fellow orphans in the original “two straight lines” of Bemelman’s beloved picture books, this time in Manhattan instead of the original Paris.
Another classic watering hole for writers is the White Horse Tavern, the corner pub in Greenwich Village where poet Dylan Thomas, who gave us the epic poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and beloved prose of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” fed the growing and eventually extreme alcoholism that eventually killed him. Other luminaries who’ve tippled there include Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Anaïs Nin, Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, James Baldwin, Marguerite Young, and Frank McCourt.
Much of New York’s literary legacy is centered in Greenwich Village and Chelsea, but beyond the Algonquin, midtown Manhattan has a few writerly haunts worth visiting. Toward the end of my pilgrimage, I stopped by the dark and tiny King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel, so named for Maxfield Parrish’s 30-by-8-foot mural of the merry old soul across the wall behind the bar. Many writers, including Ernest Hemingway, have raised glasses here, but John Cheever, who lived right around the corner and frequented the dimly lit, intimate space, wins pride of place for his claim that he was also conceived in a room at the St. Regis.
The Algonquin, 59 W. 44th St.; information: 212-840-6800 or algonquinhotel.com
The St. Regis, 2 E. 55th St.; information: 212-753-4500 or stregisnewyork.com
The Carlyle, 35 East 76th St; information: 212-744-1600 or rosewoodhotels.com/en/the-carlyle-new-york
The Chelsea, 222 W 23rd St.
Pete’s Tavern, 129 E. 18th St.; information: 212-473-7676 or petestavern.com
White Horse Tavern, 567 Hudson St.; information: 212-989-3956 or whitehorsetavern1880.com
Strand Bookstore, 828 Broadway; information: 212-473-1452 or