Monday, February 5, 2018

The Ghosts of Greenwich Village #2: The San Remo Cafe


(William Burroughs, left, standing outside the San Remo)

The San Remo Café at 189 Bleecker St. was located on the northwest corner of MacDougal and Bleecker, occupying two storefronts. The mob-owned bar was taken over by writers and artists. Though the Italan owners and locals were hostile to gays and outsiders, they begrudgingly tolerated their business. Allen Ginsberg drank at the Remo before and after his stint at the New York Psychiatric Institute. Hanging out at the bar were writers from the Partisan Review like Clement Greenberg and Delmore Schwartz hung out there, as did the poets Frank O’Hara and W.H. Auden (on opposite sides of the bar). The bar’s literary heyday went from the end of World War II to the late 1950s.

During the early 1950s, Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s theater company The Living Theatre made the Remo their de facto headquarters and the center of their parties when they were renting the nearby Cherry Lane Theatre and doing such iconoclastic shows as Genet‘s “The Maids.” The novelist Gore Vidal proudly boasts that he picked up Beat legend Jack Kerouac, took him back to the Chelsea Hotel and screwed him.

The bartenders and bouncers at the San Remo, considered to be “minor Mafia” by the hipster patrons, were a bit too liberal with the baseball bat kept under the bar. Frank O’Hara immortalized the incipient violence of the staff of the Remo in one of his poems, “The penalty of the Big Town/ is the Big Stick.”

By 1960, the Remo had become primarily a gay bar, stocked with hustlers that hung out at Washington Square Park, and the “A-men,” gay men on amphetamines. Andy Warhol loved the Remo, and stocked his early Factory with men he found at the bar. One of his infatuations was the dancer Freddy Herko, who starred in Rosalyn Drexler’s “Home Movies” at nearby Judson Poets Theatre. Herko’s career was cut short when under the influence, he danced out of a six-story window.

By the 1970's, the socialist Michael Harrington reported that the old San Remo had closed and had become a Chinese restaurant. In the 1980's and 1990's, it was an Italian coffee shop/restaurant. Recently, it was micro-chain coffee shop, but now, as of January 2018, the last coffee shop there went out of business, and it is for rent again.

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