Al Koblin, Night Bartender and former owner of the Lion’s Head, 1966 to 1984, interviewed by Dylan Foley, January 2009
The Lion's Head was the fabled Greenwich Village bar that was located on Christopher Street. It was open from 1966 to 1996 and was patronized by such famous New York journalists as Pete Hamill, Dennis Duggan and Jimmy Breslin. The bar witnessed the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and was a headquarters of Norman Mailer's second mayoral bid with Breslin. The bar was famous for its Jewish drunks, Irish lovers and Italian intellectuals.The physical bar later became the Kettle of Fish, the old bohemian bar which moved from another part of the Village. It is now patronized by NYU students.
Al Koblin was a bartender then a half-owner of the Lion's Head from 1966 to 1984.
Al Koblin: I’m from Massachusetts. I got to New York in 1953 when I was in the Army and just stayed there.
Dylan Foley: How did you wind up at the Figaro Café in Greenwich Village?
AK: When I got out of the Army I worked in advertising for years and that sucked. There was a recession, what they called the Eisenhower recession in ‘58 or ‘59. I had started to hang out in Greenwich Village. I took a job as a dishwasher at the Figaro, then made sandwiches and became the manager. I was there for about five years. I did other stuff--off-Broadway. I was a stage manager for a few things. [Editor's note: Cafe Figaro was a famous Village coffee shop on MacDougal and Bleecker Streets, which was open from the 1950's to the early aughts.]
I’m not that familiar with the San Remo. That’s where the grown ups went, the big boys, guys a couple of years older than me. They were harder drinkers longer than me and got prettier women than me, and things like that. I was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie. I was in that in-between Generation. [Editor's note: The San Remo was a mob-owned bar, also on Mcdougal and Bleecker that was colonized by intellectuals and writers.]
There was a woman who used to hang out there named Winnie.
DF: What was the story of Gregory Corso screwing her on the table at the San Remo?
AK: During hours, during some late night bacchannal. Winnie was very heavyset big and fat black woman, famous for having gotten on the 6th Avenue bus and the driver just drove her to Bellevue because she was completely naked. I remember walking into the Kettle of Fish. Winnie was sitting there and took a liking to me. She grabbed me around the waist and started to pull me towards her. “I’m going to take you home with me.” I saw this woman I knew, who was not my wife. I said, “Not now. I’ve got to go meet my wife.”
Winnie said, “I don’t fuck around with married men,” and let me go. Winnie was actually a lovely person when she was not whacked out of her head. She had a smooth complexion and a lovely singing voice.
DF: Did you drink at the Kettle of Fish?
AK: That was more where I drank than the San Remo. Before I got there, Maxwell Bodenheim drank there. A lot of the guys who drank at that bar worked as furniture movers.
DF: What was the vibe at the Kettle of Fish?
AK: Like at most bars, it was the booze. That’s what the Lion’s Head was like. It wasn’t about wit or literary accomplishment or even getting laid. It was more about booze. The Kettle was like that, a place to hang out. [Dermot McEvoy] calls it Hogan’s Moat.
I started at the Lion’s Head as a bartender for six years, then I was a 50 percent owner for the next 13.
[The Lion's Head] started on Hudson Street. It was owned by Leon Seidel. He took on Wes Joyce as a partner. Leon died. Wes was not a good businessman He had substance-abuse problems that were very expensive. Finally, the place was going to get shut down by the IRS or the state tax police, or something like that.
In 1971, I finally quit being a bartender. I was a month away from turning 40. If I was a bartender at 40, I would be one at 50 or 60. I became Wes’ half partner, then managing partner for 13 years.
It was going to cost me $15,000 for 50 percent. Bartenders in those days kept lots of money in their mattresses because they didn’t have the same tax problems you have now. Now the government mandates a certain amount be held in lieu of tips. In those days, you’d declare what you wanted. You’d lie about it.
Some local guy lent me $5000 with no vig. [The big is the interest on a street loan from a loan shark.] There were semi-hood guys we knew from the neighborhood. These were petty thieves and minor criminals…one I knew from Figaro was named Mark.
The lease was about to expire 1984 a Jewish mobster’s widow’s rent that was $1000. It was a 500 percent increase
DF: What was the environment like at the Lion’s Head?
AK: I was the first night bartender. We had a little U-shaped, copper-topped bar, with room for one man to turn around in.
We had a pretty empty bar. Very few people came around. The only customers we had that were notable were the Clancy Brothers. They were the first that hung out there.
There was this guy who would come in around midnight, have a few drinks and would leave. He turned out to be a rewrite man for the New York Post, Normand Poirier. One night he said, “I like this place.” Sure enough, Vic Zeigel started to show up, Larry Merchant and Pete Hamill, guys from the Daily News and from the Herald Tribune, like Jim Flanagan, Warren Berry and the Mancini twins. All these newspapermen started showing up, as well as the writer Dave Markson. The agent Knox Berger started coming in. That’s how this whole bunch of people started coming in. Mostly newspapermen, but sometimes David Markson would bring in people like Kurt Vonnegut or Bill Gaddis.
Somebody wanted their book jacket up on the wall, and that started the whole tradition of book jackets up on the wall. By the time I was the owner of the place, people I never saw in the place would come in with a book jacket for the wall. That’s what writers are like.
(Bartender Tommy Butler at the Lion's Head)
Like Freddie Exeley…whenever he was in town, he’d come to the Lion’s Head. He was a terrible drunk. Exeley came in when I was still a bartender. He turned out to be a virulent anti-Semite, and I happened to be Jewish. Freddie couldn’t hold his liquor. He was hostile to people at the bar and to me as the bartender. He said to me once, “Come outside and I’ll whip your skinny Jewish ass.” He was a good friend of Markson’s. [Markson was also Jewish.]
(Denis Duggan, Judy Joice, Pete Hamill, Frank McCourt at a 1996 Barnes and Noble celebration)
DF: Do you remember Anita Steckel and Alice Denham?
AK: You can’t forget Anita. I told Dave Markson that he’s more proud for Alice Denham saying he’s the best stud she ever knew than any of the books he wrote. Mailer came into the Lion’s Head a few times, but he was by no means a regular. There was a great fight…there was another bartender, Mike Riordon, a Boston boy like me[Reardon marries a Jewish woman…most handsome Jew in New York.]
One weekend night, Mike and I were behind the bar. There was this guy named John Culver, this senator from Iowa, came into the bar. Used to be a fullback at Harvard. He was in there and so was Joe Torres and Pete Hamill, and this visiting writer from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jack McKinney, and Joe Flaherty. These are a bunch of big beefy guys, not that Jose was Irish. For some reason, Culver and Flaherty were getting into a verbal head butting. It was turning into a real mix up, then it started being a punch up. Hamill was in it, Jose was in it. I knew it was serious because Jack McKinney was at the end of the bar. He took his false teeth out, put them on the bar and went to join the fight. Mike Reardon and I were standing behind the bar. We weren’t going to break the thing up. There were 2000-lbs. of beef there. Mike turned to me and said, “Who’s the big guy?” I said, “That’s Culver, the liberal senator from Iowa. Reardon said, “Liberal? What are the conservatives like out there?”
Like most bar fights, it just broke up. People realize, “I’m going to get hurt if this keeps up.” Most times, people are standing around laughing. That’s enough to break up a fight.
I would see guys, regular customers, come in to meet a woman at the bar. Their eyeballs would light up. To them, booze was more important than going home with a woman. Instead of just having another drink or two, and saying “Hey Honey, let’s go,” they’d want to hang out ‘til four in the morning. At that time, they’d be useless and the woman would be long gone. What you see at 2, 3 and 4 in the morning is really a phantasmagoria. People who start as Eagle Scouts go into a Jekyll and Hyde transformation.
DF: How do you think drinking has changed in America since the 1950s?
AK: A lot of the guys like Flaherty and Hamill, they knew they were going to die. That’s what happened to Normand Poirier. Normand became a real heavy drinker. Normand had been told, “Quit or die.” He didn’t quit, so he died.
DF: What was your view of the poet Joel Oppenheimer?
AK: He was a sad drunk, but everybody loved Joel. He became a very good friend of mine. He was a true alcoholic. He once had a headshrinker tell him, “You are not going to quit drinking, but every time you have a drink, write it down. He had this notebook. He used to drink Heaven Hill bourbon with a beer back, and he’d write it down. It didn’t cut down on his drinking. He finally went on the wagon.
One of the wittiest guys at the Lion’s Head was not a writer. His name was Jack Cullen, from Brooklyn. He worked at Todd Shipyards in Hoboken. One afternoon, a woman came into the bar and asked, “Is this the place that is frequented by writers with drinking problems?” Jack said, “No, ma’am, they are drinkers with writing problems.” This line, I’ll credit to me because it was me. We often had these blue-haired ladies come by from Westchester County who spoke with vaguely British accents.
“What type of clientele comes to your establishment?” she asked.
I looked down the bar and saw Liam Clancy, Tony Mancini and Joel Oppenheimer. You know the old clichés? The drunken Irishman, the Italian lover and the Jewish intellectual. I said, “Ma’am, It’s a strong ethnic mix. We have an Irish lover, an Italian intellectual and a Jewish drunk.”
DF: What was your view of the Clancy brothers?
AK: I never saw a church-going attitude among the Clancy Brothers. Paddy was the best of the Clancy’s, in terms of getting along with people. Tommy could be truculent. Liam made some anti-Zionist comments. I almost got into a fight with Liam when I asked, “Which side were the Irish on during World War II?”
DF: Did you know Frank McCourt?
DF: What was the reputation of the bar Romero’s?
AK: A white woman could walk in there with a black guy.
There is a great line about Johnny Romero, who was quite spiffy and had a haughty attitude, and spoke with a cultured accent. There was a black writer who hung out there, Eli Waldron. One day, Johnny walks into his own place and Waldron was there. Somebody looks up and says, “My Johnny, don’t we look continental?” Waldron said, “And we know what continent that is.”
Romero’s was one of those lower-depths places. Next door to the Lion’s Head was the 55. The 55 was truly like something from Shanghai in the 1920s. They had one or two deaths there of methadone overdoses. You’d see all kinds of crazy things happening in the 55. It was the counterpoint to the Lion’s Head, which was a genteel, middle-class, mostly white place. The 55 was the lower depths.
DF: What was Anita Steckel’s place at the bar?
AK: Anita was a pain in the ass. She was loud and flamboyant.
The Lion’s Head was a male chauvinistic place. If a woman went there, they were there to get laid. There were very few women who…
Guys would stand around, and drink and laugh and argue. Women were really supposed to sit primly by and wait for the guy to say, “Okay, let’s go.” It was pretty male chauvinistic. I thought of hiring a woman or a black guy for behind the bar…it wasn’t a good idea.
The bar was not specifically racist. Amiri Baraka would stop by.
[run in with LeRoi Jones…playing ball at the hardtop at Horatio and Hudson Street. Lion’s Head team used to play against the poet-painter-hippie guys. LeRoi was a good ball player…he dove on `the asphalt…he wouldn’t talk to me for months.]
The same with Dermot McEvoy. I said this to Dermot. You sat around all these years, sipping your Guinness and not saying a word. What you were doing, you were not supposed to be doing in a bar. You were thinking. You were drinking it all in.
DF: What keeps a great bar going all these years, a 30-year run?
AK: The myth among bars is that it is the bartender. You see that movie with Tom Cruise, with bartenders doing their shtick? Nah. You could have robots tending bar. It’s the people. You’re there to serve them drinks and to collect the tips. If they’re regular customers, you buy ‘em back a drink and they’ll feel good. We had perhaps the most welcome guy…there was a pilot for Aer Lingus. Dick Quinn was his name. Everybody loved him. He’d play the penny whistle or strum on a guitar. What was great about the place was the mixture of various types. The brits had a word for it, fug. A good pub has a fug going. Often at night in the Lion’s head, you could feel that going. People were standing around and there was a rosy glow. I remember one night, an impromptu singalong started. It was Dick Quinn playing the penny whistle, Liam Clancy playing his guitar and Dave Amram was playing his horn. Then this kid Jerry Rosen, who played violin for the Detroit Symphony, took out his fiddle. You had Irish folksingers, a jazz musician and a symphony fiddle player all doing Irish songs.
DF: Could you tell me about the longshoreman, novelist and political operative Joe Flaherty?
DF: Were you involved in Norman Mailer’s mayoral campaign?
Ed Koch didn’t drink. The Village Independent Democrats were cheap…14 people sitting around and all of them wanting separate check. They were a waitress’s nightmare.
DF: Can you think of any other drinkers at the Lion’s Head?
AK: Wilfred Sheed. He wrote some great criticism. He had a wife who was Southern trash, who thought she was uppercrust. There was also Tom Paxton.