Kathryn Romeyn | May 1, 2017
Indeed, the trap doors and secret stairs that were essential during Prohibition are still present, and there is still no sign, even in its newly polished iteration. In those years, says DiPaola, Ring Lardner Jr. was the most famous of the writers who worked out of Chumley’s (his father was a presence during its speakeasy beginnings). “At the time of the blacklisting, Ring Jr. had already received an Academy Award for writing Women of the Year in 1943—he won an Academy Award while blacklisted, but it was under a pseudonym,” says DiPaola, adding that he later got his due screen credit for writing 1965’s The Cincinnati Kid. Other regulars included Hollywood Ten-er John Howard Lawson, Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett and John Dos Passos.
Even more than Hollywood types, Chumley’s was full of beer-drinking literary giants: Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, Allen Ginsberg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Faulkner, E.E. Cummings, John Steinbeck, William S. Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Anais Nin. The list goes on, says DiPaola: “All the great writers of 20th century American literature came through Chumley’s at one time or another. No one came to eat here, they all came to drink. There were a couple bottles of liquor on hand, but beer was always the drink of choice.”
Today, these icons’ spirits are kept alive by plenty of memorabilia lining the walls, which has been remounted and rehung with DiPaola’s help. In their era, owner Leland Chumley was in the habit of collecting the jacket of a writer’s book on their second visit but he made an exception for Olympian Eddie Eagan, whose Fighting for Fun made it onto the wall his very first time. A photo of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, on their wedding day hangs over their favorite corner booth, number 26.
Another fun fact: Chumley’s is where the term 86-ed came from. There were originally two doors, the back being 86 Bedford Street. One version is that bartenders during Prohibition would yell 86 when it was time to scram before the police entered. The alternate story: it was the way they’d identify an unruly guest who needed to be escorted out the back.
Indeed, things weren’t always peaceful—in 1960, freelance writer Clinton Curtis was killed in a brawl over a chess game—but the mood was generally light. Upon its 2007 closure, one patron recalled an evening when Pete Hamill and Stephen Lang read writer Damon Runyon’s stories aloud as the crowd “wept with laughter,” while another remembered Groucho Marx performing in the courtyard outside (his daughter lived there). And in the later years of its first act, actor Andrew McCarthy spent several days a week sitting at the bar in the early evening doing the New York Post jumble, and shouting answers at the television as Jeopardy played. Everybody’s favorite legend, Bill Murray, is rumored to have spent his fair share of evenings at Chumley’s, too. He’s in good company.