Saturday, September 23, 2017

Pfaff’s

New York City, 
1866 

The vault at Pfaffs where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse 
While on the walk immediately overhead pass the myriad feet of Broadway…                
—Walt Whitman


Walt Whitman went to Pfaff’s almost every night between 1858 and 1862 when working on the early editions of Leaves of Grass.2 On some occasions, he would read one of his latest poems to the other writers and artists who regularly assembled in this underground beer hall. The free-spirited and unconventional group was brought together by Henry Clapp, editor of the Saturday Press and a champion of Whitman’s work. Other habitués included actor Edwin Booth, painter Elihu Vedder, psychedelic drug pioneer Fitz Hugh Ludlow, cartoonist Thomas Nast, and humorist Artemus Ward, now regarded as America’s first stand-up comedian. And since Pfaff’s was one of the few saloons that welcomed women, Clapp’s coterie was diverse for its time. Writer Ada Clare was a charter member of this artistic clique as was Adah Isaacs Menken whose “naked lady” routine made her the highest earning actress of the era. Given the importance of Pfaff’s, I was thrilled when a menu recently came to light. My first impression was how different it looked from those that previously catered to the city’s literati. This was truly a German menu, reflecting the arrival of new attitudes and foods from Europe. Interestingly, it marked a pivotal moment in our creative past.