Established in 1884 and bought in l904 by Patrick “Paddy” Joseph Clarke, this Irish saloon in a beautiful Victorian building on the corner of Third Avenue and Fifty-Fifth Street has captivated generations of New Yorkers—from the working class to entertainers, athletes, business executives, and members of high society. Here, finally, is the story of this famed saloon. Learn more about the bar where:
- Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman announced their impending nuptials to an astonished crowd
- Johnny Mercer penned “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” on a napkin while sitting at the bar
- Frank Sinatra was the “owner” of table twenty
Over P. J. Clarke’s Bar is at once a nostalgic look back at one of New York City’s most famous landmark saloons (in an age when they are quickly disappearing) and an eloquent memoir by the former owner’s grandniece, which details in sharp relief the excitement of days gone by—when as a young girl she entered through the “ladies” entrance and watched bartenders handing buckets of beer to thirsty customers on the sidewalk through the “to go” window.
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About the Author
Bar in New York City. Her father and his brothers were brought up in an apartment beside Paddy Clarke’s own apartment above the bar, and the saloon forms an intrinsic part of her family history. Clarke has a doctorate in humanities from the University of Texas and teaches writing and literature in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Read an Excerpt
Through The Ladies' Entrance
IT WAS A MILD DAY IN OCTOBER 2011 WHEN I APPROACHED THE East 55th Street entrance of P. J. Clarke's, known as the "ladies' entrance" in a prior era. I was in Manhattan for my high school reunion at Dominican Academy on East 68th Street, as well as for a video interview about my granduncle, Patrick Joseph Clarke, and his saloon.
Paddy Clarke was an Irish immigrant from the town of Cloonlaughil in County Leitrim who arrived in New York in 1902, at age twenty-three. According to my Uncle Joe Clarke, he worked at the 19th-century saloon, originally designed by beer baron George Ehret, and saved enough money to buy the place in l912 from the owner at the time, a Mr. Jennings. Uncle Paddy may have received financial help from a local brewer in exchange for offering a particular brand of beer — many saloon owners sought this kind of assistance. However, there is no doubt that Paddy was a careful, thrifty man, and this allowed him to purchase a business at a time when incomes were very low.
As I opened the dark oak door on 55th Street, many memories returned to me — stretching from the 1940s all the way to the 1970s, when my husband John Molanphy worked here.
In 1943, my heart would beat fast in my five-year-old body when my father approached the side door to the saloon next to the shoeshine stand on 55th Street that had operated since the l920s. Beyond the stand, where men got their nickel's worth of polishing, were the two steel cellar doors for delivery of liquor and food. In l902, when Uncle Paddy first worked at the saloon, there were many shops along 3rd Avenue as well as plenty of other saloons, breweries such as Peter Doelger's, and even slaughterhouses. Hundreds of immigrants lived in the neighborhood, and they all liked drinking together and telling stories.
I found it exciting and mysterious to come to this place where my granduncle Paddy reigned. In those days it was the custom for the children in Irish families to accompany the adults to a saloon. Because of Uncle Paddy's rule against women entering and sitting at the main bar, my parents, my maternal grandmother, and I always used this side door on 55th Street — the "ladies' entrance."
Uncle Paddy had a reason for his strict rule about where females could enter and sit — he didn't want his saloon to be a hangout for local prostitutes. He wasn't alone in providing a special space for couples; unaccompanied women were not welcome in many saloons of that period. In fact, in the early 1900s, many New York women would not enter a saloon for fear of being labeled a prostitute, because some enterprising Manhattan saloons provided a back room for streetwalkers to meet customers.
Later I learned that this male-only custom at various bars in New York, such as McSorley's, originated in Ireland. Irish fathers liked to take their sons to a bar for their first drink — a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. In a country dominated by the English, drinking became a symbol of "Irishness" and masculinity. Uncle Paddy's "no women at the bar" rule was simply reflective of the culture at the time. In Ireland these ladies' entrances that led to anterooms for women only were known as "snugs."
This rule at P. J. Clarke's lasted longer than it did at other saloons, but it was changed in the l960s when several women appeared one day and stood in protest at the front bar. During my visit in October 2011, it was clear that even the saloon workforce had become integrated — there were women hostesses, as well as several barmaids and waitresses.
When I was a child, however, the gender restriction was quite clear, so I would skip through the ladies' entrance and run up to Uncle Paddy, standing by the bar, welcoming me with his broad grin. I liked older people, especially when they smiled as much as Uncle Paddy did. I felt happy in his saloon.
Moving inside, the darkness of the saloon surrounded us, but Uncle Paddy's brilliant white hair always seemed to brighten the place. After Uncle Paddy greeted us, whoever was behind the bar that day would wave to me. The bartenders were usually burly men with accents that I came to know as Irish — a brogue, my dad told me. Other men holding glasses of alcohol in front of them stood at the mahogany bar with their feet on the brass rail, and they turned toward us with curiosity. The smell of beer hung in the air.
As soon as we arrived, Uncle Paddy dropped a quarter in the jukebox, and the Irish songs began. Then he took our orders — usually ham and cheese sandwiches on rye bread, Manhattan cocktails for the three adults, and a Coke for me. Today P. J. Clarke's has a much more diverse menu that has grown and developed over the years, but still retains that wholesome, down-to-earth favor.
I remember one particular occasion when, feeling restless after we had finished our lunch, I sidled up to my granduncle.
"Uncle Paddy, do you think you could walk with me into the big bar?" I was fascinated by this area that was off-limits to girls.
Uncle Paddy threw his head back and laughed. "Sure, Marie, let's go."
Strolling into the front bar, holding my granduncle's hand, I examined the huge beveled-glass mirror at the back of the bar. Then I caught sight of two fags — one was American and the other, which I knew to be Irish, had green, orange, and white stripes. Hanging beside the fags were framed photographs of three smartly dressed men.
"Look at them, Marie. That's Robert Emmet on the left, Michael Collins next to him, famous Irishmen. And you know who the third one is on the right."
"Abraham Lincoln," I said proudly. "And what's that fourth picture with all the writing on it?" Uncle Paddy chuckled.
"That's the Proclamation of Independence from the l9l6 Easter Rising in Ireland."
This was a foreign piece of information. That day Uncle Paddy discovered that my Irish American family had not passed on much of the Irish heritage. He may have already mourned the fact that we did not bake soda bread or learn step dancing — and certainly it was a disappointment that we did not know a great deal about Irish history.
Uncle Paddy was showing his support of the Irish nationalists by hanging the Proclamation of Independence over the bar. The year l916 was a turbulent one at home in Ireland due to an Easter Monday rebellion against Britain led by Padraic Pearse, James Connolly, Constance Markiewicz, and many others. But when the British made martyrs out of fifteen leaders, shooting them in Kilmainham Jail without a trial — one of them, James Connolly, wounded and with gangrene, tied to a chair — they set off a strong reaction among the Irish at home who had at first opposed the Easter uprising.
The British executions also horrified Irish immigrants like my uncle who were the most vociferous anti-English voices. The 1916 Irish leader Padraic Pearse once said that without the support of Ireland's "exiled children in America," the Easter Rising could not have taken place, nor the continuation of the rebellion afterwards. Having left their colonized island, these immigrants tended to blame any problem they had on English rule, for they were acutely conscious that the Irish had not gained the same freedom as the Americans who had fought and won their independence from Britain.
Their nationalist efforts also provided the new Irish immigrants with excellent experience in building voluntary associations and writing newspaper editorials and articles. The cause of Irish nationhood bound them together. While Uncle Paddy and my grandparents had lost the solidarity of village life when they emigrated, Irish nationalism became a substitute in their fraternal societies, their newspapers, their lodges, and especially their saloons.
Admiring Michael Collins, a hero of the nationalist movement, Uncle Paddy hung Collins's picture over the mahogany bar, and, later, a second photograph of Collins in the ladies'-entrance area. Many Irish shared my granduncle's admiration for Collins, even though Collins was the leader who signed the ignominious 1921 treaty with the British that divided the island into two parts and retained the Irish oath to the English king. Collins was assassinated by the opponents of this treaty, the Irish Republican Army — a death he had predicted when he accepted the British terms. He always explained his signature on the treaty by saying that he did not want any more Irish dying in a war against the British Empire. An ardent opponent of the British, Collins feared a new British invasion threatened by Winston Churchill if the treaty was not signed.
Not far from these framed pictures was a black-and-white photo of Uncle Paddy. In it he was a young man and had dark hair instead of his familiar white mane. He was dressed in a black jacket with a carnation in his lapel, with his black hair parted down the middle and his ruddy face clean-shaven. Under the jacket he wore a starched white shirt and a black tie over black trousers.
"That picture was taken to advertise my bar in the First Avenue Boys Club News," he explained.
After gaining ownership of the bar, Uncle Paddy made other changes besides hanging Irish pictures on the walls. He had the now famous "clarke's" painted in gold letters on the front window facing 3rd Avenue, and during the years of his ownership, the bar was known simply by that name. After Paddy's death, the new owners purchased the use of the name, but the bar became known as P. J. Clarke's, as it is today, though many people refer to the place simply as P. J.'s. Uncle Paddy also changed the white tablecloths, favored by the former owner Mr. Jennings, to the red-and-white checkered ones, similar to those that today cover the old wooden tables in the anteroom and in the 55th Street addition to the saloon.
On my visit to P. J. Clarke's in 2011, I stood at the far end of the bar — it still seemed like foreign territory to me, but I was able to observe the same features that I had noticed as a little girl of five or six. After Uncle Paddy had walked me by the forbidden bar, I felt comfortable repeating the event. When I would get bored with the adult conversation at the table, I would slip off my chair and take a walk by the bar, sliding my black patent-leather shoes along the small, white, octagonal tiles, edged occasionally with black tiles of a Greco-Roman design. I would finish sliding with a flourish and look up at the twenty-foot ceiling, extending through the bar and the front room, made of interlocking tin squares with a floral design stamped onto them. I could see brown spots on the ceiling, which I later learned were caused by tobacco smoke. Moving to the wall, I would run my hand up and down the dark mahogany paneling that stretched three-quarters up the walls.
Many times when I wandered the saloon, the saloon's old dog, Jesse, came running toward me and slipped a little on the sawdust covering the tile floor to absorb spills.
"Good dog, good dog," I told him as I petted him and watched him scamper away.
Now I looked up to see old Jesse stuffed and still at his post over the telephone booth.
On one visit, I became curious about a small window at the end of the bar that overlooked the street.
"What is this window for, Uncle Paddy?"
"That's where people could buy a bucket of beer and take it home to drink in peace," Uncle Paddy said. "The buckets full of beer were handed out through the window to people who ordered from the sidewalk. That way women could pick up the beer for their husbands' suppers. This was before you could buy beer in bottles."
I shook my head, thinking it a very peculiar window. Later I learned that the buckets were called growlers and cost $.25, a charge that even my father's family had to pay.
As a historian, I remembered this conversation with Uncle Paddy and grew curious to learn more about this Irish cultural love of drink. Obviously, immigrants of all ethnicities drank for many reasons — depression, loneliness, homesickness — but historians record that Irish immigrants had additional reasons. They used alcohol to bond together and to show their national and Catholic identity, which helped produce the stereotype of the happy Irish drunk portrayed on Broadway. For some Irish-Americans, drinking at a bar was a way of never forgetting where they came from; these saloons played the additional role of being a clearing house for news and gossip and were a source of contacts, jobs, and loans. At Clarke's, as at other saloons, laborers, lacking money and leisure time, were the steady customers in the evenings.
The Irish bars in New York numbered around 10,000 in l900 and were usually located on the ground floor of tenement buildings or close to factories and businesses. When Mr. Jennings, the previous owner of Clarke's, purchased the location at 55th Street and 3rd Avenue, he did so because it was on the 3rd Avenue Elevated line where workingmen arrived after their days were finished. This location continued to be a drawing card for Uncle Paddy, but it did not completely explain his success. Some saloons were more popular than others. My father, John, Uncle Paddy's eldest nephew, once explained to me what he thought made Clarke's bar so successful.
"Marie, the saloons that stayed in business had good, quality food and drink and a welcoming saloonkeeper. Many saloons up and down 3rd Avenue set out a free lunch, a spread of saltines, cheeses, salamis, pickles, hard-boiled eggs, and breads. The saltier the food was, the more drink the customers would order." My dad laughed.
"Paddy made a success of his place. He had the time to concentrate on his customers because he was not married. The business was his whole life, and he was always there. None of us ever remember him leaving the place — not even to go to his home in Port Washington on Long Island. That house was just an investment for him."
Bachelorhood was another Irish tradition. At the end of the 19th century, Ireland had more unmarried people and more late marriages than any other country in Europe. Thirty percent of Irish men and 23 percent of Irish women never married. The memory of the 1840s famine, migration, and the Catholic Church's laws on birth control and divorce, along with longstanding Irish poverty, all factored into this late-marriage phenomenon. In addition, older Irish parents expected one unmarried child to stay at home and take care of them.
Uncle Paddy kept up this bachelor tradition in America, and there are no family stories of his having any lady friends. He was so thoroughly married to his business that he had his own living quarters upstairs over the saloon. I laughed when I heard that W. C. Fields, comedian, film star, and famous drinker, once said, "If I had to live my life over, I'd live over a saloon."
Paddy Clarke came down early in the morning to get the bar set up for the day and then stayed very late at night until the last customer left. As a nine- or ten-year-old, I remember my grand-uncle giving off an air of authority, standing behind the bar, keeping a safe distance from the happenings around him. He had to be somewhat detached, like a doctor or a counselor, or else he could not have pursued that line of work, which required him to listen to sad tales spun out by people who were not always sober.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Over P. J. Clarke's Bar"
Copyright © 2012 Helen Marie Clarkes.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Through the Ladies' Entrance 01
Chapter 2 The Second-Floor Flat Over P. J.'s 21
Chapter 3 City on a Still 45
Chapter 4 New Beer Day 63
Chapter 5 New York's Finest 77
Chapter 6 The Little Bar That Could 91
Chapter 7 Lost Weekend 113
Chapter 8 Birds' Eye View 123
Chapter 9 Return to Clarke's Bar 143
Chapter 10 The Little Bar That Still Could 157
Author Biography 173
A New York History Viewing List 175