Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Naughty Pine: A History by Tabletops 1

On June 20, 1790, after dinner with Thomas Jefferson at his Maiden Lane house, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison joined Jefferson and Aaron Burr at Booth 102 for a long night of drinking, during which the four men changed the course of American history. In return for designating a swampy stretch of Virginia land as the capital city of the newly Constitutionalized United States, Jefferson and Madison agreed that the Federal Government would assume all state-held debt from the Revolutionary War up to and including the years of the Confederation. At this same table, less than seventy years later, John Brown received funding for the raid on Harper’s Ferry from his secret East Coast abolitionist backers.

In 1938, Robert Johnson stopped off for a drink at Table 101 by the window and scribbled a postcard to his friend LeRoy “Bonebucket” Jones. Less than a year later, Johnson had been poisoned by a jealous husband and Jones had moved to New York from Memphis and could be found sitting at the same Table 101, with a plate of ribs on one side and a bucket of bones on the other, singing for his supper three nights a week from dusk till closing. During that time, Jones composed his most famous blues number, “If I Were You, We’d Both Be Miserable,” which was rewritten by Arthur Freed as “If I Were You” and sung by Gene Kelly in the MGM musical Blythe and Bonnie; and later covered by the Rolling Stones (and attributed to “Traditional”) as “Misery Blues”.

Booth 105 was Tom Paine’s table, and the wall over the table had a portrait of him until it was replaced by the famous Anheuser-Busch painting of Custer’s Last Stand. In 1884, while visiting New York as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Sitting Bull ate a plate of clam chowder at this table, which he chose specifically because of the Little Big Horn painting. He is said to have pointed out that Long Hair Custer was actually short-haired during the battle, a fact which no one at the time believed.

Booth 106 was the regular table of Evelyn Nesbit -- it's where she was introduced to Charles Dana Gibson, who used her as the model for his famous Gibson Girl drawings; it's where she met the young John Barrymore, who became her lover and got her pregnant twice (once in the booth itself and once in his apartment); it's where she was introduced to architect Stanford White by fellow Floradora Girl Edna Goodrich; and it's where she met her future husband Harry Thaw, who murdered White at Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906. In the booth there's still a photo of Nesbit from her Gibson Girl days, but there used to be a much more interesting photo in its place, a shot of Nesbit with Joan Collins which was taken when the two of them had dinner in Booth 106 in 1954 just before Collins started filming The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing, the story of Nesbit's affair with White. The framed photo disappeared one night in 1965 after Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick closed the bar. Each accused the other of stealing it, but it was never found in either Segwick's effects after her death in 1971 or Warhols's effects in 1987.

Booth 107 is doubly famous. In 1873, 14-year-old Henry McCarty (also known as Henry Antrim, William H. Bonney, and Billy the Kid) got into an argument with an old barfly named Septimus Kane, during which he stuck a knife in Kane’s neck, killing him instantly. This murder has long been cited as the reason why he and his mother moved to Silver City, New Mexico, three days after the killing. Forty-three years later, on October 26, 1916, Margaret Sanger was eating beef stew and drinking a cup of tea at Booth 107 when she was arrested for obscenity by the New York police. Ten days before, she had opened a birth control clinic in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, which was raided by the police on October 25th. Sanger served 30 days in jail, and the first thing she did when she was released was return to the Knotty Pine to finish her interrupted meal. For the rest of her life (she died in 1966) her dinner checks were picked up by Mary Alice Whitehead, a former suffragette and co-owner of the Knotty Pine; and after her, her son Stanton, who took over sole ownership of the bar when Mary Alice disappeared in 1954. There is currently a picture of Sanger hanging in Booth 107, and it is a constant source of sad amusement to the female staff that almost everyone who sees it (including, alas, most women) believe that it's a portrait of the current owner’s grandmother.

Tomorrow: a history by tabletops (part 2).

No comments: