On July 4, 1804, after dining and celebrating at Fraunces Tavern as part of the annual meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton spent the rest of the night at Table 112, which sits at the back left-corner of the restaurant, next to the fireplace. What they talked about is unknown. One week later, on July 11, Burr shot and killed Hamilton in a Weehawken, New Jersey, duel. This is also the table where Herman Melville used to sit half a century later; legend has it that he wrote both “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Billy Budd” here, as well as numerous unmailed letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne. If you know where to look, you can still see carved into the right-hand corner of the table the initials HM, which are just below the faint remains of Aaron Burr’s distinctively cursive initials.
The Sidesaddle Booth, Booth 120, is the ten-top against the back wall, over which hangs a framed photograph taken at the booth in 1929 by Walter Beech, whose Beech Aircraft Company sponsored the First Annual Transcontinental Womens’ Air Competition -- better known as the Sidesaddle Derby, the nickname aviator Wiley Post gave it. The picture shows all ten women who flew the two-week race from Santa Monica, California, to Princeton, New Jersey: Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Edith Foltz, Bobbi Trout, Blanche Noyes, Mary von Mach, Ruth Elder, Vera Dawn Walker, Louise Thaden, and Marvel “Mary Marvel” Manning, whose Lockheed Vega disappeared into a cloud bank over Pennsylvania on the last day of the race and was never seen again. The nine survivors gathered at Booth 120 every year on the anniversary of the race, until the last survivor, Blanche Noyes, died in 1981.
While Washington Irving always claimed that his 1819 story "Rip Van Winkle" was written while he was in Birmingham, England, the truth is, it was actually drafted after an April 30, 1815 dinner at Booth 118 in which Irving listened to itinerant fiddler Edmund Shapinsay tell the story of how he heard music coming from a low hill in what is now Central Park, and after entering a small door in the hill, came upon a group of trowes throwing a party. After drinking their ale, smoking their pipe-weed, and playing his fiddle for them, Shapinsay emerged from the hill the next morning to discover that fifty years had passed, even though he was barely five hours older. He offered to show Irving the location of the hill, but a day-long search failed to find it, and Irving wrote off Shapinsay as a delusionary drunkard even as he wrote the first draft of what would become his most famous story. As for Shapinsay, he soon found out that, whenever he was asked to confirm his wild story, he could only find Trowes Hill when he was alone. Three months later he disappeared, and was not seen again until April 30, 1846, when a young man meeting his description staggered into the Knotty Pine and asked what year it was. Since then, they say, Shapinsay has reappeared every 40 or 50 years to sit at Booth 118 and share a light-brown meerschaum pipe of curiously strong tobacco with whoever will buy him a drink, most notably the actor Joseph Jefferson in 1896, who made a career of playing Rip Van Winkle on the 19th Century stage. The details of their meeting can be had from singer/songwriter Edmund Shay, one of the current regulars at the downstairs bar, who claims to be Shapinsay’s great-great-grandson and will regale anyone with tales of his ancestor for a free drink while he puffs on a deep brown meerschaum filled with curiously strong tobacco.
The Mona Lisa Booth (Booth 108) got its name thanks to one of the great art thefts of modern times. After stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre on August 21, 1911, Vincenzo Perugia painted several copies of da Vinci’s masterpiece and sold them to help finance a round-the-world voyage. In December of 1911, he arrived in New York, made the acquaintance of some Italian-Americans who took him out to dinner at the Knotty Pine, and got so drunk that he passed out. When he awoke, he found himself sitting at Table 108 with his money and watch stolen, and the bill due. Having nothing but the clothes on his back and his painting portfolio, Perugia gave the bartender one of his Mona Lisas as payment. Unfortunately, he was still so inebriated that he handed over the original instead of a copy. It is doubtful whether Perugia ever realized this; certainly he never mentioned it when he was arrested in 1913 for trying to sell what he thought was the original to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, for $100,000. But even if he had mentioned it, it is doubtful whether the Italian or even the French authorities would have made the admission public. In any case, it is da Vinci’s original which now sits in a battered frame on the wall in Booth 108. It was only put under glass in 1915, after Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache on it.
Tomorrow: a history by tabletops (part 3).