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The Hell Hole at West 4th Street and 6th Avenue

LARRY SLADE: “What’s it matter if the truth is that their favoring breeze has the stink of nickel whiskey on its breath, and their sea is a growler of lager and ale, and their ships are long since looted and scuttled and sunk on the bottom?” The Iceman Cometh

It was the late 1800s, and the West Village was wild. Gangs like the Marginals and the Hudson Dusters fought turf wars over Christopher Street, while river pirates like Sadie the Goat and the Daybreak Boys prowled the Hudson. Dive bars lined Bleecker Street, including The Black and Tan, which catered to African-Americans, and the Slide and the Golden Rule Pleasure Club, New York’s earliest gay bars.

It was here that Thomas Wallace, a former prizefighter and member of the Hudson Dusters, retired from a life of black eyes and bloody fists to open a saloon on the corner of West 4th Street and 6th Avenue. Wallace hired two bruisers, John Bull and Lefty Louie, as bouncers. His brother George to tend bar, and a passel of hogs in the basement tended to the garbage. The bar opened at 6 a.m. and ran until 2 a.m. the next night, but old Tom was so permissive that he essentially stayed open 24 hours a day. He called it the Golden Swan, but regulars called it the Bucket of Blood or the Hell Hole.

Robert Bracklow Photo

Exterior View of the Golden Swan Cafe, Robert Bracklow (1900)

The Hell Hole had two entrances. Men entered the “front room” at the corner under a tarnished golden sign in the shape of a swan. The dingy front room reeked of sawdust and spilled beer, with only a few racing prints and nude tin-types to liven up the gloom. More timid souls used the “family” or “women’s” entrance on West 4th. The backroom room was quiet and gaslit, a place where, according to painter Charles Demuth, “respectable Irish widows came to cry into their five-cent mugs of beer.” Wallace must have had a soft spot for these types. Every night for twenty years, one Widow McCarthy came in asking for a pint of ale, and every night for twenty years, Wallace poured her a full gallon free of charge.

Charles Demuth at the golden swan

At the Golden Swan, Charles Demuth (1919) – Demuth is seated with his back turned. The man next to him is allegedly Marcel Duchamp.

In the early 1900s, the Hell-Hole became, according to painter John Sloan, “a gathering place for artists, writers, and bohemians of Greenwich Village.” Sloan would know. As a member of the Ashcan School, the dives and gin mills of New York were constant sources of inspiration. His studio was directly across the street, and he’d often repair to the Hell Hole for a pint, where he made the etching below. Journalist Mary Vorse found it “at once alive and deadly sinister…as if the combined soul of New York flowed underground and this was one of its vents.” In her 1917 guide to Greenwich Village, Anna Alice Chapin more charitably recalled how “many a happy small-hours party has brought up there to top off the night in peace without having to keep an eye on the clock.”

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Hell Hole, John Sloan (1917) – Euguene O’Neill is the mustachioed man in the top right corner.

PHOTO-Eugene-ONeillPerhaps the most famous artist to drain a pint here was Eugene O’Neill. Long before he was earning accolades with Desire Under the Elms and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, O’Neill was nursing a broken heart and drinking himself to death here in 1915. On bad nights, he could be found muttering to himself, chin resting on his chest, drinking until he passed out at one of the tables and was dragged to the three-dollar-a-month apartments on the upper floors. In gayer moments, he’d swap stories with Dorothy Day, still several years away from founding the Catholic Worker, or recite Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” from memory, emphasizing “And now my heart is as a broken fount/Wherein tear-drippings stagnate…”

The Hell Hole could be a rough spot for the likes of O’Neill, but a charitable one, too. One cold night, he came into the bar without an overcoat and bumped into a crew of grim-looking Hudson Dusters. One of the Dusters approached the shivering playwright and, to O’Neill’s surprise, asked for his coat size and favorite color: evidently, he was offering to run out for O’Neill and steal a new one.

The Hell Hole closed shortly after Wallace died in 1922 – Prohibition had broken his spirit – but Eugene O’Neill went on to great acclaim. He debuted his masterpiece, The Iceman Cometh, in 1946. The setting, a gloomy saloon full of dead-end drunkards, was drawn directly from his memories of the Hell-Hole, and poor Thomas Wallace was the basis for proprietor Harry Hope.

As for the actual saloon, the city demolished it in 1928 to make way for 6th Avenue subway construction. Today, it’s an official New York pocket park called the Golden Swan Park. I suppose the Hell Hole Park was too much to hope for.

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