NEW YORK

Exploring the Marvelous Manhattan of ‘Mrs. Maisel’

The TV show’s downtown eye-candy is rich with New York City history

by

In Greenwich Village, Manhattan’s near-perfect grid relaxes into slanted streets and crooked walkways. The buildings in this part of town are shorter, void of skyscrapers, offering visitors a feeling of expansiveness. When Abe Weissman, protagonist Midge Maisel’s father on the popular TV series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, exclaimed in the Season 3 finale that he had just gotten a job at the Village Voice, one couldn’t help but think, “How fitting.” As someone longing to make a mark on the world, what better place for Abe to go at that time, 1960, than the Village? That small slice of New York City has proven through the years that it isn’t just a destination but also a mindset.

The borders of Greenwich Village are often disputed (a Village Voice guide map from 1956 plots it roughly from 15th Street down to Houston, and from West Street to Second Avenue—let the arguments begin), and the area has had quite the evolution over its history. In the 1600s, the isolated hamlet was the home of Lenape Native Americans. In the middle of the 18th century, the land was idyllic countryside where a wealthy admiral set up his country estate. Nowadays, when one thinks of the Village, counterculture and activism might first come to mind. Café Society, which opened in 1938 on Sheridan Square, was the country’s first racially integrated nightclub—Billie Holiday inaugurated her version of “Strange Fruit” there, in 1939. Washington Square Park has been a hub for many progressive social actions, as portrayed in the first season of Mrs. Maisel when Midge, played by Rachel Brosnahan, joins a rally there in the late 1950s to oppose a proposed roadway expansion through the park. In 1969, the Stonewall riots took place at the Stonewall Inn, on Christopher Street, sparking the gay rights movement. “Many radical changes in our society started in the Village,” says Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, which advocates for landmark and zoning protections in the Village and adjoining neighborhoods. Poet and feminist activist Edna St. Vincent Millay resided at 75½ Bedford Street, and author and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois taught the very first university-level African American history and culture class at the Village’s New School for Social Research. For more than 100 years, individuals akin to the fictional Abe journeyed to the Village because they wanted to make a change.

Viewers of Mrs. Maisel know that Abe isn’t the only one going through a personal renaissance. The issues dealt with on the show are not new to the screen: sexism, racism, people seeking to rearrange their roles in family and society. Midge’s mother, Rose, rejects her trust fund because of her family’s refusal to allow her, or women in general, on the company board (though she did ask for more money first). And Midge is not only cultivating her newly discovered talent and independence through stand-up comedy, she is also broadening her worldview along the way. Gone are the days of impressing people with casseroles—Midge learns swiftly that there is a world beyond her perfectly appointed Upper West Side apartment. Viewers see just how sheltered Midge’s life has been when she goes on tour with Black singer Shy Baldwin and is naively surprised that he cannot stay in the same hotel as her because of his race. In the words of comedy provocateur Lenny Bruce, depicted by Luke Kirby, who becomes a friend and mentor, Midge must ask herself, “Do you think you can go back to making jello molds?”

But one cannot talk about Mrs. Maisel without mentioning the backdrops. (Season 4 of the TV series starts on February 18.) The sets are designed by Bill Groom, who was also responsible for the set design in the award-winning Boardwalk Empire. Groom was an art major in college, and compares designing a set to sculpting. “We have to think about what goes on behind on-screen and off-screen,” he says. “You can either create a sculpture by building up with small pieces of clay to get to what you want, or you can start with a big block and chip away. We do both.” Groom’s creations for Mrs. Maisel include a dazzling Borscht Belt resort, the resurrection of the now-defunct B. Altman, and an evocative capture of the Village. Speaking of which—if you find that the visuals of the Village haven’t changed too dramatically over the decades, you are not alone. Walk down to a former Village Voice office at 22 Greenwich Avenue and you’ll notice that it looks almost exactly the same as it did, say, 60 or so years ago. This is because many of the Village’s buildings are landmarked. For instance, the Asch Building, the location of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, was refurbished, but the facade looks very much like it did in the early 1900s; it is now known as the Brown Building, part of the New York University campus. There is a long list of addresses, once homes to the likes of James Baldwin (81 Horatio Street), John Lennon (105 Bank Street), and Bella Abzug (37 Bank Street), that have been protected from becoming shiny glass condos. A quick search on Village Preservation’s website shows that over 2,200 buildings make up the Village’s landmarked historic district. “Landmarking keeps the architectural fabric intact,” says Berman, “while also offering a doorway into the past.”

Much of the architecture might look the way it did in years prior, but, sadly, the Village’s real estate has not remained as constant. The costs of living in the Village continue to rise; Berman notes that this has been happening for decades. Here’s a case study: In the 1960s, Bob Dylan called 161 West 4th Street home—the same address he sings about in “Positively 4th Street.” A search on StreetEasy finds that rent for a one-bedroom apartment in this same building now goes for a cool $4,300 a month. In 1961, Dylan paid $60, which is equivalent to about $560 today. And no, adjusting for inflation does not make me feel better.

Still, the Village remains a port of call for creative souls, high rents and all. Visit the heart of the Village, Washington Square Park, on any sunny day and you’ll see it perpetually abuzz with people singing, dancing, painting, and playing chess. There will always be at least one person, often costumed, performing in the fountain. Artists may not live within walking distance of the park so much anymore but they still gather in the Village, like generations before them, to create their own renaissance. Here’s a look at some of the Village’s historic haunts, forever associated with the artists who frequented them over the neighborhood’s eventful years.

The Music Inn
169 West 4th Street

In Suze Rotolo’s 2008 memoir, A Free-wheel-in’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, the artist and activist recalled the Music Inn as “an impossibly cluttered store that sold every kind of musical instrument ever made in the entire world.” More than half a century lies between my visit to the Music Inn and Rotolo’s days as Dylan’s girlfriend and artistic colleague, but the shop has remained true to her description—the place still exists in all its fantastic jumbled glory.

Walking into the Music Inn is like popping off the top of a time capsule. When I step into the small West 4th Street shop on a chilly Thursday morning, I’m met with a melange of musical rarities: Hard-to-find instruments hang from the ceiling, milk crates repurposed as record bins are stacked on a black and white checkerboard floor, and a vintage Victrola record player hums along in the background. I take a narrow flight of stairs down to the shop’s lower level and encounter walls and a ceiling collaged with newspaper clippings and 1960s ephemera. The owner, Jeff Slatnick, sits at a wooden desk behind a computer, the sleek desktop monitor admittedly looking out of place in a setting that’s less modern than midcentury. “So, what do ya want to talk about?” he asks.

Slatnick is an easygoing guy. His appearance summons images of George Harrison during his “My Sweet Lord” days, mixed with Dylan & the Dead–era Jerry Garcia. Like a musical tempo, Slatnick’s comedic delivery is on time. He jokes with me about how when he was a kid he met Jerry Lewis, and banters with a young musician stopping in to pick up steel guitar strings. When we get down to business, he tells me that the Music Inn was started by Jerry Halpern, a Bronx native and a veteran of the Korean War. It opened in 1958, around the same time that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s first season is set. The store is featured in a scene where Midge and her manager, Susie, peruse records there, and in another where Midge’s estranged husband, Joel, hears a recording of Midge’s comedy act (and subsequently has a meltdown). “Did you see those episodes?” I ask Slatnick. “Oh, of course,” he quickly responds, “that Brosnahan is great!” (I spoke later with Groom, who mentioned that since the Music Inn hasn’t changed a whole lot over the years, the scenes were filmed on-site, and the few items that weren’t accurate to the period were just omitted from the set.)

Slatnick, a native of Newark, New Jersey, started working in the shop in the late 1960s, when he was in his 20s. After a stint in California at the Ali Akbar College of Music, he returned to the Music Inn in 1976 and has been there ever since. When he first started, he would work at the store on Saturdays, and on weekdays he would play sitar as an opener for acts such as Sly and the Family Stone at the Electric Circus, on St. Marks Place. Home was nearby in an East Village apartment, where the $22 per month rent was split with a friend. (I pay more than that now for a salad at Sadelle’s.) Today he lives further downtown, not far from Wall Street. “I’m getting older, it was time to have a building with an elevator,” he jokes.

During the ’60s the streets of the Village bustled with folk musicians, artists, and writers, all setting out to make their mark on the culture. There was Phil Ochs, a protest singer who often sang at anti–Vietnam War and civil rights rallies, and Dave Van Ronk, a folk musician who was nicknamed the “Mayor of MacDougal Street.” Dylan’s inexpensive 4th Street apartment still stands down the block from the Music Inn. But Slatnick’s knowledge of the neighborhood goes back much further than the music of the ’60s. “Years ago, Native Americans would have pow-wows that would happen right here where the Village now is,” he points out. “I feel like it sure had an effect of the Village being a place for creative energies.” Today, even though the folk singers of yesterday have moved on and the rents have gone sky-high (Slatnick reminds me that the West Village was actually “always pretty expensive for artists”), the creative pulse can still be felt, though maybe just a bit more faintly. At 78, Slatnick himself has still been working on artistic endeavors beyond music—he’s started a comic book with a young artist from the Bronx. “I feel like I’m the overseer of this whole vortex,” he says, reflecting on the Village.

As I head out, I ask him if he has a favorite memory of the shop. He pauses, and I lean forward—as a child of the city, I know that the store has been frequented by a lot of famous names over the years, including Paul Simon and Cyndi Lauper, and I love a good celebrity story. “Oh, I don’t have a favorite,” he says, smiling. “There are just too many … they all meld together to create just one big wonderful memory. Now run along!”

Village Vanguard
178 7th Avenue South

Village Preservation has published a handy little book, Greenwich Village Stories, edited by Judith Stonehill, that is a collection of various people’s experiences living in the area. In it, characters synonymous with the neighborhood, such as Lou Reed, poet Hettie Jones, and longtime Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, reminisce about their time spent below 14th Street, in the form of short anecdotes. In Hentoff’s recollection, he writes, “I lived in Greenwich Village and I found so much swinging there. I soon learned, for instance, when tourists asked where to find the best jazz clubs, to tell them not to miss the Village Vanguard, where they’d never be disappointed.” And, well, the man wasn’t wrong. The Village Vanguard, sandwiched between a pizzeria and a beauty salon, still remains a jazz destination, nearly a century after its inception.

In Mrs. Maisel, you may recognize the Vanguard, with its iconic red awning, from a scene in Season 1, in which Midge is watching Lenny Bruce open for a jazz band. “It’s my first jazz club,” Midge confesses to Lenny, before unexpectedly taking the stage herself after smoking a joint. Since the Village Vanguard was temporarily closed through January 25, because of the Omicron COVID variant, I talk to the current owner, Deborah Gordon, over the phone. Throughout our 30-minute conversation, I scribble down notes in a room made dim by a 4 p.m. winter sunset. I feel like a detective.

Gordon tells me that the Village Vanguard was started in 1935 by her father, Max Gordon, an immigrant from Lithuania who came over to the U.S. when he was 5. When I ask her if she knows if her father was always interested in starting a jazz club, she chuckles. “It was an evolution of figuring out what he wanted to do,” she says. “He always wanted to be a writer and was always attracted to the company of writers.” Gordon explains that even though there was always music, becoming a jazz club happened over time. “In the beginning, it was mostly poets,” she says. On any given night, one might have walked in on the likes of poets Maxwell Bodenheim or Harry Kemp taking the mic. In the late 1950s, the club shifted more into jazz, welcoming names such as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and a then unknown Thelonious Monk to the stage. “The Vanguard took very few ads,” Gordon recalls. “The most consistent week in and week out ad was in the Voice.”

Gordon likens the Vanguard’s presence in her youth to an attic or a basement—a constant, something that is always there but perhaps exists more on the periphery. “The Vanguard has always been a part of my life,” she reminisces. “I loved going there. It was always just kind of breeze in, breeze out, and I loved the music.” After her father’s death, in 1989, Deborah’s mother, Lorraine Gordon, took the reins. Lorraine, a native of New Jersey, was a jazz aficionado herself, and had been a fixture on the jazz scene for decades. In her earlier years, she was a passionate member of the peace activist group Women Strike for Peace—in her memoir, Alive at the Village Vanguard, Lorraine tells the story of recruiting a young Barbra Streisand, whom she met through the Vanguard, to join the cause. When Lorraine passed away, in 2018, Deborah took over.

Although the Vanguard is creeping toward its 90th birthday, not much has changed physically in the space. Of course, updates have been made, and Gordon says that a lot of freshening up was done during lockdown, but the club still remains highly recognizable from its days of yore. It may be because of this that the Maisel crew was able to shoot on location a scene that was done, as Gordon describes, “superbly.” Before we hang up, Gordon tells me about a 15-minute YouTube video she created from old footage to commemorate the Vanguard. I quickly open my web browser to look it up while we’re still on the phone. “Aha!” she exclaims, as I drag my cursor to the search bar. “You know, there’s a video clip on there of Nat Hentoff from the Village Voice interviewing Lenny Bruce—now look, we’ve come full circle!”

Caffe Reggio
119 MacDougal Street

During the Season 2 finale, Luke Kirby, portraying Lenny Bruce, sings Bruce’s song “All Alone” offscreen during a shot of Abe sitting down with his lawyer. “I’m spoiling for a really good fight,” Abe announces as he cradles a white and orange mug full of coffee. This significant scene’s location is not just any old cafe—it is Caffe Reggio, a fixture in the Village, where everyone from Bob Dylan to Jack Kerouac used to get their caffeine fix.

When you enter Caffe Reggio, you are immediately met with a large number of genuine relics—original, large-scale paintings from the school of Caravaggio, a ceiling fan from the movie Casablanca, and a bench from the Medici family that, yes, you can actually sit on. “It’s like the cafe is frozen in time,” Lena Batyuk, the cafe’s general manager, says, pointing out the cafe’s original espresso machine. The shiny chrome and bronze machine, which is no longer in use, is topped by an angel, with dragons at its base. And it’s true, the place hasn’t changed much since my high school days. A decade earlier, I would hop on over to the Village from Queens, always relieved to see that the cafe was exactly how I last left it—its chameleon-green facade a welcome sight after rounding the corner from the West 4th Street station. The only thing that jumps out as “new” to me are the COVID-inspired QR codes taped to each table, placed neatly beside small neon-orange notes that detail the history of the space. In addition to this setting, which still looks like it walked right out of the Italian Renaissance, the menu has been pretty consistent too, aside from one new dish. “Avocado toast—we had to add the avocado toast,” Batyuk says, laughing. “It’s delicious!”

Caffe Reggio is just a short walk from the Music Inn, and was opened in the 1920s by Domenico Parisi, an Italian immigrant. Once the owner of a barbershop, Parisi learned that he could make more money setting up a coffeehouse, so that’s just what he did. In fact, Caffe Reggio is known as the first cafe in the United States to serve cappuccino, a claim to fame proudly stated on its green awning. (That espresso machine predates the cafe, going back to 1902—Parisi had it sent over from Italy.) In the 1950s, the cafe was taken over by the Cavallacci family, who still oversee it today.

Through the years, in addition to Beat writers, cafe-goers have included local college students, Village neighbors, and tourists. John F. Kennedy, as a presidential hopeful, gave a speech outside the cafe’s doors in 1959. Other frequent visitors have been location scouts. Although visits from scouts have slowed because of the pandemic, Batyuk mentions that in the past they used to happen weekly: Caffe Reggio has appeared in The Godfather II, Serpico, and the original 1971 Shaft, among other films. The Mrs. Maisel filming particularly made an impact on Batyuk, who has been working at the cafe for 16 years, as the emotional scene features a panoramic shot of the place in all its glory. “That was, for me personally, one of the greatest moments,” she says happily, remembering how the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, stood on-set poring over camera screens to get the perfect shot. “It was so exciting.”

About a week after my conversation with Batyuk, I visit the cafe for tea. When I walk in, I’m happy to ssee that Caffe Reggio is incredibly lively and, once again, exactly how I last left it.

Kettle of Fish
59 Christopher Street

If you wanted to be in the company of the “who’s who” of 1950s and ’60s Greenwich Village, you would head down to the Kettle of Fish, where famous names spent many a night sitting at the bar, a favorite of Beat Generation authors. It’s a Village mainstay that is steeped in history. Originally located above the famed Gaslight Cafe, Kettle of Fish was where Beat writers and folk performers alike congregated between sets, forming ideas and friendships while tossing back brews. It was this early period, in the 1950s, that was featured on Mrs. Maisel—the facade makes an appearance as Midge and Susie walk downtown, and the interior was recreated for a scene with the two drinking beer after Susie bails Midge out of jail. (Before managing Midge, the fictional Susie worked as an employee for the Gaslight Cafe.)

Today, the bar is owned by Patrick Daley and is known as the city’s “Green Bay Packers bar,” something that becomes apparent once you recognize the gold and green memorabilia sprinkled throughout the space. Daley is the kind of guy you could crack open a few beers with while quoting Kerouac, or enjoy a gin and tonic with while reading Ginsberg. Originally from Wisconsin, he made his way to New York City in the early 1980s and has been here ever since. “I came to New York on vacation and stayed,” he says. “I had, what? Forty or sixty bucks on me? You can’t do that now.” He was introduced to Kettle of Fish by his brother-in-law, a Village playwright who now teaches at NYU; Daley joined the bar’s softball league and began bartending soon after. In the ’90s he bought the bar and moved it to the Lion’s Head Tavern’s old location, on the same block as the Voice’s Christopher Street office and the famed Stonewall Inn. Daley watched the Mrs. Maisel scenes that feature the bar after a customer told him about it. “We had no idea!” he says.

In talking about the Village, Daley speaks of how he feels a palpable shift away from the neighborhood’s youthful energy, and how some of the quintessential downtown personalities are disappearing. One of those who is sorely missed is Fedora, of the recently closed Fedora’s Restaurant. “She was 80-something years old, outside shoveling snow in the winter,” he exclaims. “She was awesome!” Fedora died in 2011, at the age of 91. Today, the bar’s clientele ranges from NYU students and old neighborhood regulars to Packers fanatics and Beat Generation enthusiasts. A photo of Patrick posing with Aaron Rodgers hangs just a few feet away from a black and white shot of Bob Dylan smoking a cigarette. The vibe of the space is as much Ferlinghetti as football, an unpretentious spot that hooks you in, line and sinker. During my visit, Daley points out the spot where Bobby Kennedy was persuaded to start a presidential campaign, back when it was the Lion’s Head. “This table, well not this exact table, but a table in this spot right here, this is where Bobby Kennedy was talked into running for president,” Daley says excitedly. (People are split over the specifics of this Village legend—other reports claim it was two Voice journalists, Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield, who encouraged RFK, and that it was to run for New York Senate.) “You know, this bar then was a real journalist’s bar,” Daley adds. The pièce de résistance, however, is the large neon “BAR” sign entombed in a protective case and installed in a quiet corner. This is the same neon sign that Jack Kerouac was famously photographed in front of; it adorned the outside of the bar when Kettle of Fish was on MacDougal Street and was preserved and brought along during each move. “Whoa! Kerouac?” a young customer says in disbelief, after overhearing the story.

After about an hour or so at the Kettle, I drag myself back into the cold to get the uptown bus home. The bar is so memorable that, although I don’t drink, I rave about it so much to my boyfriend that he pays it a visit the next day with a friend. They spent five hours there, shooting the breeze while guzzling down lagers. “Damn, that place is great,” he sighs, while stumbling into bed that night, no doubt like so many Beat writers before him. ❖

Brittany Natale, a born-and-raised New Yorker, is a freelance writer who often writes about the city’s vibrant history and culture. Her work has appeared in i-D and Teen Vogue, among other publications.

– • –

NOTE: The advertising disclaimer below does not apply to this article, nor any originating from the Village Voice editorial department, which does not accept paid links.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.

Highlights