The Wonderful World of the White Horse

"Traditional watering-place for writers, longshoremen, Bohemians, pub crawlers, socialists, and just-plain-drunks, it was the kind of scene he'd dreamed of."


West Village I: The Wonderful World of the White Horse
June 22, 1961

The young man fresh out of Dartmouth College left the $8-a-week room he’d just moved into on Greenwich Street and ventured into the oppressively muggy late afternoon. Although a newcomer to the West Village in that summer of 1951, he made tracks to the White Horse Tavern like an old-timer. People at Dartmouth had told him about the “The Horse.” Traditional watering-place for writers, longshoremen, Bohemians, pub crawlers, socialists, and just-plain-drunks, it was the kind of scene he’d dreamed of.

“Dartmouth” looked around at the West Village as he marched along, taking in the grimy streets, the weary brownstones, and tenements, the massive brick warehouses. There was something backwaterish about the neighborhood, tired. Looking on down 11th Street past the NY Central elevated line, then the elevated West Side Highway, he spied the ramshackle docks. They seemed lifeless too. The whole scene reminded him of the arid, yellowish-brown desolation of a 1930s Depression painting. But it was quiet. And quiet — plus cheaper rents — was why he’d chosen the neighborhood over the rest of the Village.

As a matter of fact, that quiet was symptomatic of what had happened to the West Village since its raucous, teeming Irish immigration days. By 1951, those dozen or so historic blocks extending from Hudson Street to the North River, and from Leroy up to Gansevoort, were so much at ebb tide the city had long before marked them as a blighted area. Not that they really were slums. But the city makes strange distinctions, and though Dartmouth didn’t know it, the redevelopment axe hung heavy over his new home as he walked along that day.

Summer Commandoes

On the corner, the afternoon picked up. Three neighborhood Irish kids in ragged clothes and 25-cent haircuts popped up like summer commandoes from behind a line of rusty garbage cans. They took one look at Dartmouth’s Brooks jacket, his button-down shirt and rep tie, and squawked, “Hey, faggot, why don’cha go back to Ha’vard!”

Dartmouth winced. But he never looked back as a shower of stones whistled demonically past his ears.

And then he fronted the White Horse on Hudson and 11th. Multicolored with checkered trim, ship-shape square, it emitted a low drone of talk from its open door. This was Dartmouth’s big moment. He was landing on Bohemia’s shores after four dry years in New Hampshire. Man!

Inside, the Horse was gloomy but cool. Dark was the ornate wood paneling, with saloon-Victorian lamps, decorated by tiny horse heads hanging down from the ceiling. An English pub, no less! The heavy, old-fashioned bar was crowded with men, most of them in sweaty work clothes with ILA buttons on their caps. In the adjacent backroom a few other people, including a man with a Smith Brothers beard, poked at chessboards.

A Navy Vet

The men were making one hell of a noise. An elderly man they called “Ernie,” with a great white towel around his expansive midriff, shoved beer at them by the gallon. Timidly Dartmouth joined the men, feeling conspicuous in his Brooks clothes. He was. A stocky, red-faced type, with shirt sleeves rolled over his knotty, proletarian arms, frowned and muttered something as the young man nudged by him. Dartmouth felt uneasy. But what the hell, 18 months in the Navy had put some muscle on him too (it was tough in Philly in ’46 mothballing those destroyers and inventorying 3 million bars of soap).

He ordered what the longshoremen were drinking — half-light, half-dark beer — and drained his thick white mug. The frowning man was looking him up and down. Only the frown had pulled down to a scowl of gale force 10. Dartmouth belted another ’alf and ’alf. Courage, as it does occasionally to all men, came to him. The scowler tacked unsteadily alongside, his breath that of a hundred hop-fat breweries. “Hey,” he said.

Dartmouth refused to acknowledge the battered face glowing there in Heinz-tomato ripeness.

“Hey. Hey you, necktie,” the sodden voice persisted.

Slowly Dartmouth turned to his antagonist.

“You wanna know sumpin? Used to be guys like you never come in here. Now you’re on the joint like flies. You’re ruinin’ the place. Why don’t you go back uptown?”

Dartmouth was getting mad. Which was unfortunate.

“Hey,” the scowler persisted. “I’m the kinna guy belongs here. I belong in this part of Green-witch Village, not you.” Suddenly his face beamed with pride. “You know why? I’m a sailor. A ship’s engineer.”

“A ship’s engineer,” Dartmouth grinned coldly. “Well, where’s your engine?”

Goodnight, Sweet Dartmouth. When flights of 6th Precinct cops have borne you to your rest at St. Vincent’s you will be glad to learn the jaw was not broken — only badly bent.

No Outsiders

Those were the breaks in 1951. The West Village could still brawl once in a while, and the longshoremen, truck drivers, or white collar folk (many of Irish descent) whose families had lived around there since the 1870s and ’80s, just didn’t take to outsiders. The ship’s engineer who clobbered Dartmouth was an extreme, of course, and his aggressive kind were usually kept in line by Ernie Wohlleben, the man who ran the Horse for nearly five decades. But once in a while things did get out of hand.

The Horse had already gone through whole phases of West Village history — even by 1951. And because it was such a durable pub, it reflected those changes about as readily as any popular neighborhood bar does. A longshore hangout since the ’80s, it survived the roughest days of what was known as the American Ward, when the Hudson Dusters gang used to pick fights with its customers and occasionally break the windows. Another indication of how solid a part of the community the Horse was by the end of World War I was the effect Prohibition had on it — that is, damn little effect!

In the late ’30s, the Horse again reflected changing times, but entertaining left-wingers in its backroom. Singing of radical songs became a nightly procedure back then, and though Ernie was a patient man, when the lyrics got around to bomb-tossing and unfettering of chains he got annoyed. “Listen,” he said to the radicals one night, “can’t you sing those songs as much as possible in some foreign language?”

Literature Moves In

After the Second World War, the Horse stated going literary. And it was Dylan Thomas, of course, who gave the joint such poetic class. Thomas used to stop while on U.S. lecture tours, bringing a whole coterie of admirers with him. It is often said he took his last drink there, before dying in late 1953. But the Horse was still no intellectual spa. A day or so after Thomas died, somebody passed the hat for his widow.

“Thomas. Who’s he?” a longshoreman wanted to know.

“Some drunk who used to ball it up in here,” his companion enlightened him.

Around the same time, a series of Sunday afternoon literary-political discussions started in the backroom. Norman Mailer, Calder Willingham, Oscar Williams, Vance Bourjaily — these were a few who held forth, sometimes by the hour. But the discussion tended to wander, the afternoons to get longer, and finally the whole thing fizzled out. “We wanted to transplant ideas, but we picked the wrong hothouse,” a participant said later.

So the White Horse changed. As more and more people like Dartmouth discovered the West Village, so the balance of population shifted from the Gaelic. The area was removed from the slum map in 1954 and renovations started. Rent went up. Dartmouth, by the way, had made it into a $110-a-month two-room garden job by 1955. But there were certain old-time elements in those blocks who resented this invasion. Some had good reason too, for they were losing their apartments to renovators. When property started getting scarce, a longshoreman earning $5,000 a year is hard put to compete for space with a copywriter pulling down $8,000.

McCarthy Evenings

Politics reared its ghoulish head too. That was during the McCarthy hearings. Some patriotic West Villagers who approved of “good old Joe” decided the people who congregated at the White Horse must be Communists, atheists, or fags. They were different, weren’t they? So fights started in the streets. Then one night a bunch of these stalwarts invaded the Horse smashing beer mugs over peoples heads and kicking in the front windows. Minor variations of this took place all through that time. Diplomatic Ernie tried smoothing things over, but only when the draft grabbed the McCarthyites and directed their hostility toward North Koreans did the tensions ease off.

Other Voices, Other Bars

To return to friend Dartmouth. By the late ’50s, he was a big man in the Horse. Everybody called him by his first name, and the owners let him keep a tab. But ingrate that he was, he took to wandering to other pubs for variety. Up to El Faro on Greenwich and Horatio, he drank and played Lola Florez records on the jukebox. Back down on Greenwich and Perry, it was the poetry readings at the International Bar that caught his attention for awhile. Sitting alongside longshoremen, writers, and anyone else who drifted in, he listened to Bridget Murnaghan and the others by the hour. The International, too, had its hour of poetry before lapsing into somnolence.

Sometimes Dartmouth missed sitting and having a drink with the Irish. They’d been vanishing slowly from the Horse (some of them from the West Village altogether). He found them still, in the Cathedral Bar on Christopher, or in the waterfront Foc’s’cle with its sailors from Norway, truckers from Tulsa, and its star character, Popeye. Popeye, who loves the hop, gets so full of it he takes to directing traffic on West Street. He has three whistles for his work — a giant blaster for trucks, and average tweeter for cars, and a tiny peeper for jeeps and scooters. “I’m a federal traffic expert,” Popeye hollers as a truck driver in a 10-ton semi glares down at him. “President Kennedy just gave me sleeping privileges in the Red Ball trucks.”

‘Horse’ Today

And what of Dartmouth’s Horse today? Although many of the longshoremen have gone, writers, painters, editors still gravitate there. The poet in residence is Delmore Schwarz. But college kids literally pack the place on weekends, and its nearly impossible to find a place to sit down. In the backroom, Socialists, like Mike Harrington, discuss the world but don’t cut loose with the radical songs anymore. They folksinging crowd which had come in over the the past few years makes all the racket now. The indomitable Clancy Brothers, Logan English, and others sing of their ethnic backgrounds until the little room rocks. They have displaced politics.

Dartmouth can’t stand the singing. He can’t stand the outsiders either, or the weekend crowds. “It isn’t the same,” you can hear him griping, “you should have seen it 10 years ago. Real people then!” And he’s become a loyal West Villager too. With the people once again thinking of redeveloping the neighborhood (it has improved tremendously in 10 years), he’s ready to man the barricades against the Planning Commission. Just ask him the next time you’re in the Horse. He’ll grab you by the shirt, back you against the old grandfather clock, and tell you what a great place his neighborhood is by the hour.