Where Everybody Knows Your Name is Walt Whitman
by Jeff Baker
Laugh on laughers!
Drink on drinkers!
Bandy the jest!
Toss the theme from one to another!
Beam up—Brighten up, bright eyes of beautiful young men!
——-Walt Whitman, from “The Two Vaults.”
There were no Pride flags flying in New York City in 1859. But if you were gay there were places to discreetly hang out. One was literally underground. Pfaff’s, a bar and restaurant located beneath the sidewalk at 647 Broadway, featured a dining area and a bar, literally in a cellar. Named for it’s owner Charles Pfaff, it was a hangout for writers and Bohemians, the arts and literary crowd of the day who were not part of the mainstream. And one of the most notable of the writers was Walt Whitman.
Whitman began coming there in the late 1850s after losing a newspaper job. His first book “Leaves of Grass” had not sold well and Whitman was also seeking solace in the council of Henry Clapp, a reformer, editor and intellectual who was basically the unofficial head of the thinkers and carousers who found refuge at Pfaff’s.
Much of this information is from a fine article titled “Walt Whitman Leading Light of America’s First Gay Bar: The New York Bohemians Who Made Good at Pfaff’s” by Paul Sorene which appeared on the site Flashbak. Quoting from a variety of contemporary letters and articles, it takes readers into the dimly-lit yet cheery atmosphere of Phaff’s.
When Whitman began hanging out there, he was in a discreet relationship with a young man named Fred Vaughn. They lived together and were apparently very much in love. Vaughn was in his early twenties, Whitman was nearly forty, and the two of them both enjoyed the bohemian atmosphere. But Vaughn felt the need to enter into a heterosexual relationship and left Whitman, only communicating with him again many years later. During his days at Pfaff’s, Whitman became a member of “The Fred Gray Association,” a casual group of gay men who sought companionship and affection.
Whitman was not a regular at Pfaff’s for long. The Civil War brought an end to his intellectual grouping in the cellar on Broadway; He moved to New York City during the war, tended to the wounded in hospitals in Washington D. C. where he wrote more poetry and eventually became a professional success. The war made some of the men who drank at Pfaff’s generals, but it killed the very heterosexual Fitz-James O’Brien, an early writer of speculative fiction whose work has been compared favorably with Poe.
In recent years, the Vault at Pfaff’s re-opened after a fashion for a while, a block or so down the street, as a trendy hangout with historical panache. Prominently displayed was the recently re-discovered poem “The Two Vaults” by Whitman about the cellar in those days. And Whitman’s poetry and prose are still widely available and deservedly well-known.
The vault at Pfaffs where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse…
—-again, from “The Two Vaults” by Walt Whitman.
Here’s a link to the article:https://flashbak.com/walt-whitman-leading-light-of-americas-first-gay-bar-the-new-york-bohemians-who-made-good-at-pfaffs-39034/#:~:text=Walt%20Whitman%20Leading%20Light%20Of%20America%E2%80%99s%20First%20Gay,C.%20Cox.%20Pfaff%E2%80%99s%20was%20America%E2%80%99s%20first%20gay%20bar.
Jeff Baker’s fiction has appeared in “The Necronomicon of Solar Pons” among other places, and has been reprinted (as Mike Mayak) in “Swamp Life or How I Spent My Summer Vacation” from Puppycat Press. He blogs about reading and writing sci-fi, fantasy and horror around the thirteenth of each month in this same space. He lives happily with his husband Darryl although they have never been to New York City, they want to go someday. Jeff regularly posts fiction on his blog https://authorjeffbaker.com/and wastes time on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Jeff-Baker-Author-176267409096907