There are so many wonderful things about this book that I don’t know where to start. It’s like being welcomed into one of those beautiful old wood-paneled pubs on a cold February afternoon. Not one of those Iceman Cometh type of pubs, where the regulars are all pipe-dream losers, and the women are all prostitutes. I’m talking about the kind where the clientele are working people who go there to socialize. Over P.J. Clarke’s (written by the founder’s great-grandniece) paints an upbeat portrait of her ancestor as a businessman, politician, tribal chief, and psychologist. He was an Irishman who lived up to the tradition where the barkeep was an unofficial mayor of the town. Public meetings were held at his place, and all local politics passed through him. It’s no surprise why the word “pub” comes from “public house.”
Unlike the Last Chance Saloon in the Iceman Cometh, there were no women in P.J. Clarke’s, unless their husbands brought them there for dinner. The women’s entrance was at the back near the dining area, away from the bar, and Clarke had good reason for it. In 1912, when he began his career, respectable women did not drink alcohol. It wasn’t against the law, but against the norm. The only women who frequented pubs were prostitutes, and Clarke wanted to keep them out at all costs. Pubs were a “men only” establishment in those days, and he wanted at least a modicum of respectability. Like a mayor of small town, it was up to him to set the tone, and set it he did.
When the Prohibition hits New York, the story gets funny. The new mayor is Jimmy Walker, a Catholic, beer-loving, pub-crawling, corrupt gentile sleazeball. As for the Prohibition, he has no interest in enforcing any Federal law, let alone a law that says “sorry, you’re not allowed to drink whiskey anymore because the Protestants say you can’t.” To the Clarke family, they don’t see the Prohibition as moral or healthy; they know full well that it’s anti-Catholic, anti-German and basically anti-immigrant. The Temperance Union was heavily Protestant, and there wasn’t much support for it in cities with huge immigrant populations. Sure, the Jews and Catholics were allowed sacramental wine for their services (no doubt a lot more Catholics attended mass) but the real business was in the bars. P.J. Clarke’s had a bar full of soda bottles and a place in the back where trusted people were served gin. I can just imagine the looks on the cops’ faces when they were told they’d have to help enforce the Volstead Act; either they said “forget it” or “sorry, but the distillers are paying our wages!” Regardless, the barmen, brewers, and distillers were paying Mayor Walker’s wages too.
The neighborhood that was once full of bars began to change as the area became more business than residential. Old buildings were torn down, replaced by glass office towers, and once the El was pulled down, so went the bars and pawn shops. The neighborhood made famous by The Lost Weekend is no more, and P.J. Clarke’s is now a profitable, upscale business, not a family-run social club.
Nonetheless, this book is a wonderful story about the Irish immigrant experience and what the city used to be like. It’s a great companion piece for anyone studying the Prohibition or learning about old New York.