The Golden Swan: a ‘hell hole’ for Village inspiration

ABOVE: Charles Demuth’s lively ‘At the Golden Swan’

To get you in the mood for the weekend, every other Friday we’ll be celebrating ‘FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER’, featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse spaces of the mid-90s. Past entries can be found HERE.

The nightclubs and taverns of yore usually never leave a mark. Never appreciated in their latter days and rarely ever landmarked, historic nightclubs and cubbyholes are demolished, accessories parceled off, their contributions living on only in phtographs and memories of bad hangovers.

The remnants of the Golden Swan, however, is quite easy to find. Head down Sixth Avenue to Fourth Street, next door to the Washington Square Diner and across the street from the basketball courts, and you’ll find a prim little garden park named appropriately Golden Swan Garden. Here sat one of Greenwich Village’s seediest but most influential hangouts, the inspiration for artists, thinkers and playwrights.

As with any place flocked by creative types, the Golden Swan Café went by different nicknames, most notably the Hell Hole, though there are few signs anything truly devilish happened here.  Like many 19th century watering holes, it was opened by an Irish prize-fighter, Thomas Wallace, who lived upstairs in the three-story building with his brother George and several other boarders.

You wouldn’t need directions to locate the Golden Swan.  A gold-painted swan hung over the doorway, the bar’s wide glass windows overlooking the Sixth Avenue elevated train.  (Here’s a great picture of it.)  It doesn’t appear to be that different from any number of taverns in the West Village today.

It was who chose to haunt the Golden Swan in the first quarter of the 20th century that made it legendary.  The Village was already a magnet of bohemiann life by the turn of the century.  Photographers, painters, writers and gadabouts slowly began frequenting the Golden Swan’s backroom, swilling its cheap liquor.

But none were more renown — and none made the bar more famous — than Eugene O’Neill (pictured right), a patron of the Golden Swan (or ‘Hell Hole’, as he preferred it) during his most creative period, from the mid 1910s on.  When he wasn’t in Cape Cod with the Provincetown Players — or in a small theater on MacDougal street, working on a new show — he was here at the ‘HH’, regaling drinkers with poetry, enjoying the company of writer friends (like activist Dorothy Day) or delighting in the antics of the tavern’s thuggish bartenders, such as Lefty Louie.

From one of O’Neill’s letters to his wife (1919):  “Last night I made a voyage to the Hell Hole to see how it had survived the dry spell. [Prohibition] There was no whiskey in the house….and it had to be stolen by some of the gang out of a storehouse, and sold to Tom Wallace.  All hands were drinking sherry and I joined this comparatively harmless and cheap debauch right willingly.”

ABOVE: John Sloan’s take on the ‘Hell Hole’, O’Neill in the upper right

The place was every bit as rough and raunchy as any bar on the Bowery. Women were only allowed to use a side entrance, and many of those were, in Eugene’s words “‘hard’ ladies of the oldest profession.” Eugene occasionally slept upstairs in Wallace’s apartment.

O’Neill eventually paid tribute to the Swan by putting it in one of his greatest works, The Iceman Cometh, even including a tavern owner (Harry Hope) closely modeled after Wallace.

The Golden Swan inspired several artists including John Sloan, who worked just across the street, and captured the joys of the tavern in his work “The Hell Hole,” (pictured above) featuring depictions of both O’Neill and Day.  Charles Demuth was similarly inspired in his 1919 painting “At the Golden Swan,”

Activist Mary Vorse attributes the bar with otherworldly qualities, “something at once alive and deadly sinister. It was as if the combined soul of New York flowed underground and this was one of its vents.”

The party lasted only a few years after those statements.  As with many structures along Sixth Avenue, the Golden Swan was torn down during construction of the subway right below it.  At least with the Golden Swan Garden, constructed in 2000, you can at least stand in the spot where so many great minds once let loose with the low lifes.