Old memories lovingly clutter the walls of Julius, a West Village institution (Pic Flickr)
FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, every other Friday we’ll be featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found here.
In operation: 186?-present
This weekend is the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a chaotic, rowdy altercation that bloomed over the course of the weekend to energize the New York’s gay movement. (If you haven’t already, give our podcast on the history of the Stonewall riots a listen.) But despite its reputation, Stonewall is not the oldest gay bar in New York. Not even close.
For that honor, you need only march a few steps to Waverly Place and 10th Street to that crusty, beloved old institution Julius (159 W. 10th St). It also happens to be the location of a pre-Stonewall protest of angered gay activists, an event both revolutionary and somewhat amusing.
Julius is truly an old bar although nobody seems to know exactly how old. Two popular guesses settle at either 1865 or 1867, easily making it one of the oldest bars in New York, just a tad younger than McSorley’s Old Ale House. The building itself is even older, dating from 1826, becoming a grocer in 1840 before transforming to its current, more jovial purposes.
It has many things in common with McSorley’s Old Ale House. The walls are plastered with memorabilia from days gone by. The bar is a well-worn relic, the tables and benches made of old beer barrels. Like McSorley’s, they even serve burgers, and really, really good ones at that! Its history is a tad more shrouded than McSorley’s but equally studded with famous clientele.
It was a popular speakeasy throughout the 1920s, evidenced today by Julius’ still existing sidedoor with peephole. Both Fats Waller and Billie Holiday are rumored to have performed in the backroom, quite likely as Holiday worked at the nearby nightclub Cafe Society during the 1930s. In subsequent years the clientele was decidedly a mixed lot and Julius would ply writers like Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote with drink and companionship.
By the 1960s Julius had become a low-key staple of the West Village gay scene. However, it appears that it was ‘straight enough’ that it survived Mayor Robert Wagner’s cleanup of the city in preparation of the 1964 World’s Fair, a wholesale shutdown of West Village gay bars and other ‘undesirable’ places. Even through this Julius lived on, although patrons and management alike had to maneuver through rather arcane and sometimes silly rituals.
According to writer Edmund White, who often visited the bar, said “There was even a period when we weren’t allowed to face the bar but had to stand absurdly with our back to it to prove, I suppose, that we had nothing to hide.”
It gets even more absurd. Technically, according to the New York State Liquor Authority, it was actually illegal to serve drinks to homosexuals. Obviously, this rule was seldom enforced, but the constant fear of such a twisted regulation being suddenly enforced by an undercover cop eventually drew action from New York’s burgeoning group of young gay activists.
Members of the Mattachine Society, one of New York’s earliest gay organizations, planned on challenging the rule by going into bars, loudly announcing their homosexuality and ordering a drink. Their read statement at the bar would be awkward, but simple: “We are homosexuals. We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.”
The key would be that they were followed around by a phalanx of press representatives. So, when the bar refused to serve them, the Mattachine Society would have their moment, captured and ready for print.
It didn’t quite go as planned. The challenge came on April 21, 1966, more than three years before the Stonewall riots. They told members of the press to meet them at the Ukrainian-American Village Restaurant but management closed shop before they arrived. They tried two other bars, a Howard Johnson’s and a place called Waikiki, and each time they were served without incident.
But of course, the organizers were looking for an incident. They arrived at Julius for their big moment. Obviously, they would be served here as well. But they made a deal with the management who “agreed to play along” (according to Carter’s book), refusing service to the men.
The now-legendary Julius Sip-In, as the event as come to be called, was an entirely fabricated event, yet it served its purpose. The New York Times even ran the story, under the rather backhanded headline, “3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars.” The law was successfully challenged in court.
Since then, Julius has quietly sat on the sidelines, observing both the curious changes to the neighborhood and the development of a viable and open gay community in the Village and elsewhere. You don’t have to be gay to appreciate its unique place in New York City history. Just grab a stool and spend awhile admiring the bar’s warm, lived-in details.
Oh, and you really must try the burgers. Did I say that already?
By the way, who the heck is Julius? According to one speculation, Julius was the name of the original owner’s basset hound.