Thursday, March 17, 2011

Irish Saloon for the Ages

An image arrives, the cover of a new book in French showing American icon Marilyn Monroe 56 years ago in a legendary Irish saloon, a convergence of cultures for St. Patrick's Day.

In that place, where my generation learned about life, Tim Costello was our teacher. One of us, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a budding sociologist and later U.S. Senator, would famously say when JFK was killed, "To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart."

Now, as the world batters our hearts every day, it's comforting to recall Tim's lost lessons--modesty, respect for learning and, above all, decency toward others.

He was our Irish godfather, keeping us happy but grounded and civil. When Frank McCourt, who later wrote "Angela's Ashes," came over as an 18-year-old immigrant, Tim would not serve him a beer until he went to the New York Public Library to read Samuel Johnson.

John McNulty wrote about the place in the New Yorker for a dozen years, but Tim kept it from changing. A stern look over his teacup at the back table was as effective as the rules committee of any private club. Costello's never went trendy in the way of another saloon, "Nobody goes there any more, it's too crowded."

Behind the bar was a blackthorn walking stick that had been broken over John O’Hara’s head by Ernest Hemingway, no one remembered why. On the facing wall were huge drawings on beaverboard by James Thurber, so valued that Tim had had them inked over, varnished and, when forced to move his establishment next door, removed and remounted. They were brown with age and tobacco smoke.

Thurber had filled the walls with images of cowardly canines (a dog being chased by rabbits) and little men menaced by huge women (“I’m leaving you, Myra, you might as well get used to the idea,” says one in the clutch of an Amazon several times his size). Such self-mocking masculinity suited the place. Tim did not abide noisy, pugnacious drunks.

The night we brought Marilyn there, the proprietor was stirred by curiosity to come to the table and take the order himself. When she asked for a screwdriver, Tim told her, "We don't serve breakfast here" and gave her vodka on the rocks instead.

If he were alive today, Tim Costello would not allow any of today's "celebrities" in the place. They wouldn't have met his threshold for decent behavior.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great bar and a great time.

The usual crowd at the bar here consists of sanctimonius dime store hillbillies and some idiot trying to sell houses.