Sunday, December 16, 2007

Speakeasy at 106 Perry Street

On September 4, 1925, Henry Miller wrote to his ex-wife Beatrice to tell her that he and his new wife, June, had “at last secured the Tea Room in the Village. Start in tomorrow night.” [1] The “tea room” he refers to [2] would become just one of many speakeasies found in New York City during the prohibition era. It was one in a series of ventures Henry and June made to earn money as Henry attempted to establish himself as a writer. In telling his ex about it, Henry was likely trying to assure her that he would soon be making money and in a position to send her alimony payments again for their young daughter, Barbara.

Henry and June’s speakeasy was located in a basement at 106 Perry Street, in Greenwich Village [Google map]. The three-story building was built in 1847; 6,668 sq ft in all. [3] Although the modest club was initially profitable, business fell off soon afterward. By December 1925, Henry was no longer even in New York and the business was a bust. In hindsight, Miller would recall “those Arabian adventures in the speakeasy on Perry Street.” [4] This period is described most explicitly in the pages of Plexus (Chapter 10).

106 Perry Street in 2007. This photo was taken by jschumacker and may be viewed on Flickr.

THE SPEAKEASY IN PLEXUS
“To run a speakeasy, which is what we are doing” wrote Miller in Plexus, “and to live in it at the same time, is one of those fantastic ideas which can only arise in the minds of thoroughly impractical individuals.” [5] (p.392). The arrangement certainly was impractical: a basement flat with three small rooms, one of which—the kitchen!—would act as their cramped residence. When they retired to bed, sometimes towards dawn, “the smell of beer, wine and tobacco was overpowering.” [5] (p.397). In the small main room, a ping-pong table was set up, as was a chess board.

A third front room was used by June to entertain her paying male guests. “[E]fficient, somehow legitimized, prostitution,” is how Mary Dearborn described this entertaining of admirers at the speakeasy. [6] Many of these men, often wealthy professionals, frequented the club at first. In order to keep up appearances, Henry hid the fact that he was June’s husband [5] (p.393). When the doorbell rang, Henry was to remain silent in the shadows: “in case it’s a detective or a bill collector. Or one of the more recent, hence ignorant and intrepid, lovers.” [5] (p.393).

Henry acted as the manager. “I also wait on tables, fill short orders, empty the garbage, run errands, make the beds, clean house and in general make myself as useful as possible.” [5] (p.393). This also included collecting ice for the icebox which Henry loveed rummaging through. The illicit booze was acquired by June through an underworld connection, and sometimes from a visit to Allen Street for some Jewish “sacramental wine.” [5] (p.481).

Perry Street at Hudson, looking westward, with #99 at right. This photo taken in 1937, from the New York Digital Archives.

“The opening night came off with a bang,” [5] (p.395) bringing in an astounding (for 1925) $543.69. “For the first time in my life I was really lousy with money,” said an excited Henry [5] (p.395). But the short term gains quickly dropped, and, as Thanksgiving approached, the typical evening at the speakeasy consisted of Miller and his friends like Joe O’Reagan, Arthur Raymond, Emil and/or Ned Schnellock playing ping-pong, chess or the ukulele, drinking up the house stocks. "It doesn't take long for the speakeasy to become a sort of private club and recreation center. On the kitchen all is a long list of names. Beside the names is chalked up the sums owed us by our friends, our only steady customers." [5] (p.480).

They fell into debt. Henry’s unpaid alimony alone had stacked up to $650. Legal papers were served to Henry at 106 Perry Street for his failure to pay; he was facing possible arrest [7]. One evening shortly before Thanksgiving 1925, while June took care of customers, Henry and his friends sat in the kitchen and concocted an idea: go to Florida to make money off the “boom.” [5] (p.486) Just a couple of days before they left, the Perry Street landlord served them with a summons for unpaid rent [5] (p.486). June was unable to maintain the business on her own, so the speakeasy went under, and she went to stay with her parents.

Another view of 106 Perry Street as it looks today (photo: Christopher Nesbit).

DAWN POWELL AT 106 PERRY ST.

A search for 106 Perry Street on the internet almost exclusively leads to the name Dawn Powell. Powell (1896-1965) was an American writer of satire. Although she is pretty obscure in my own mind, Herbert Muschamp suggested in the New York Times in 1998 that a plaque be placed at 106 Perry Street to commemorate the place where Powell began writing some of her best novels. Powell moved into 106 Perry Street in 1928, less than three years after Henry and June left it. Powell--whose diaries have been published--would not have been impressed to know that Miller lived in her basement, if this quote from her is any indication: "I feel about his Tropics that reading him is like observing somebody belch - you think, now he feels better but it doesn't do you any good." At any rate, if she is also an important American writer, then, with the combination of the Henry Miller connection, perhaps a plaque should go up at 106 Perry.

At New York Songlines are some other literary historical notes from the immediate neighbourhood.

______________________

References:

[1] Henry Miller: The Final Archive (reference document) . "Letters to Henry Miller to Beatrice (Wickens) Miller"; Item #32. [2] I'm making an assumption here, that the "tea room" referenced in this letter is 106 Perry Street. In fact, the date of the letter (Sept 4, 1925) matches with a reference in Plexus--in the scene preceding the opening of the speakeasy--that it is September (p.367). As well, on Plexus 392, the speakeasy scene opens with a mention of the "turn of the solstice." Autumn solstice occurs in September. [3] See contemporary real estate listing at NeXTag. [4] From Tropic of Cancer: Previously unpublished sections. (Roger Jackson, 1999), p. 45. [5] Plexus. (Henry Miller). Grove Press paperback edition, 1987. [6] Happiest Man Alive (Mary Dearborn). Touchstone, 1991; p.97. [7] Henry Miller: A Life (Robert Ferguson). WW Norton, 1991; p.115.

Note: Oddly enough, in both his life chronology in 1943 and for My Life & Times years later, Miller remembered this speakeasy event as occurring in 1927, not 1925. In The Henry Miller Reader (1959), Henry more correctly states “1925 or ’26.” (p.83)

7 Comments:

Anonymous Eric L said...

The speakeasy in the basement - what a classic. I wonder how many of the cellars of old houses throughout America have a similar story from Prohibition.

7:57 pm  
Blogger Damian Hade said...

awesome, keep up the good work!

12:58 pm  
Anonymous Kreg said...

It's great to find out where this speakeasy was actually located. Excellent work!

By the way, you referenced a document called "Henry Miller: The Final Archive". This one is new to me. Can you provide any further information on where to find this document or what info it contains?

7:53 pm  
Blogger Gege Dai said...

jets jersey
denver broncos jersey
golden state warriors
celine outlet online
pittsburgh steelers jersey
seahawks jersey
fred perry polo shirts
chicago blackhawks jerseys
green bay packers jerseys
valentino shoes
indianapolis colts jerseys
jacksonville jaguars jerseys
oklahoma city thunder jersey
eagles jerseys
dolphins jerseys
san antonio spurs jerseys
mac cosmetics sale
nike trainers
jaguars jersey
49ers jersey
chicago bears jersey
vans shoes
washington redskins jerseys
carolina panthers jerseys
mac cosmetics
detroit lions jersey
cheap nike shoes sale
cleveland cavaliers jerseys
baltimore ravens jerseys
tods outlet online
chargers jerseys
san antonio spurs jersey
air max 2014
bills jerseys
new england patriots jersey
linyuan0505

2:15 am  
Blogger raybanoutlet001 said...

pittsburgh steelers jersey
nike huarache
michael kors handbags
nike free 5
nike air huarache
nike air force 1
armani exchange
nba jerseys
bills jerseys
coach
2017.3.13

9:24 pm  
Blogger caiyan said...

fitflops shoes
longchamp bags
adidas shoes
christian louboutin shoes
nike air force 1
kobe shoes
michael kors
adidas shoes
nike tn
ralph lauren outlet
0427shizhong

1:48 am  
Blogger raybanoutlet001 said...

gucci borse
chicago bears jerseys
cowboys jerseys
ugg outlet
polo ralph lauren
cheap jordans
nike outlet
los angeles clippers
chicago bulls
texans jerseys
2017.6.14

3:19 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home