PARIS—It may not be true that “drinklore,” as my friend David Newhoff once wrote, is “the ether that binds all human existence.” But I think there is no watering hole anywhere in the world where the atmosphere is so thick with it as Harry’s New York Bar at 5 rue Daunou (“sank roo doe noo”: itself a legendary address) here in Paris, France, which is, of course, a mythical city.
The more one learns about Harry’s, the thicker the ether becomes, hanging in the air as heavy as the boxing gloves suspended from a wooden monkey’s tail above the bar. They are old and cracked and a little dusty, and maybe they once shielded the massive hands of Primo Carnera, the 6-foot-6 world heavyweight champion who came out of Italy in the 1930s. Or—maybe—they belonged to Ernest Hemingway, from his days as an amateur pugilist in Paris. A barman from Harry’s is supposed to have been his corner man, and on one occasion F. Scott Fitzgerald was timing the rounds when another writer knocked Hemingway flat on his back.
Ah… Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Their Paris—home to the “lost generation” in the 1920s—remains the city millions of tourists dream about. Both writers used to drink at Harry’s, and heavily, and Hemingway actually did sign the guest book—as a fighter. “My writing is nothing,” he once claimed, probably after a few drinks, “My boxing is everything.”
Right. But were those truly Hemingway’s gloves? Probably not.
“Hey, it’s a bar,” says another friend who’s been a denizen here for decades. “What are you not going to believe after your first drink?”
One fact about Harry’s appears to be unassailable, however. It opened for business on Rue Daunou as “The New York Bar” 106 years ago, precisely, on Thanksgiving Day 1911, and from the beginning its specialty was cocktails.
Over the previous century, the United States had grown famous for mixed drinks. But that trend stayed for the most part on the far side of the Atlantic. In France, vineyards were devastated by the phylloxera aphid in the late 1800s, and locals deprived of affordable wine had conceived a passionate taste for absinthe, which came in the color of emeralds and contained a bit of thujone, a mild hallucinogen, as well as a lot of alcohol.
A favorite of French artists and writers, absinthe was said to give genius to those who didn’t have it, and take it from those who did. Around 5 p.m. each day, all along the boulevards, men and women would observe l’heure verte, the green hour, with glasses of absinthe and ice water amply sweetened.
But in 1911, times were changing. The temperance movement was on a rampage in the United States, and even though the Prohibition-era wouldn’t begin until nine years later, a well-known jockey named Tod Sloan could read the bottom of the cocktail glass. He found a great Paris address just around the corner from the Opera and the Ritz, and he proceeded to import the entire oak-paneled interior of a bar in New York.
The temperance movement was taking hold in France, as well, but narrowly focused on absinthe, which was portrayed as a particular plague on society. That it often contained 70 percent alcohol or more, and sometimes was colored green with poisonous chromium, did not help matters. In 1915, France banned it.
So, the moment was propitious for the French to learn that l’heure verte was really the cocktail hour, and potentially a very happy one.
Except, World War I had begun, and with it, the American ambiance at Harry’s attracted a growing population of American soldiers, first as volunteers like the flyers of the Lafayette Escadrille, and then as part of the massive deployment in 1918 under Gen. John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing.
In the very early days of the establishment on Rue Daunou, a young Scotsman named Harry McElhone (later, MacElhone) had served as the barman. He left to gain experience in some of the great hotels of the U.S. and U.K. and in 1923, when he returned, it was with enough money to buy the place from what had been a succession of owners.
By now, prohibition madness was in full swing in the United States, and New York bars in New York had been shut down or turned into speakeasies. The Twenties were roaring, and Paris offered special intellectual, social, and sexual freedom for the Americans who made it here, arriving by ship and staying for weeks or months.
McElhone had picked his moment well. He renamed his acquisition Harry’s New York Bar, and so it has remained ever since. Its entrance then as now was through saloon-style swinging doors, and in the Hemingway and Fitzgerald days, he sat just to the right of the entrance much of the time.
At the piano downstairs, so the story goes, George Gershwin drank Black Velvets (a mix of Guinness and Champagne) while he composed “An American in Paris,” somewhat to the annoyance of other customers, who thought he was tuning the instrument incessantly.
Harry’s advertising boasted, “Bar open all day and night.” And that suited his customers as the drinklore about the place grew, some of it naturally, some carefully contrived. One publicity play was the International Bar Flies (IBF), a club with members all over the world. The emblem, dancing drunken flies, is still emblazoned on the mirror behind the bar and on the paper coasters. Among the group’s rules, a challenge to play the ukulele at 5 a.m. (Harry’s is no longer a 24/7 establishment.)
With the onset of World War II, and before the Nazis arrived to occupy Paris, McElhone shut down the bar and moved back across the Channel. But once the Germans were driven from the city, he was quick to return.
According to a story I was told over a Bloody Mary (which may or may not have been invented at Harry’s in 1924), after Hemingway “liberated” the Ritz Bar in August 1944, he came around the corner, opened up Harry’s, and started a free pour. McElhone, soon hearing of this, told British authorities that Hemingway was depleting his stores, and persuaded them to let him be among the first businessmen from the U.K. back into the City of Lights.
A veteran magazine correspondent used to tell the story of interviewing Humphrey Bogart as a young reporter in the 1950s. They met at the Ritz, but Bogart wanted to go to Harry’s. Hours later, the interview over, the reporter realized he couldn’t read his own notes. He pleaded for another interview, and at Harry’s, but Bogart’s wife, Lauren Bacall, would only let that happen if neither man would drink.
Laurent Giraud, 46, has been tending bar at Harry’s for the last 18 years, and has seen a lot of celebrities come and go: Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Quentin Tarantino among them. He’s also watched a lot of fashions in clothes, in food, and in drink come—and go. But Harry’s has always been above fashion, if not indeed opposed to it. In the 1920s and ’30s, when Le Dome, Le Select, and La Rotonde advertised themselves as “American bars” in Montparnasse on the Left Bank, Harry’s stood out as the very model of one on the Right Bank, complete with its wood paneling, university crests, and eventually a panoply of university pennants. None of that has changed.
And there are certain things you can get at just about any café, that are, well, not so easily obtainable at Harry’s—a glass of wine, for instance.
But, there’s a loophole. If you order a hot dog—and the hot dogs here have been served from the same steamer since 1925—you can get a glass of red wine with it. Go figure.
“This is not a wine bar, it is the oldest cocktail bar in Europe,” Giraud explained one afternoon after he’d finished his shift. “The bar remains the way it was in 1911, which means that there are no fridges.” In fact, the bar itself dates to 1849, having done a good 60 years of service in New York before it was shipped here. If Harry’s started serving red wine by the glass (without the hot dogs), they’d have to serve chilled white—a slippery slope, according to Giraud.
“We are being new by being ancient,” says Franz Arthur MacElhone, Harry’s great grandson—yes, this bar is a family business. “If you go around Paris, you will see people trying to be ‘old.’” (Indeed, the French bistro scene has a lot of Ye Olde ersatz lost generation decor these days, after an earlier spurt of Philippe Starck-ness.) “The cornerstone of our existence is that being what we are is being fashionable,” says MacElhone. “We are not changing anything.”
Consider the Harry’s Bloody Mary: You’ll never find a celery stick in it. The original recipe is simpler, and is pretty much the same as it was in 1924.
And maybe most important, consider the man who makes it. Harry’s doesn’t have “mixologists,” it has barmen.
“There is a big gap,” says MacElhone. “The mixologist today in some fashionable places will be somebody listening to himself. When you are a barman you shut up and you listen.”
Of such encounters, great drinklore is made.