The Long Tradition of Americans Drinking in Paris
The City of Light has boasted a cocktail scene since 1840, which attracted a slew of famous American imbibers.
In his recent book, A Drinkable Feast, my fellow Daily Beast cocktail historian Philip Greene presents an informative and lively account of the drinks that put the “Lost” into “Lost Generation,” all linked to the legendary bars in which those young Americans who flooded into Paris in the 1920s drank them. Sidecars at Harry’s New York Bar, Champagne Cocktails at the Ritz bar, Rose Cocktails at the Chatham, Jimmie Specials at the Dingo—as Phil ably shows, Paris at the time was a buffet of delights for the discerning cocktail-drinker.
But Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Harry and Caresse Crosby and their ilk weren’t the first Americans to set up camp in the City of Lights and Harry’s, the Ritz and all the rest of the famous watering holes weren’t the first Parisian bars that set out to make Cocktails, Sours, Juleps, Cobblers and all the other stations of the American drinking cross.
In fact, from at least the 1840s until the German Wehrmacht came goose-stepping in a hundred years later it was Paris, not London or Havana, that was the Cocktail’s strongest bastion outside North America, although those cities loom far larger in modern Cocktail mythology.
It’s hard today to fully appreciate the place Paris occupied in the 19th-century American psyche. Sure, London had its pull—we did speak the language, after a fashion, and until pretty recently it had been our capital. But France had been our ally in 1776 and 1812, when we were fighting the British tooth and nail, and in 1861 it sided with the Union while the British sympathized with the Confederacy.
More than that, though, Paris was fun. Sure, London could be fun, too, if you knew the right people and the right way to dress, talk and act (most Americans never knew any of those things, although there were always some who wanted nothing more in this world and tried their damnedest). But as an American there you were always going to be a spoiled and rebellious child who needed to be put on the proper path by his elders and betters. Paris, however, didn’t give a shit about any of that stuff; the French looked at Americans as a people in their own right and took it from there. If you had money, you were always going to find some fast company in which to spend it. If you didn’t have money, well, you could call yourself an artist and still mooch by better than you could in New York or Boston or St. Louis. And the best part was you didn’t even have to give up drinking Cocktails.
At no time was an American Cocktail more welcome in Paris than in the summer of 1871, when the city was reeling from the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, which brought it a brutal siege, starvation, shelling, and a humiliating capitulation, followed by the upheaval caused by the Paris Commune and its bloody, cruel suppression. So when, as if to demonstrate that even all that disaster could not keep Americans away from their favorite foreign city, a rich Texan by the name of Charles H. Wells opened the simply-titled “American Bar” in July, the denizens of the stunned, partially ruined city flocked to it—or at least the American and British ones did, along with a smattering of the sportier French ones.
The American Bar was quite an operation. Located just a block from the Opera at no. 2, Rue Scribe, in a wing of the palatial new Grand Hotel building, it was in the most fashionable, sporty part of town. And it was no ordinary bar: Wells and his manager, Henry J. Raymond, spent some $75,000 in setting the place up (and that’s when Cocktails came two for a quarter), bringing in fine paintings, crystal chandeliers, big mirrors and dainty glasses. To top it off there were wagonloads of polished brass and carved mahogany and a couple of expert bartenders from New York behind the stick (the chef, a good one, was, of course, French).
They didn’t stop there. The next floor held a clubroom, where you could catch the latest American papers, collect your mail—there was a wall of pigeon holes for that—and, as we would say now, network with the various Americans in town. You could get American drinks, there, too, but in general it was a low-key, quiet sort of place; if you wanted a rowdier sort of American club, with spittoons and poker, you’d have to join the Washington Club, across the Boulevard des Capucines. If, however, you enjoyed placing a bet in elegant company, you could continue up the stairs at the American Bar: that’s where the faro and baccarat tables and roulette wheels were located, manned by more experts right off the boat from New York. Presiding over this part of the establishment was Mrs. Wells, an engaging, buxom, blonde-ringleted Irish beauty.
The American Bar was an instant success, drawing all the American sports who were trickling back into town as well as a high proportion of the British ones and even a few high-stepping Frenchmen, who generally left the American establishments to the Americans.
But while the American Bar might have been the most successful such establishment in Paris, at least initially, it was far from the first. I don’t know if the 1847 report, widely reprinted in American papers, that “A Boston boy has gone to Paris to open a Mint Julep saloon” ever panned out. But by 1849 there was a full-fledged American bar operating in the Café Leblond, on the Boulevard des Italiens only a few blocks east of where Wells and Raymond would set up shop. Café Leblond boasted of one W. G. Keeney, a New Yorker who had tended bar there and apparently in New Orleans as well (if you believe the visitor from that city who thought maybe he recognized Keeney from one of the bars there). Boasting that he was “ready to administer to all tastes, in his inimitable Mint Juleps, concocted in twenty different modes, as well as a great variety of Sherry Cobblers, to say nothing of his original Cock Tails—or of 100 other compositions” he set out to “enlighten the Parisians in the art and the mystery of mixing liquors,” as our hazy-memoried New Orleanian put it.
In fact, to a large degree “The Original Keeney,” as he called himself, succeeded in that mission. Although most Parisians stuck to their Mazagrans and Eaux Sucrées; their absinthes and Vermouths-Cassis, a substantial share of literary and musical Paris found itself at one point or another sitting at a table at Café Leblond, attached to one end of a long straw, the other being sunk deep into a Capped Julep, a Rochelle Cobbler or a New Orleans Pig & Whistle. As the Charivari des théâtres pronounced in 1849, “the English have a habit of marking with three XXX [sic], that is to say, three times excellent, that which they find truly superior; it is thus one must mark all these drinks.”
The Café Leblond survived into the 1860s, although I don’t know how long the Original stayed behind the bar. By the time it closed, it had some competition, always in the same part of town. There was Hill’s, on the Boulevard des Capucines across from the entrance to Rue Scribe, but that, more English than truly American, was only capable of turning out what the New York World judged in 1866 to be “feeble imitations of our national cocktail.” Better was another Anglo-American establishment, Peters’s restaurant in the nearby Passage des Princes, which was capable of executing what the World defined as a proper American cocktail: “a blood-drop of bright bitters, kissed with absinthe, and warmed with a generous handful of old Bourbon American whisky, into which a bit of lemon peel leaps out of pure sympathy, and touching the filtered and intoxicated sugar, half dissolves in joy.”
I’ll be right back.
Okay, that’s better.
Leblond’s real successor, however, opened on Rue Scribe itself in 1865, at no. 4, in the same complex where Wells and Raymond would open their bar six years later. The Grand Café, as it was first known, soon changed its name to the Cosmopolitan. I don’t know who opened it, but it seemed to change management every three or four years. By 1869, one Thorp was in charge, and he must have been doing something right because when he sold out in 1872 he had already taken $25,000 out of the business, good money by almost any standard back then.
At first, it looked like Wells and Raymond were going to brush aside all competition, from the Cosmopolitan on down. And so, for a while that was the case. There were only a couple of early indications that that condition might not last. One was the fact that the clientele seemed to include a disproportionate number of shifty characters, both American and British. That might only be due to the fact that the faro tables and roulette wheels and indeed the whole gambling part of the operation was strictly illegal (the bartender had an electric buzzer that warned Mrs. Wells when the gendarmes were one their way upstairs, and they were never able to find anything but a bunch of flushed people sitting around at tables and trying to look bored. But still, it gave one pause).
Then there were the detectives, the ones who were always watching the place. A connoisseur of criminal apprehension would have been able to pick out none other than William Pinkerton, scion of the legendary crime- (and union-) busting dynasty of the same name, among them. This seemed to unsettle Wells, who took to drinking heavily and plunking at the keys of the clubroom piano; when still relatively sober, he did this quite competently.
By the end of 1873, the bloom was off the rose and many of the more upright and pecunious of the customers had taken their business back to Peters’s or the Cosmopolitan or to the little American dry goods shop up on the boulevard where the Yankee lady behind the counter turned out a surprisingly authoritative, if plain, Cocktail.
As if to put a capper on the American Bar’s decline, one day at the end of 1873 Raymond offered to introduce a well-known jewelry salesman to a couple of potential customers. The next day the man brought in a stout leather bag full of his best wares, including several individual diamonds of between 25 and 32 carats in their settings, and dozens of others of smaller ones. All in all, the contents were worth just under $150,000. At the American Bar, the salesman put it down on the bar for a moment and turned around to talk to Raymond. When he turned back toward it, it was gone, apparently snatched by a man described as “below middle height, very well dressed, thin in person and face, pale complexion, very slight whiskers, dark hair, aged 23 or 24; American accent.”
Raymond was outraged, and ordered the place searched top to bottom, by his people and then by the police. Nothing. When accused of complicity, he gave out with the is-this-how-respectable-foreign-businessmen-are-treated-in-this-country and denied everything. The police were still suspicious, and this time raided the place properly, preventing the alarm from being given. Worth and Mrs. Wells were elsewhere, but they netted a whole lot of croupiers and such, and Charles Wells himself.
Wells, a gentleman, was offered bail. He took it—and took it on the lam. When last seen, he was heading to London.
Wells, it developed, was not Wells, but rather Charles “Piano Charlie” Bullard. Raymond was actually Adam Worth, and while Mrs. Wells was in fact Kitty Bullard, she also had two children with Worth, who was the mastermind of the whole operation. In fact (as detailed with wit and precision in Ben Macintyre’s 1998 The Napoleon of Crime), Worth was the master criminal of his age and the model for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. The $75,000 he and the Bullards used to set up their bar was a small part of the estimated million dollars they withdrew from Boston’s Boylston National Bank one weekend in 1869 by tunneling through the wall of the vault from the next door patent medicine store, which they had set up as a front, filling the window with bottles of “Gray’s Oriental Tonic” to mask their preparations within.
After the raid, Kitty and Adam pulled the fine fixtures out of the bar and beat it out of town to join Piano Charlie in London. There, they got together with Little Joe Elliot—the pale, wispy-whiskered young American whom Worth had commissioned to swipe the jewelry man’s bag—and counted their profits.
In Paris, the Cosmopolitan bar once again had the field more or less to itself. In 1880, it was joined by the American bar Henry Holzschuh, its new owner, added to the venerable and aristocratic Chatham Hotel on the two-block long Rue Daunou, which Rue Scribe becomes when it crosses the Boulevard des Capucines. In 1889, the same year Emile Lefeuvre, head bartender at the Cosmopolitan, published the first cocktail book in French, another head bartender, and another Henry, opened his own bar on Rue Volney, right around the corner from the Chatham.
Henry Tépé didn’t go far to do it, since the bar he had presided over was in fact the one at the Chatham. Before that, he had worked in London. The only time he had spent in America was the afternoon he passed walking around Hoboken, New Jersey, while waiting for his ship to sail. Nonetheless, Henry’s Bar quickly became the leading American bar in Paris. The day in 1893 a New York Sun reporter stopped in, he found “15 or 20 well-dressed and well-to-do Americans and Englishmen . . . sit[ting] or stand talking in the cozy room,” while “Whiskey Sours, Gin Fizzes, …[and] a real free lunch mingle[d] with a real barkeeper and a real bar and the good old American language.” Henry’s led the pack until 1918, when, for reasons unknown, Tépé threw himself out a top floor window of his building (had he not done that, the chances are very good that it would have been Henry’s, not Harry’s, where all the Americans went in the 1920s).
By 1900, there were at least a dozen American bars operating in the city, most of them in that same neighborhood, which had attracted American enterprises of all types, from the American Express office, to various banks, to bookstores, tearooms and even, inexplicably, American restaurants. In 1911, those bars were joined by the New York Bar, on Rue Daunou across the street from the Chatham. That one, at least, is still there, and still looks much the same as it did in 1911.
Everything else is either gone or (like Fouquet’s, which began as an American bar) so fully assimilated that it is now purely French. The Lost Generation, it turned out, would be the Last Generation; after them, and after the upheaval that the Second World War brought, American lost their particular bond with the City of Light. Sure, we were happy to visit, but whether it had become too alien or not alien enough, it was no longer our home away from home. For many years, that meant that the art of the Cocktail was essentially dead in Paris, with one or two exceptions. Recently, however, the city has seen a boom in top-level, American-style Cocktail bars.
Ladies and gentlemen, what are we waiting for? Let’s go lose another generation. I mean, if not now, then when?