With the opening of a mysterious, unmarked door, your surroundings transform into a former prohibition paradise. You can almost imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway discussing their latest – and eventually classic – works while sipping martinis in a corner booth. The walls are lined with jackets of the books they would soon publish. Life-sized portraits of American icons remind you of the rich culture and history that now characterize the site, and remnants of the Roaring Twenties seem to seep out of every nook and cranny in the joint. This is a location indicative of Roaring Twenties culture: a physical representation of literary movements and post-WWI freedom. Chumley’s: then an illegal speakeasy with secret entrances and exits; it pervaded the law and prompted a new mentality among artists and flappers. But what can be said of the legendary establishment now?
While evidence of the wildest of American eras is still palpable throughout the establishment, the reservation-only restaurant that occupies 86 Bedford Street today is in no way identical to the rowdy speakeasy that existed almost a century ago. Currently a perfectly legal restaurant, it no longer needs the prohibition trademarks on which it was founded. Now, it simply epitomizes a former time while paying homage to the breakthroughs – literary and political – that once took place there. But the question remains: has the initial spirit of Chumley’s ceased to exist? Or are the next great American novels being written there at this very moment? Perhaps a new revolution is in the works right now in one of the dimly lit booths in the West Village. Just because time has passed and the social circumstances are different, the 1920s Chumley’s does not necessarily serve as a bookend to a mindset of determination.
To begin, it is important to understand why Chumley’s was a 1920s necessity. Perhaps Fitzgerald himself put it best when he said of the Prohibition Era, “‘The parties were bigger…the pace was faster…and the morals were looser’” (“Speakeasies”). These characteristics of the period are well-known, perhaps more so than the historical events that preceded them. Namely, in January of 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited alcohol in America, with the intent of creating a better quality of life in a post-war age (“Speakeasies”). Relics of the time – take The Great Gatsby, for example – make it clear that this new law was largely ineffectual. Law-abiding, alcohol-abstinent citizens were quite uncommon, and there were more alcohol-related deaths than ever before (“Speakeasies, Flappers, & Red Hot Jazz”). This flagrant disregard created for historians the cultural makeup of the period; the 1920s will forever be the party decade, and the former Chumley’s represented these years well. Soon, however, the law – much like Chumley’s – would change. “The stock market crash of 1929 signaled the end of the party,” and the controversial Amendment was rescinded four years later (“Speakeasies”). To this day, the memory of speakeasies, like Chumley’s, not only represent an era, but they also serve as useful parallels in considering America’s constant evolution.
Now for the story of Chumley’s, specifically. The 86 Bedford Street property was purchased by Lee Chumley in 1926, and after serving as a publishing headquarters for his radical newspapers and a meeting location for the Industrial Workers of the World union (IWW), “this speakeasy was very successful in circumventing the authorities” (Benveniste “Chumley’s: A History;” “Prohibition”). A variety of measures were taken to ensure this, many of which are still respected in the space, even today. Historically, for example, the site does not have a sign, and it hides a variety of secret entrances and exits in case of police raids, making it the ideal location then and a historical treasure now (Benveniste, “Chumley’s: A History”). Chumley’s began as a hub not only of illegality and criminal behavior, but also of startlingly new societal roles and literary ideals. These, as radical as they once seemed, would become culturally revered in history. Even so, the question remains: why this speakeasy? Why Chumley’s?
Perhaps the most significant detail of Chumley’s 1920s existence exceeded its function as a general speakeasy. James Barron of The New York Times described the former establishment as “a literary haunt:” a unique title that sheds a light on the site’s presumed culture. After all, the bar saw the likes of John Dos Passos and William Faulkner (Benveniste “Chumley’s: A History”). New York City, in general, is known to have been a creative inspiration to many Lost Generation writers, and the clientele at Chumley’s spoke to this accord. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation notes, in fact, that this particular speakeasy is second only to the White Horse Tavern as the oldest literary bar in the city (“Prohibition”). This fact adds to the historical and cultural value of the site, and it becomes significant when examining the bar’s developing purpose.
To extrapolate, more recently Chumley’s has been known less for its roots in Prohibition, and more for the struggle surrounding its reopening. The bar closed in April of 2007 after a chimney collapse yielded extensive damages (Benveniste “Chumley’s: A History”). From this point, Chumley’s was closed for over nine years. First, rebuilders struggled with construction issues that would eventually shrink the restaurant’s interior (Benveniste “Chumley’s: A History (Continued)”). Issues did not end with the feasibility of rebuilding, however. The Bar Free Bedford movement began in protest of Chumley’s reopening, and its members had worked until 2016 to keep their community free of the elicit behavior that characterized Chumley’s former crowd (“Chumley’s: A History;” Barron). This sense of dissatisfaction, however, is a remnant of Chumley’s original purpose. The same spirit of determination that characterized the flappers and the Lost Generation would lead to the restaurant’s reopening, and once under Alessandro Borgognone’s ownership, Chumley’s would become an eclectic mix of old mindsets and new circumstances.
Alessandro Borgognone describes his Chumley’s – the one that opened as recently as 18 October 2016 – as having an elegant, and even date-appropriate, atmosphere (Barron). This is a far cry from the 1920’s establishment that ran under Lee Chumley himself. Perhaps best described as “‘Chumley’s on steroids,’” it is now an establishment far too sophisticated for the beer-guzzling city dwellers that inhabited the bar throughout its in-between period: post-Prohibition and pre-chimney collapse (Barron). Borgognone has clarified his aims for his infant business repeatedly, and his efforts have been well-documented by the press – Caroline Benveniste of West View News believes that Chumley’s now has a “fancier vibe” – but Borgognone’s appreciation of the place’s history has certainly not gone unnoticed (Barron; “Chumley’s: A History (Continued)”). The transformation, therefore, is apparent, but not disrespectful. Benveniste’s personal account promises that if you visit the West Village restaurant today, you will appreciate the Gatsby vibe from the book jackets and crowded bar, but make no mistake, you will not be at the original Chumley’s (“Chumley’s: A History”). This was precisely Borgognone’s restoration intent.
That said, the spirit of this legendary establishment is not something that can be drawn up in a blueprint and executed with precision. The ambiance created by an owner does not necessarily dovetail with the mindset of the customer; Lee Chumley seemed to have gotten lucky in this way. He flourished by catering to the emotions of his contemporary American moment, whereas Alessandro Borgognone has modernized a historical landmark. By blending old and new, Borgognone has succeeded in paying homage to the past while accommodating a new American clientele. Throughout the adaptation of a boozy, Lost-Generation hideaway into a modern Manhattan restaurant, the function of Chumley’s has been noticeably transformed, and still, its cultural significance has been sustained all the while. Instead of starting from scratch, so to speak, representing a new national attitude as Lee Chumley had done, Borgognone got his inspiration from America’s historical past.
No longer do Lost Generations scribble brilliantly at the bar, and long gone are the union ideals of the IWW, but these principles are preserved, in a way. Perhaps customers today are changing America’s literary landscape in a new way, or maybe they are working towards some other kind of reform. What now looks like the mindless spending of fifty dollars per person might actually be the works of a new American moment, one to which we are simply too close to appreciate. Who is to say, in other words, that intellectual stimulation does not still come with every drink? Chumley’s could very well be the site of a new American movement: one that some college student a hundred years from now might research and write about. Revolutions – literary or political – are seldom recognized until they are considered in a historical context, and so while claims can be made about the Chumley’s that existed in the 1920s, the American impact of Borgognone’s Chumley’s has yet to be resolved.
Barron, James. “Chumley’s Will Return, but it Won’t Be Any Easier to Find.” The New York Times, 7 Aug. 2016, sec. A, p. 19. www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/nyregion/chumleys-is-set-to-come-back-and-it-still-wont-be-easy-to-find.html?_r=0.
Benveniste, Caroline. “Chumley’s: A History.” West View News, 3 Mar. 2016. westviewnews.org/2016/03/chumleys-a-history/. Accessed 29 Nov. 2016.
—. “Chumley’s: A History (Continued).” West View News, 8 Nov. 2016. westviewnews.org/2016/11/chumleys-history-continued/.
“Prohibition and Greenwich Village.” Greenwich Village History, Omeka. gvh.aphdigital.org/exhibits/show/prohibitionandgreenwichvillage/speakeasyowners/thechumleys.
“Speakeasies, Flappers & Red Hot Jazz: Music of the Prohibition.” The Jim Cullen Riverwalk Jazz Collection, Stanford University, 2005. riverwalkjazz.stanford.edu/program/speakeasies-flappers-red-hot-jazz-music-prohibition.