Where to Get Roasted, Where to Get Toasted.
Glenn O'Brien and David Coggins toast their New York City Secrets
My favorite Gotham watering hole is Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle. It’s a great old-school haute New York bar with an interesting crowd, chic but unpredictable. There is good live piano music—it won’t stop your talk, but you might want to applaud now and then. The waiters, bartenders and maître d’s are impeccable. They put you at ease, can make any cocktail you can name and supply you attentively with cocktail snacks. But the real charm is in the droll, delightful murals by Ludwig Bemelmans.
Bemelmans is many things to many people. He is probably best known for the Madeline books for children, which he wrote and illustrated, but he was a most prolific artist and author in general. He was born in the Austrian Tyrol. His father was a well-known painter who owned a hotel. Bemelmans claimed that he was born in the hotel, and instead of a pacifier he was given a bottle opener. He apprenticed at an uncle’s hotel and, apparently, at the age of sixteen, shot and wounded a waiter there with a pistol. He was allowed to emigrate to the United States instead of going to jail, and he worked in New York hotels until the United States entered World War I, and he, the U.S. Army. He was eventually commissioned an officer, and he wrote a funny book about his service, My War with the United States. After the war he returned to the New York hotel business, rising from waiter to manager. These experiences provided him with material for various books, including Hotel Splendide and Hotel Bemelmans.
In fact, Bemelmans didn’t take up writing until he was thirty-six years old, having failed as a restaurateur, but he made up for it with a prolific output later—writing and illustrating for magazines including Vogue, Harper’s
Bazaar, The New Yorker and Town & Country and producing fifty-two books. I’ve read most of them, and he has never failed me. I particularly love Dirty Eddie, an insider’s tale of old Hollywood; The Street Where the Heart Lies, a screwball romance set in Paris; and How to Travel Incognito, subtitled The Delicate Art of Self-Aggrandizement. All of Bemelmans’s books are slices of life from a time that was arguably more delightful and sophisticated than our own. You can still get a glimpse of that world for the price of a cocktail at the bar that bears his name at the hotel where he used to live.
We associate The Friars Club with their notorious roasts, where comics and actors in tuxedos make off-color jokes at the expense of one of their own. The roasts have been a rite of showbiz passage, testing the heartiest sensibilities since 1949, when the goodly Friars skewered Maurice Chevalier, who no doubt deserved it, as have those who followed. But The Friars Club is far more than roasts. It has been part of the New York landscape since 1904, and it has been eclectic enough to have both Richard Pryor and Henry Kissinger pass through its doors—
how many clubs can say that?
Founded as the Press Agents Association, the group worked primarily in theater and vaudeville and met for meals, with the motto “brotherhood forever.” They drank and ate but also wanted to make sure that critics and hangers-on didn’t get more than their fair share of comp tickets to any given Broadway show. In 1908 they moved into their first clubhouse on West 45th Street. Membership grew, then dropped in the depression and supposedly ran so low on funds that they avoided their grocer.
But devoted members, including Milton Berle, kept The Friars alive, and in 1957 they purchased the six-story Renaissance town house at 57 East 55th Street, known as The Monastery, where they abide today. It’s scenically clubby with wood paneling, towering ceilings, a rather stunning staircase and stained-glass windows.
The Friars have gone from comp quashing to more charitable works, but the spirit of the place remains comedy, performance and wisecracking love. There are still card games, billiards, devoted imbibing (Frank Sinatra was a member after all) and, of course, the roasts. It’s a mad world, but not just for men. Lucille Ball was the first woman roastee—and Liza Minnelli was the first woman member. Only in New York.