The coffee habit was introduced into Western Europe in the mid-seventeenth century. The emergence of the London coffeehouse transformed various aspects of intellectual and commercial life. Lloyd’s insurance, the postal system and the auction house are some of the institutions that trace their origins back to the coffeehouse.
At a time that journalism was in its infancy, the coffeehouse provided a center of communication and news dissemination. It served as a forum of discussion, often becoming a hotbed of political strife and faction. Coffeehouse culture helped shape the public sphere of the Enlightenment.
Paris added its own dimension to the rise of the café. The political events of the 1790s released French chefs from aristocratic patronage. Facing a competitive market, they set up cafés and bistros to cater for a new clientele in abandoned hotels or basement localities. Offering a menu of modestly priced stews and slow cooked food, the Parisian café-bistro attracted a mostly young and bohemian clientele of students and artists. It became a center of aesthetic argument and artistic renewal and a drinking den for absinthe addicts.
Coffee culture in Greenwich Village followed the Parisian example. The mass settlement of immigrants as well as an influx of students and artists into this low rent district created a lively and buoyant atmosphere in cafés and small eateries where art and (anarchist) politics were hotly debated. It all began at a venue in Washington Place.
Paris & London
Until the end of the nineteenth century, the École des Beaux Arts in Paris controlled all aspects of artistic life in France. To aspiring painters and sculptors, it offered the only means of public art education and exhibition and as such became a stifling presence. The Academy came under attack at the same time that Baron Haussmann modified the face of Paris on behalf of Emperor Napoleon III.
The effects of reconstruction went far beyond the physical appearance of the cityscape. The psychological impact of renovation enhanced the awakening consciousness of modernity. In the artistic break from the Academy, the Parisian café-bistro became a social institution and a symbol of modern life and art. The Café Guerbois and La Nouvelle Athènes played a major role in the emergence of Impressionism.
Similar French-inspired developments took place in London. Daniel Nicholas Thévenon was a Burgundy-born wine-seller. Facing bankruptcy, he and his wife Célestine Lacoste fled to London in October 1863 where he assumed the name Daniel Nicols. In 1865 the couple took over a shop in Glasshouse Street, turning it into Café Restaurant Nicols. Having enlarged the premises in 1867, they renamed it Café Royal.
Increasingly, the café attracted a bohemian clientele, including artists such as James McNeill Whistler, Augustus John and Auguste Rodin. During the early 1890s the café was frequented by Oscar Wilde and friends. By 1892 it was advertising itself as the “most brilliant, and best known Anglo-French café in the world.”
Some of London’s intimate foreign restaurants were a magnet to young artists. Austrian cook Rudolph Stulik, who had reputedly been chef to Emperor Franz Josef, was proprietor of the Hôtel de la Tour Eiffel in Percy Street, Fitzrovia. In exchange for free meals, the owner-chef was given works of art to decorate his establishment.
It was here that Wyndham Lewis launched the Vorticist magazine Blast in 1914. William Roberts depicted The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel in 1915. This group portrait includes Rudolph Stulik himself and Joe, the waiter at the house. Patronage of the arts was moved to a different level and location.
In the sixteenth century, the marshland what is now Greenwich Village was known as Sapokanikan (“tobacco field”) and inhabited by Indigenous People who fished the trout-filled Minetta Creek, then one of Manhattan’s large natural watercourses. The area was named “Noortwyck” by Dutch settlers who cleared pastures and planted crops. By 1713, it was referred to as Grin’wich (Groenwyck) and the area developed as a green suburb that supplied the metropolis with fresh produce.
An outbreak of cholera in New York during the late 1700s and early 1800s drove people away from the city, seeking refuge in this neighborhood which led to a substantial increase in population. Losing its farming nature, the re-developed area saw an influx of merchants and tradesmen.
During the second half of the nineteenth century the character of the neighborhood changed again once immigrants from Ireland, France and Italy started settling in considerable numbers. The Village transitioned to a culture of ethnic and cultural diversity which was further accelerated by the expansion of New York University and associated cultural institutions.
With prosperous New Yorkers starting to leave Greenwich’s labyrinth of streets and lanes and move northward, the availability of low rent housing and a growing reputation for non-conformism attracted both students and artists to the district. At the turn of the twentieth century, Greenwich boasted a dynamic and predominantly young population. The Village became synonymous with creativity and artistry.
In 1901 a sixteen year old youngster entered the United States from a small town in rural Moldavia. Her father was a nomad Roma; her mother a Romanian Jew. Having settled as one of the newcomers in the Village, Marie Marchand played a key role in developing the bohemian character that was to define the neighborhood for generations to come. She would be crowned Queen of Greenwich Village.
The Making of Romany Marie
Marie arrived in New York with $150 in her pocket and found work as a seamstress in the unforgiving environment of sweatshops. She fought her way through and brought her mother and sisters to New York. The family lived on the lower East Side near the Ferrer Modern School which offered workers free adult education. Marie supported the school’s activities and in doing so she met a number of artists and thinkers who later became her patrons.
Founded in 1910 and first located at 6 St Marks Place, the school was based on the model of the Esquela Moderna founded by Catalan educator Francisco Ferrer, whose politically motivated execution in 1909 had sparked outrage in European and American left-wing circles. It inspired the founding of New York’s Francisco Ferrer Association and the pledge to start a school for adults and children with a curriculum that was based upon an anti-church, anti-state and anti-authoritarian philosophy.
When the school opened its doors in September 1911, the New York Times reported that the occasion was attended by a “mass meeting of Socialists, Anarchists, Rationalists, Libertarians and radicals in general.” Initially, the Modern School offered adult classes in contemporary politics, history and English language (for immigrants) as well as lectures on art, literature, music and theatre. It was an atmosphere in which Marie’s fiercely independent mind flourished.
Once she had mastered English, she joined a theater and attended anarchist meetings and rallies hosted by the likes of Emma Goldman and others. She began inviting like-minded souls to her home, feeding and entertaining them in a Roma tradition of communal hospitality. Her Continental cooking skills were appreciated; friends and guests encouraged her to start a bistro.
In 1914, Marie opened her first café on the corner of Sheridan Square at 133 Washington Place in the West Village. The rented space was located on the third floor of a four-story building with poor amenities and outdoor toilets. For years she had no electricity, candles furnishing the only lighting, but for many of her clients Romany Marie became a second home. The place was filled artists, writers, philosophers and vegetarians – the Greenwich “intelligentsia.”
Marie created a Left Bank of her own, her very personal interpretation of a Parisian café. She was renowned for Turkish coffee, which she would serve with a complimentary reading of the patron’s fortune, putting on a show every night dressed in colorful outfits, her arms and fingers decorated in shiny bracelets and jewellery.
In 1915 Marie moved her bistro to 20 Christopher Street. It was at this location that her name became widely known and associated with bowls of 35-cent Romanian chorba (a stew with vegetables and meat).
Over a period of three decades, the eatery changed addresses at least a dozen times. Marie herself always lived in the same building, maintaining that feeling of home at each location which was so important to her. She would leave a note overnight: the “Caravan has moved” and change place. Her faithful “tribe” would follow her wherever she chose to settle.
Volcano of Creativity
Marie’s persona has been described as attractive, lively and generous. She would feed anyone in the Village as long as she was offered an exchange of art or good company. Marie never cared about opulence; her cafés were there to sustain the creative mind and stomach. She was a local mother of the arts, always offering support to struggling artists. The walls of her restaurant were full of local works of art which she considered a fair barter for a decent bite to eat.
Marie’s proprietorship made her bistro feel and look more like a Parisian salon than a traditional New York styled eating place. At any time, any number of Village notables could be found in her establishment, working quietly on their next novel or debating politics or philosophical issues with friends and strangers. It has been said that Marie kept alcoholic Eugene O’Neill alive in 1916/7 by making sure that he would eat rather than drink.
The intriguing figure of Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, architect, engineer, designer, poet and bohemian polymath, was one of Marie’s regulars. He would turn up several times per week to give ‘thinking out loud’ lectures to fellow locals. He described his friend and hostess as “a Vesuvius of creativity in heart and mind.”
Marie managed a “patron’s table” where interesting or entertaining people would gather in conversation around a fireplace, be they anarchists, artists or Arctic expeditioners from the nearby Explorers Club. Her table was a hub of creativity. Poet Edna St Vincent Millay was a regular and often asked Marie to interpret the grounds in her cups of Turkish coffee. She apparently noted down the famous line “my candle burns at both ends” in Marie’s establishment.
Romanian modernist sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, whose work was the rage in Paris in the early 1900s, introduced Henri Matisse to her. Painter Stuart Davis, a daily patron, produced a watercolor in 1912 of Romany Mary’s interior. A decade later John French Sloan, the painter of so many iconic New York streetscapes, etched an inside view of the Christopher Street location (he was also responsible for Marie’s painted portrait in 1920).
Romany Marie’s time as an entrepreneur was not without problems. The generosity and radical spirit that she brought to life and business were at odds with making a profit or paying rent. Benefits on her behalf were held amongst friends and supported by locals. Marie somehow remained in charge and kept supplying food to both hungry and talented fellow Villagers.
When she died in February 1961, Marie’s life was endearingly remembered by generations of artists, writers and activists. Her nephew Robert Schulman subsequently chronicled her life in an entertaining biography.
Marie Marchand’s story is a tale that highlights the newcomer’s strength of character and pioneering drive. Young and courageous, she adapted to her new metropolitan environment, learned language and local customs, and used her charm to create an eccentric environment of hospitality, friendship and creative endeavor.
The Romany Queen single-handedly introduced “La Vie Bohème” to New York City. The Village owes her a statue and celebrate this migrant’s irrepressible spirit.
Illustrations, from above: Au bistro, without date (Private collection) by John French Sloan, Romany Marie, 1920 by Jean Béraud (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York); Romany Marye [Marie] in Christopher Street, 1922 by John Sloan (The MET, New York); Romany Marie’s, 1912 by Stuart Davis (Private collection); and Marie Marchand in front of her restaurant door in New York, c. 1947 (Getty Images).