La vie boheme arrived in America in the late 1850s, care of a Nantucket-born radical named Henry Clapp, Jr. After three years in France spent loafing in the Latin Quarter, Clapp hoped to bring Parisian cafe culture to New York City. For his headquarters he chose a gritty German bar called Pfaff’s at 647 Broadway. It was an underground cellar, minimally furnished. There Clapp and his circle passed hours of inspired idleness, chugging mugs of cheap beer. Like their French forebears, they embraced lives of poverty and vice. They drank to excess, smoked opium and hashish, contracted venereal diseases.
Clapp had an unpleasant reputation—a “snapping turtle” is how William Dean Howells described him. Yet he drew fascinating men and women into his orbit, spearheading a short-lived experiment in American counterculture on the eve of the Civil War. His associates included Adah Isaacs Menken, the daughter of a French Creole mother and a free black father who converted to Judaism for her first (of four) husbands—and, more importantly, became an actress whose scandalously erotic performances made her an international sex symbol. Another was Fitz Hugh Ludlow, a consciousness-expander along the lines of Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary whose memoir The Hasheesh Eater is a founding document of American psychedelia. There was also Walt Whitman, who had just published the second edition of his Leaves of Grass after encouraging praise from Emerson. He wrote an unfinished poem about his time at Pfaff’s:
The vault at Pfaffs where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse While on the walk immediately overhead pass the myriad feet of Broadway As the dead in their graves are underfoot hidden