The Vault at Pfaff’s

whitman_pfaffsThe history of the Vault at Pfaff’s is the history of not only a place, but of the people who frequented its tables. The Vault was opened in 1855 by Charles Ignatious Pfaff, a foreigner with ascetic tastes, on Broadway near the corner of Bleeker Street. Sources disagree as to the exact address of the original Pfaff’s, with one stating it as 689 Broadway (Reynolds 376) and another as 653 Broadway (Miller 89). Regardless of the exact address, Pfaff’s was located in the heart of what was then a cultural hub of New York, Greenwich Village. Pffaf’s was dark and smoky with tables, seats and barrels for sitting on that were scattered around; it was known for its coffee, German beers, cheeses, and a fully stocked wine cellar (Miller 89). This setting attracted the budding Bohemian literary movement of the time. The original Bohemian lifestyle was born in France. Initially it was the necessary lifestyle of the starving artist, but soon it became romanticized into an ideal of shunning the emerging capitalist way of life and embracing art as the greatest truth. This romanticization emigrated to New York and found its home in Greenwich Village. Men were the most frequent visitors at Pfaff’s but, because of progressive ideals of the Bohemian mindset, women with strong characters also became famous frequenters. The Vault at Pfaff’s was so centrifugal to the Bohemian movement in America that the first group of American Bohemians became simply known as “Pfaffians”.

Pfaff’s was the perfect place for writers and literary types to come and drink while sharing their writings and opinions of other writers. Patrons were known to stand and recite their new works before having them published. Some of the most famous patrons of Pfaff’s were, “Ada Clare, the Queen of Bohemia…the actress Adah Isaacs Menken…the fictionist Fitz-James O’Brien…(author) Fitz-Hugh Ludlow…Artemus Ward, the comedian…the picturesque poet N.G. Shephard and the Poesque tale writer Charles D. Gardette” (Reynolds 377). Perhaps the most famous patrons of all were Walt Whitman and Henry Clapp Jr., the King of the Bohemians. Clapp was born in Nantucket but spent many years in Paris. His writing was considered controversial and his most controversial move of all was creating the Saturday Press. Miller writes that the Saturday Press was a, “mix of radical politics, personal freedom, naïveté, silliness, realism, sexual frankness, and exuberance…” (89). The Press allowed Clapp to publish his views and to also highlight the works of authors that he appreciated. One of these authors was Walt Whitman and his works “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and “O Captain! My Captain!” among dozens of other items. Unfortunately the Press was plagued with financial troubles and only existed for a year before it had to be shut down. Clapp was not to give up without a fight. Purely through strength of will Clapp reopened the Press in 1865 for two weeks, just long enough to publish “Oh Captain! My Captain!” and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” which catapulted Mark Twain to fame. Clapp, as the King of Bohemia, sat at the head of the table at Pfaff’s while Whitman usually took his place to the side at a separate table.

Although Whitman was touted as the “reigning luminary” (Burrows & Wallace 711)  Whitman did not come to Pfaff’s to be the center of attention. As he himself stated, “My own greatest pleasure at Pfaff’s was to look on – to see, talk little, absorb. I was never a great discusser, anyway”. This is not to say that Whitman was entirely silent, he was known to read new works aloud as well as to become embroiled in tiffs with other writers. Whitman wrote of Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Bells, “Yes, Tom, I like your tinkles: I like them very well” (Parry 41). He also made a short term enemy with George Arnold. Parry writes that George Arnold one night made the mistake of toasting the South. Whitman, a proud Yankee, jumped up and gave a long patriotic speech (quite unlike his placid Pfaffian demeanor) to which Arnold responded with a tug on Whitman’s beard (42).  Quarrels were to be expected because of the very nature of Pfaff’s; it was a place that encouraged drinking and liberal speech simultaneously.

Liberality reigned supreme in many forms. An important aspect of Pfaff’s was its female presence. Ada Claire was far and beyond the Queen. She was the trail blazer for all women who were to eventually find company at Pfaff’s, but she was also the woman to stay the longest. Ada was considered by Whitman to be born ahead of her time (Parry 14). Although she wrote love poems, she was really famous for her utter disregard of social norms. Ada Claire flaunted her love affairs and her illegitimate child born of one such affair, she smoked and drank with the Pfaffian men, and she took to the stage in order to achieve fame (Miller 91-92). Alongside Claire was Adah Isaacs Menken, known as, “a writer and actress and heroine of celebrated off-stage adventures” (Kaplan 243). Like Claire, Menken’s life was full of romantic drama and an illegitimate child. But unlike Claire, Menken found more success on stage when she stared in Mazeppa a play in which she was strapped to a horse practically naked. Adah Isaacs Menken was a great fan of Whitman and aligned him with Edgar Allen Poe, the Patron saint of the Pfaffians.

Poe came to rule over the Pfaffian crowd for obvious reasons. For one, he was a maligned writer who was unappreciated in his time. For two, the Pfaffians related well with Poe’s melancholic nature, no doubt enhanced for them by their drinking. In their own way, many of the Pfaffians emulated Poe. Whitman himself went down the melancholic road when he wrote in Two Vaults, “The Vault at Pfaff’s 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”. Fitz-James O’Brien patterned his stories after Poe and Charled D. Gardette was called a “Poesque tale writer” (Reynolds 377). Poe’s influence created  duplicity in the lives of the Pfaffians; on one hand they were care-free revelers, on the other hand they took up melancholic airs to reflect him. The symbolism of Poe gave the otherwise aimless group something to appear to fight against, namely Capitalism and the emerging middle class. Although the group had aspersions to toss not only at the middle class but also the slavery allies, they were not activists for progression or change. Reynolds writes, “It was they (the Pfaffians)…who had no distinct aim or purpose…Their carefree, carpe diem attitude showed that fifties individualism had sunk toward anarchic decadence” (378).

Not all of the Bohemians continued to reject the middle class; in fact, the group who did not reject the middle class lifestyle lived much better lives than those who did. Miller writes that, “William Winter rose to become a powerful drama critic. Edmund C. Stedman became a wealthy stockbroker on Wall Street… Bayard Taylor became a noted man of letters…And Whitman transformed himself into America’s Great Gray Poet…” (90). Steadfast Pfaffians met many sad fates; Ada Clare died of rabies after she was bit by a dog (Parry 36), Adah Menken died of pneumonia in Paris, Clapp died an alcoholic pauper on Blackwell’s Island, Fitz-James O’Brien died in the Civil War and Artemus Ward (Miller 90), Fitz-Hugh Ludlow, George Arnold, and Ned Wilkins all died because of drug related issues (Kaplan 244). When those who stuck by Pfaff’s began to die off, the Vault suffered its own form of death. As prosperity moved north to Midtown, the Vault at Pfaff’s also moved leaving behind a shell that was only a memory of the golden years of Bohemia. The original building was destroyed and made into a store. Charles Pfaff died in 1890.

The Vault at Pfaff’s was the beginnings of the Bohemian lifestyle in New York City which took strong root in Greenwich Village and continues to this day in various ways. The Bohemian lifestyle has lent itself to short life expectancy due to the use of drugs and alcohol and the rejection of the norms of society. It is not surprising that Walt Whitman found himself comfortable in a space of such care-free individualism, even if he did set himself aside instead of making himself the center of the movement. Whitman outlived the original location of the Vault at Pfaff’s and the Pfaffian lifestyle, becoming the Great Gray Poet. Those Pfaffians who followed suit grew to prosper while those who did not follow such a course met early and tragic deaths. The Saturday Press precluded the demise of Henry Clapp; the lives of both the paper and the man ended in poverty. Surprisingly, Charles Pfaff lived a long life well into his late seventies, and the Bohemian lifestyle that was born and nurtured in his Vault continues to this day.

Works Cited

Reynolds, David. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995.

Miller, Terry. Greenwich Village And How It Got That Way. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1990.

Burrows, Edwin, and Wallace, Mike. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford, 1999.

Parry, Albert. Garretts & Pretenders: A History of Bohemianism in America. New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2005.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman, A Life. New York: Perennial Classics, 2003.


Howells, William Dean. “First Impressions of Literary New York.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Jun. 1895: 62-74.

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