Delia Cabe, who grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, is a magazine writer and a bookworm. Her work has appeared in Self, Prevention, Health, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Scientific American Presents, and other newspapers and magazines. She teaches magazine and column writing at Emerson College.
Thank you so much for being here, Delia! Check out Delia's events schedule on her website because a few lucky people at her readings will get free cocktail shakers!
So what was the why not moment when you decided to write Storied Bars of New York? I personally think it's a genius idea, as it acts as both a travelogue (who wouldn't want to visit all these bars?) and a fascinating look at writers (or course) AND a fascinating look at bars.
A funny thing happened on my way to getting a book contract for Storied Bars of New York: Where Literary Luminaries Go to Drink. About five years ago, my literary agent, Jean Sagendorph, was pitching my proposal for a book about cocktail bars that had a library atmosphere. Every publisher passed. The cocktail book trend had already peaked. In April 2016, Jean, noticing another uptick in publishers’ interest in cocktail books, asked me if it would be okay to circulate my book proposal again. I agreed, thinking nothing would come of it. Besides, I’d already started research on a book about gardening and had set that summer aside to work on that proposal.
An editor at Countryman Press replied that she was interested, sort of. Instead of this book, she wanted to know if I would be interested in writing a book on New York City bars that were and are authors’ favorites. Jean texted me, “CALL ME.” After listening to her news, my heart was thumping loudly from excitement, but at the same time, my mind was in the gardening zone. (I’m an avid gardener.) That night, I talked my husband, who was all for me writing it, into thinking I should pass.
The next morning, I woke up realizing this book was perfect for me: I grew up in Manhattan, I’ve been immersed in NYC’s history beginning in childhood, I read all about its past and current literary scene, and—hello?—COCKTAILS! Dorothy Parker had gone to grade school in the same brownstone where I had gone to high school (different names). My grade school was on Christopher Street, home to many famous writers and a block away from the Lion’s Head (now Kettle of Fish), a favorite haunt of Village Voice writers and others. By mid June, the contract was signed, and I was arranging my research trips. My manuscript was due October 1.
I bet you had a blast doing research! Tell us one of your most surprising stories? And if you were me, where do you think I'd most love to drink in NYC?
In all my years writing nonfiction, never have I had offers to help me research until I snagged this book contract. Suddenly, everyone wanted to join me. I refused. I had serious work to do. On my first 48-hour trip to New York City, I did seven interviews and visited about 10 bars. I put about 25 miles on my Fitbit. On my second 48-hour trip, I visited about 11 bars, did more interviews, went to the New York Public Library to read out-of-print books, and put about 30 miles on my Fitbit.
One interview was unplanned. I walked by the New York Distilling Company, which makes a Dorothy Parker Gin (try it!), and its attached bar, The Shanty, while waiting for the Prose Bowl, an open-mic contest (think: a kinder, gentler American Idol for nonfiction writers) at Pete’s Candy Store to begin. The distillery wasn’t open, but upon seeing me peer in the door window, Bill Potter, one of the owners, invited me in. He gave me a personal tour of the distillery, showed me the industrial-designed bar, described the plays a local troupe puts on there and visits by the Dorothy Parker Society, and more. Pete’s Candy Store and the distillery/bar made it into my book. (By the way, because Caroline has done readings at Pete’s, I included her in that chapter.)
I thought for a while about where you’d like to grab a drink in NYC. I’d meet you at Bo’s, also in Storied Bars of New York, on West 24th Street. One of the partners is Andrew “Bo” Young III, son of the civil rights leader, Andrew Young. Because of Bo’s Louisiana heritage, his restaurant has a Big Easy vibe. Every month, the bar features a reading series called #YeahYouWrite (the name comes from a sign in the restaurant, Yeah You Right, which, in turn, is a New Orleans expression of agreement). On one night a month, three or more authors tell stories and read from their works, while the bartender makes signature cocktails based on the author’s tastes and his or her book. For Tayari Jones, author of the novel Silver Sparrow, he made a cocktail called “Silver Secret,” consisting of gin, St. Germain, peach, prosecco and a strawberry garnish. Naming a cocktail for novelist Julia Glass was a no-brainer: Julia’s Glass. I can easily picture Caroline entertaining the room, while sporting her red cowboy boots. Although you’re not a drinker, perhaps the bartender could concoct a light cocktail with Kahlua, which you favor.
Which writer did you not expect at which bar?
The late Christopher Hitchens at Café Loup, a French bistro near the New School. He seems like a guy who’d like a bar that is unfussy. Café Loup isn’t fussy, but it has white tablecloths and napkins. I pictured him at a darker moodier, crusty place—not a dive, but one that has lots of dark wood. He was a café regular while teaching at the New School, which is nearby. He wrote a tribute to the café for The Spectator. He liked the place because he could “read, or write, or brood, or recuperate” undisturbed and because it lacked televisions. There, he could nurse a whiskey on the rocks, his libation of choice.
What was the writing like?
I had a blast researching and writing my book. It gave me a chance to immerse myself in my hometown, its history, literary lives, and more. I bought a huge number of used books on the internet, so my summer reading was delicious. By the end, I had become a walking encyclopedia. On subsequent trips to New York City, I regaled my patient husband with trivia as we walked by one bar or street address after another. My brain became filled with anecdotes about bar owners, bar tales, and literary bar flies. Of course, because my book features a few recipes of either author’s fave cocktails or a bar’s signature cocktails, some recipe testing was involved. I also had the monumental task of gathering color photos—my own and those from the bars—for my book.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Obsessions, moi? Right now, I’m getting ready for my book launch. I’m giving away cocktail shakers at my readings to lucky attendees whose name I draw. I’m asking them to name their favorite author and cocktail. I’m sending framed covers of my book plus coasters featuring my book cover to the bars featured in my book. I still need to frame the photos and package the coasters. At the moment, my home office looks like a warehouse filled with boxes. I have little room to move around, but my two cats enjoy climbing all over the boxes. This coming week, I will be head of my own mailroom, packing and sealing boxes, addressing them, and visiting the P.O.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
You didn’t ask me where I’d like to go for a cocktail and where! I have so many favorites that are in my book, but for sentimental reasons, I will say a gimlet at Bemelmans. First, the walls are covered in murals by the author and illustrator of the Madeline children’s books, Ludwig Bemelmans. The bar had tiny lamp shades made to match. (In an interview, novelist J. Courtney Sullivan told me about the days her grandfather took her there for tea, and then later about the times she went during her early days while on staff of a magazine. She could only afford to go there if a friend of hers was treating.)
The bar, which feels like a cozy club, features live jazz. The tables are gathered closely around a grand piano. The last time I was there, my sly husband asked the pianist to play, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” my favorite jazz standard, which became popular during World War II. The piece always gets me verklempt. Sure enough, as soon as I heard the first notes, I turned to my husband, whose face gave away the fact that he’d made the request. I melted.