Greenwich Village Literary Pub Crawl pores over New York's writing history

"I hold a beast, an angel, and a madman in me," recites tour guide Eric Chase, quoting Dylan Thomas. The Welsh poet was notorious in the 1950s for hitting New York on reading tours whenever his cash was running low, then boozing it up in Greenwich Village bars by night.

One of his favourite haunts was the White Horse Tavern, where we're sitting at the start of the Greenwich Village Literary Pub Crawl. Opened in 1880, it was a hub of literary greatness for many years, serving drinks to the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac, the latter scrawling poems on the toilet walls.

"It's easier to list those American writers who didn't drink and write in the Village, and that's basically Emily Dickinson," says Eric.

There's no record whether any of these writers ordered the pub's excellent tuna melt and Lagunitas IPA, but I expect they would have enjoyed it as much as I do. As I finish my beer among the tour group in a back room, Eric and his offsider Joe explain the purpose of the tour.

"We're here to learn about the writers, the artists, the drinkers and the thinkers," says Eric.

"We'll share some of the best stories, and they're true as far as we know," adds Joe.

As you might have gathered by now, these guides form an entertaining double act. Both actors, they use their dramatic skills to bring the old Village to life, taking turns to relate anecdotes and recite prose and verse.

The White Horse is a great place in which to set the scene, with its timber floors and mirrors on walls, and locals propped up against the bar. As we drink, we're briefed on Greenwich Village in the era before it became yet another gentrified Manhattan enclave.

The list of writers associated with the early Village is impressive, including Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain.

The area's cheap rents also made it the logical home for bohemians and other dissidents.

"In the early 20th century women would come south of 14th Street to expose their ankles and smoke cigarettes in the street," explains Eric, beer in hand.

Not content with such minor insurrection, he continues, poet Gertrude Drick once climbed to the top of the Washington Arch with artist Marcel Duchamp in order to proclaim the Free Republic of Washington Square; while Amie Cortez, the "Mayoress of Greenwich Village", staged seductive dances wearing only a fig leaf.

Joe recites Dylan Thomas' famous poem Do not go gentle into that good night, then we're off into the streets and the steadily increasing drizzle.

Here and there we pause outside houses once occupied by writers, learning of authors such as the prolific novelist Dawn Powell. She's little-read today, but Eric speaks warmly of her work.

Another recommendation is Hart Crane, the "roaring boy of the Village", a young poet who committed suicide aboard a ship after being beaten for being gay. Joe quotes one of his poems about mercy and love, and we're all moved by his life and art as we stand beneath umbrellas in a quiet side street.

There's a relaxed sense of camaraderie developing among our group of book lovers, and it's cemented further at our next stop, the Kettle of Fish. Previously the Lion's Head, its closure in the 1990s was seen as marking the death of the old Village.

In its glory days, it was owned by a retired policeman who would mount on its walls the jackets of books which had been written here. The author and playwright Norman Mailer was a regular, but Eric says that was no big deal, "because he was a regular everywhere."

Joe reads out a eulogy to the Lion's Head written by Frank McCourt, standing next to a Galaga arcade game and an old round table which might be the one referred to in the speech. Then Eric performs a long passage from Kerouac's On the Road, which we applaud.

We have more walking to do, hearing the stories behind literary plaques and former speakeasies which we pass along the way. Eric also speaks highly of the work of Edna St Vincent Millay, a poet and playwright who lived all over the Village and received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923.

The tour concludes at Marie's Crisis Cafe, a gay bar which was once simply Marie's, a 1920s speakeasy. Playwright Eugene O'Neill was a regular here, and it's still a popular piano bar.

Over a final beer, I'm jotting down names of American writers and works I'd never previously heard of. It's been great fun, but now I have some reading to do.

The writer paid for his own travel.

THE FACTS

FLY

Qantas (qantas.com.au) flies from Melbourne to New York from $1700 return.

STAY

Novotel Times Square, 226 W 52nd St, novotel.com.

Z Hotel, 11-01 43rd Avenue, Long Island City, zhotelny.com.

TOUR

The Greenwich Village Literary Pub Crawl departs at 1pm each Saturday. Fee $20, book via literarypubcrawl.com.

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