Whenever anyone speaks of the heyday of literary Paris, Les Deux Magots and the Café de Flore, the legendary watering holes of the literati on the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, take center stage. The conversation invariably becomes a joust to see how many famous writers you can name who, at one time or another, had a glass of wine, a cognac, an expresso, an assignation, gotten drunk or taken a piss in either or both of those cafés.
Invariably it starts with Hemingway followed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Gide, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Giraudoux, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot. You can’t forget Albert Camus, James Joyce, Bertolt Brecht or Julia Childs. Then there is the second wave of Americans - James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Charles Sutherland and Richard Wright.
One of the stars of that literary set was Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre’s lover, philosopher, author and bohème par excellence. She knew well her literary roots and her literary cafés – the Deux Magots awarded a prize for the best novel of the year since 1933 while the Café de Flore followed suite only in 1994. No wonder she favored Les Deux Magots over the Flore, as Adam Gopnik elegantly writes in his essay “A Tale of Two Cafes” in his book Paris to the Moon.
Alexis de Tocqueville may have been the first Frenchman to study and write about America but de Beauvoir followed in his footsteps. In 1947 she “landed at La Guardia airport and began a four-month journey that took her from one coast of the United States to the other, and back again.” Her diary of that visit America Day by Day [L’Amérique au jour le jour] was published in 1954.
In her diary, she writes of stumbling into a café that is a room “… square and utterly simple, with its little tables lined against the walls, but it has something so rare in America – atmosphere … In Bedford Street is the only place in New York where you can read and work through the day, and talk through the night, without arousing curiosity or criticism: Chamby’s.”
There never was a “Chamby’s” on Bedford Street but there was and is a Chumley’s on Bedford, not quite a café but a venerable bar, once a speakeasy, that serves bourbon and beer, a New York’s literary landmark.
Like Simone de Beauvoir, I stumbled onto and into Chumley’s by pure chance. I had just moved into a house that didn’t front on the street but on a cement backyard at 50½ Barrow Street around the corner from Bedford Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. The street entrance was an iron gate and a dark passage with a dangling naked light bulb that led to our courtyard. A couple of doors down the street was another, much nicer iron gate. On a Saturday night, soon after moving in, I walked by and there were people drinking beer in that courtyard with the gate wide open, having a grand time.
This was the overflow crowd at the back entrance of a bar. But this was not just any bar, this was that Chumley’s, the legendary speakeasy turned literary hangout joint, that Simone de Beauvoir had exulted about some 15 years earlier.
The door opening on Pamela Court, the courtyard on Barrow, was once the front door that the greats—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, Edna St Vincent Millay, John Steinbeck, and Anais Nin—walked through. Some of the same bunch that had graced the tables and the terraces of Les Deux Magots and the Café de Flore.
Back then in 1962 the unmarked front door was around the corner at 86 Bedford, that is if you could find it. From its inception as a speakeasy to this day Chumley’s front door bore no sign of any kind to keep the unwanted at bay. Urban legend has it that the term “86 it” for “kill it” comes from the heads up call that the cops would give the barkeep that a raid was about to take place and to have the speakeasy patrons escape by the “86” back door.
I learned of Chumley’s literary heritage. I marveled at the framed dust jackets of famous books, some that I had read. I was told that just prior to my time the Beat Generation writers - William S Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg - were regulars. I drank a toast to a number of authors whose books' dust jackets were joining the greats gracing Chumley’s walls.
For the next three years, Chumley’s was my go-to-place. In the summer, I drank beer outdoors. In the winter, I drank by the fireplace, reading books by the guys who had their photos and dust jackets up on the wall. The cheeseburgers were great, the girls pretty. If I had the opportunity I am sure that I would have enjoyed Les Deux Magots even more.
 de Beauvoir used “Chamby’s” as a pseudonym. “Chamby’s … was not an error or mistranslation. There was an unwritten rule … to never mention the bar by name, lest it become overrun by tourists. The Harlem Renaissance writer Richard Wright … recommended Chumley’s to Beauvoir … and passed on this code of secrecy…”