Weekly Travel Feature

Will the Real Harry Stand Up? Harry's New York Bar in Paris

Prepared by Harold Stephens

Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International

Harry’s New York Bar is one of the most famous bars in the world. But where is it? That’s the rub. There’s a Harry’s in Venice, and others are in Los Angeles, Paris, Munich, Florence, and Hong Kong and now I learned there is one in Singapore. One of them has to be the original Harry’s Bar, but which one is it?

Oftentimes, when I mention Harry's, people say, "Oh, Harry's, I know Harry's. I stopped in when I was in L.A. the other day." Or it could have been in Venice, Munich and even in Hong Kong.

Of course, these people are all right. There are other Harry's Bars scattered around the world and each one, it seems, boasts that Ernest Hemingway had something to do with their establishment.

They can't all be right. There can be but one original Harry's New York Bar, one original where Ernest Hemingway drank. But which one?
The answer is Harry's New York Bar in Paris. How do I know? I got the word right from the founder, Harry MacElhone himself. But first, let me tell you something about the several “Harry’s”.

I find myself very defensive on both subjects, Hemingway and Harry's, since I grew up reading Hemingway, when he was still alive, and I was weaned standing at the bar in Harry's in Paris when Hemingway himself came charging through the swinging doors, and cigar-smoking Harry MacElhone, the original Harry, was there to greet him. I wasn’t a writer then, only a Marine guard at the American Embassy and Hemingway, back in 1949, wasn’t that famous. He was just a guy with a beard that came in to talk to Harry, and I overheard their conversations.

For more than a dozen years now, Harry's Bar & American Grill in Century City in Los Angeles has sponsored an "International Imitation Hemingway Competition" for aspiring writers. There is a catch, however. The writing is supposed to be "bad" Hemingway. The prize-winner is given a trip to Florence, Italy, and dinner at the "original" Harry's Bar there.  But Harry's in Florence is not the original Harry's, and Hemingway had nothing to do with Harry's Bar in Florence, and certainly nothing to do with Harry's in LA.

The bartender at Harry's in Century City disagreed with me. Fighting words! It happened a few months ago when I stopped in at Century City to give the place a once-over and began a discussion with him about Harry's in Paris. "You're wrong there," he said emphatically, "the original Harry's is in Florence, although many people think it's Harry's in Venice."

Venice, Florence, Century City —how many Harry's Bars are there around the world that lay claim to being the original and to having had an association with the hard drinking Hemingway? It seems that even if they can't claim that Hemingway once stepped through their doors they can at least run a contest that links him with them. The latest to get on the bandwagon is Sharky's Bar and Grill in Key West, Florida. They don't give prizes for writing contests there but they do sponsor a “Hemingway Look-alike Contest." At least they are not making a mockery of the writer's works.

But poor Hemingway, he would poke anyone in the nose if he were alive and knew what they are doing to his name and reputation now; and so might old Harry McElhone.

The question still remains, which is the original Harry's?  When I was at Harry's in Paris several years ago and put this question to Andy McElhone, he just smiled and led me to stacks of old photo-albums and scrap books stuffed away in back closets. But I must admit, I already knew the answer, for back in the days when Andy first began tending bar for his father in the late 1940s, it was my home away from home.

Records show that when the bar first opened its doors on Thanksgiving Day in 1911, it was simply called “The New York Bar.”  Its founder was the famous jockey Tod Sloan who wanted to open a New York-type bar in Paris, even in the days before the American expatriates began arriving. To give it class, and authenticity, he had a West Side saloon dismantled and shipped piece by piece from New York to Paris and hired a Scottish bartender, Harry MacElhone, who already had a reputation through much of Europe. In a very short time it became a hangout for Americans in Paris.

During the dark days of 1914, the New York Bar was the meeting place for the volunteers of the Lafayette Escadrille and soon after that it became the unofficial headquarters for the American Field Service. It was in 1919 that a young reporter named Ernest Hemingway first walked through the swinging doors at Harry's. He had returned to Paris after the war with the intention of becoming a writer. Over the next few years he learned much of his trade from other literary giants while talking and arguing with them in Harry's.

When the 1920s roared in, Harry MacElhone bought the saloon, took over and the name was changed to Harry's New York Bar. Harry's motto was, "Drinks aren't on the house, but when you are hard up, the bill isn't mentioned." He immediately drew the hard-drinking, hard-living intellectuals and literati of the "Lost Generation." And what a time it must have been at Harry's. The newspaper articles, magazine stories and photographs that Andy showed me testify to that.

Young F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda sat in a booth in the rear. Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson stood at the bar and primed the aspiring writer Ernest Hemingway before his first novel was even in print. And while this was happening, Harry, perpetually puffing on a cigar, did his own creating. He invented such drinks as French "75" and White Lady. Others that were to follow were Crying Towels in 1929, to help dry the tears of those affected by the stock market crash, and a Crisis Cocktail in 1939, when war in Europe was breaking out.

Nightly in the "Down Stairs Room" things were happening, too. George Gershwin pounded the piano, putting together An American in Paris. The Dolly Sisters paraded their hats and the Prince of Wales stopped in several times a week to listen to the music and have "one for the road".

The year 1925 was a noteworthy one in French history, although the French might not agree. The first hot dog served in France was pushed across the counter at Harry's, and they are still served. That same year, Sparrow Robertson of the Paris Herald Tribune made the New York Bar his topic of discussion in his column "Drink Emporium.”  Jack Dempsey, Primo Carnera, Sinclair Lewis and Captain Noville of South Pole fame were regular customers. Others who helped spread Harry's fame were John Gunther, Vincent Sheen, Rex Smith, William Faulkner and Thornton Wilder.

While Americans at home suffered the thirst of prohibition during the ‘20s, Harry imported barrels of bootleg beer and booze so that the expatriates wouldn't feel homesick. His idea was that the terrible taste would make them realize how lucky they were to be in Paris.

On June 3, 1932, a world drinking record was set in Harry's. Henry Cochran of Princeton University in New Jersey quaffed down two litres of beer in the astonishing time of 11 seconds.  Hundreds have tried since, several have come close but only one has broken the record.

At election time in the US, Harry's is a busy place for American expats who come to hear the returns. Harry began the Paris Straw Vote, which, oddly enough has rarely failed to predict the outcome of a presidential election correctly. The only two failures were the Ford/Carter election and the recent Bush/Kerry race. Harry started the Straw Vote shortly after taking over New York Bar.

In 1958, the short, Pickwickian Harry died.  Friends and newsmen the world over paid tribute to him.  A head of state would not have received much more attention.  Harry's Bar passed to his son Andy, who stepped behind the bar and took over, keeping the old atmosphere intact.

I returned to Paris briefly in the mid-1960s and went, of course, to Harry's. Nothing except maybe the clientele has changed. The counter and wooden panels are the originals from New York. Carnera's boxing gloves still hung above the bar. The hundreds of autographed bills from every country in the world continue to plaster the cracked mirror behind the bar. From the "Downstairs Room" the sound of a piano still filters up to the bar. The dry martinis are still the driest in town, the mint juleps the tallest, there are 49 brands of Highland brew to choose from, and hot dogs are still served to the hungry or homesick American— and curious Frenchman. And still on the mahogany bar rest some of the most distinguished elbows anywhere.

During the 1960s Harry's was becoming a rendezvous for French intellectuals. One evening while I was at the bar talking to Andy, sitting in a booth in the rear was Jean-Paul Sartre. Standing near the door, talking to friends, was the French playwright Marcel Achard. A few years later James Jones made Paris his home and in his novel, The Merry Month of May, he wrote in detail about Harry's.

So how did all the other carbon copies of Harry's come about? I asked Andy. In 1936, Harry, Andy's father, gave permission for the New York Bar in Venice to use the name Harry's, and in 1954, Andy gave permission for the bar in Florence to use the name. There's no connection with Harry's in Century City.

In 1975, Andy brought Harry's New York Bar to Asia when he reproduced it at the Hilton Hotel in Hong Kong. It was a great success and for awhile he even considered a more permanent arrangement but instead settled for Germany where the clientele is more given to beer drinking. Andy founded Harry's in Munich and it has become one of the most popular saloons in Germany today.

Harry's in Paris is no longer exclusively an American bar. "Taxes forced many Americans to go home," Andy had lamented. Also, when the New York Times pulled out of Paris, the paper cut its staff there from 115 to 2 and Harry's lost the newspaper's core of hard drinkers. The French, I was told, enjoy a touch of old New York, but Harry's will always remain a home away from home for Americans in Paris. Thousands of them go on telling their friends, "Meet me at sank roo doe noo”—5 rue Daunou.

To me, Harry's New York Bar in Paris is something very special, and for two reasons. I have known all three Harrys, from the original Harry to his son Andy and to his grandson Duncan. And it was at Harry's in Paris that I began my drinking days—and learned something about life.

For Next Week see the Questions and &Answers below.

Questions & Answers

Q. Dear Mr. Stephens, We have heard several different dates for the Song Kran festival that is coming to Thailand this month. Can you give us some information about the dates, etc.  We are taking the THAI non-stop flight from New York.  Jenny Albright, NYC

A. Dear Jenny, My Weekly Travel Feature for this coming week is about the Songkran Festival.  The official date is April 13-15. But since it falls on a weekend, the celebrations will continue throughout Monday, June 17th. I trust you will enjoy your New York to Bangkok flight. It’s one flight I have to make yet. —HS

Harold Stephens


E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (booking@inet.co.th)

Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.

The famous Harry’s New York Bar in Paris

Andy who took over from his famous father Harry

Novelist Ernest Hemmingway in World War II. He wrote about Harry

Another bar made famous by Hemingway

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Paris police on watch

The Eiffel Tower, a Paris landmark, even in Hemingway’s time

An artist at work in the Latin Quarter

A view or Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower

A special view, from the small Arc up the Champs Elysses to the big Arc de Triomphe

Hemmingway wins the Nobel Prize for his novel The Old Man and the River.

Farewell to Arms by Hemingway tells about Paris in the 20s

The Sun Also Rises, about Paris and Harry’s, Hemingway’s finest novel

The Tower & The River by our author Harold Stephens give us in-depth details about Harry’s New York Bar

The Tower & The River by our author Harold Stephens give us in-depth details about Harry’s New York Bar