Something for the ladies: a women’s bar in Pre-Prohibition New York

10 Sep

The Café des Beaux Arts at Manhattan’s Fortieth Street and Sixth Avenue was a bar with a difference. In a city with thousands of watering holes, from the dive saloons dispensing cheap grog to sailors and stevedores to the mahogany-paneled lounges of private clubs where bankers and brahmins sipped martinis, this was the only drinkery patronised (matronised?) exclusively by women. Well, not quite exclusively. Opened by Louis Bustanoby in 1911, it was designed as a quiet place where middle-class ladies,  after shopping or attending the matinee performance at the theatre, could enjoy a tipple without raising eyebrows or setting tongues wagging. (Consequently, the bar did most of its business in the afternoons rather than the evenings.) Men would not be served unless they were clearly escorting a gynaecic customer.

This unusual establishment piqued the interest of the New York Times, which duly sent one of its ace reporters to investigate. His interview with Mr Bustanoby and the two bartenders, Francois and Gabriel, brought to light a few differences in male and female drinking habits. Women, it turns out, at least according to the proprietor, were much more discerning and knowledgeable than the male of the species when it came to cocktails (hentails?):

“Women,” said Francois, “are the only people who understand the artistry of mixed drinks. Men pretend to and use a great deal of language explaining how a mint julep should  be made or how much gin should be used in this or that kind of cocktail, but they are all bluffers. There isn’t one man in a thousand who can tell anything about whether a mixed drink was mixed right or not. Bluff, I tell you—pure bluff.

“But the women are different. The artistic sense that is inherent in all of them extends to drinks as well as to everything else, and when you mix a drink for a woman, whether it’s a New Orleans fizz or a Sazerac cocktail, or just an ordinary silver fizz, you know that you are going to get some of the appreciation that should go to every true artist, and without which he feels that a mere money reward is insufficient.”

A man, he said further, “would order any kind of cocktail and be satisfied with it as long as it tasted good, but a woman couldn’t be fooled. She would send the cocktail back with instructions about how she wanted it made, and he would have to make it over and over again until he got it right.”

The claim of feminine sophistication in matters alcoholic doesn’t seem to square with the next observation:

“The women,” said Mr. Bustanoby, “differ from the men in this—they don’t care so much about the taste of the drink as they do about the color of it. They want it to match the color of their costumes or the color of their eyes.

“The toughest experience we ever had was when a woman came in and wanted a cerise drink. That fairly staggered Francois, who is not easily staggered.

“They want pearl-colored drinks, amethyst drinks, opaline drinks, and it keeps the establishment busy trying to think up new color combinations.”

“That application for a cerise drink,” said Francois, “was not really the worst experience I ever had, Mr. Bustanoby. I think the limit was reached when a woman came in and asked for a drink that would match, not her costume nor her eyes, but her soul. She said she had a baby-blue soul and she nearly drove me to desperation trying to prove to her that it was impossible to make a blue cocktail. She said it was the color of her aura.”

The most popular coloured drinks at the bar included both established mixtures like the Clover Club, Stinger, Planter’s Punch and Porto Rico Rickey (all pink) and lesser known and proprietary compounds like the Taverne Cocktail (“canary colored, with clouded effect from shredded orange . . . [an] old-fashioned cocktail, without Angostura, but with a dash of absinthe and pineapple and orange juice”); the Beaux Arts Fizz (“brilliant pink topped off with foamy white . . . Gordon gin, Sirop d’Orgeat, Grenadine and lemon juice”); Suisse Francois (“one part absinthe, three parts water, the white of an egg topped off with a sort of meringue”) and the Beaux Arts Cocktail (“Byrrh wine and Forbidden Fruit liqueur—a golden yellow with flecks of gold leaf”). These were the cosmopolitan, appletini and grasshopper of their time.

Something else that women were observed typically to do, in addition to demanding drinks that “would make them either fat or thin” was, in the experience of Emile, the maître d’hôtel, “to insist on having new cocktails made, and they have to be named after something that is interesting to women at the moment—usually a new play, because that it was chiefly interests them.” And so, in the autumn of 1913, the Café des Beaux Arts was offering cocktails celebrating Broadway hits of that season: the Xantippe, in honour of the comedy Believe Me, Xantippe; the Miss Caprice, in tribute to the light opera of the same name, which Life described as a “Girl-and-music show of the usual type with rather pretty Viennese music” (Life, vol. 62 [16 October, 1913], p. 657); and the Sweetheart, for the operetta Sweethearts. “In a man’s barroom,” Emile continued, “that would not go on, or if it did, it would only be by naming the cocktail after some politician, but with women it is different. You can name a cocktail after the latest fashion in skirts or waists and there will be a heavy run on it.”

Finally, the habituées of the Café des Beaux Arts were apparently germophobes:

“Another funny thing about women,” went on Mr. Bustanoby, “is that most of them don’t want to drink out of glasses. They want straws.”

“Even with a cocktail?” asked the reporter.

“Even with a cocktail,” answered Mr. Bustanoby.

“What is the reason of that” he was asked.

“Because they are afraid of germs,” replied the proprietor of the Café de Beaux Arts. “The health crusade has reached the bar.

“And I’ll tell you another thing that may surprise you. Lots of these women have their own private glasses, which are reserved for them just as the shaving mug used to be reserved for customers in barber shops in past times, and when one of these ladies sails in you will hear Francois or Gabriel summon a waiter and say: ‘Jacques, get one of Mrs. Jones’s glasses.'”

— “Drinks Chosen for Color, Not Taste, At Women’s Bar”, New York Times, 12 October 1913.

*****

The idea of matching cocktails with clothes, or some other personal attribute, resurfaces every now and again in the history of mixed drinks. There was a brief craze for this kind of accessorizing in London twenty years later:

When Holly, cocktail shaker of one of London’s most popular hotels, heralded the claim that no one could show him a gown which he could not match, he started something. He is being challenged by the most chameleon-like ensembles.

Not to be outdone by their fair companions, many men have demanded drinks to blend with their ties. Holly could easily match the Old Etonian and Harrow colors, but when Scotch plaids and Indian turbans were produced he was taken aback. As a result of the idea, cacao, framboise and fruit juices have been in great demand, and passion fruit juice has found a prominent place in cocktails.

— “British Shaker Starts Cocktail-Matching Fad”, Baltimore Sun, 22 October 1933, p. 11.

And some time after that the Du Bouchett brand of liqueurs produced this handy birthday chart to help ladies marry their drinks not only with their outfits, but also with their birthstones, a trick that never fails to impress.

From: Freda De Knight, A Date with a Dish: A Cook Book of American Negro Recipes (New York: Hermitage, 1948), p. 133.

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