Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Hell Hole

By lucky chance, a few days ago I came upon an etching -- “The Hell Hole” by John Sloan -- of the back room of a pub at 6th Avenue and 4th Street in Greenwich Village. One of its patrons in the period the etching was made -- it is dated 1917 -- was a very young Dorothy Day (she turned 20 on November 17). Another was the playwright, Eugene O'Neill. According to Sloan's notes, O'Neill is the figure in the upper right. (I wonder who the woman is at the same table? It doesn't look at all like Dorothy.)

The pub was officially named Wallace’s, after its owner, a one-time prize fighter, but its patrons had given it several nick-names: the Hell Hole, the Bucket of Blood and the Golden Swan. The last name, the one Dorothy used in writing The Long Loneliness, was due to a gilded swan that was hung over saloon’s front door. For quite a number of writers and radicals of the day, it was a place of refuge. It must have been one of the principal watering holes for the left-wing journalists Dorothy was working with in those day.

Today the southeast corner of the intersection of 4th Street and 6th Avenue, where the pub was located, has become a small park known affectionately in the neighborhood as the Golden Swan Park. The pub received another sort of immortality as a consequence of O'Neill using it as the setting for his play, The Iceman Cometh.

Despite the burst of recognition that had come in 1916 with the opening of his first play, Bound East for Cardiff, O’Neill was depressed and drinking heavily in the winter of 1917. His affair with Louise Bryant had recently ended with her departure for Moscow, where she joined John Reed and wrote about the Russian Revolution. (The O'Neill-Bryant-Reed story is well told cinematically in a film, The Reds.)

When Dorothy returned to New York from her arrest and imprisonment in Washington (she was one of the suffragettes who picketed the White House November 10th; the group was released by presidential pardon 18 days later), she met O’Neill at the Golden Swan. Friendship struck up between the two so readily that it seemed to his friends that Dorothy might fill the space left by Louise Bryant. Though O’Neill was nine years older, the two had made some similar choices: both had dropped out of college; both had become reporters; both were attempting to make their living as writers; both were drawn to outcasts.

They also had in common an itchy, hesitantly confessed awareness of the presence of God. Agnes Boulton, who was then sharing a Village apartment with Dorothy and who later married O’Neill, quickly realized that Dorothy was subject to “sudden and unexplainable impulses” which drew her “into any nearby Catholic church” -- a religious longing similar to O’Neill’s.

Agnes Boulton recalled Dorothy joining O’Neill at a Village restaurant one night, accompanied by her two seedy, tough, middle-aged men whom she had found on the icy steps of St. Joseph’s Church and brought along to thaw out. Dorothy ordered three rye whiskeys and proceeded to sing the tragic ballad of “Frankie and Johnny.”

Dorothy also occasionally sang at the Golden Swan. Agnes recalled how fascinated O’Neill was at such moments, “moving slowly around, his dark eyes alive and pleased, admiring Dorothy’s strange almost staccato singing.” Agnes also found Dorothy impressive. “I saw at once that this girl was a personality, an unusual one.” Dorothy’s face, she said, was especially attractive in candlelight, which “brought out the long classic line of her jaw and the ends of her tousled hair.”

O’Neill enjoyed reciting poetry, and the poem Dorothy best loved him to repeat was Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” which described God’s tireless pursuit of each person’s soul:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days,
I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind...

O’Neill would recite the whole of the poem, sitting across from Dorothy, “looking dour and black,” Dorothy remembered, “his head sunk on his chest,” sighing out the words:

And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate...

Her own loneliness for God often drew Dorothy into St. Joseph’s Church on Sixth Avenue where she experienced a kind of at-homeness and consolation. While she knew very little about Catholic belief, she felt some comfort being in a place set aside for prayer. It was reassuring to be among people who came in for some quiet minutes, their heads bowed toward the consecrated bread hidden beyond the altar that in some mysterious way had been made one with Christ.

It’s a story I told when I wrote my biography of Dorothy, Love is the Measure, but at that time I knew very little about the Golden Swan (or Wallace’s, the Hell Hole, the Bucket of Blood). I’m delighted that the Sloan etching makes that time in Dorothy’s life a little easier to visualize and hope it can be used in the revised edition of Love is the Measure that I expect to start work on later this year.

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