Madison Pub, Classy Dive, Closes; Now the Avenue Belongs to Armani

Behind a metal grating, a hand-written sign in the window of the Madison Pub reads, “Closed Vacation Aug. 21 to Sept. 21.” But it is November now, and the sign is tattered and the grating has a look of finality about it. The pub’s door, tucked inside the entryway of an old brownstone at 1043 Madison Avenue, just north of 79th Street, is locked. The place is closed, all right, but not for vacation.

The Madison Pub, the venerable Upper East Side gin joint renowned for its jukebox, its hamburgers and its patrons (both real and imagined), has passed away. Madison Avenue’s only dive, its most redeeming anachronism, is gone for good.

“It’s closing? Oh, damn,” said Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “It was a beautiful place. It had the best hamburgers and the best jukebox in New York. You have to be my age to say it was the best jukebox, but if ‘Just a Gigolo’ is your idea of what a record should be, they had it. And Jimmy Durante!”

During its 75 years, the Madison Pub served as a neighborhood joint for the likes of Rex Harrison, George Steinbrenner, Woody Allen, Clausvon Bülow, Jacqueline and Aristotle Onassis and John F. Kennedy Jr. The art crowd came in from Sotheby’s (back when its headquarters was down the street) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and made deals, legitimate or otherwise, over the pub’s celebrated burgers. Mourners on their way to or from the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home toasted their loved ones with a nip or three. And, at night, the dusty regulars presided over a shifting cast of neighborhood residents and out-of-towners who wanted a place more anonymous than Elaine’s, more rugged than J.G. Melon’s, less seedy than McSherry’s and less ruinously famous than the White Horse Tavern or McSorley’s. Just up Madison Avenue from the Hotel Carlyle and the Bemelmans’ silver bowls of cashew nuts, the Madison Pub was the anti-Bemelmans: a dark, tight, smoky room half-underground, its oak floors, oak walls and oak bar nicked and worn.

For now the Madison Pub is lying in state, closed but intact. In the dim subterranean light you can still make out lists of names, both famous and obscure, painted in gold on the oak-paneled walls. A row of ceramic mugs, each inscribed with the name of a regular customer, still hangs over the bar. People stop, try the door, then peer inside, lingering at the street-level window to look at the menu: “Sandwiches: Ham $4.50, Salami $4.85, Sardines $5.65 …”

“I have a Madison Pub story,” said Bobby Torre, the longtime manager of Melon’s, the burger joint on Third Avenue. “I can’t verify it. But, one night, a long time ago, a couple walked in. The place was basically empty. Just three people sitting at the bar. ‘There’s nobody here,’ the guy said. ‘Let’s go.’ So they left. You know who the three people were? Ari Onassis, Jackie Kennedy and Peter Lawford.”

Robert Liebrich, an architect who has been a Madison Pub regular since 1972, passed on another old tale: “One time, Woody Allen came in wearing his hat. One of the waiters who didn’t know who he was requested that he remove it. And I believe that ended that. Woody didn’t come in anymore.”

Another legend: A few years back, a patron thought he saw George Steinbrenner sitting in back with a woman. After the couple left, the patron asked the bartender, “How often does Mr. Steinbrenner come in here?”

The bartender looked the patron in the eye and said simply, “That wasn’t Mr. Steinbrenner.”

There are ghosts in the old place, for sure.

The Last Clean-Up

On the last Saturday in August, George Bassett, the pub’s 66-year-old owner, made the commute from his third-floor apartment above the pub down a set of stairs to the barroom. He supervised an end-of-summer cleaning, then locked up for the last time. It was time to retire and get out of New York. “I’m here all my life,” he said. “Enough already.”

And so he sold the pub and the five-story brownstone above it. Mr. Bassett plans to vacate the building in early December and move to Arizona. The buyer plans to convert the pub into-yes-an antiques shop. But that’s all Mr. Bassett would say.

The Observer dropped by to see Mr. Bassett on a recent afternoon. His wife, Elizabeth, answered the door. Her husband, wearing an undershirt, lay sprawled on a recliner in the living room, watching Judge Mills Lane on TV. His hair and mustache were shoe-polish black, but he looked chalky and gaunt. He had a horrible cough. He did not want to talk about the pub. “Not today, my friend,” he said, without lifting his head. “I’m not feeling too good.”

But two days later, he allowed The Observer to have a look around, though he opted to stay upstairs. In his place he sent his 40-year-old son Cliff and called in intermittently to a telephone behind the bar to offer answers to questions.

(Asked whether he was sick, he said, “You mean am I gonna die today? No.”)

The bar still was stocked, the jukebox still plugged in, the light still miserable. Tavern art cluttered the walls: a print of George Washington crossing the Delaware, some old signed boxing photos (Joey Archer, Joe Frazier) and a collection of cartoons by Irwin Hasen, pub regular and creator of Dondi , the old comic strip. And of course everywhere you looked there were those names on the walls.

The names, more than anything else, distinguished the Madison Pub. The panels flanking the fireplace featured Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan, Dean Stockwell, Rex Harrison, Mimi Benzell, Damon Runyon. To the right of the mantel was a long list of names under the calligraphic heading of “Ivy League Knights & Ivy League Ladies,” which Mr. Bassett attributed to the fact that the old Finch College for Women used to be nearby, on East 78th Street.

The phone behind the bar rang. It was Mr. Bassett calling from upstairs.

“Did you look by the fireplace? You see those names?” he asked. “As I understand it, in the 40′s, the owner of this place would put your name on the wall if you could drink three drinks of a drink called the Third Rail and still walk out of here standing up.” Mr. Bassett didn’t know the Third Rail’s ingredients. He said his uncle had told him the story.

Marge Champion, the Hollywood and Broadway song-and-dance star, is on the wall with her late husband Gower Champion-right there by the fireplace, with the big hitters. For a brief period in the 1960′s, they owned an apartment at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue. But Ms. Champion, now 80 years old, hasn’t the faintest idea why her name is on the wall. “I don’t remember going to a pub in the neighborhood,” she said. “I don’t remember a Madison Pub. I hardly remember being in any kind of a pub situation-maybe in London for a lark or something. And I have good long-term recall.”

As for the Third Rail, she said, “That’s wild. Gower couldn’t drink at all. He had a stomach prone to ulcers. And I always had at most one drink. I really don’t think we were ever in there.”

Mr. Liebrich, the architect, whose name went up on the wall eight or nine years ago, said, “There are a couple of stories about the names … I personally had the impression those names, the famous ones by the fireplace, were just put on there. I don’t know if those people came in.”

“That’s all bullshit,” Mr. Bassett said. He explained that he has seen people come in and identify their names on the wall, or those of their grandparents. Conversations with numerous old patrons, who cite the late Freddy Reyes, a pub bartender for 30-odd years, seem to indicate that the names started going up in the 1940′s, when the bar was popular with college kids.

Edward Sedlis has his name on the wall behind the bar. Now 82 years old, he’s retired in Pompano, Fla., but back in the 1960′s and 70′s he used to drink there every day while he waited for his wife to get off work at the consignment shop next door. “It was a wonderful place full of some terrible characters,” he said. “I have in mind a couple of guys who used to live off rich older women. They’d come in and tell us what they were doing to these rich ladies.” He got his name on the wall when the calligrapher came in one day to put up some new names. Mr. Sedlis said, “Can you put me up there?” The calligrapher said, “Sure.”

Mr. Bassett said he has no plans to do anything with the panels on the wall. “You want ‘em?” he said. “I’m just gonna leave it all there.” It’s not the names he’ll miss. It’s the people themselves. “I had the best clients in the city,” he said. And he began to name names: “George Steinbrenner, Ed Harris, Timothy Hutton, Christopher Penn, Joan Collins. What the hell is the name of that guy who plays Gomer Pyle-Jim Nabors. Ben Gazzara, Peter O’Toole. When Peter O’Toole was coming in, he was drinking milk. Chili and milk. I couldn’t believe it. Let’s see, Tuesday Weld, Mia Farrow …

“John Kennedy was in here a lot. And his sister, when she worked at the Met. Joseph Cotton, Sterling Hayden, Rex Harrison. Philip Johnson. Moynihan was a regular at one point, very nice man. And … Claus von Bülow. He used to come in with his daughter. Very quiet, very reserved. A class act.”

A Prohibition Survivor

The place opened in 1925, according to Mr. Bassett. It was called Elizabeth Norman, a combination of the first names of the wife and husband who owned it. (No one seems to know anything about them.) During Prohibition, it was a speak-easy, with a dentist’s office out front. In 1956, Joseph Feder, Mr. Bassett’s uncle, took over the place. By then it was called the Madison Pub.

Mr. Bassett, who was raised on East 14th Street, began managing the pub in 1980, moving his family into the building in 1982. Previously, he’d owned a business finishing furniture and restoring antiques. After his aunt and uncle died-he in 1993, she in 1995-Mr. Bassett took over. And slowly, as luncheonettes popped up around the neighborhood, and Sotheby’s left, and most of the galleries moved downtown, the crowds thinned.

He had to get rid of the old jukebox. In 1990, Mr. Bassett replaced the Wurlitzer with a rental that plays compact disks. “I used to go out every weekend with a customer who was a friend of mine to the flea markets to hunt for the old 45′s,” Mr. Bassett said. In the new box, much of the music was the same: Frank Sinatra, Larry Adler, Patsy Cline. But still, “The new jukebox was not as good as the old jukebox,” Mr. Moynihan said.

Now he’s letting go of it all, much to the dismay of its patrons and neighbors.

“Oh, my God, the pub’s closed?” said Gene Schultz, president of the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home. “The neighborhood will never be the same.”

Peter Spinella, a former pub bartender who now lives in Sherman Oaks, Calif., was similarly distraught when he heard the news. “This has just ruined my life,” he said. “That’s the mecca of the East Side. New York will never be the same. That is death to Manhattan. That’s like taking the Yankees out of New York.”

The unkindest cut may have come in June: “Up until three months ago, you could smoke in the place,” Mr. Bassett said. (He’s partial to Carlton 100′s.) “But then someone from the city walked in, and I don’t know why he did it, but he told us we couldn’t smoke anymore.”

At that point, its days were numbered.