Mayor Michael Bloomberg has found a secret weapon in the war on smoking in bars and restaurants-a well-known, articulate widow who for decades owned and operated the Lion’s Head, the legendary hangout for writers and journalists on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village.
Judith Joice, who presided over the Lion’s Head along with her late husband, John Wesley Joice, from 1970 until 1996, is being recruited as an important voice on behalf of City Hall’s anti-smoking campaign. Ms. Joice met with Mr. Bloomberg’s health commissioner, Thomas Frieden, on Aug. 20, and agreed to write op-ed pieces and appear in radio and TV spots, if asked, promoting the administration’s proposal. Although battle plans are far from finalized, she is expected to be a star witness at City Council hearings over the proposed ban that are scheduled to start in September.
“I will do everything within reason to help this effort move forward,” Ms. Joice told The Observer . “I know The Post [which has editorialized against the ban] will probably rip me to shreds over this, but I don’t care. I’m not a zealot. I’m just a widow who hurts. I’m tired of watching people I love die of cancer.”
Ms. Joice’s husband, a former cop who was universally known as “Wes” to the regulars at the Lion’s Head, died of lung cancer in 1997. Ms. Joice now manages the Cornelia Street Cafe in the Village.
Ms. Joice’s involvment comes as hundreds of bar owners throughout the city are scheduled to meet on Aug. 21 at Annie Moore’s, a tavern on East 43rd Street, to discuss a countermeasure. The bar owners’ campaign is well under way-they have argued that the proposal is draconian and will drive away their customers, wiping out hundreds of family-owned taverns.
Ms. Joice could be a valuable counterweight to the opposition’s campaign. She is smart and telegenic, and she speaks with great emotion about her husband’s fate. And Ms. Joice lost two of the Lion’s Head’s bartenders to cancer-which neatly dovetails with the Bloomberg administration’s argument that the smoking ban will protect the health of bartenders and wait staff.
What’s more, Ms. Joice can hardly be dismissed as just another prissy anti-smoking activist or a droning, statistics-spouting expert from the American Cancer Society. Her credentials as a barkeeper would seem to be impeccable. Her husband turned “the Head,” as it was known in its heyday, into Manhattan’s preeminent literary hangout. Norman Mailer planned his 1969 campaign for Mayor there, with the help of writer and Lion’s Head regular Joe Flaherty-who later died of cancer.
The Head was the archetypal smoke-filled tavern. It was the watering hole of choice for Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill and a thousand of their hard-drinking, chain-smoking imitators. To Ms. Joice, Frank McCourt-a onetime Lion’s Head patron-was “Frankie,” an obscure high-school teacher. She remembers when The Village Voice had its headquarters upstairs, and used to regularly see the young John Malkovich come in when he had one of his first stage roles in the West Village.
Wes Joice, who opened the bar in 1966, was a minor celebrity around Greenwich Village. Stricken in early childhood with polio, he overcame his handicap and built himself up into an athlete, eventually becoming, for a time, a minor-league shortstop. He was also a cop, an expert yachtsman and, in his wife’s words, a “delightful lech.” His death stunned his patrons, filled Riverside Church with mourners and won him an obituary in The New York Times .
Ms. Joice says she still hasn’t recovered from her husband’s death. During an interview with The Observer , she broke down in tears when asked to discuss it. “I’m sorry-after five years, I should have more composure,” she said. “But I just can’t. He was a great guy-a man’s man. Everybody loved him.”
A Business Killer?
Opponents of the ban no doubt will have their own heart-rending stories. They say that hundreds of mom-and-pop businesses will be unceremoniously wiped out if Mr. Bloomberg’s ban goes into effect. Ciaran Staunton, the owner of O’Neill’s, a pub on Third Avenue in midtown frequented by Irish and British soccer fans, says that his brother, who worked in a bar in San Francisco, saw a 30 percent decline in his tips when a similar ban went into effect on the West Coast.
“If my business goes down by 30 percent, I’ll be forced to close,” Mr. Staunton said. “I am already paying astronomical Manhattan rents. I am fighting for my livelihood. I have two young children. One is 31¼2 years old; the other is 10 months old. It’s their future that is at stake.”
Given the power of these arguments, even staunch supporters of the proposal are unwilling to predict victory. The tobacco and bar industries have extraordinary lobbying power, and the bill will face a tough hearing in the City Council. Last year the Council considered a less stringent proposal, but buckled in part because of a veto threat from former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
This year, though, there are various factors that make passage of a ban more likely. Mr. Bloomberg, who hiked cigarette taxes and repeatedly has called smokers “crazy,” seems willing to take whatever political fallout would result from such a ban. This, in turn, would give the City Council the cover it needs to vote the measure into law.
“Unlike in the past, Bloomberg is passionately committed to this,” said Ethan Geto, a veteran public-relations consultant who is helping the administration craft the initiative. “It’s his No. 1 public-health priority. He is not taking political fallout into consideration.”
The involvement of people like Ms. Joice is likely to help as well. Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers are hoping that Ms. Joice’s barkeeping credentials will make her the ideal voice to contest the opposition’s main contention: that the ban will take a severe toll on small bars, driving them out of business.
“It’s just not true-it’s crap,” Ms. Joice said. “People are not just going to stop going to bars. People don’t go to bars to smoke; they go to bars to be with other people. There is no way that bars and restaurants are going be hurt by this. And if it’s an across-the-board ban, people won’t be able to go to a competitor to smoke.”
It was Mr. Geto who first recognized that Ms. Joice would be an effective voice in the coming publicity war. Mr. Geto was reading a copy of The Villager , a local Manhattan weekly, in which Ms. Joice was interviewed lauding Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal. He immediately alerted city health officials, who contacted Ms. Joice and asked her to consider joining the effort.
“She and her husband were universally known as great barkeeps who created an atmosphere of conviviality that was attractive to the literati of this city,” Mr. Geto said. “You couldn’t ask for a better public voice to articulate this message.”