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Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Fitzroy Tavern--London

The Fitzroy Tavern--today more of a sidewalk café.
Artists and alcohol are nearly synonymous. One might almost say it goes with the territory. Moreover, they seldom drink alone. The Impressionists in Paris had their Café Guerbois, the Florentine art crowd congregated at the Café Michelangelo. Picasso and his buddies held court in Barcelona's El Quatre Gats (the four cats); while The 1940s Abstract Expressionists congregated at The Cedar Street Tavern. During the 1920s and well into the 1950s, the London artsy crowd put away a few pints at a pub called the Fitzroy Tavern located at the corner of Windmill and Charlotte Streets. Today, its mostly literary fame has made it something of a colorful tourist destination now owned by a British brewery. So if you're visiting London and decide to stop by for a nip, there's little more than superficial authenticity. Don't expect to hobnob with the likes of Matt O'dell, Janette Parris, J.K. Rowling, or Damien Hirst.
If these walls could talk... They can't, of course, but they do display photos of some of England's greatest literary masters talking...and drinking.

Nina Hamnett, ca. 1915,
Amadeo Modigliani
The Fitzroy Tavern became famous during the early 1920s largely as the result of a single patron, the artist (and more often, artist's model), Nina, Hamnett. Nina was quite beautiful, quite promiscuous, quite bisexual, and with just the right amount of alcohol, quite the laugh riot (too much and she became falling-down drunk). Alternating between London and Paris drinking venues. She studied art in Paris where she caroused with such names as Amadeo Modigliani (who painted her, right), Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and the sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who sculpted her in bronze and marble (only her most seductive parts, bottom, left). Later, in London, Nina became friends with George Bernard Shaw, Roger Fry, Walter Sickert, Dylan Thomas, Augustus John, George Orwell, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, and the notorious occultist, Aleister Crowley (all of whom may have been her lovers). Nina drew them to the Fitzroy.
London's Fitzrovia--little changed from the time Nina Hamnett staggered about.

Even the London Blitz couldn't put a damper
on the fun and games at the Fitzroy.
Why the Fitzroy? It's certainly not the only pub in the area. This is London forgodsakes. There's a pub not too unlike the Fitzroy on every street corner and likely two or three more in between. At last count London boasted over 7,000 such drinking establishments. The original building dates back to 1833, constructed apparently as a college coffee house known as "The Hundred Marks." In 1887, it began its "public house" life as the Fitzroy Tavern, the name derived from the wealthy family which had once owned much of that section of central London. Later a book by Sally Fiber, who had tended the family bar from a "very young age" made the Fitzroy famous.
The Fitzroy today is kind of like a literary "sports bar."
Dancing, 1919, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska,
based upon a real life episode atop
a table in a Paris bistro.
Upon her return to London, Nina Hamnett and her "friends" made the Fitzroy so synonymous with the London arts and letters crowd, it may well be the only pub in London to have lent its name to the district in which it resides--Fitzrovia. Nina became known as the "Queen of the Fitzroy." Born in 1890, she was often called upon by artists to model--as attractive in the nude as she was fully dressed (perhaps more so). Moreover, her talents as an artist seem to have been quite limited. She was, in fact, much more a writer and witty social personality than an artist. Nina wrote two books detailing her scandalous bohemian lifestyle centering around the Fitzroy. She named names too, which brought on a least one lawsuit (she won it).

Laughing Torso, 1932,,
Nina Hamnett
The books that made the Fitzroy

Nina Hamnet's "Laughing" Torso
by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska,
whom she later married.

Although very much the "life of the party," Nina Hamnett's party life at the Fitzroy does not end well. If one of her literary friends had made her the main character in a novel, the ending would have been branded by critics as "predictable." She became an alcoholic (or perhaps had always been one). Though mostly a decorative artist (fabrics, fashion design, and the like), much of her reputation was based upon her skills as a writer. Both her books, Laughing Torso (1932) and Is She a Lady? were bestsellers in both England and the U.S. A biography, Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia, by Denise Hooker was published in 1986. Hamnett died in 1956 after falling from her apartment window and being impaled on the fence some forty feet below. Her final words, "Why don't they let me die?" suggests her death may have been a suicide. In 2011, Hamnett was the subject of a short film by writer/director Chris Ward, What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor.

The Fitzrovia section of London (thought not called that at the time) was also home to Charles Dickens. Miss Havisham from Great Expectations is said to have been
based upon a local resident.

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