As the story goes on the night of November 3, 1953 poet Dylan Thomas stumbled up from the White Horse Tavern to The Chelsea Hotel where he was staying, reached the doorstep, declared “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record!” and promptly collapsed. A few days later, only after another visit to the White Horse, Thomas was dead.
Whether or not you believe Thomas super-human, or should I say sub-human, level of consumption, it is quite fitting that the West Village’s most iconic beatnik bar played such an integral role in the Welsh poet’s demise. For, it was the beats of the fifties and sixties that would come to define the White Horse’s history by drinking their nights (and quite often their days) in this bohemian haven on Hudson Street.
Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, and of course, Mr. Thomas, were just some of the bar’s famous clientele. This was a generation of artists and authors for whom drinking and having a good time was almost as important as being creative. Most of them would probably tell you that drinking was creative, and so night after night they would fill the White Horses dark paneled rooms to crowd around on the straight-backed mahogany benches, talking ideas, or trading stories, or just simply shooting the shit.
Along with other Village bars like the Cedar Tavern and Chumley’s, The White Horse was where the beats could be themselves. Leaning against the scratched up old bar, chugging down highballs of dark liquor, these avant-garde artists were free to do whatever they wished, whether that was to get inspired, or merely to get blackout drunk.
The White Horse is not just a New York institution, it was an incubator for the Beat Generation, a place that fueled the creative output of some of the most legendary figures of mid-century Manhattan. While the rest of the city balked at these radicals, The White Horse welcomed them with open arms, and for that reason it has remained a cherished part of the downtown scene for decades. Tourists and locals alike flock to the one-hundred-thirty-plus year old bar for a chance to sit where Jack sat, or drink what Dylan drank.
Not much has changed in the White Horse over that time. The chairs creak every time you move to order, the wood walls are faded from years of wear, and the White Horse figurines that line the bar’s shelves are caked with dust that’s probably older than some of the patrons. The White Horse Tavern of today is dingy, worn down, some would even say seedy, but I’ll bet you a beer that the beats that made the bar famous wouldn’t have it any other way.