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Last Call at the Lion’s Head, New York’s Storied Writers’ Bar

October 12, 1996 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ On a Greenwich Village street, down three brick steps beneath a half moon of red awning, a New York legend will die this weekend.

The Lion’s Head is closing its doors.

Even if its jukebox was outdated, its wooden barstools unremarkable, its chalkboard menus uninspired, none of that mattered in the end. The demise of the little boxcar of a bar just steps off Seventh Avenue marks the end an institution, a place novelist Frederick Exley called ``America’s Last Great Saloon.″

For years, this was a haunt for legions of journalists and writers like Norman Mailer, Pete Hamill and the poet Joel Oppenheimer. Former Mayors Edward Koch and David Dinkins liked to drop in, as did Bill Murray, William Hurt and Jackie Mason. A young Jessica Lange was a waitress here, the Clancy Brothers and Bob Dylan entertained in the narrow, candlelighted back room.

Former owner Judy Joice once remarked, ``This isn’t a bar for writers with a drinking problem, it’s for drinkers with a writing problem.″ It was a great crucible for conversation, a place where customers with stiff drinks and tall tales provided the atmosphere.

The walls themselves tell its story. Dozens of framed book covers create a sort of literary tapestry, each authored by writers who have shouldered up to the deeply worn, crook-shaped bar.

``I don’t think many New York bars ever had such a glorious mixture of newspapermen, painters, musicians, seamen, ex-communists, priests and nuns, athletes, stockbrokers, politicians and folk singers, bound together in the leveling democracy of drink,″ Hamill reminisced in his 1994 memoir, ``A Drinking Life.″

The revelry, though, was fast becoming a memory as longtime patrons prepared for the bar’s inevitable closing Saturday night. Like a lot of pubs in New York _ a city where bars can disappear almost as fast as the drinks they serve _ the Lion’s Head struggled financially in recent years.

First there was the AIDS scare of the 1980s, which frightened away customers. Oldtimers died, moved away or stopped drinking. Younger tastes shifted away from smoky, cramped barrooms to more trendy places like Planet Hollywood and the Motown Cafe, both uptown.

But it was ever-increasing rent that delivered the death blow, said actor-turned-bartender-turned-owner Mike Reardon, who’s been serving drinks since Jan. 14, 1966, the day the Lion’s Head opened on Christopher Street.

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``There are no newspaper bars at all anymore that I can think of,″ said Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author Jimmy Breslin, who with Mailer used the Lion’s Head as a campaign headquarters in their unsuccessful bid to take over City Hall in the 1960s.

Over the years, the stories of the place became part of local lore. The playwright Lanford Wilson is said to have written a drama on waiters’ order pads. Hamill remembers a night when the wife of a famous actor came storming into the bar, looking for her husband.

``It was dark and packed, and she came in yelling, `Where is he! Where is he!′ at which she stepped on him. He had just fallen off a stool.″

Peering inside from one of its iron-barred windows, the place looks much as it did in the 1960s. Martini and wine glasses dangle from overhead racks. Behind the bar, two battered cash registers stand like bookends between four ascending rows of liquor bottles. A carved oak lion’s head _ snatched from a Newark, N.J., insurance building when it was being torn down _ lords over the dimly lighted room.

There seems to be no consensus on why the Lion’s Head became a magnet for reporters, poets and politicians, but many think it was just location. When the Lion’s Head moved into a below-street level doctor’s office (it had a prior life on nearby Hudson Street) the Village Voice was next door. The New York Post and New York Herald Tribune buildings were a short trip away. A Democratic club was across the street and a lot of actors, musicians and artists lived in the neighborhood.

``I knew some writers, but I had no idea it would develop into that,″ said Joice’s husband, Wes, a former cop and one of the original owners, who lost the bar several years ago to mounting debt. ``It largely just happened.″

The remnants of the place will be auctioned off Sunday, down to the forks and spoons. The writer Alice Denham dropped in to take down the cover of her novel ``Amo″ as a keepsake. ``It was our home,″ she said.

Reardon plans to keep the stately lion’s head, and hopes to open up again. But others think a moment, maybe even an era, has passed.

``Bars don’t reopen. They’re like newspapers,″ Breslin said. ``Once they close, that’s it. It’s a name in the past.″