Skip to main content

The Origins of Harry's Bar, Venice - One of Hemingway's Favourite Watering Holes

Anyone who has been to Italy will know immediately why Hemingway loved the country – it's the people, of course, and the beautiful countryside, naturally, and the eternal cities, especially Rome and Florence, and Venice, but above all else it's the hotels, and the bars, especially the bars. And Hemingway loved hotels, and hotel bars, but best of all he loved small out-of-the-way bars, which is why he loved Harry's Bar in Venice. And if you've been there you'll know why Hemingway loved it so much, because it's like his writing: plain, well-scrubbed, and wonderfully sophisticated. 

Harry's Bar came into being on May 13th 1931, and that wouldn't have happened without the help of a quiet young American by the name of Harry Pickering.

This quiet young man was apparently suffering from the early signs of alcoholism, which concerned his family greatly, who, in their wisdom, packed him off on a world tour with an elderly aunt (and her snuffly Pekingese) who kept the young man very quiet indeed with her endless stories of gay old times in New York, and San Francisco, and London, and Paris, and Rome, and the countless hotel bars she used to drink in, which is no way of helping a young man off the booze.

Harry and his aunt, and the Pekingese, were staying in the Europa Hotel in Venice, which is a very pleasant hotel, with a very pleasant bar that, in the summer of 1928, had a barman by the name of Giusseppe Cipriani who, during the winter of 1927, had been working in the bar of the Bellevue Hotel in San Remo where a customer had persuaded Giusseppe to lend him all of his savings for a shore-fired bet. Naturally enough the customer vanished and Giusseppe returned to Venice wiser and very much poorer. But he was good at his job, and the young man and his aunt were pleasant people who spent and tipped well. He'd soon get his savings back.

Giusseppe spoke very good English too...

“Madame, sir, what can I get you today?”

“The usual, Giusseppe, and make 'em good and strong,” came the aunt's reply.

“And for the dog, madame?”

“Hell, the same, but take it easy on the 7UP.”

Their usual, their 'old faithful' as they called it, was a double bourbon with 7UP.

And they'd start the day drinking aperitifs before lunch on the hotel terrace (with a bottle or two of the finest Chianti, which the Pekingese loved) overlooking the Grand Canal, and not far from the Gritti Palace, then back into the bar in the afternoon for a stiffener or two, then a snooze, before starting all over in the evening. Needless to say they didn't see very much of Venice, but then the aunt had seen it all before with the likes of Henry James.

After a couple of months Harry fell out with his aunt for taking up with a gigolo, an argument that led to the aunt checking out of the hotel with her lover, leaving Harry on his own with the dog, who by this time was a member of Alcoholic Dogs Anonymous.

Harry was drinking heavily now – probably to impress the dog – which worried Giusseppe who, after a few days of serving fewer and fewer drinks asked Harry Pickering if he was short of money.

“Just a tad, old son, just a tad.”

Suddenly Giusseppe heard himself offering to lend the quiet young American ten thousand Lire.

“But why would you want to lend a perfect stranger so much money?” asked Harry.

“Because you need it.”

So, Harry borrowed the money, and with the dog fast asleep under his arm left the hotel and Venice and Italy, returning to America very much the wiser.

Weeks went by, then months, and Giusseppe heard nothing from Harry, not even a thank you note in the post. But the barman kept faith because Harry Pickering had an honest face – but even an honest face didn't help much in Great Depression struck American.

And then, on a cold February morning in 1931 Harry Pickering walked into the bar of the Europa Hotel in Venice, thanked Giusseppe for the loan, and handed the startled Italian an envelope  containing forty-thousand Lire.

“Let's open a bar together, Giusseppe.”

“Okay, we'll call it Harry's Bar.”


And they did.



Popular posts from this blog

The Wives of Ernest Hemingway

In 1920 Ernest Hemingway lived his bachelor life at 1230 North State Street, Chicago, until he was offered an apartment 100 East Chicago Street.
Many of the apartments were occupied by writers, including Hadley Richardson's friend, Kate Smith, who later married John Dos Passos.
Another of the apartments was occupied by the painter, Kenley Smith, and it was when Kate Smith invited Hemingway to a party in Kenley's apartment, that he spotted Hadley Richardson - a young woman he'd seen playing the piano at a recital some years before.
The couple hit it off immediately, and both of them soon realised they had met the person they wanted to marry.
Maybe both saw in the other the renegade in themselves and a kindred spirit. They both had a love of literature, art, and music, and were looking for a secure place to deposit their emotions. But they were also bursting with sexual desires and frustrations.
Hadley was eight years older than Hemingway and a woman who, at first sight, was of …

Ernest Hemingway and F.Scott Fitzgerald meet and Go On A Trip, Paris 1925

In Hemingway's memoir, A Moveable Feast, he describes the first time he met F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Dingo Bar on the rue Delambre where, as Hemingway describes it, "...a very strange thing happened."
As Hemingway was sitting and drinking with some "completely worthless characters," Fitzgerald came in with a tall young man who turned out to be the famous baseball pitcher, Dunc Chaplin. Hemingway was no baseball devotee and had never heard of Chaplin, but recognised Fitzgerald, and took this chance to introduce himself, which went something like this:

Ernest Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War

During the spring of 1937 Paris became the great staging area for journalists on their way to the Spanish Civil War, and a centre for thousands of disaffected artists and intellectuals, mainly from Germany and Italy, who had no intention of going anywhere further south than a cafe table on the Boulevard du Montparnasse.
After arriving in Paris with the bullfighter, Sidney Franklin, Ernest Hemingway spent most of his time at the American Embassy trying to persuade the rather bored representative of the State Department to issue Franklin with a visa for Spain. Hemingway told the bullfighter not to worry, that everything would be okay.  Disappointed, the two men then headed for a lunch date with the journalist Janet Flanner, and her lesbian lover, Solita Solano (one time theatre critic, Sarah Wilkinson) at La Coupole. Flanner always remembered that Franklin, because of a recent goring in Mexico, sat rather gingerly on the edge of his chair as he pecked, like some small exotic bird, at…