Villager, author, journalist Warren Allen Smith has been going to Fedora on West 4th for nearly 50 years. As Fedora gets ready to close and change hands this coming Sunday, July 25, I asked Warren a few questions about the place, his memories of it, and what it means to him.
photo from WASM's website
How long have you lived in the Village and when did you first begin going to Fedora? What was it like then?
Fernando Vargas, my companion for 40 years, and I started Variety Recording Studio on 46th Street in Times Square in 1961, just across from what then was called the 46th Street Theater (where Rudy Valee and Robert Morse were starring in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying). Because we wanted a restaurant where we could take customers, he chose Fedora's although not having been there--one of our recording engineers suggested it.
But when I met her and asked about arranging a charge account, she said she only had cash customers. "What if I prepaid with $100 and, when that was gone, I'd prepay more?" We were both business people, and she said her sister Norma who worked at Variety just down the street from us would handle the bookkeeping--she ate there nightly. "Besides, I wasn't sure your and Fernando's checks were any good," she explained recently, a guilty smile on her face, now 5 decades later.
Until Fernando's death from Karposi's sarcoma in 1989, we continued prepaying and taking our customers there. Not Liza Minnelli, the 12th grader at Scarsdale High School when we recorded her first demo with her pianist Marvin Hamlisch. But we took some of our VIP clients there. The night that Jerry Herman and his party were there and he saw Fernando sign a bill, he said loudly, "Who was that!" Actually, we didn't know who he was either. . .
Warren and Fernando, from WASM's website
What are your fondest memories of the place?
One night someone sent a manhattan up to my table when I was with my polyamorous lover and 4-time Tony Award nominee Gilbert Price. (Watch Mr. Price singing, "I've Gotta Be Me.")
The person was pointed out to me, but it was the first time I met Carl Edelson, the person in charge of towels at the Everard Baths. He had a young lover that he wanted us to record and upon whom he spent so much money that I bought him a manhattan up. The kid may have had talent, but it wasn't singing. Not like Gilbert!
Can you tell us about some of the faces on the wall? There’s “Fernando” in leathers, and a blonde young man, as well as others. Did you know any of them?
It wasn't my Fernando. The only photo I remember is of Fedora in her sports roadster. Can't you just imagine a young and beautiful Fedora, her hair flying, driving with the top down on curvy New Jersey or Connecticut back roads!
In Gossip From Across the Pond, you call Fedora a “refuge” during the time of the Stonewall riots. Can you say more about what it meant to have a safe and welcoming place like Fedora in that era of history?
As documented in Stonewall Uprising that I reviewed for The Villager, the 1960s and 1970s were wonderfully dangerous until we were confronted with homophobia, at which time those of us who were pragmatic simply avoided violence by moving away. But those of us who might be pegged as being faggots found it often was not easy to move away from trouble. For many, unfortunately, it's the same now.
Fedora's was definitely a refuge where the waiters were gay, you could camp it up and be yourself, and no problems occurred. What was ironic was that Henry, Fedora's good-looking husband behind the bar, was such a surprise except to those of us who knew him and loved to hear him tell his stories about the place's once being a speakeasy; about the night Mayor Jimmy Walker was upstairs drinking illegal liquor and a squad of cops somehow got in and when the mayor asked what they wanted they sheepishly said they were looking for the men's room and exited fast; about a young gal who brought her relative poet Carl Sandburg to dine; about Edward Albee's being a regular when he wrote The Zoo Story directly across the street.
Today, Fedora is known as a place for gay “gentlemen of a certain age.” What is Fedora’s ongoing importance to this clientele? Do they still need such a refuge in 2010?
She and others of us "of a certain age" found this phrase cruel, and I've a psychological block and can't think of the name of the VIP who made it.
The reason so many of Fedora's clients dine regularly, even faithfully, is that nowhere else is there such a bargain. Nowhere else can you use a rotary pay phone. Nowhere else is change limited to installing a new light bulb. Nowhere else can you carry on a conversation with someone several tables away, and others will join in. Nowhere else do you love being insulted by the witty waiter. Almost nowhere else can you find deviled eggs as an appetizer.
Where do you—and the rest of the gang—plan to go once Fedora, as you have known it, is closed?
On closing night I intend to try to get addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses to see if some of us can keep in touch. So far, I've heard of no other place that would be a natural.