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Legends of Veronica Lake at Desmond's Tavern

There are more than 6,000 bars in New York City. About 200 of them get regular press. This column is about the other ones. Robert Simonson, a journalist and blogger of the drinking life, and the originator of the "A Beer At..." column, takes a peek inside Gotham’s more anonymous watering holes, one by one.

[Horine, 1/13/11]

Veronica Lake was a film actress famous for her smoky voice, sultry look and blonde peek-a-boo bang that set off a national fashion craze. She had a brief Hollywood heyday in the 1940s ("Sullivan's Travels," "This Gun for Hire").
Popular lore at Desmond's Tavern—an Irish bar on Park Avenue South near 30th, that has been in business, under one name or another, since 1936—is that Lake worked as a barmaid here. It was called the Blarney Stone during Lake's period of employment. This, according to a nice old bartender with the comb-over and the roll of flesh around the beltline that hinted his thin frame was once a hefty one. Twenty years ago, he said, the joint switched to the name Desmond's, which was the corporate name of the Blarney Stone chain of bars. (Desmond's is no longer affiliated with any of the other Blarney Stones in town.)

On a recent evening, the bartender was probably the only one old enough in the bar to remember who Lake was. A solitary businessman in a fine topcoat silently nursed his beer as he watched a televised basketball game. Two men in dreadlocks loudly beat out, on the bar and the floor, Etta James' "At Last" with their palms and feet. A thin young man dressed like a member of The Jam, circa 1979, chatted with the friend. A group of young male and female cronies laughed and brayed about dating, hiding their winter bulk under shapeless sweaters.

Into this scene, a chic young woman with a Gucci purse breezed through the old breakfront, looking for someone. She ever so slightly blanched. Yes, miss: this is the bar. Ain't no secret panel in the back leading to a swank retro-speakeasy. And that empty Marlboro vending case behind the bar isn't there for irony's sake. It's just an empty Marlboro vending case. She put on a brave face, grabbed a stool and ordered a Bud Light.

A wooden arch just past the bar led to a large dining area, which was deserted except for a couple Indian gentleman having a soft conversation about something serious. Nobody was taking advantage of the food specials: $5 burgers Monday, Wednesday and Friday; $5 sandwiches Tuesday and Thursday; Buffalo wings specials 3 to 6 PM. (There's also free Wi-Fi back here, oddly enough.)

This is the only area that hint's at Desmond's secret history. In the corner, lost among the countless framed photos of past Yankees and Mets baseball teams, and pictures of Olde Ireland, is a studio shot of Veronica Lake. They say she worked here in the 1940s, but that dog don't hunt. She was in Hollywood by 1939 and remained a hot commodity for a decade. No way she moonlighted as a Manhattan waitress during that time. She did, however, turn up slinging drinks in a New York bar in the early 60s, when her film career was long washed up. She had a drinking problem throughout. Bar work: probably not the best gig for her.
—Robert Simonson