A History of Harry’s Bar, Venice — Hemingway’s Favourite Watering Hole

Steve Newman Writer
Hemingway with Giuseppe Cipriani in the1950s

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.”

“Fine.”

And they did.

Note: Although based on fact I have used creative licence here and there, especially with dialogue.

Steve Newman Writer

Written by

Playwright, Historian & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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