When Harry Held Forth on the Point

October 09, 1990|By James Dilts

"THE CONTESSA is not at home, my Colonel,'' he said. ''They believe you might find her at Harry's.''

''You find everything on earth at Harry's.''

''Yes, my Colonel. Except, possibly, happiness.''

-- Ernest Hemingway, ''Across the River and Into the Trees''

Hemingway is back in vogue in Venice and Harry's bar is thriving. The literati still show up; Gore Vidal was interviewed there recently by the International Herald Tribune about the Venice Film Festival. Certainly the prices let you know you're someplace special. A peach brandy concoction called the Bellini, (all the drinks are named for artists), costs 13,000 lire, about $10 at current exchange rates, and probably couldn't be duplicated anywhere east of the Mississippi, as S. J. Perelman used to say, for less than $2.50.

There is no beer at Harry's. I scratched a hamburger, another specialty, figuring it would go off at about $20, but also disowned the remaining half of a prosciutto sandwich I had bought on the train for an astronomical sum and was determined not to waste. One does not bring food into Harry's Bar in Venice. Nor does one arrive in disarray. The dress code is long pants for men, and the service, by white-coated waiters, is brisk.

However, ambience is certainly worth something, if not so much inside -- Harry's is a white room with a small bar, tables, and vaguely nautical motif -- as out. It is smack on the Grand Canal, a short walk, (with time out to study the Palladian churches across the water), from the Piazza San Marco.

But as everyone knows, the real Harry's Bar was in Baltimore, and if its eponym, Harry Reynolds, knew of the impostor he never let on. After all, Harry could walk out the door of his own Fells Point tavern, (which he often did, leaving the operation to the customers), find his favorite bench in the square at the foot of Broadway, and observe the Patapsco River making its grand entrance into the Queen City thereof, with the ragged industrial landscape on the other side. Who needs Venice?

Harry wandered into local fame around 1974, toward the end of a long career in the freight claims department of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. He sold his place in 1983. The intervening decade was a magical one in the bar, and in Fells Point, for Harry was one of its great characters when the place was full of them, and most found their way to his door.

He was a large man, edging toward 300 pounds, and choleric. Harry didn't know much about the bar business, but he knew what he liked: attractive barmaids, opera or jazz on the stereo, and ample provision for conversation. ''What I had in my bar was seats where people could sit down and talk,'' Harry said proudly as if the idea were revolutionary, which it was and still is.

His thoughts on the current bars, with their mindless ''themes,'' are unrecorded. Harry was the only theme at his place, and the customers the sole entertainment. There were two exceptions -- musicians who felt like playing, and a single television program: the CBS News with Walter Cronkite.

The only ''trend'' that developed was when some of the regulars started exiting through closed windows which upset him because they never paid for the glass. If someone got out of line, which seldom happened, Harry edged the offender toward the door, and then stood in it, like a cork in a bottle. He was known for barring people. One regular returned after a seven-month trip to find he'd been barred in absentia -- guilt by association.

Harry once barred Monica Broere, an early employee who made an audio tape with him last year. ''But I work here,'' she said. ''Only during working hours,'' Harry responded. (Everyone always came back, and Harry always let them back in, eventually.) It was ''ultra casual,'' Ms. Broere recalled. Dress code? ''Well, for women -- the lower cut the better.'' Bringing food into the bar was actively encouraged; in fact, it became a ritual.

Harry had a beer and wine license. A beer-drinker himself, he stocked domestic brands plus two imports. The wine selection consisted of a bottle of Chablis, one red, and one rose. The stuff was so bad, remembers John Denney, who lived over the bar and helped out, that some patrons brought their own wine, put the bottle on the shelf, and then bought it back by the glass. The menu offered two items, microwaved: a hot dog on an English muffin, and a baked potato, topped with butter and American cheese, the latter a bargain at 65 cents.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.