The Celluloid Pantry: Rye at P.J. Clarke’s and The Lost Weekend (1945)
This 1945 Academy Award winner for Best Picture is hardly an advertisement for drinking. A grittily realistic portrait of alcoholism, replete with eerie theremin music and hallucinatory visions of bats and mice, The Lost Weekend is a far cry from glibly sophisticated 30s screwball comedies such as The Thin Man (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936), which tended to cast heavy cocktail use in fluffily comic roles.
Directed by Billy Wilder, the film tells the story of a would-be writer, Don Birnam (Ray Milland, left), who turns to glass after glass of rye for solace. The cast is rounded out by Jane Wyman as Helen St. James, Birnman’s elegant love interest, with the storied NYC Third Avenue bar, P.J. Clarke’s (here thinly disguised as “Nat’s”), in a strong supporting role.
P.J. Clarke’s is so steeped in legend (and Irish blarney) that it’s difficult to pin down its exact dates. Said to have been erected in 1862 (or 1871), the building was home to several drinking establishments before it was purchased (or rented) by Patrick J. Clarke in 1912.
Always a little rough around the edges, the bar has nevertheless enjoyed a longstanding popularity with the glitterati: Frank Sinatra, Richard Harris, Nat King Cole, Jackie Onassis, and Johnny Mercer (who is said to have written “One for My Baby” while sitting at one of P.J.’s tables) have all been regulars at one time.
The place has also been popular with writers, including Charles R. Jackson, the author of the semi-autobiographical novel on which The Lost Weekend was based. Although the movie was shot on a soundstage in Hollywood, all the features that make P.J. Clarke’s P.J. Clarke’s – the long, curved hardwood bar, pressed tin ceiling, cut glass windows, and rows of glittering bottles – were replicated in loving detail. Legend has it that every afternoon while the film was being shot, the writer Robert Benchley (of Algonquin Round Table fame) would appear on the set spot on 5 o’clock. He’d pull a stool up to the bar, order a bourbon, drink it, chat a little, and then walk out. He was homesick for New York.