Volume 75, Number 41 | March 1 -7 2006

Edith Dettmers and Paul Piel onboard the Queen Mary in 1955

Lancelot the ocelot and the story of Ye Waverly Inn

By LindaAnn Loschiavo

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good job must be in want of a wife — or a decent restaurant. Walking on Bethune St. in 1919, a thirsty teenager in search of a tearoom noticed a substantial structure — Western Electric — and scrutinized it with her older brother. This company had focused on lucrative military defense contracts during the war and it was now churning out peacetime products (microphones, amplifiers, hearing aids) and profits. After Armistice Day, the management was busy expanding its engineering department at 463 West St. In 1925, this firm would become Bell Telephone Laboratories.

Newcomers Edith and Clarence Dettmers warmed to the idea of a luncheonette that could attract these employees. Though neither could cook — according to Edith’s son Mark Piel — they possessed a generous helping of imagination and other ingredients.

A 1920 business card with a map to Ye Waverly Inn
Beautiful Edith, 19, had a sunny-side-up disposition and Clarence, her debonair 26-year-old brother, had bookkeeping experience. Both were fastidious dressers who had had an opportunity to observe tastemakers. Though Edith was born in Manhattan and Clarence in Chicago, the siblings had been raised in the shadow of The White House. Adolph Dettmers, their German-born father, was the maitre d’ at the palatial New Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C., a favorite of princes and presidents — like Abe Lincoln, who fired up an entertainment tab of $773.75 (about $16,000 in today’s dollars). In the rarefied atmosphere around Capitol Hill, Clarence had become an opera buff, Edith polished her piano skills, an older brother Arthur refined his jewelry making, and Adolph Jr., the eldest, had gone into business.

That genteel world splintered when their father was killed in an accident. It pained them that their 54-year-old widowed mother Anna was in White Plains now, working for a German family as a live-in maid, and their brothers had scattered. But Edith and Clarence enjoyed the flavor of life by taking big bites; they fixed on earning their bread as well as restoring Mrs. Dettmers to ladylike leisure.

With so many rapid-transit hubs bordering on Bethune St., the area seemed ideal for a fast start. Along Greenwich St. whizzed the Ninth Ave. El. Rails for the Seventh Ave. trolley and the Hudson & Manhattan tubes (now the PATH train) added another speedway. No wonder the White Horse Tavern fizzed with an overflow of customers and so did the Greenwich Village Theatre and Greenwich Village Inn on Sheridan Square. What would it cost, the Dettmers wondered, to rent a floor?

A strong magnet had drawn the Dettmers to the West Village. They met a new ally on Armistice Day — New Yorker Paul Piel — when Edith played the piano at a North Carolina military base. A Harvard graduate and a sculptor, Paul was part of the famous Piels Brothers family, and also part of a wide bohemian circle that included John Cowper Powys, Llewellyn Powys and Alyse Gregory, who lived between Patchin Pl. and W. 12th St. Paul Piel was the secret ingredient in Ye Waverly Inn’s success and longevity.

The property at 16 Bank St., whose snug street-level rooms housed Ye Waverly Inn from 1920 onward, has kept its skeletons hidden. According to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, this dwelling was built in 1845. Shortly after, it was acquired by Elias A. Day, then residing at 13 Hammond St. (now 219 W. 11th St.). Day accumulated more than two-dozen properties in the vicinity, and left some to his widow Nancy Coit Day, and some to his married daughter Hester A. Gregory. When Mrs. Gregory died in 1893, a parcel of 20 properties that she owned went to auction. In 1893, new owner Francis Hessberger altered 16 Bank St. to a four-story building “with a brick store.” In 1901, Josephine and George Budke, who owned Number 18, bought 16 Bank St.

Eventually, this adjoining pair was purchased by a wealthy but sad portrait painter, whose erratic family history echoes with romantic nihilism. Here’s the skinny: Henry Martyn Hoyt — grandson of a governor of Pennsylvania, and son of a philandering attorney general who served under Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft — married Alice Parker in 1912, had two children, then separated from his artist wife. As Henry M. Hoyt kept buying Village real estate, he moved into 37 W. 10th St. Hoyt was working on a book, “Dry Points: Studios in Black and White,” and living with a writer roommate, widower William Rose Benét, when he committed suicide by inhaling illuminating gas on Aug. 25, 1920. William, the older brother of Pulitzer winner Stephen Vincent Benét, broke the news to Hoyt’s family, and wound up engaged to the much-married Elinor Hichborn-Wylie, who became the literary editor of Vanity Fair, thanks to Benét.

Henry Martyn Hoyt willed 16-18 Bank St. to his children and as a result the court blocked the sale until July 1931. Meanwhile, the best his widow could do during Prohibition was lease the store to folks who wouldn’t serve alcohol. Soon Ye Waverly Inn & Garden set out a welcome mat.

Its unique look was the handiwork of Paul Piel, who also invented the transposing piano for Irving Berlin, and executed designs for Piels Brothers. The inn’s sign and those signature booths were custom-built by Piel. He styled the menu and drew promotional material, such as a charming map that led the way to Ye Waverly Inn, where lunch was 65 cents. An early dinner seating, 5:30 p.m.-8 p.m., was added; among the choices for $1 were chicken pot pie and meatloaf.

When working at Vanity Fair as secretary to Claire Booth Luce, Phyllis Abell visited Ye Waverly Inn. In 1937, she wed Clarence Dettmers and they took over, hiring Mr. McDowell, a New England chef who ruled there for 25-plus years. Edith, who became Mrs. Paul Piel in 1924, wanted to devote more time to her sons and resume her music. At Greenwich House Music School, she became a violinist and performed in the Village.

Early on, the modest prices attracted people in the arts. Willa Cather, who lived at 5 Bank St. until 1927, ate lunch there daily, said Mark Piel. Writers John and Llewellyn Powys dined there, sometimes with Alyse Gregory, editor of The Dial. Laurence Stallings, most famous for “What Price Glory?” was a regular. Dance pioneer Hanya Holm, who choreographed “Kiss Me Kate,” “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot,” and The New Yorker’s theatrical caricaturist Alfred Frueh were habitués. Beer heiress Agnes Piel, Paul’s sister, enjoyed strolling over from her W. 11th St. townhouse with her lover, Bruno Bettelheim, the controversial child psychologist.

Another devotee was Stanley Watkins, pioneer of film sound and chief engineer of Western Electric, who wooed Edith and proposed marriage. On Feb. 23, 1922, Watkins told her he began working on the first talking movie. As early as 1924, when Watkins gave the first public demonstration of a fax machine, patrons at Ye Waverly Inn heard about it first. In 1926, Watkins had his first experience calming volatile Al Jolson while filming a Vitaphone “short” — and the restaurant’s inner circle got an exclusive earful about the Broadway star’s tantrums.

There were other fascinating firsts associated with Ye Waverly Inn. Here are three:

* F.D.R.’s protégé Joseph Lash, winner of a Pulitzer for his 1971 biography “Eleanor and Franklin,” lived at 16 Bank St. in the 1930s, where he ran a social club for Socialists.

* George Cory Jr. and Douglass Cross wrote “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in 1953 but no singers were interested until Tessie O’Shea premiered it at Ye Waverly Inn that year.

* On Aug. 16, 1958, young Lancelot the ocelot, fleeing loud martial music Stanley Sherman was playing at 246 Waverly Pl., bounded out a window, and crawled through 16 Bank’s cellar grating, startling Ye Waverly Inn’s guests as the nervous 15-pound cat tried to hide for 90 minutes.

The one-star eatery remained liquorless until 1966, when owner Murray Sellack installed a bar. By 1983, it rated “no stars.” As the owners grew hungry for tourists, legends drew the patrons. The building acquired ghosts, a faked 1810 origin, and a litany of lies about luminaries who supped there, thanks to gullible New York Times reporters who don’t bother to fact-check. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter is currently spicing up the storied establishment — maybe with stars in mind.

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