Revisiting Costello’s, the NYC Bar Frequented by Steinbeck and Hemingway

Did your favorite writer spend time there as well?

John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck (1902-68). His novels include The Grapes of Wrath (1939) for which he won the Pulitzer prize, Of Mice and Men (1937) and East of Eden (1952).
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Over the years, some bars become a part of cultural history. In some cases, that’s because of their clientele; in others, it might have to do with their location. (Frequently, it’s a combination of both.) In 1973, the New York Times called Costello’s “one of the last reminders in midtown of a once‐boistrous and shabby Third Avenue of bars, tenements and pawn shops.” The likes of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Joseph Mitchell frequented the place, and James Thurber contributed a mural to the bar’s walls.

In a new essay for Literary Hub, Sharon DeBartolo Carmack looked back at the history and cultural impact of Costello’s. For her, the connection is familial — she notes that Tim Costello, the bar’s longtime owner, was married to her grandmother’s cousin. And in the article, she describes her process of learning just how much of a role the bar played in New York’s 20th century literary life.

Costello emerges here as a magnetic figure — he attended school through the eighth grade, and developed a keen sense of literature from his own readings after that. Carmack writes that “[Costello] was quite literate; he read and highly regarded Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. Johnson, along with Alexander Pope, were the authors Tim recommended to [Frank] McCourt.”

The article also cites a 1968 George Frazier article in Esquire, which pointed out that many of the writers who knew Costello sought his opinion on their work before publishing it — making him, arguably, a literary tastemaker before that phrase was in use. It’s a fascinating look at a bygone establishment — and the writers and thinkers who congregated there.


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