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

Did your favorite writer spend time there as well?

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).

By Tobias Carroll

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.