Searching for the truth at Harry’s Bar

“Sank Roo Doe Noo,” is what I was looking for. Anyone up on bar lore will certainly recognize the phonetic spelling for the address of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris: 5 rue Dannou in the Opera district between rue de la Paix and the avenue de l’Opera. All of which sounds pretty simple until one tries to find it speaking almost no French and with spotty Internet service.

The New York Bar was opened by an American ex-jockey named Tod Sloan in 1911 and manned by bartender/impresario extraordinaire Harry MacElhone. MacElhone left for New York in 1912 only to return and buy the place in 1923. From then on it became a refuge for American expats who liked to drink and many who liked to write. Soon Harry’s Bar was taking credit for inventing drinks like the sidecar, the white lady, and the bloody Mary, with MacElhone’s friends immortalizing the claims in print. A legend was born.

By the time I found Harry’s I had already walked up and down several streets that I had been sure were the avenue de l’Opera only to discover that they were not.

Eventually I plunked down at the old mahogany bar just like Hemingway or Fitzgerald before me. I could have easily been sitting where Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir sat. They’re French, so I don’t expect you to know them, but you get the idea.

When I was in journalism school they had us do an exercise that involved typing the first paragraph of our favorite book.

“It’s just that easy,” my professor said. I got his point, that the actual physical effort of creating something like that is easy. But you have to at least go through the physical motions. Many would-be writers never write; they talk about it but they never actually put words on paper. I never wanted to be one of those. Maybe that is why I sought out 5 rue Dannou in the first place.

Whatever the reason there I was. I leaned back and tried to push the oddly square and slightly too small bar stool back. It didn’t move, sticking on the well-worn floor. I had to get up twice in order to get it to move. So much for being Hemingway or Sartre for that matter.

I ordered the requisite house bloody Mary. The bartender, a French Canadian whom everyone called Larry (although his name tag said Laurent) mixed it up in classic Harry’s fashion — six dashes Worcestershire sauce, three dashes of Tabasco, salt, pepper, lemon juice, 2 ounces of vodka, ice — before filling it with tomato juice. No celery and no celery salt much like Pete Petiot, former Harry’s bartender and the much-ballyhooed inventor of the bloody Mary, would have made it. Perhaps.

Petiot’s claim is the oldest on record, but there is a problem with it. The problem is with the base material itself. No not the vodka, the other stuff; the tomato juice. Tomato juice as we know today it isn’t really juice at all. It is a combination of tomato paste, sugar, salt and seasonings. The first “tomato juice” was created by chef Louis Perrin in 1917 at the French Lick Springs Hotel in Indiana. And, according to author Fred Cavinder in his 1985 book “The Indiana Book of Records, Firsts and Fascinating Facts,” by 1921 the developers of tomato juice “were supplying a wide southern Indiana area with the product.” Then in 1925, the Indiana-based Tomato Products Co. was formed to produce the first commercially made tomato juice. Canned tomato juice came later, also from Indiana, in 1928. So it begs the question, just what was Petiot making his bloody Marys with in Paris in 1921?

I was at Harry’s to ask. I leaned forward to take a sip of the drink in question. Being too far back I tried to scoot my bar stool forward. It didn’t move. I grabbed my stool with both hands and made the stool hop forward once. Feeling like I was finally getting the hang of it, I did it again, lurching forward and knocking my drink over. Larry shook his head while he cleaned up the mess.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• Don’t believe everything you read.

• Walking like a duck and quacking like a duck doesn’t make you a duck.

• Pete Petiot’s first name was really Fernand.

• Harry’s Bar clearly never envisioned such a thing as the Internet.

• Shame can keep you from asking a lot of questions.