March 4, 2011 10:13 pm

First Person: Tommy Rowles

Tommy Rowles

I was an 18-year-old kid when I came into Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle hotel one day to use the bathroom. It was 1958. I’d just got to New York the day before and was looking for a job in an Irish pub. The guy behind the bar asked me if I’d want to work in a place like this and I said, “No, never.” I wanted to be with my people. Fortunately, he talked me out of it.

My dad died of tuberculosis when I was two. My mum was 28 and she had to work three or four jobs. She taught English literature but she made more money cleaning houses. Dublin was very bad back then. I was the first one in my family to come to the US, but eventually they all followed me over.

This is the only job I’ve ever had, and I’ve been here for 52 years. How lucky can you get? Bemelmans is the best bar in America. I’ve served everybody here. Bobby and Teddy Kennedy. Jackie O. I didn’t serve Jack, but I shook hands with him. He was here the week before he died, in 1963. I served Harry Truman. He was like one of the guys. He came in early one morning. Of course, being Irish, I could drink beer until it came out of my ears, but I told him, “I could never look at bourbon in the morning.” Truman said, “Well, go outside and tell me what you see.” So I did, and there were eight people out there with cameras. He goes, “If you had to walk 16 blocks with these guys, you’d have something, too.”

I’ve always said the difference between The Carlyle and Las Vegas is that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas for about two weeks and then it goes in The National Enquirer. But what happens at The Carlyle, you’ll never read about it. Show me a magazine that has anything about a scandal at The Carlyle. I’d like to read it, because they never get the goods. We have a code.

People always want to drink martinis here, and you’d have to quit the job if you didn’t know how to make them right. My secret is to forget about the Vermouth. I don’t know why people put it in. A bottle of Vermouth, you should just open it and look at it.

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I’ve always loved the job. It was perfect for a guy like me – I didn’t go to college. Now, the only advice that I’d offer a young bartender is, make sure you go to college. I have no regrets though – but then I could talk my way round anything. A lot of people can’t.

I worked nights for 27 years, but as I got older I found I couldn’t do the job the way I wanted to. Your memory isn’t the same, so now I work days. It’s not easy to be sharp when you’re 70, especially if you lived through the 1960s. The Sixties were crazy. They were great, but crazy. I was at Woodstock. I was a kid then and I went for the action. You know what they say: roll a bone and smoke your own, and a lot of other things I can’t say.

Anybody who tells you Woodstock was a love-fest, they must’ve carried the girls out and taken them home, because you couldn’t even walk on account of all the rain and muck. But everybody was hopped up, so it didn’t matter. I saw Jimi Hendrix, everybody. Today, I prefer Frank Sinatra.

New York has changed a lot over the years, but The Carlyle hasn’t. Most of our clientele, they’re from the Upper East Side, and from 43rd Street to 94th Street there’s no recession. These people always have money. That’s a fact of life.

My wife, Elizabeth, passed away two years ago. I married her when I was 28. She was a great lady. Sometimes she’d say to me, “You have to take me somewhere nice.” And I’d say, “OK, but not The Carlyle. Can’t afford it.”

I don’t know how much longer I’ll last. I’m 70 now, I gotta go sometime. It’s coming near the end. It could be a week, a month, five months.

I don’t know. I had my first sick-day in seven years yesterday. When I retire, I’m gonna go out drinking. I’m gonna party. Oh yeah, I’m gonna party. Why not?

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In 1911, the American writer H.L. Mencken described the average bartender as “a man who excels at a difficult art and is well aware of it; a man who shrinks from ruffianism as he does from uncleanliness; in short, a gentleman”. Students at Harvard university are eligible to undertake a one-day $245 bartending course resulting in an Art of Mixology certificate. The course is run by Harvard Student Agencies; students must also undergo training in legal issues surrounding the serving of alcohol in the US

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