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HomeCultureFor the preppie youth of the ’60s, Manhattan was the place to drink

For the preppie youth of the ’60s, Manhattan was the place to drink

for the preppies of the '60s Manhattan was the place for drinks

Back in the ‘60’s, when I was a teenager and then a young adult, New York City was a big draw for certain young people, primarily or entirely because the drinking age was 18.  It was, as now, 21 in New Jersey and Connecticut. New York raised it to 19 in 1982 and then to 21 in 1985, under pressure from the not-fun-loving Feds.

I lived in Connecticut from 1962 to 1966 while attending a boarding school less than two hours from Gotham. In my senior year, I’d sometimes go to New York with classmates and other friends. I had places to stay that were either cheap or free (such as an older rich cousin’s dark but capacious apartment at 89th Street at Fifth Avenue).

There were, of course, plenty of things to do in Manhattan. But the main attraction for many of us, unfortunately, was being able to order a drink when you were 18, although, God knows, plenty of places would serve you if you were younger and looked it!  Phony IDs circulated everywhere.

The infamous Mike Malkan’s bar

Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, such establishment was Mike Malkan’s bar, at 340 East 79th Street, deep in the Upper East Side.  The Upper East Side was the center of the preppie crowd, some of whom had always lived there but many who flocked there just to party. This was many years before Brooklyn and downtown (excepting the West Village, which was always stylish) became hip. After they got out of college, many of these same young people shared sterile modern apartments for a few years on or near 86th Street, which was also the commercial hub. (They stored beer in icy water in bathtubs during what were in effect post-grad frat parties.) Then most got married , and many moved to the suburbs.

'60s bar scene

A gin and tonic.

The (excessively?) friendly Mr. Malkan would serve booze to pretty much any adolescent, male or female, who facially and sartorially looked like what we’d now call “preppies.’’ (In those days “preppie’’ generally just applied to those from Northeast boarding schools.  Private day schools didn’t count.) He seemed to know all the school football songs.

When smoking went with drinking

He’d sell the kids drink after drink as he chatted them up. Almost all of them were younger than 25, and most had gone to, or were still going to, private secondary schools and/or Ivy League or sociologically similar colleges. (They were easier to get into then.)  Of course, most of us also smoked, especially while drinking.  The air was blue. We hardly thought about health.

As it turned out, Mr. Malkan was gay (although that word referring to homosexuality hardly existed then) and was shot to death in his apartment, apparently by young hustlers, in 1984.

Some would show off by ordering a witch’s brew called a “French 75”

If you were feeling flush, you might go with a date to such places as the Top of the Sixes, on the 41st floor of 666 Fifth Avenue, famous for overpriced cocktails and splendid views of Manhattan’s purple dusks.

G&T’s and French 75’s

I particularly remember drinking gin and tonics, always called “G&T’s’’ by my would-be-sophisticated friends. The other major drink was scotch on the rocks. Some would show off by ordering, for example, a witch’s brew called a “French 75” — gin, syrup, lemon juice and champagne. Revolting.  But not as bad as those heavily sweetened Day-Glo-colored “tropical” drinks, some with little paper umbrellas over the almost-viscous fluid, at Trader Vic’s in the old Plaza Hotel.  We ordered them, too.

Blessedly, few of us drove into the city in those days. We took the New Haven Railroad (some of which is now called Metro North). But some would drive to Port Chester, N.Y., on the Connecticut line, and buy booze in liquor stores that were marketed to people who had just turned 18 or at least had a bogus ID. Some of these partiers ended up dead in car crashes after they sampled their purchases on the road.

We very early Baby Boomers tended to identify ourselves with the cocktail generation before us”

1966 now seems to me about an hour ago or many decades ago, depending on my passing reveries. I feel a particular pang when revisiting New York in the spring.

The ’60s as a cultural description was just getting going

I have vivid  and happy memories of the party that a group of us just-graduated members of the Class of 1966 had in a hot and humid Manhattan. We stayed in the Hilton, of all places, and, of course, stupidly and enthusiastically smoked and drank. Although it was already the mid-‘60s, we very early Baby Boomers tended to identify with the cocktail generation before us, and New York was the Capital of Cocktails.  The Sixties as a cultural description were just getting going.

Music is like Proust’s madeleine. When I hear “Hot Town, Summer in the City,’’ I think of cooling off with “G & T’s’’ in some joint on 86th Street or hearing Gershwin played on a tinkling piano in one of Manhattan’s innumerable hotel cocktail lounges.  (“Cocktail lounge’’ seems to be a disappearing phrase.) It was always late afternoon, things were sweetly melancholic, we were wearing those awful Madras jackets, and we avoided talking about Vietnam.

Robert Whitcomb
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