Helen and Warren liked eating in restaurants in the early 20th century when it was a rare experience for most Americans. They kept up with the trends and they tried restaurants of every format. They were affluent New Yorkers, somewhat jaded and always seeking the new thing.
Helen wanted to avoid expense and ostentation but was uncomfortable in offbeat places. Warren was cynical and alternately a cheapskate or big-spender. Both were distrustful. They feared they’d be taken advantage of, and sometimes were.
In the 1920s Helen and Warren were the best known couple in the U.S.A.
But they were fictional. They were the creation of Mabel Herbert Urner who wrote a column about the pair for over thirty years, from 1910 until the early 1940s. The column was widely syndicated in newspapers from Boston to Los Angeles as well as in Canada and England. Though fiction, the column presents a fascinating subjective view of dining out, particularly in the 1910s and 1920s.
Helen’s and Warren’s experiences likely had some resemblance to Mabel’s own life, particularly when the couple visited restaurants in Paris, London, and other European capitals. After marrying rare book dealer and collector Lathrop Colgate Harper in 1912, Mabel traveled with him around the world. In New York they lived in an apartment at 1 Lexington Avenue across from Gramercy Park from which they surely forayed into restaurants regularly.
Did Mabel and Lathrop, like her famous pair, have a preference for out-of-the-way restaurants such as the French and Italian tables d’hôtes in NYC? One starlit summer night in 1913 Helen dragged Warren to a backyard café run by three sisters. Helen exclaimed “Why, it’s a bit of Paris!” when she stepped into the garden. They were surrounded by writers, artists, and illustrators, including a “queerly dressed” literary woman. (Mabel’s inside joke?) Warren, a successful businessman, scoffed at the artists but even he had to admit afterward, “That [was] the best dinner in New York for the money.” They paid 65 cents each for soup, beef tongue with piquant sauce, squab, and salad, finished with fresh pears, Camembert, and coffee – wine included. The café was clearly modeled on that run by the Petitpas sisters on W. 29th in conjunction with a boarding house where artist John Butler Yeats lived. A dinner with Yeats and friends about this time was memorialized in a painting by John Sloan.
The Petitpas dinner was one of the couple’s few positive experiences. As much as Helen was drawn to offbeat restaurants, she was often squeamish about unsanitary conditions. She refused to eat ground meat. Usually she wiped her silverware with her napkin. She had problems in a Chinese restaurant, an Italian place, an “anarchist restaurant,” probably Maria’s, as well as at the Pink Parrot in Greenwich Village (probably the Pepper Pot, shown here). When she pushed away her plate there, Warren reprimanded her, saying, “You’re a bum bohemian.”
Helen and Warren visited cafeterias, tea rooms, pre-war cabarets, hotel dining rooms, roadhouses, and shoreline resorts in the NYC metro area. Helen was often embarrassed by Warren’s behavior when he showed off or spent too much money. They bickered. He declared a tea room she liked “a sucker joint.” She was critical of the decor and pomp of expensive restaurants, but her attempts to put a brake on Warren’s spending often backfired.
In 1913 they went to a restaurant in the throes of a waiters’ strike. Somewhat surprisingly, considering the bourgeois lifestyles of both Mabel and Helen, the story presents a case for the strikers. Helen questions their server about the goals of the strike, and he says, “They want decent food, m’am; clean food and a clean place to eat it. They want to be treated like men – not dogs! And they want a living wage.” Warren asks about tips and the waiter replies, “Why does he have to depend on tips thrown at him?”
In many ways Helen’s and Warren’s restaurant adventures and complaints seem relevant today. Has it happened to you that a server tries to remove your meal in progress? Have you been charged extra for bread? Welcome to the 1910s.
© Jan Whitaker, 2013