Friday, May 18, 2012

The Café Society

"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves."
F Scott Fitzgerald, The Rich Boy (1926)

I enjoy coffee, so much so that I recently tried an experiment. On March 29th, after a wonderful breakfast with my wife, daughter and youngest son—a going-away breakfast of sorts for my daughter who was moving to Israel in a few days—I decided to give up coffee.

Coffee is a stimulant. It is a legal stimulant, a legal and socially acceptable drug, if you will, infused with all kinds of ritual, at the workplace, at home, and at cafés. Unlike tea, which has a much longer history dating to the Third Millennium BCE in Ancient China, coffee as a beverage is only a few hundred years old. The earliest recorded mention of coffee is in the Sufi monasteries in southern Arabia in the mid-fifteenth century; it made its way to Europe in the mid-seventeenth century. But its acceptance as a hot beverage was not quick; it met resistance from some quarters of the Catholic Church, notes the National Coffee Association based in New York City:
Opponents were overly cautious, calling the beverage the 'bitter invention of Satan.' With the coming of coffee to Venice in 1615, the local clergy condemned it. The controversy was so great that Pope Clement VIII was asked to intervene. Before making a decision however, he decided to taste the beverage for himself. He found the drink so satisfying that he gave it Papal approval.

Despite such controversy, in the major cities of England, Austria, France, Germany and Holland, coffee houses were quickly becoming centers of social activity and communication. In England 'penny universities' sprang up, so called because for the price of a penny one could purchase a cup of coffee and engage in stimulating conversation. By the mid-17th century, there were over 300 coffee houses in London, many of which attracted patrons with common interests, such as merchants, shippers, brokers and artists.
Coffee became associated with stimulating conversation; tea with reflective thought. In my early adult years, notably while attending university, I could easily consume four or five cups of coffee a day. But its stimulating effects have taken its toll on my body's nervous system. So, ever since I was diagnosed with mild hypertension about five years ago, I have limited my daily coffee intake to two cups. But to limit it to none, well, that was a daunting prospect. Yet,  I decided that it was something that I needed to do for the sake of improving my health.

That got me thinking about the history of cafés, coffeehouses, and the history of writers hanging out in such venues and their establishment as public places to observe and be seen. In short order, it became normative for the "beautiful people" to frequent such fashionable establishments. The Café Society was a phrase coined in the 1930s (attributed to either Lucius Beebe or Maury Henry Biddle Paul), during the height of the Great Depressions, to describe a set of people who met and gave parties in fashionable restaurants and night clubs in Paris, London and New York City. Here one site describes  the New York Society:
The milieu known loosely as Café Society was a glittering alloy of screen and stage performers, radio personalities, star athletes, debutantes, musicians, old money socialites, press agents, promoters, and producers; those who were talented and those who wanted to associate with the talented. Despite the Depression, Café Society rubbed elbows nightly in 1930s Manhattan. Its gathering places were nightclubs like the Colony, El Morocco, Dave’s Blue Room, The Hollywood, and, foremost, the Stork Club, nightspots where entrance alone – if you could get past the doorman – would set you back five or even ten dollars. This gathering of the beautiful and the lucky was a living incarnation of what moviegoers paid two dimes to see on screen in the 1930s: cool glamour, light conversation attended by chilled champagne, romances begun while fox-trotting to elegant jazz music.  That right outside the door the unemployment rate was twenty-five percent made this privileged party seem closer to dreamscape than reality.
No doubt these glamorous get-togethers were fun and fashionable, but there is no record of any of these   soirées translating to anything remotely beneficial for humanity. No great medical advancements or discoveries; no great scientific advances; no great political or economic programs; no great literary efforts. It was precisely what it was meant to be—a gathering of the beautiful people. [For those interested, there is a wonderful bookCafe Society: Socialites, Patrons, and Artists 1920-1960, by Thierry Coudet on the French Society.]

That era is long gone. Today the meaning of café society, if it applies at all, is different; it describes actual cafés where people, chiefly young, urban and educated students sit, work, and drink coffee of all types while tapping the keys of their laptops, touch-screen phones and other electronic devices. A glow of screens, punctuated by quiet conversation, related to what is on-screen. The persons are neither primarily fashionable nor work in the entertainment industry, nor are they wealthy or famous. They are in the main average people like you and I, who look at cafés as a safe place to congregate.

My experiment to deny myself coffee lasted about a month. I have now returned to my ritual of a cup of coffee in the morning, and I truly enjoy it. No guilt. But I have found going to the large coffee chains to have a coffee, cappuccino or espresso less enjoyable than it used to be. If I do venture out for a coffee, I rather prefer going to an old-fashioned, unfashionable café in Little Italy, and having an espresso in the company of old Italian men discussing something passionately and expressively with the use of their hands. Even that social ritual is becoming less common

As for the original Café Society, it has been replaced by the "Jet Set" and other modern configurations. The glamor has been lost. Even so, the comings and goings of such persons are still covered by the media, and they still draw a faithful following for reasons that have everything to do with a cult-like fascination with the lives of the rich and famous. Whether they really have something to say does not deter such persons from weighing in on a host of social, political and economic issues. They are free to do so; and we are equally free to ignore les bons mots of the "beautiful people." And drink our coffee in the quiet confines of our home.


  1. An article in the New York Times suggests that coffee is good for one's health.

    1. Thst's good news for coffee drinkers; yet too much caffeine can overtax the heart, as with any stimulant.


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