IF YOU DIDN'T already know that the Holiday is owned by the handsome, silver-haired Stefan Lutak, you at least suspected as much. The 84-year-old lush, a former professional soccer player from Ukraine who fought in the Battle of Stalingrad and fled the Russian army at the end of WWII, is famous for serenading his customers when drunk. "I looooove you," he sings in a high tenor, arms out in a hug of the air, his body shambling in a cracked-up waltz-time.
Lately, the drinking has made him sick—a horrid sugar reaction bloats his face into something mongoloid and unrecognizable. As a result, he's stopped boozing. He stopped in September 1999, and again in 2002, and in 2003, and again this year, dates that should be recorded among alcoholics everywhere as signs of hope. Though he's had some setbacks, I managed to catch him on a good night, when he was drinking tea and eating an iceberg salad.
Lutak started the Holiday in 1965, and it quickly became a haunt for poets and intellectuals, or, as Lutak likes to refer to them, "bullshitters and faggots." The modernist master W.H. Auden, author of "The Shield of Achilles," was the star drunk. He drank here with Allen Ginsberg, among others, living on cognac, V.S.O.P.—whole bottles in an afternoon as he sat by the window, writing with a stubby pencil, constantly erasing and rewriting. "When he sober, he can't write," Lutak recalls. "When he too drunk he can't write. You could never say when he was drunk, because he drinking all the time."
One day, Lutak saw the poet picking through a garbage can near the bar—Auden lived a few doors down (so, as it happens, did another famous bullshitter, Leon Trotsky)—and Lutak stopped to ask what he was doing. "Oh, someone threw out my $30,000 check," replied Auden, but not finding it, and soiled with garbage, he came in for a drink. "He was rich man, but sloppy," says Lutak. "He had six people sleeping in his bed, like under an umbrella."
During his last days in New York, circa 1972, Lutak remembers, Auden wandered around dressed in a red bathrobe and a pair of slippers, with a paper shopping bag in his arms. One day, he announced that he would go to Vienna, to his villa. "You go like this?" asked Lutak. And indeed, says Lutak, he went in his slippers. One year after stepping out of the Holiday, Auden died in Vienna, suddenly, at the age of 66.
Lutak was a card-carrying Communist, and paid his bills working in a rubber factory in Ukraine, where he was born in 1920. His love, and the job that fed his heart, was soccer. He played on the amateur circuit against rival factories, then spent three years on the international Soviet soccer team, playing in Germany and elsewhere in the late 30s. When war came, he served as an infantryman; Stalingrad was hell.
"What can I tell you? You kill or you die. There was fighting for months and months. Empty city, no houses, everything kaput, and the Germans made a ring around the city. I had big rifle, as tall as me, shoes were falling apart. You look at the bums who come in here, the army was like that, no shave, no shower. To save your life, that's all we did. The winter was terrible. The ice came from your mouth. We were sleeping in the snow, nothing to eat. Two, three, four days, a whole week with empty stomach. Kitchen? Gone! They killed the horses. Then they killed the cooks. We ate leaves, and in November the leaves were gone."
By 1945, Lutak had deserted the Soviet Army and joined the great human migrations of the post-war chaos. He fled west, as fast as he could go, hiding in forests, traveling by night. Of his family, he had none to leave behind. His father, a WWI vet, had died of malaria in the 1920s. His brother had been carted off to a gulag in Siberia, for what offense Lutak won't say.
"So we go and go and go. Romania. Hungary. A lot of soldiers. Salzburg. Graz." He was eventually picked up by American forces and put into a camp at Ulm, where he met his wife in 1946.
Three years later, he was on the General Stewart bound for New York out of Bremenhafen, Germany. "Twelve days at sea. There were a lot of Ukrainians, Jews, Poles. Went through a storm, shaking the boat, back and forth. I was sick, every half hour throwing up."
When he arrived on Nov. 18, 1949, a Friday, to Pier 82 on the west side of Manhattan, the boys from the Ukrainian Sport Club, then based at 10th St. between Aves. A and B, came to pick him up. By Saturday morning, he was playing soccer in Van Cortlandt Park. His team won.
He shows me a beat-up black and white photo of his wife, a brunette with a fine little nose and nice eyes. Then he saddens. "Her name was Jeri. She was good, she was young, she was beautiful. We married. And now she's gone. She had surgery in her neck for smoking. She didn't want to listen to the doctor. Maybe she had a bad husband."
Somehow I don't believe that. Maybe she lived hard, like Lutak, and life took its toll.
For his part, Lutak doesn't seem anywhere close to death. He's spry and strong and his head's all there, and if he cuts the booze, I have a feeling he'll live for a long time, unlike most of his patrons.
"I look at men my age, they say they can't work anymore. I feel like I'm 50 years back. My generation, we had a reason to kill ourselves. This generation, they kill themselves for no reason. Not easy, killing yourself for no reason."
Then, he tires of talking, and the place starts to fill. The bar turns loud, the voices collide, the jukebox begins its churn and Lutak watches the night come in. o