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Sophie's Bids Farewell to Beloved Scholar-Bartender

By Patrick Hedlund | November 5, 2010 1:07pm | Updated on November 6, 2010 10:36am

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

EAST VILLAGE — When friends came to clean out the apartment of Howard O'Brien, the longtime neighborhood bartender who passed away last week, they found his Yale University master's degree diploma still rolled up in its original packaging.

Friends said that was typical for a man who, despite his extensive education and vast accomplishments, chose to spend nearly 25 years behind the bar at Sophie's on East 5th Street, one of the last true local haunts left in the East Village.

"Maybe he took it out to look at it once and then put it back in the tube. That's how nonchalant he was about something like that," said Bob Corton, 57, the founder and former owner of Sophie's, who grew up with O'Brien in Westchester and helped empty his East 3rd Street apartment last week.

Howard O'Brien, a bartender at Sophie's for nearly 25 years, died last week after battling cancer.
Howard O'Brien, a bartender at Sophie's for nearly 25 years, died last week after battling cancer.
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Facebook/Sophie's Bar N.Y.C.

"He possessed knowledge that most people don't even come across today."

O'Brien died on Oct. 30 after an eight-month bout with cancer, friends said. The cancer had originated in his bladder, but wasn't discovered until it had spread throughout his entire system, at which point it was too late to treat, according to friends. He was 57 when he passed away.

To some, he will be remembered as a poet, philosopher, playwright, film buff and expert in ancient languages.

But to all who sat across from him at Sophie's, especially the neighborhood's immigrants and creative class, he was much more than someone simply pouring pints.

O'Brien attended the Choate School in Connecticut, and later both Harvard and Yale universities for undergraduate and graduate studies. After receiving his master's in the arts, he decided teach himself Gaelic and Latin, eventually translating ancient texts in both languages and traveling to Ireland and Italy for his studies.

All the while O'Brien remained grounded in the neighborhood through his time at the bar, earning a following from many of the Irish immigrants who arrived in the neighborhood in the late 1980s and early '90s, Corton said.

"Howard considered himself to be one of the common people," he said. "He loved people who were close to the earth, and that's why he loved the East Village. It brought a lot of things home to him."

The artists who came to the neighborhood in search of a cheap place to live also found a kindred spirit in O'Brien, who was a voracious reader and loved to hold forth on various subjects while working the bar.

"Given his eccentricities and the fact that he dedicated himself to his own appreciation of the arts and education, Sophie's was the perfect place for him," said Rich Corton, 43, who took over the bar from brother Bob a few years ago.

"He didn't have to accommodate himself to a mainstream lifestyle. It allowed him to pursue his intellect exactly how he wanted to."

Those pursuits included writing film reviews for a newspaper in Wexford, Ireland, penning two unpublished novels, and a devout dedication to his Catholic faith, friends said.

He forged relationships with literary luminaries in Ireland, Italy and New York, and it would not be uncommon for a famous author to drop by the dingy East 5th Street dive to chat with O'Brien.

"All of sudden he would introduce me to someone who won a Tony," Bob Corton said.

But for all of his worldly interests and intellectual prowess, he never strayed from his roots in the neighborhood, still working regular shifts at Sophie's up until the time of his death.

"I will say that he wasn't a very good bartender, but that wasn't the point," Bob Corton said, laughing.

"The bar was sort of his classroom. It provided him a small forum or stage where people knew that certain days of the week, they could stop in and talk to him anytime they wanted. So in that sense the door of the bar was always open."

Sophie's, on East 5th Street near Avenue A, opened in 1986.
Sophie's, on East 5th Street near Avenue A, opened in 1986.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Hedlund

Following a memorial service for O'Brien on Friday, dozens of his friends and family gathered at Sophie's to celebrate his life and share memories of their time with him.

"He was just a brilliant guy and scholarly," said Brian Burchill, a 20-year veteran bartender at Sophie's, who was O'Brien's barback when Burchill started working there. "He knew more than anyone else I've ever encountered."

Sophie's co-owner Kirk Marcoe, 43, said that when he would stop into the bar on quick business and O'Brien was working, "I'd sit down and we'd be talking for three hours.

"Sophie's and Howard were the same thing," he said. "Someone like Howard, that's never going to come around again. He added color to a place that was already colorful."

Artist and longtime Sophie's patron Markand Thakar made regular trips from his home on the Upper East Side to visit O'Brien at the bar.

"When you come in, it makes 'Cheers' look phony," said Thakar, 81, whose paintings hang inside the bar. "We know each other as family."

Thakar explained that he became close with O'Brien after the bartender saw an exhbition of his artwork and "figured I was real."

The two went on to develop a relationship that went beyond Sophie's, exchanging writings and even dining together once a week.

"Howard was a very good friend," Thakar added. "That he went before me, it almost seems unfair."

A friend of O'Brien's from their Choate days explained that he decided to pursue a career in writing because of Howard's influence.

"He made me become a writer," said Peter Richmond, 57, who lives upstate, describing a year he took off from college at Princeton to join O'Brien in Cambridge, Mass., where they "did a lot of drinking and talking."

"When Howard said go ahead and do it, I did. I needed Howard to say so, otherwise I wouldn't have done it."

Richmond went to publish five books, including a New York Times bestseller.

"He lived his life, as far as I'm concerned, perfectly," Richmond continued. "He could have been the head of any department at any college. He chose to be Howard. He changed everyone's life that came across him — whether for 10 seconds or 40 years."