Surprisingly for a bar owner, Bill O’Donnell, who, sadly, died last month, was truly ‘the quiet man’. Though a vital contributor to our West Village world, unlike other local personality publicans of the 50s-60s era, with bars bearing their own names—Louie’s, Stefan’s, Bradley’s, etc.—Bill didn’t play the front of the house.
When I first hung out in the Bistro, in the late 60s, he still had a partner, Jim Butcher, who occupied that role. But even when Jim moved out to Long Island and Bill became sole owner, he still stayed out of sight. It has always been Harold, the favorite bartender, who has played ‘mine host’—never Bill.
Whatever he did, or didn’t do, however, he ‘got it right’—which is why the Corner Bistro is still going strong to this day.
To quote from the September 2012 Village Original profile by Michael Minichello (http://westviewnews.org/2012/09/west-village-original-bill-odonnell/):
…. For a fellow who started out with no clear life plan, it turns out that O’Donnell ended up doing pretty well after all. “I do take some pride in the fact that the Bistro is so successful,” he admits. “It means I’ve just hung in for such a length of time. I wasn’t an innovator of any sort. I just persevered. And, if you hang around long enough, good things can happen. The Bistro still represents something of the past and people like that. It’s reminiscent of old New York and it’s maintained its integrity.”
As did Bill.
Maggie Berkvist’s words truly capture Bill O’Donnell—he was a great man who helped many people in this neighborhood, without, as Maggie pointed out, ever touting himself. I was fortunate enough to call Bill a friend. Whenever I looked out my window on 12th Street, I might well see him walking by on one of his solitary strolls through the Village Streets. He was a living symbol of a wonderful vital era. Today the saloon was closed for Bill’s wake, and I saw tourists huddling outside in the wind, consulting their maps for where to go instead. The character of the place has always reflected the character of its owner. The West Village those tourists were seeking also passed on this week, a West Village we are not likely to see again.
Best, Janet Capron