‘Heard it through the grapevine?’ The source was probably at 6th Avenue and 11th Street
6th Avenue and 11th Street, 1905. Image via Ephemeral New York,
On August 6, 1966, the first known recording of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was made by the Miracles. Written by Motown pioneers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, the song was re-recorded several times, most famously by Gladys Night and the Pips and Marvin Gaye, whose version landed on the top of the charts for seven weeks in early 1969.
But the famous saying about receiving important news or information through a person-to-person chain of communication significantly pre-dates the Motown era. In fact, plentiful evidence and credible sources say it all goes back to a beloved tavern on the corner of 6th Avenue and 11th Street in Greenwich Village.
According to the New York Public Library, a wooden 2.5-story house built in the 1700s that stood at the southeast corner of this intersection housed a saloon called the Hawthorne. Originally a private home, by the early 19th century it had become a refuge for those escaping the beehive of activity in Lower Manhattan. But by the late 19th century, as the city grew around it, the tavern took on a different role.
6th Avenue and 11th Street, 1851. Image via NYPL
Among northern cities, New York was uniquely conflicted about the Civil War and had both Union and Confederate sympathizers. Union officers and Confederate spies were known to gather at the saloon, and many a military secret was supposedly traded there.
After the Jefferson Market Courthouse (now a library) was built across the street in 1877, the Tavern became a noted hangout for lawyers and politicians, including future presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Chester A. Arthur. There they shared information from and speculated about the many goings on at the nearby courthouse, and the tavern became known as the best place to hear political gossip in New York. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, the tavern was also popular among actors and artists, who were also attracted by (and contributed to) the give and take of gossip.
Another change the tavern underwent in the 19th century was the growth of an ever-expanding grapevine along the 11th Street façade of the building. So prominent was the climbing plant that the Hawthorne simply came to be known as “The Grapevine.” And thus, at least according to legend, this fertile ground for gossip and reconnaissance became the source for the figure of speech that information could be “heard through the grapevine.”
In 1915, the old Grapevine Tavern was demolished to make way for the six-story apartment building which now stands at 78 West 11th Street.
6th Avenue and 11th Street, today. Image via Google Street View.
This post comes from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Since 1980, GVSHP has been the community’s leading advocate for preserving the cultural and architectural heritage of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and Noho, working to prevent inappropriate development, expand landmark protection, and create programming for adults and children that promotes these neighborhoods’ unique historic features. Read more history pieces on their blog Off the Grid.