St. Louis lost one of its great personalities yesterday with the passing of bartender Mark Pollman. The inimitable Pollman spent the last ten days of his life at Barnes-Jewish Hospital undergoing emergency treatment for prostate cancer. He was 64.
I suspect my recollections of Mark Pollman are not unlike many people's memories. I was introduced to Pollman a few years back when a friend insisted that I tag along to the Fox & Hounds to meet the man she described as "the best bartender in the world." Whatever your thoughts of Mark Pollman -- it seems he was either loved or loathed -- no one could deny that the man made a lasting first impression.
The night I met Pollman, he was wearing his trademark white button-up that looked like a cross between a pirate's shirt and a woman's blouse, and he was holding court as only he could. Grizzly and stooped, Pollman alternated between mixing cocktails with the aplomb of an artisan and shuffling to the other side of the bar to share a joke and a cigarette with patrons. (Pollman smoked menthols, a habit he said he picked up while serving in a predominately African-American unit of the military.)
In the dark and cozy den of the Fox & Hounds, it felt as if I'd stumbled into someone's basement bar. Pollman was the host and we were the guests he was determined to entertain, educate and -- if need be -- berate. My first lesson came swiftly, when a woman ventured to the bar to order a drink and Pollman barked for me give up my barstool. "Always give a seat to a lady!" he ordered.
I can't recall the exact date of this first meeting, but it must have been around 2003, because I remember the St. Louis brewer Griesedieck Bros. had just started crafting beer after a nearly 50-year hiatus. Pollman's knowledge of the company and its history was encyclopedic, as was his familiarity with St. Louis' other fabled beer makers. His wisdom about scotches, cognacs and ports was even more impressive.
Pollman kept shelves and shelves of books about spirits and liquors in his Dogtown home. At last count the collection had grown to more than 5,000 titles. Some of the rarer works were worth thousands of dollars, and Pollman spent vacations searching dusty bookshops across the country in search of more literature to add to his library. Pollman was something of an author himself, having composed a book of quotations on booze titled (appropriately enough), Bottled Wisdom. The book is still available on amazon.com.
Years after my first visit with Pollman, I got to know him better when I reported on his departure from the Fox & Hounds. Pollman had worked in the pub for 21 years under the ownership of Steve Apted and, more recently, Apted's son, Dan Apted. In March 2006 a waitress at the bar accused Pollman of purposely spilling a drink on her blouse. Dan Apted said the incident forced him to review Pollman's file. "He has a very substantial file," the tavern owner told me back in 2006. "There's been plenty of conversation over the past few years about his lack of respect to customers and employees. We felt we were at risk if we kept him any longer."
As a journalist I admittedly make a lot of one-sided friendships. I cultivate a relationship with a source only to lose contact with the person once the story is published. Mark Pollman refused to conform to such a paradigm. Following my article on his firing -- which garnered many letters to our paper both pro and con -- Pollman continued to call me, inviting me to parties and offering thoughtful critiques of my stories.
The last call I received was a few months back, right before my wedding. Pollman was a self-professed rake who spent many late nights in Sauget, and I feared my wedding announcement would subject me to a heaping helping of his ridicule. Instead he gave me probably the best marriage advice I received. "Is she your best friend?" he asked. "If the answer is yes, then congratulations! That's wonderful."
In many ways, I believe Mark Pollman's firing from Fox & Hounds served as his death knell. For a time he was upbeat about landing work at a new bar along Washington Avenue. But that job and others fell through. I suspect more than a few business owners worried about the financial repercussions of hiring an aging bartender with health problems. Moreover, Pollman was a picky professional who boasted of being St. Louis' first (and only) member of the Bartenders Hall of Fame. "I won't work at someplace like Applebee's," Pollman was fond of saying. "They wouldn't know what to do with me."
As Pollman succumbed to cancer, a lack of interaction with his many friends and customers certainly hastened his death. In the end, he was a king without a court. As he told me after his firing, his biggest concern was not the loss of income, but the loss of contact. "What bothers me most about all this is the thousands of people I'm going to lose touch with," he said. "For 21 years that place was my home. What are people going to say when I'm not there?"
A memorial to Pollman is scheduled to take place sometime in May. For more information and additional tributes, check out markpollman.com.)