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Over the next two days, countless New Yorkers will dump keys, iPhones, pocket change and assorted hardware into airport scanning trays in advance of flights to Indianapolis and its surrounding airports. Perhaps only one will divest himself temporarily of two pieces of megametal, set with diamonds of demonstrative design — Super Bowl rings, to be exact.
That would one James “Jimmy” Neary, long-time proprietor of the highly ethnic East 57th Street dining establishment that bears his surname, and longer-time die-hard New York Giants fan. Neary is the kind of affable, welcoming, story-telling institution one thinks exists only in lore. At first greeting, one might assume he plays to professional expectations. But spend a little time, and you know the warmth and wit are not for show. On Wednesday afternoon, Neary appears for our conversation photo-op ready, holding an Eli Manning autographed football in two hands, each flashing one of those championship rings.
Backstory on the bling: They were generous replacements for the pair of “10 dollar cheapies” Neary once displayed in the restaurant’s trophy case. Though empty today — perhaps in anticipation of more memorabilia to come, it’s being redone — it usually houses baseballs signed by Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Derek Jeter and Tommy John, and a Brian Kelly (Notre Dame’s current head coach) football.
Neary came to New York in 1954, a hopeful, penniless 23-year-old from the town of Tubbercurry in County Sligo, Ireland. Two brothers were already here, one by then a member of the NYPD. Jimmy found employment — and it would turn out, countless future clients and friends — at the New York Athletic Club and, soon, at J.P. Moriarty’s. He worked the jobs concurrently. One early customer was the feisty Ann Mara, wife of New York Giants owner Wellington Mara (for nonfootball readers, Rooney’s grandmother). Neary became friendly with various Mara family members, including their nephew, the late Timothy J. Mara (who eventually sold his interest in the Giants to Preston Robert Tisch).
Over the years, various Maras would stop at Neary’s after Giants home games. One day Tim noticed the fake rings, from the 1986 and 1990 championships, in the display case. “Watch for the Tuesday mail,” he advised, and, like clockwork, on Tuesday a FedEx package arrived with the real things wrapped in tissue paper.
There have been many significant moments with the Maras, some of which he’d forgotten. At Wellington’s wake, Ann reminded Jimmy of a particular postgame get-together years before when he came to her rescue quite dramatically. While the family members were immersed in breaking down the game and other chitchat, Jimmy noticed that she was looking out of sorts — and in labor. He got her to a chair and broke up the party in the interests of getting her to St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Despite his service-industry background, Neary came into ownership of the restaurant accidentally. Returning to New York from Ireland after the death of his mother, he got together with friend Brian Mulligan and his wife; Neary had brought home Irish sausage and bacon. “She made breakfast. We looked in the Times, saw this place, and called the guy and met him on Monday at 7 o’clock here on the corner.” Though it had been a “bad-luck place,” they put down $500 and, on St. Patrick’s Day 1967, opened as Neary’s. “Brian worked the day shift, I worked the night shift. We worked seven days a week for two years, no day off.”
Such tales likely number in the thousands at least. So what made this particular establishment resonate? Neary maintains that the partners opened with a full kitchen and a dress code — jacket required for dinner — that elevated the atmosphere. His daughter Una, on an uptown visit from her day job as managing director of global compliance at Goldman Sachs, sees it differently. “It’s Dad,” she offers. “When people come in the door, he’s the first person to say hello. He always has the smile he has on now, 24-7.…The only time I’ve ever seen him sad is when my mother died.” Eileen Neary passed away five years ago.
Una, who could pass for a grad student, is the only one of Neary’s four children whose passion for the place equals his own. She works every weekend, and, after 30 years, is one of the establishment’s shortest-tenured staffers, behind Margaret, Noreen and Mary, who have all clocked in the neighborhood of 40 years.
After Mulligan passed away in 1985, Neary bought out his interest. (Mulligan’s sister Liz still shows up for work). As success came, Neary wondered if he’d ever be able to buy the small building — he thinks it’s the oldest one on 57th Street, but he’s not sure. He got the chance in a single call from the landlord, who asked for $1.375 million, “not a dollar more than he wanted nor a dollar less than he’d take.” Neary went immediately to the Bank of Ireland. When he broke the news to his wife, “She said to me, ‘You broke us for life so the children will be comfortable.’ I went into St. Patrick’s Cathedral and put $20 into the box and I said, ‘That’s the last you’re getting for a long time.’”
Neary’s has continued as a haven for regulars, both famous and not. Many customers consider it their kitchen, dining there three or four nights a week, some of them for decades, although he notes that the crowd turns younger after 9 o’clock.
An early celebrity sighting was John Glenn. “I looked out onto the dining room [from the kitchen] and said, ‘Oh my god! If I go broke tomorrow, we had John Glenn in here!’
Hugh Carey started visiting when he was Congressman Carey. He was the first to present a photograph for what has become quite the gallery of notables. Carey once commented on his photo’s steady downgrade from the front of the restaurant, “The only thing between me and the men’s room is Ted Kennedy!” As governor, George Pataki missed only one St. Patrick’s Day in 12 years. He was in the hospital and “sent the lieutenant governor in his place.”
Yet from the affection in his voice, it’s clear who rates number one among New York politicians. When he was merely a very rich businessman living nearby, Michael Bloomberg ate at the restaurant frequently. Once he moved to 79th Street, the visits stopped. Later, when he was running for mayor, Carey suggested a stop at Neary’s. The mayor has been coming back ever since.
And he has repaid the hospitality. In 2006 Bloomberg was going to Ireland for the dedication of a monument honoring the Irish-American Civil War regiment, the Fighting 69th. He invited Neary along. “Two detectives picked me up here and took me to the airport. We get in the private jet, land in Ireland at 6 o’clock on Tuesday. We have a motorcycle and three police car escorts into the town. I thought we were going back to the airport but the mayor surprised me and went to the village where I was born. And if you think I didn’t have a lump in my throat when we came to the top of the town and went down that hill. All the motorcycles and the police cars turned on their lights, went slowly down the hill and stopped outside this door where my brother had a shop for 40 years. That’s Mayor Bloomberg.”
Typically, Bloomberg stops by shortly after midnight on Jan. 1, once finished with his Times Square responsibilities. Two years ago, Liz answered the phone and handed it to Neary. “The mayor says, ‘I’ll see you as usual, 20 after 12. Diana and myself — and I don’t need a table.’ And I said to Liz, ‘Mayor Bloomberg couldn’t tell me over the phone, but I know that President and Mrs. Clinton are coming.’” Come 12:20, amidst New Year’s revelry and plenty of conversation, Liz was on the phone. “I said, ‘Liz, get off the phone.’ She said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I said, ‘President Clinton, Mrs. Clinton, the police commissioner and the mayor are looking in the window and they’re locked out.’” The Clintons proved terrific guests, chatting and taking pictures with everyone who asked.
Neary has met both President Bushes. “I love the family. Very low key. You’d never know they were in the White House. When I worked at Moriarty’s, George Bush was a customer then, and his brother John comes here all the time, still.”
But not all of his contacts are politicos. Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford are dear friends; she gives him plenty of “Today Show” plugs. Jake LaMotta, a regular, is “a grumpy old man. He wanted to wear his hat, and I won’t let him wear his hat in the bar.” Mary Higgins Clark is so smitten, she’s featured Neary and his establishment in 17 of her books.
Most relationships have nothing to do with celebrity. Literally from Day One, a particular customer came in every single day at 5:20. He’d been a Moriarty’s customer and followed Neary to his new digs. Assuming he had no family, Neary started inviting him to the family Christmas in New Jersey. When one day the man didn’t show up for his usual spot at the bar, Neary walked to his building and learned from the doorman that he had died. “I called his attorney and said, ‘Will you give George a wake?’ And he said, ‘He had no relatives.’ And I said, ‘Give him a wake.’ One hundred customers from here went to the wake, 75 went to the mass and nine cars to the cemetery.” A month or two later, the attorney called with the news that George had left $30,000 to Jimmy and another $50,000 distributed among various staffers.
Another gift came when the giver was still alive. Back when, Walter O’Malley showed Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his driver, Colonel Storey — whom Neary knew from the A.C. — around Ebbets Field. O’Malley presented both men with gold pocket watches engraved on the backs with notification of lifetime passes to games at Ebbets Field. The Nearys and Storeys became close friends, the bond only deepening after the colonel’s wife died and he became a more frequent visitor to the restaurant. In 1990, Storey gave the watch to Neary; he carries it every day.
Our chat winding down, or so I thought, Jimmy offers lunch. He suggests the salmon and a glass of wine, though he’ll have a chicken sandwich and tea. He’s never touched a drop of the hard stuff. “Do you know the Pioneer Pledge? Total abstinence. In Ireland, because they were drinking at 11 or 12 years of age, they tried to give the pledge. I took it at confirmation. You’re not bound to it, because most of the time they take the pledge and go to the restaurant! It lasts five minutes.”
Neary’s five minutes stretched into 70-plus years and counting. But then he is a creature of habit. Every morning for as long as he can remember he’s gone to daily mass followed by breakfast at the local diner, first with Eileen (she would go back to the house; he’d drive into the City) and now alone. “I don’t think I’ve missed five days to bad weather,” he says.
Nor does he miss many days at work, arriving at about noon and leaving for home after midnight. Of course, there are exceptions. Saturday, for instance. He and Una will fly to Dayton, Ohio, where they’ll meet up with his son Patrick. They’ll all drive into Indianapolis on Sunday morning, take in the big game and return home on Monday. It will be Neary’s fourth Giants Super Bowl, though he doesn’t count the one they lost.
He anticipates the need for no such creative accounting this time around, fully confident in the disciplinarian approach of coach Tom Coughlin, and Manning’s easy-going confidence. He thus expects the trip back home to be a happy one.
Asked if he’ll be too tired to report to work on Tuesday, he studies his questioner as if she just sprouted a second head. “I’ll be back to work on Monday night!” Neary affirms. “I love it!”
His prediction: Giants, 27-21.
Mine: Giants, 27-23.