Icon of the Viennese coffee house dies at 100 after running business since 1938

 

VIENNA – Andy Warhol stopped by for a cup of his coffee. So did princes, paupers, playwrights, poets and untold thousands for whom a visit to Vienna was unthinkable without a cup of the steaming brew served by the bow-tied little man with the perpetual dancing smile.

In a city of 1,900 cafes, Leopold Hawelka was an icon, as much part of Cafe Hawelka as its tables – scarred by burned-out cigarettes, their marble tops worn smooth by the elbows of four generations.

He served tourists, the rich and the famous and the neediest of the needy – including the ragged Viennese masses who, in the days after the second World War, crowded his establishment over a free glass of water to escape the cold of their bombed-out city.

According to his daughter Herta, he died yesterday at the age of 100 – leaving behind a legacy as intimately linked with the Austrian capital as any of its splendid palaces or sumptuous art collections.

Cafe Hawelka was never posh. But while costly make-over left other cafes soulless, Hawelka’s grew in charm with each layer of patina laid down over the more than 70 years of ungentrified existence that left it little changed from the bleak postwar days.

Today – as generations ago – tuxedoed waiters flit around tables, precariously balancing countless Viennese coffee varieties and trademark yeast dumplings on silver trays.

Wooden wall panelling is lovingly scarred with the countless initials of past visitors, while paintings exchanged for cups of coffee in the 1940s by impoverished artists still hang on the walls.

Even the ashtrays survived Vienna’s no-smoking laws – though staff put them out in recent years only when ordered to do so by Hawelka, who kept a sharp eye on things from a stuffed brocade couch in the back of his establishment.

It was this sense of tradition that made Cafe Hawelka special – along with reminiscences from the unassuming owner and his late wife, Josefine.

Some of their best stories stretched back to the immediate postwar years, when – split into Soviet, United States, British and French zones – Vienna was the place of intrigue reflected in the film classic The Third Man.

The son of a shoemaker, Hawelka opened the coffee house in 1938, only to close it a year later when he was drafted into Hitler’s army. A survivor of the Soviet front, he reopened it in 1945 to a cold and hungry clientele trying to escape the grimness of the times.

“As soon as they saw smoke curling out of the stovepipe they came,” Hawelka told the Associated Press in a 2001 interview.

“It was a sign that we, at least, had it warm. Some of them sat there the whole day over a glass of water so that they could stay warm.” Over the hiss of espresso machines and the multilingual chatter rising from the tables, Hawelka recalled getting up before dawn, walking for two hours to woods and trudging back with a sack of firewood to keep the stove burning.

One Soviet officer in particular was a regular back then. Eyed by hungry, silent Viennese, he would bring his lunch, gobbling down thick slices of ham speared on a penknife.

The Hawelkas dealt in contraband cigarettes at the time and could recall others selling black-market lard by the tonne.

The Prince of Liechtenstein and other Austrian royalty, with their titles and much of their possessions gone, held court in Cafe Hawelka, selling whatever they had been able to hide – carpets, paintings and anything else the Nazis and Soviets did not get to first.

Up until his wife’s death at age 91 in 2005, the couple had worked up to 14 hours a day. He would open early, while she closed up at 2am and often pored over the books until dawn.

The clientele changed from displaced people after the war to the likes of Warhol, playwright Arthur Miller and local literary and artistic giants, to business travellers, students and tourists. But the sense in the cafe of time standing still stayed the same, with some guests continuing to linger for hours.

The couple had two children, and family members took over the business in recent years. Hawelka himself was a regular about the place until he was in his late 90s.

Too weak to attend his 100th birthday party on April 11th this year, his smiling portrait placed on his couch served as a reminder of his vigilant commitment to his guests and their welfare.

Long-time patrons now reminisce of the special place Cafe Hawelka has held in their hearts. “It was my living room when I was in Vienna,” says Robert de Clercq, a 75-year-old Dutchman who first met Hawelka 42 years ago.

Annemarie Eppinger recalls how, years ago, Hawelka had watched over her niece, a university student, as she pored over books at a cafe table, and shooed away those who might distract her. “He was like a father to her,” she said. – (AP)