Born in Massachusetts to a family of merchants and seamen, Clapp traveled to Paris to translate the socialist writings of Fourier. In Paris, Clapp abandoned his ardent sympathy for the temperance movement and embraced the leisurely café life of the city. Upon returning to New York in 1850, he sought to recreate this atmosphere, spending hours at Charlie Pfaff's beer cellar, drawing a crowd of journalists, painters, actors, and poets to cultivate an American Bohemia in which participants admired and discussed the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, and Washington Irving (Martin 15-7).
Ada Clare (whose given name was Jane McIlheny) was born in South Carolina. As Thomas Gunn, a contemporary of Clare, describes she "made an attempt – several attempts – to become a tragic actress, but despite any amount of puffery on the part of fellows who knew her (or wanted to know her in a scriptural sense) failed. She had money and aspired for 'fame' only" (Gunn vol. 11, 160). She received a small inheritance upon her parents' deaths, which she used to travel to Paris.
Born in 1819 into an old Quaker family near Philadelphia, Thomas Dunn English attended schooling in Philadelphia and New Jersey. He took his degree at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, where he completed a thesis on phrenology and gained his M.D. in 1839. Even as English continued on to a law degree, completed in 1842, he began writing for the Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and was president of a political club. English would continue this multifaceted career throughout his life.
William Winter describes Solomon Eytinge, Jr. as "[a] man of original and deeply interesting character, an artist of exceptional facility, possessed of a fine imagination and great warmth of feeling [. . .] In his prime as a draughtsman he was distinguished for the felicity of his invention, the richness of his humor, and the tenderness of his pathos. He had a keen wit and was the soul of kindness and mirth” (Old Friends 317).
Born to a family of tradesmen in New York City, Charles Gayler began his career as a teacher before he moved to Ohio and worked as a journalist and editor. While there, he developed an interest in politics that led him to write songs and speeches for Whig Presidential candidate Henry Clay in the 1844 election. In 1846 he married Grace Christian, with whom he had eight children. While one source suggests that his wife was actress and fellow Pfaffian Getty Gay (Rawson 103), Thomas Butler Gunn indicates that Gay was Gayler’s mistress (10.34).
Though much of her early life, including her real name and exact date of birth, remains in shadow, Laura Keene is thought to have come from a well-to-do background. She was widely read and spent time in Turner’s studio during her childhood. After performing with Madame Vestris’ company, Keene journeyed to New York in 1852 at the invitation of James W. Wallack. She became the leading lady of his theater and enjoyed great success.
Robert Shelton Mackenzie was born June 22, 1809 in Limerick, Ireland. Mackenzie began his newspaper career editing a county journal in Hanley, Staffordsville, England. After writing for various papers and contributing several biographies to the Georgian Era, Mackenzie was appointed the English correspondent for the New York Evening Star in 1834, possibly making Mackenzie the first European correspondent to any American paper (Baugh).
While not much is known about the early life of Edward Mallen, he is remembered as an artist and frequenter of Pfaff's. William Winter identifies "Edward F. Mullen" as one of the artists who frequented Pfaff’s Cave along with Launt Thompson, George Boughton, and Sol Eytinge, Jr. (Old Friends 66, 88). Walt Whitman, a close friend of his, is also quoted as saying that "Mullin" was "among the leaders" at Pfaff’s (Bohan 134; T. Donaldson 208-209).
Born in Bavaria in 1840, Nast emigrated to New York City with his mother and sister in 1846 and his father followed them in 1850. Nast’s early artistic influences were historical painter Theodore Kaufmann, with whom he began his first formal study; Alfred Fredericks, whose studio was nearby and who became a mentor to Nash and helped him gain entry to the Academy of Design, as well as Frank Leslie, the publisher of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper who hired the sixteen-year old Nast for five dollars a week.
Born in Islington, England in 1817, William Newman was an "innovator who helped to redefine the possibilities of the American cartoon" (Brown and West 143-4). Newman emerged on the journalism scene at the age of 21 "filling the place of celebrated Robert Seymour on the penny weekly Figaro in London (Brown and West 144). His success at the Figaro led to a new job as the house artist at the penny weekly called the Odd Fellow, a satrical paper. Here, Newman drew the weekly front page cut.
Born in County Cork and raised primarily in Limerick, Ireland, Fitz-James O'Brien moved to New York City in 1852. Descending from an Anglo-Irish landholding family, O'Brien received his inheritance (estimated at £8000) at about the age of 21. Between 1849 and 1851, it is believed that O'Brien edited a failed literary magazine called The Parlour Magazine of the Literature of All Nations and squandered his inheritance (Wolle 21). Leaving England almost penniless, O'Brien immigrated to America and made the U.S.
A former teacher, Charles Bailey Seymour moved from London to New York City in 1849. In New York, he began working as the dramatic and musical editor for the New York Times. In 1858, Seymour published the book Self-Made Men. The book, which won him a certain degree of fame, was "a collection of short biographies of British and American subjects that included [Henry] Clapp's old mentor, Elihu Burritt" (Lause 48).
Born in Connecticut, Stedman’s merchant father died leaving the small child in the care of his mother, maternal grandfather, and lawyer uncle. Stedman’s childhood passed between his grandfather’s New Jersey farm and his uncle’s Connecticut residence. Much of Stedman’s literary education likely came from his mother, who herself was an author of both verse and essay. Stedman’s juvenilia consists of poetry inspired by the Romantics and Tennyson. He attended Yale University but was expelled after a youthful indiscretion.
Born in Riga, NY, Mortimer Thomson was a humorist and journalist who wrote under the name Q. K. Philander Doesticks, P.B.--Queer Kritter, Philander Doesticks, Perfect Brick ("Obituary," 5). Thomson acquired this penname while writing for a student magazine at the University of Michigan; although he never graduated from the university, as he was expelled for belonging to a campus secret society, Thomson had a productive career as a journalist and satirist after failing as both an actor and a traveling salesman.
Born on Long Island and raised in Brooklyn, Walt Whitman spent his childhood and early adulthood amid the sights and sounds of New York City and its environs. As a young man Whitman worked as a journeyman printer for several New York newspapers, before ultimately becoming a journalist and editor in his own right. Before committing himself to poetry, Whitman also worked intermittently as a schoolteacher, a carpenter, and a writer of sensational prose fiction.
The unofficial biographer of the Pfaff’s crowd, William Winter was born in coastal Massachusetts, and his mother died when he was young. Winter attended school in Boston; he also went to Harvard Law School but decided not to practice ("William Winter, 19). By 1854 he had already published a collection of verse and worked as a reviewer for the Boston Transcript; he befriended Pfaffian Thomas Bailey Aldrich after reviewing a volume of his poetry. He relocated to New York in 1856 "because he believed [the city] offered the best field for writers" (Levin 153).