Tom Bergin's "House of Irish Coffee" Tavern will stop pouring Sunday, after 77 years in business, 64 of them in its current Fairfax location — an eternity by L.A. standards. I'll leave it to others to eulogize the fabled saloon, whose walls and ceilings are layered with thousands of cardboard shamrocks, each bearing the name of a longtime patron. (When I proudly received my shamrock nearly 30 years ago, I looked at all the fading 30-year-old shamrocks on the wall and thought, "Those guys must be really old now!")
But for now I'll share a tale that emblemizes the kind of place Bergin's was, a longstanding neighborhood bar where locals could cavort with the occasional drop-by celeb, ranging from Luke Perry up to Cary Grant.
It was after work one day in June 1991 that I happened to be having a round of drinks at Tom Bergin's with a couple of friends, seated in a booth near the entrance. We had beaten the boisterous happy-hour crowd, so it was easy to spot none other than actor Kiefer Sutherland, sipping a beer alone at the bar. He was at the end of the horseshoe near the restrooms. His "K. Sutherland" shamrock loomed unobtrusively high above him, out of reach (and, unless you were specifically looking for it, out of sight) on a high beam. It was paired with the shamrock for "J. Roberts," his then-fiancee "Pretty Woman" Julia Roberts. Their elaborate and much anticipated Hollywood wedding was scheduled for three days hence. Kiefer was then exactly 24 (!), and considered by many to be the luckiest dude on the planet, having captured the heart of America's sweetheart (his co-star in "Flatliners.") He had made his mark in Hollywood, not just as the son of Donald Sutherland, but with a mixed bag of films, most notably "Stand By Me" and "Young Guns." This was a full decade before he achieved household-name status as a TV star in a revolutionary and topical action series.
That summer day at Bergin's, my two pals and I did what any right-thinking tavern denizens would do — we had the waiter send over a congratulatory drink. But these were not typical circumstances. You see, unbeknownst to the young actor, my friends were David Rensin and Bill Zehme, two of the magazine industry's leading celebrity journalists. David was among the top-tier Playboy interviewers who coaxed gems from the mouths of A-list luminaries, and Bill had made his reputation getting infamously reclusive superstars such as Warren Beatty and Johnny Carson to spill their guts for Rolling Stone. In short, these guys are Zen masters in the art of the revelatory conversation, and know how to get the goods. At the time, I was the West Coast bureau chief for Us Magazine, and on the cusp of hosting and producing my own celebrity talk show for E! TV. The impending Julia/Kiefer nuptials was far and away the hottest story in our realm. So you'd be forgiven for envisioning three vultures circling their unwitting prey.
But that's not at all how it went down. As far as we were concerned, we were officially "off duty." We wanted to send over a drink not to lure Kiefer into a drunken conversation that would appease our curiosity and earn us points with our editors and readers. We simply wanted to do the menschkeit thing and offer him man-to-man salutations and congratulations. We wouldn't spook him by revealing our professional identities. We also made an informal pact to not tell our editors that we had encountered him on the eve of the year's most anticipated wedding, out of respect for a guy who's just enjoying the luxury of a quiet moment at one of his favorite saloons before the whirlwind that awaited him.
He accepted the drink and casually brought it over to our booth to say thanks. We offered him a seat and he joined us. We chatted. He had already married, fathered a daughter, and gone through divorce, but because we were about a decade older, we didn't refrain from offering upbeat big-brother advice. David was (and is) happily married and then had a young son. Bill and I had each recently gone through divorce hell, with its attendant child-custody traumas. So we all had perspectives to share. More than that you won't get out of me.
Except for the fact that Kiefer said nothing whatsoever that prepared us for the shock that awaited us the next morning, when the headlines screamed that his wedding to Julia Roberts was called off!
Immediately Rensin, Zehme and I phoned each other, in those pre- texting dark ages, though in current parlance our reaction was the equivalent of "WTF?!?!" It wasn't clear WHO put the kibosh on the wedding, but either way, we had to wonder — did it happen BEFORE we ran into Kiefer, and he was stoically but surreptitiously nursing his wounds? (If so, what an actor!) Or did he then go home AFTER Bergin's to discover that Julia had pulled the plug — and if so, why? (If it was because she detected booze on his breath, we were prepared to be character witnesses to salvage the ceremony.) Or could HE have been the one who got cold feet? And, horror of horrors (we joked, as we reconstructed the conversation for clues), was it because of something we had said?
Such a mystery! Without revealing our rendezvous, I advised my US editors back in New York that Kiefer and Julia had side-by-side shamrocks at a nearby Irish bar, and offered to photograph it for their inevitable story. But when I went there for lunch, Kiefer's shamrock remained, but Julia's had magically vanished. So I snapped a shot of the solo shamrock, which took on a special poignance.
As fate would have it, about a week or so later, I was attending a play at the Mark Taper theater in downtown L.A. As the houselights were dimming for the show to begin, I suddenly noticed that right behind me was seated none other than Kiefer Sutherland. I remember being impressed that, so shortly after the big brouhaha, he was showing his face in public. Throughout the first act, I was distracted by trying to think of what to say to him during intermission. I wanted to find out exactly what he knew during our Bergin's escapade, but how to ask? And would he wonder if I was stalking him?
I needn't have worried, because the second the houselights came back on, he darted out to the plaza for a smoke with his pals tightly clustered around him — I lingered and tried to eavesdrop nearby, but ultimately it was not an auspicious opportunity to be peppering the poor guy with stupid questions.
Eventually it came out that Julia thought Kiefer had cheated on her with a stripper. He denied it, but she nonetheless saw fit to run off on what was to have been their wedding day with his actor pal, Jason Patric — to Ireland! So there you have it, a plot straight out of Hollywood, by way of Dublin. Twice!
Kiefer stayed busy for the next decade as a working pro with a long string of, alas, inconsequential films — more than 70 to date. But then he famously hit his stride as counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer in Fox's adrenalized series, "24," and the rest is history. The inception and demise of his second brief marriage, in the '90s, escaped wide notice. (Though the tabloids did have a field day with his two post-2000 DUI convictions, one of which resulted in a 48-day jail sentence.)
Kiefer's shamrock is still hanging high above the barstool where we spotted him. Until Sunday anyway. And, yes, I still wonder what was really whirling through his mind that evening at Bergin's 22 years ago.