Legendary Restaurateur Jimmy Neary: “It’s Been a Wonderful Life”

Restaurateur Jimmy Neary, who first lived in a Washington Height’s boarding house soon found a job as a swimming pool porter at the New York Athletic Club, and shortly later was hired as bar-boy in Manhattan’s P.J. Moriarty’s Restaurant. Photo credit: Neary’s.

NEW YORK – Jimmy Neary, 88, the owner of New York City’s famed Irish restaurant and bar, Neary’s, located on 57th Street off 1st Avenue in NYC, has been told by more than a few of his friends and patrons that he bears a strong resemblance to Clarence, the guardian angel in director Frank Capra’s 1946 classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Neary, whom I recently interviewed in his restaurant, told me that he has no objections to being compared to Clarence.

“It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite movies, and Clarence is one of my favorite characters”, said Neary.  “Clarence [played by the actor, Henry Travers] offers the message of hope and the idea of the greatness of God’s gift of life for all human beings to George Bailey [played by the iconic actor, Jimmy Stewart]. It’s a life-saving message for Bailey, who was feeling suicidal over his business failures, and needed Clarence’s help to restore his hope and guide him to discover the true meaning of life. 

Unlike the fictional character Bailey, however, the real life Neary, who stands 5-foot and 3-inches tall and sports a full head of curly grey hair, told me that he never needed a guardian angel, such as his look-alike, Clarence.

“I loved Clarence and loved his message, but I never required a guardian angel to succeed. Rather, the wonderful friends and loving family I have been blessed with have been my real- life guardian angels”, stated Neary, whose dining area is always filled to capacity for lunch and dinner, and whose regular patrons include Michael Bloomberg (who by way of his private jet  once flew Neary to his town of birth in Ireland), Mary Higgins Clark (who has found a way of integrating Neary as a character and his bar as a location into many of her novels), Cathy Lee Gifford, Jean Kennedy Smith and Cardinal Dolan.  

Still, the restaurant, which opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1967, might never have achieved this enormous success had it not been for its first famous customer – of whom it might be metaphorically said that he, like Clarence, was heaven-sent. “Business was only mediocre during our first few months. I didn’t despair, but I began to remember the words of more than a few folks who warned me that the restaurant business is very tough, and that a majority of restaurants fail”, Neary explained.

But the words of these skeptics would soon become just a footnote in Neary’s mind. “I came at 6 o’clock one evening and heard the stirrings of customers at the bar. Referring to me they said, ‘He doesn’t know who’s here.’ I didn’t, so I walked to the kitchen, where you can see all of the customers from a glass window inside”, he recalled.  

“In a few seconds”, he continued, “I saw what had made them so excited. Sitting in the corner of the bar was none other than John Glenn. I was awe struck. And I remember saying to myself, ‘Even if the restaurant does not last another week, I still had the first American to orbit the earth to eat here.”

Jimmy (middle) with Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith (left) and his daughter Una (right). Photo credit: Neary’s.

He soon had more than that. Manhattan food critics began celebrating the taste of Neary’s steaks, lamb chops and corn beef, which is perhaps what within the first few years of its opening drew to the restaurant a long list of elected officials, including Senators Ted Kennedy, and Chris Dodd, and Congressman Hugh Carey (who later became the governor of NYS), along with an eclectic list of celebrities, including then real estate mogul Donald Trump, his then girl-friend Marla Maples, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the late Tim Mara, owner of the New York  Giants (who gave Neary two Super Bowl rings).

Also reportedly reading these rave reviews (and some simply hearing laudatory critiques from friends who patronized the restaurant) were mainly well-heeled New Yorkers who began frequenting Neary’s in droves. “By the end of 1960’s I was thrilled to see that the restaurant was becoming a success”, Neary recalled. “We had very famous customers, but most of our regular patrons were hard working upwardly mobile New Yorkers, who came here to enjoy a good drink and good food in a warm and friendly environment.”

“As I saw our business grow every day”, he added, “I thanked God for giving me the will and strength to be able to achieve what for more than two hundred years  has been correctly known as the ‘American Dream.’’’  

Neary has in fact achieved just that. And the wonderful story of how he pursued it should serve as a reminder to us all of the greatness of our nation. The story began very humbly in 1954, when Neary was 24, single and living with his family in Tubbercurry, Ireland. Anne Gallagher, a long -time family friend who had immigrated from Ireland to New York City many years before, had, while on a short vacation to Ireland, paid a visit to the Neary family home. It was to be during that visit that Anne Gallagher put Neary on the direct path to achieving his great dream.

As Neary recalled, “While we hadn’t seen Anne for many years, she remained a close family friend, and she and my mother often corresponded. So it was no surprise that when my mother told her that it had long been my dream to come to America, she volunteered to be my sponsor. Back in those days”, Neary elaborated, “immigration laws required that a foreign- born person needed a sponsor in order to immigrate to America, but sponsors were often hard to come by. Fortunately, Anne sponsored me, and three months later I arrived in New York City, a legal immigrant with a green card proudly living in the greatest nation in the history of the world.”               

Neary, who first lived with Anne’s aunt in a Washington Height’s boarding house she owned, soon found a job as a swimming pool porter at the New York Athletic Club, and shortly later was hired as bar-boy in Manhattan’s P.J. Moriarty’s Restaurant. While working an extremely grueling schedule, Neary told me he still remembers those days with fondness. “I was working the 7am to 2pm shift at the New York Athletic Club and the 6pm to 12 pm shift at P.J.’s, six days a week”, he stated. “In total I was working 84 hours a week and bringing home just fifty one dollars. But I wasn’t complaining. I loved working in both places because I met the warmest, kindest and nicest people. And most importantly, I was now living and working in the nation I loved.”

In 1956, Neary was afforded the chance to serve his adopted nation when he was drafted into the United States Army for a 2-year stint. Neary, who served in the Third Armored Tank Division both while stationed in the U.S. during his first year in the military and his second year while stationed in Germany, told me that he welcomed the opportunity to give back to the country that had opened its doors to him. “What President Kennedy was to say 4 years later in his [January 20, 1961] inaugural speech- ‘ask not what your country could do for you, but ask what you could do for your country’- is exactly how I felt back then. America had welcomed me as a young immigrant, so I saw my time of service in the military as my way of showing my appreciation, loyalty, honor and respect to this wonderful nation”, said Neary.

His service to our “wonderful nation” completed in 1958 with his honorable discharge from the Army; Neary returned to his two former jobs. It was to be his job at P.J.’s, though, which would prove to have the greatest impact on his life: in 1965, while working there, he met his future wife, Eileen, now deceased, with whom he raised four now adult children; (He has also “been blessed” with 8 grandchildren.); in addition, he befriended one of P.J.’s  bartenders, Brian Mulligan, with whom he eventually founded his restaurant.

Reflecting on his job at P.J. Moriarty’s, Neary stated, “My job at P.J.’s was a blessing from God. Without it, I would not have met and married my wonderful wife Eileen; and without the circumstances surrounding Brian [who passed away in 1985] and I working together at P.J.’s, Neary’s would never have been born.”

The interview, which had lasted more than an hour, might have ended with those final poignant words. But it didn’t, because a few days before, I had learned a very moving story about a woman named Mary O’Connor, a 64- year old Irish immigrant who has worked as a waitress at Neary’s for the past 43 years. It was a story I wanted to discuss with Neary and include in this writing. And I think you will soon see why.

First told this past April 4th on NBC’s the Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kobt Morning Show, O’Connor performed one single act of kindness, which, wonderfully, directly and indirectly, restored the health of 3 very ill people.

Jimmy with Kathie Lee Gifford in his restaurant located on 57th Street off 1st Avenue in NYC. Photo credit: Neary’s

As detailed on the show and as Jimmy and I readily discussed for the last half hour of the interview, O’ Connor, through a “divine inspiration” she experienced last fall while praying at her local Manhattan Catholic church,  decided to become a kidney transplant donor at  New York Presbyterian Hospital (NYPH). The program, which is also in effect in many other hospitals throughout the U.S., matches compatible donors with dialysis treated kidney patients who are on (frequently very long) waiting lists.  

Shortly after she was accepted as a donor in the program, the surgeons at NYPH found O’ Connor a patient whom they believed to be a perfect match, a 58 year-old father of 3 named Dan Ferguson. O’Connor, who had gone through ten weeks of medical tests and procedures required by NYPH and had become friendly with the entire Ferguson family during that time, was looking forward to undergoing a surgery that would improve the health and enhance the quality of life of her new friend.    

However, shortly after all of the preliminary tests had been completed, NYPH physicians determined that her kidney was too small to correctly fit into Ferguson’s body. While disappointed to learn that she could not donate her kidney to her new friend, O’Connor agreed to donate her kidney to another patient.    

On September 12, 2018, the transplant procedure on that patient, whom O’Connor had not met before and would never meet after the surgery, was performed with a totally successful outcome: The fortunate anonymous recipient no longer required dialysis treatment, and his pre-kidney disease health was fully restored.         

The return to health of one person due to the selfless kindness of another is a wonderful story in itself. But there were other circumstances, as the TV audience learned on April 4th , and as Neary and I enthused, which made O’Connor’s story even more wonderful.

Retaining his place on the waiting list, Ferguson was found a new donor; their kidneys matched perfectly, enabling  the doctors to perform the surgery-which also took place on September 12th. With the operation’s successful outcome, Mary’s new friend Ferguson had a long and healthy life in front of him.

Even more wonderfully, as Neary and I further marveled, the story does not end there: Inspired by O’Connor, the wife of the man who received her kidney, became a kidney donor herself. And on October 12th, one month after her husband’s surgery, doctors transplanted, with a totally successful result, her kidney into the body of another dialysis patient.   

To Neary, O’Connor’s good deed should serve as a lesson to us all. “I am very proud that my dear friend Mary directly and indirectly helped heal three very sick people”, he stated. “It just proves that one act of kindness can beget another. And the winner will always be the human race.”                

 Clarence, the Angel, I think, would believe that himself.    

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