In the age of Instagram, the defining feature of a bar is often determined not by reviews, tastes or intent, but by smartphone. While some spaces are designed with this express purpose in mind, there are certain objects that become inadvertent icons through their unwitting “Instagram-ability.” In this series, PUNCH shares the stories behind the bar world’s most viral landmarks.
King Cole bar in New York City, and its 30-foot-wide backbar mural, has been the setting for scenes in The Devil Wears Prada, Hannah and Her Sisters, Gossip Girl and The First Wives Club. But more frequently it appears as the star of countless Instagram snaps in which a grimacing king serves as an aspirational figure for those seated below—a merry old soul for whom happiness requires little more than his pipe, his bowl and his fiddlers three.
Painted in 1906 by Maxfield Parrish, the grand-scale installation is the crown jewel of its namesake bar housed within Fifth Avenue’s St. Regis Hotel. John Jacob Astor IV commissioned the artwork from the illustrious Parrish—one of the most in-demand American artists in the twentieth century—for his own Knickerbocker Hotel. After the Knickerbocker closed following Astor’s death on the Titanic in 1912, the mural wandered for years until landing at its present home in the mid-1930s.
In 2007, the three eight-foot-tall panels were removed by a team of specialists to undergo a much-needed restoration. Years of lingering smoke, and the occasional splash of booze, had left a grimy film over the entirety of the piece, obscuring some of the finer points of interest, including, most notably, a subtle jab at Astor himself. As the story goes, Astor felt the price of the commission, some $5,000, earned him the right to be depicted as King Cole, a request that Parrish obliged—but not without his own personal stipulation. According to legend, the king’s sheepish grin and the laughter of his legion of musicians and minions reflect an embarrassing moment: breaking wind.
Surveying the posts of the much-photographed backbar, it is unclear whether the hordes of Instagram users drawn to the mural are in on the joke. One caption simply reads, “It’s good to be king,” while another cryptically declares, “Everyone has a secret.” But one is far less coy in its declaration. Above a bustling bar scene, the illuminated King Cole presides; below, the caption simply reads: “fart.”