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James 'Jimmy' Neary, iconic NYC restaurateur, dies at 91

James "Jimmy" Neary, an iconic Manhattan restaurateur, died

James "Jimmy" Neary, an iconic Manhattan restaurateur, died on Oct. 1 at age 91. Credit: Una Neary

James "Jimmy" Neary, an Irish immigrant who rose from a job as porter at a Manhattan athletic club to become one of New York City’s most iconic restaurateurs known to governors, mayors and others in the political establishment, died suddenly on Oct. 1.

He had just celebrated his 91st birthday.

According to his daughter Una Neary, he had gone to his Manhattan apartment late the evening of Sept. 30 after closing his Neary’s restaurant on East 57th Street for the day. He seemed in good spirits and health, the daughter told Newsday.

"I told him I loved him and that I would pick him up the next day," she said. When her father didn’t show up as scheduled, his daughter went to his apartment and found that he had died peacefully in bed.

A funeral Mass is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, with Cardinal Timothy Dolan presiding. Burial in New Jersey will be private.

James Neary, who emigrated from County Sligo in Ireland on Veterans Day in 1954, joined the U.S. Army in 1956, serving as a tank driver in Europe during peacetime, Una Neary recalled.

Upon his return stateside, Neary went back to a job as porter at the New York Athletic Club, where P.J. Moriarty, the famed Irish restaurant owner, saw him and, impressed with his energy and gregariousness, offered him a job as a bartender.

"He loved being a bartender, he loved mixing drinks," recalled Una Neary.

A spry man with a mound of white hair, James Neary found his calling with restaurant and pub life, as well as the constant opportunity to be around people. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1967, Neary finally opened his own restaurant business at 358 E. 57th St., where it remained and became known as the "Irish 21."

Impeccably dressed each day in dark suits, white shirts and colorful ties, Neary greeted customers at each table with a wide infectious grin. Over the years, his restaurant drew numerous politicians and celebrities as regulars, including Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, Govs. Mario Cuomo, Andrew M. Cuomo and George Pataki, along with NYPD commissioners, including Ray Kelly, Bill Bratton and most recently, Dermot Shea.

TV personality Kathy Lee Gifford frequently dined at Neary’s and talked about the food on her morning program. Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Clinton, also visited, recalled Una Neary. A strict dress code was enforced, even for family members.

On St. Patrick’s Day, the place was standing room only.

The dark wood-paneled interior of the restaurant had what James Neary called a "cozy" feel with red leather seats. The walls sported photographs of Neary posing with politicians of all persuasions, as well as images of his native Ireland. He was the subject of a 2017 documentary, "Neary’s: The Dream at the End of the Rainbow."

A resident of Demarest, New Jersey, until recently, Neary and his wife, Eileen, raised four children. Neary kept the restaurant open every day except Christmas. His birthdays were celebrated with large sheet cakes with pieces offered to customers.

"I never worked a day in my life," Neary would say to people about the fun he had in his business. "I love it!"

After his wife died in 2007, Neary kept busy at the restaurant and followed a precise routine each day, said his daughter. Neary would first say prayers at his wife’s grave in New Jersey, attend Mass at a nearby Roman Catholic church and then have coffee and a piece of pastry before driving over the George Washington Bridge.

Crossing the Hudson River, Neary would say to himself, "God Bless America, God Bless New York," his daughter recalled.

"He was larger than life, he was a gift from God," Una Neary said.

Neary also is survived by a son, Patrick Neary of New Jersey; two other daughters, Ann Marie Bergwall of New Jersey and Eileen Bowers of Delaware; and eight grandchildren.

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