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Leopold Hawelka, 100; rich, poor, visited his Vienna cafe

martin gnedt/associated press/file 2001

Leopold Hawelka and his cafe were icons in Vienna.

VIENNA — Andy Warhol stopped by for a cup of his coffee. So did princes, paupers, playwrights, poets, and untold thousands for whom a visit to Vienna was unthinkable without a cup of steaming brew served by the bow-tied little man with the perpetual dancing smile.

In a city of more than 1,900 cafes, Leopold Hawelka was an icon, as much part of Cafe Hawelka as its tables, scarred by burned cigarettes, their marble tops worn smooth by the elbows of four generations. He served tourists, the rich and the famous, and the neediest of the needy, the ragged Viennese masses who crowded his establishment over a free glass of water to escape the cold of their bombed-out city after World War II.

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Mr. Hawelka’s daughter, Herta, said he died in his sleep and without pain yesterday at age 100, leaving a legacy as intimately linked with the city as any of its splendid palaces or sumptuous art collections.

Cafe Hawelka was never posh. But while costly makeovers left other cafes soulless, Mr. Hawelka’s grew in charm with each layer of patina laid down over the more then 70 years of ungentrified existence that left it little changed from the bleak postwar days.

Today, as generations ago, tuxedoed waiters flit around tables, precariously balancing countless Viennese coffee varieties and trademark yeast dumplings on silver trays. Wooden wall paneling is lovingly scarred by the initials of visitors and paintings exchanged for a cup of coffee by impoverished artists in the 1940s still hang on the walls.

Even the ashtrays survived Vienna’s no-smoking laws, though staff put them out in recent years only when ordered to do so by Mr. Hawelka, keeping a sharp eye on things from a stuffed brocade couch in the back of his establishment.

Though his visits grew increasingly rare as he neared 100, Mr. Hawelka left no doubt who was in charge when he did drop by.

“He remains our director general,’’ said grandson Michael Hawelka this year. “Whenever he is here, he’s the boss.’’

It was this sense of tradition that made Cafe Hawelka special, along with reminiscences from the unassuming owner and his late wife, Josefine. Some of their best stories stretched back to the immediate postwar years, when — split into Soviet, United States, British, and French zones — Vienna was the place of intrigue reflected by the film classic “The Third Man.’’

Paying tribute to the man and his legacy, Claudia Schmied, Austria’s culture minister, described him yesterday as a “legend of coffee house culture.’’

The son of a shoemaker, Mr. Hawelka opened the coffeehouse in 1938, only to close it a year later when he was drafted into Hitler’s army. A survivor of the deadly Soviet front, he reopened the cafe in 1945, to a cold and hungry clientele that reflected the grimness of those years.

“As soon as they saw smoke curling out of the stovepipe, they came,’’ Mr. Hawelka said in a 2001 interview. “It was a sign that we, at least, had it warm. Some of them sat there the whole day over a glass of water so that they could stay warm.’’

Over the hiss of espresso machines and the multilingual chatter rising from the tables, Mr. Hawelka recalled getting up before dawn, walking for two hours to the Vienna Woods and trudging back with a sack of firewood to keep the stove burning.

A Soviet officer was a regular back then. Eyed by hungry, silent Viennese, he would bring his lunch, gobbling down thick slices of ham speared on a jackknife.

The Hawelkas dealt in contraband cigarettes in those lean and hungry days, while recalling others selling black-market lard by the ton. Titles and possessions gone, the prince of Liechtenstein and other Austrian royalty held court in Cafe Hawelka and sold whatever they had been able to hide, carpets, paintings, and anything else the Nazis and Soviets did not get to first.

Until his wife’s death at 91 in 2005, the couple worked up to 14-hour days. He would open early. She closed at 2 a.m. and pored over the books until dawn.

The crowd changed from the postwar displaced to celebrities such as Warhol, playwright Arthur Miller, and literary and artistic giants to business travelers, students, and tourists. But the sense that time was at a near standstill remained, with guests lingering for hours over their cup of coffee and glass of water.

Although family members — the couple had two children — took over the business in recent years, Mr. Hawelka was a regular until his late 90s. He was too weak to attend his 100th birthday party April 11, but his smiling portrait placed on his couch served as a reminder of his vigilant commitment to his guests and their welfare.

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