John Wesley Joice, the hard-drinking, deep-reading former policeman who became the proprietor of Greenwich Village's most lionized literary hangout, died on Friday at his book-lined home at 3 Sheridan Square, across the street from the bar known to a generation of writers as the Lion's Head. He was 65.

His wife, Judy, said the cause was lung cancer, a disease whose diagnosis last year had prompted Mr. Joice to quit smoking.

When he opened the Lion's Head in 1966 in the step-down premises of a former doctor's office at 59 Christopher Street, Mr. Joice, known as Wes, apparently had no idea that he was creating a literary monster, a place where so many writers would while so many hours away from their typewriters that the resident joke became that the customers were not writers with drinking problems, but drinkers with writing problems.

As a former bartender at P. J. Clarke's, Mr. Joice simply wanted to run a lively bar, but when writers and editors from The Village Voice nearby stopped in to check it out and discovered that the proprietor had read everything they or just about anybody else had ever written, they spread the word.

By the time the Lion's Head closed in 1996, two years after rising rents had forced Mr. Joice and his wife to relinquish their hold, it had become a Greenwich Village legend: the bar where Lanford Wilson had scribbled a play on a napkin, where Rod Steiger had picked up his mail, where Norman Mailer had planned his 1969 campaign for Mayor, where Pete Hamill had talked Robert F. Kennedy into running for the Senate and where Jessica Lange had once been known as the second prettiest waitress on her shift.

A native of the Bronx who grew up in Chicago, where his father was chairman of the Chicago Board of Trade, Mr. Joice -- whose Irish-sounding name is of Norwegian derivation -- was 13 when he suffered a double blow: His father died, and he was stricken with polio, a disease that left him with a withered left leg and such a determination to overcome his handicap that he built himself into a powerful athlete and eventually even had a fling as a minor league baseball player.

Returning to the Bronx for his high school years, Mr. Joice spent one year at Fordham, three with the Army in Korea and two with the New York Police Department before finding his life's work, first as a bouncer at Downey's on Eighth Avenue, later as a bartender and finally as the proprietor of ''the Head.''

Since 1958 the Lion's Head had been a coffee bar at Hudson and Perry Streets catering to an Alcoholics Anonymous crowd. As soon as Mr. Joice bought in and got a liquor license it was moved to Sheridan Square and began packing them in.

He clearly relished the bar's reputation as a literary saloon, but Mr. Joice, a low-key man sometimes given to mock gruffness, didn't like to let on.

When patrons began taping the dust jackets of their books to his walls, for example, he ordered them to stop, complaining that they were using up all his tape. He came around, of course, and by the time the Lion's Head completed its run the walls were lined with about 100 framed covers of regulars' books.

Early on, when he sensed his customers were getting a bit too clubby, Mr. Joice, who was running a saloon, not a blankety-blank literary salon, for goodness' sake, hit them where they lived: he installed a jukebox, an event that almost caused a revolt. For months someone kept putting gum in the coin slot, but the writers got used to it and resumed their endlessly fascinating conversations, just a bit louder.

For all the hours he spent at the Lion's Head, Mr. Joice had a life beyond the bar. He loved jazz and was an accomplished sailor, combining his loves by naming his 34-foot racing sloop, ''Blue Monk,'' after the famous composition.

A tall, handsome man who held his late-night coffee cup close to his chest but who could, and often did, match customers drink for drink, Mr. Joice seemed to the barroom born.

''He was a hard-drinking, hard-living man, and a bit of a lech,'' said his wife, recalling her husband, who married three times, as a man who never lost his twinkling eye for the ladies: ''He loved women and they loved him.''

So did a lot of other people, but after Mr. Joice and his wife, the last of a series of business partners, lost the bar to bankruptcy, he retreated to his apartment, feeling betrayed and comforted only by memories of the old days.

The loss was bitter, but from the beginning the Lion's Head had been beyond its time, the last place, James Baldwin once said, that ''felt like the old days.''

In addition to his wife, Mr. Joice is survived by their 16-year-old son, Maxwell Kane; three children from his first marriage, John Wesley Jr. of Kendall, Fla., and Jeffrey and Lindsey, both of Upper Montclair, N.J.; two children from his second marriage, Jessica, of Rockport, Mass., and Zachary, of Martha's Vineyard, and six grandchildren.

Photo: John Wesley Joice. (Steve Hart, 1993)