"The 'In' Crowd"
By Pete Hamill
New York Times Book Review, Published May 7, 2000
America's Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Cafe Society
By Ralph Blumenthal.
The once grand Stork Club and Sherman Billingsley, its
arrogant, swaggering proprietor, are now almost completely forgotten. Today's
obscurity should not be a surprise. Most night places, after all, have short
lives; they come and they go, and they go much faster in New York.
But in its heyday, the Stork Club was not an ordinary
urban watering hole. Under Billingsley's command, the Stork Club became famous
all over America. It was a key New York social institution, its owner one
of the most powerful arbiters of the era's overlapping contests for status.
This evocative, well-researched book by a veteran reporter for The New York
Times is an important addition to our social history. It tells us how the
phenomenon of the Stork Club happened, what forces shaped its glittering moment
and how it died.
As in so many New York things, American uncertainties
about class were the heart of the matter. From the late 1930's to the mid-1950's,
Billingsley's place at 3 East 53rd Street was the headquarters of what was
called cafe society: the social merging of the children of the old rich with
movie stars, gossip columnists, prewar Eurotrash, politicians, judges, some
favored cops, a few good writers and a sprinkling of former bootleggers. These
were people who did not stay home at night; they went out to see and be seen,
to audition for one another, to scheme and lie and laugh, to drink hard, to
pick up men or women and above all, in the Stork Club, to be socially ratified.
Admission to the holy place, along with a good table, was an achievement;
rejection was a humiliation. Billingsley always had the last word.
The basic medium for recording that now lost world of
the Stork Club was the gossip column, specifically the syndicated daily epistle
produced by a complex man named Walter Winchell. The prime time of the Stork
Club was also the prime of Winchell. Courted by presidents, earning $800,000
a year during the Depression, riddled with his own uncertainties and dark
furies, the increasingly monomaniacal Winchell used his power to reward his
friends and punish his enemies. For years, one of those friends was Sherman
Billingsley. Together, they helped create the journalistic plague we now call
the culture of celebrity.
As described by Ralph Blumenthal (who had the cooperation
of one of Billingsley's daughters and was able to draw on the club owner's
personal files and an unpublished memoir), the man who ran the Stork was not
a mere Winchell courtier. He had a genuine talent for running a saloon. In
particular, he refined a formula that persists to this day in the thumping
darkness of the city's hip-hop clubland: (1) make it difficult to get into
your joint by placing a man at the door with a rope (Billingsley's rope was
golden); (2) pamper Big Names, most frequently by picking up their tabs; (3)
create a private enclave within the larger establishment (in the Stork it
was the Cub Room) where Big Names could be seen but not annoyed by fans; (4)
allow a house photographer to record the presence of the Big Names and rush
the photos to the tabloids.
The Big Names, and the shrewdly calculated "exclusivity"
of the club, were essential to Billingsley's strategy, but the ultimate object
of the ritual was the poor anonymous mark who was allowed past the golden
rope. He could be a businessman with his wife or mistress, a kid with his
prom date or a flush tourist from the Midwest. All were thrilled to get past
the rope, to be able to say later that they had dinner at the Stork Club and
danced to the music of one of its three bands. They could produce a stolen
ashtray as proof of the passage. Billingsley charged them heavily for the
The years of World War II were the club's boom time.
The Depression was over. Cash flowed. The good times definitely were rolling
in New York. Blumenthal writes in "Stork Club": "Billingsley
was now grossing $1.25 million a year, more than $12 million today. The net,
he said, was nobody's business. He spent $50,000 a year on redecorating and
lost another $25,000 on theft and breakage. He had 200 employees serving the
374 guests who could be seated at any one time."
Billingsley had a very good war. In spite of wartime
rationing, for example, he never ran out of food. "Like other leading
restaurateurs and cabaret owners," Blumenthal notes dryly, "Billingsley
had his connections." One of them was almost certainly the Stork Club
regular Frank Costello, then running the mob while Lucky Luciano sat in jail.
Billingsley did draw the line with low-class gangsters. He told one job applicant
who had bragged about knowing various hoodlums: "O.K., you'll be the
doorman. Keep out everybody you know."
Billingsley was an unlikely candidate for such a swaggering
success in a city like New York. Born in Enid, Okla., in 1896, he was the
youngest of seven children of a wandering land-hungry Kentucky farmer. By
the time he was 20, Sherman and his brothers had organized their own whiskey-running
ring in dry Oklahoma City. In one photograph (among 75 in this book), they
look like members of Faulkner's Snopes family, posing in straw boaters for
a trip to the West. But on the eve of Prohibition, the law finally caught
up to the Billingsley gang; all were arrested by the feds, and Sherman was
sentenced to 15 months in Leavenworth.
While lawyers appealed his case, Billingsley headed for
New York, where the Volstead Act was about to create the mob. He bought a
Bronx drugstore as a front for selling illegal booze, paid off cops and swiftly
built a chain of similar stores. Money flowed in. But in 1922, he at last
had to start serving time in Leavenworth, in order for his lawyer to make
a habeas corpus appeal of his sentence. The tactic worked. After he spent
a few months in jail, Billingsley got his conviction overturned, and he hurried
back to New York. By then, bootlegging had entered its murderous stage. Billingsley
swiftly found a safer racket, peddling real estate in the booming Bronx. Meanwhile,
he embraced the raffish night life of Manhattan, and made a lot of semilegitimate
friends, including the famous speakeasy operator Miss Texas Guinan.
Then, in 1929, two gamblers of his acquaintance asked
Billingsley to help them start a restaurant, and the first version of the
Stork Club soon opened on West 58th Street. It was a failure. After a few
expensive months, the partners departed, leaving Billingsley in control, but
giving a 30 percent share to another man. The place remained marginal at best
until September 1930. That month, at Guinan's urging, Winchell arrived in
the Stork Club, liked what he saw and described it in his column as "New
York's New Yorkiest place." Billingsley was soon banking $10,000 a week.
He was also now aware that his partner was a front man for serious gangsters.
Whether he had planned it that way or not, Billingsley and the Stork were
In 1931, the first Stork Club was closed by Prohibition
agents. Billingsley found a new spot on East 51st Street, and later claimed
to have paid $30,000 to his mob partners to get free and clear of them. Doubts
lingered for many years. After repeal, Billingsley moved for the final time,
into quarters large enough for dancing, and opened the first legal Stork Club
in 1934 at the East 53rd Street location. Slowly, persistently, even shamelessly,
he built his cafe society clientele, catering to those people whose money
would grant him immunity from the ravages of the Depression. Very much married,
he got involved in a passionate romance with Ethel Merman, who spread the
word to the theater crowd. J. Edgar Hoover began showing up with his fellow
F.B.I. man and intimate friend, Clyde Tolson, and their presence helped ward
off the more predatory gangsters. Seated each night at table No. 1, Billingsley
was soon extraordinarily successful.
But there were signs even then of the great fall that
was to come. Billingsley was irrationally anti-union. He also embraced many
of the social bigotries of the era, and they affected the way he ran the club.
"Billingsley did favor a homogeneous look and type," Blumenthal
writes, "his client of choice being young and good-looking, famous, influential,
successful, rich, well born and preferably WASP." Although he catered
to Winchell, Leonard Lyons, Al Jolson, Bert Lahr and other American Jews,
in private he was casually anti-Semitic. He used obscene ethnic slurs about
the Irish and the Italians. The few blacks who gained admission were shuttled
out of sight to an upstairs room.
The final act of the Stork Club story began on Oct. 16,
1951, when the black singer-dancer Josephine Baker arrived with friends after
her last show at the Roxy. She was led to the Cub Room, where Winchell was
seated in his reserved spot at table 50. Billingsley strolled by the Cub Room
entrance, saw Baker and said to a waiter, "Who . . . let her in?"
All service to her table was frozen for nearly an hour. Furious, Baker rose
from the table with a friend to call her lawyer, Walter White, the executive
secretary of the N.A.A.C.P. Winchell, apparently in innocence, said as the
couple passed: "That's nice. They're going dancing." Before the
night was over, a huge scandal had broken over radio and in the city's newspapers.
Blumenthal does an admirable job of untangling the scandal's several parts
(including the possibility that Baker's visit was a setup), but when the affair
was over, the Stork Club suddenly looked like an anachronism.
It was, of course, in more ways than one. The glamorous
image of the Stork Club was transmitted nationally by gossip columns and radio.
By 1951, television was keeping people home, but a television show based in
the Stork Club was an amateurish calamity, exposing the owner as a fumbler
and the place as banal. In addition, the G.I. Bill was democratizing American
society so broadly that the tiny subculture of cafe society appeared ludicrous
while Las Vegas, Miami and Havana were drawing millions of those marks who
now demanded gambling and Big Name entertainers to go with their drinking.
In 1956, the Stork Club lost money. The following year, Billingsley got into
a disastrous dispute with unions trying to organize the Stork Club. He lost
chefs, captains, waiters, busboys, cursing them all, bombing their picket
line with bags of water from the roof. He lost friends. He lost customers
who would not cross picket lines. He lost much of his money. The strike went
on for years and years.
Meanwhile, as related in the mournful final act of Blumenthal's
book, Billingsley grew more remote and paranoid. His friendships with Winchell
and Hoover ended. He put electronic bugs in the kitchen and fired people at
whim, including a few who actually liked him. Eventually even the last live
band was gone, and recorded music played through a sound system for a few
curious customers in a large sour room.
On the night of Oct. 4, 1965, the Stork Club closed
forever. Everything was now gone: the club, Billingsley's own reputation,
all of his money. In the failed effort to keep the club going, the old bootlegger
had even emptied his daughters' trust funds of almost $10 million. Exactly
a year later, Sherman Billingsley turned to his wife in their small East Side
apartment, said, "Hazel, are you still hiding jelly beans under the mattress?"
and then died of a heart attack. Frank Costello sent red roses to the funeral
home. There were no reports of a golden rope at the services.
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