"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 privilege.

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 mobbed-up.

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.

© 2000 The New York Times Company

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