With guns, diamonds, and champagne that never stops, the Stork Club has been the touchstone of glamour and celebrity for much of the century. Now in a paperback edition, a "New York Times" columnist provides the definitive profile of Sherman Billingsley and his ultimate cafe. 77 photos.
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.75(d)|
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By Ralph Blumenthal
Back Bay BooksCopyright © 2000 Ralph Blumenthal
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe war was on then, the war that was just called "the War" because everyone knew what war you were talking about, and Sherman Billingsley, the blue-eyed and pink-cheeked owner of the Stork Club, was in a rage. "Look at this!" he commanded his lawyer Monroe Goldwater, the partner of Edward J. Flynn, the Bronx Democratic boss and king-maker who had helped put Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the White House.
Goldwater looked at the photograph Billingsley was waving and couldn't make much of it. It showed the big, mop-haired writer Quentin Reynolds, whom they all knew, standing in front of a strange-looking building called the Stork Club. But it wasn't their Stork Club on East Fifty-third Street. Goldwater asked where it had been taken.
"In London!" Billingsley blurted.
"Well," Goldwater asked after a while, "what do you want me to do?"
Billingsley looked at him with scorn. It was enough to make him tear out his hair - he still had it then. "Have Ed see Churchill!" he shouted.
The Battle of Britain could wait. Nothing drove Billingsley crazier than somebody trying to horn in on his franchise, and the war years were the best the Stork Club ever knew. He had ridden out of the Oklahoma of covered-wagon days and opened his first club as a speakeasy on West Fifty-eighth Street, when Prohibition meant that nothing was prohibited, eventually discovering - to his great surprise, he insisted - that his partners were three of the city's toughest gangsters. At a time when there seemed to be more nightspots than celebrities to fill them, he had scrounged for business with ads in the college papers offering coupons for free food and drink, and with circulars mass-mailed to the home addresses of movie stars in Hollywood. Winchell then had given the struggling speakeasy a stupendous plug, calling it "New York's New Yorkiest place on W. 58th." Other scribes, enticed by Billingsley's rich celebrity feast, quality whiskey, and endearing habit of never letting a friend pick up a check, dutifully followed: Archer Winsten, Damon Runyon, Mark Hellinger. So many columnists and stars were on the cuff, Stork habitue Gary Stevens said years later, that the sight of an open wallet and a bill coming out would have caused a riot. But it was more than just Billingsley's largesse that captivated them. The Stork Club was a pinnacle in the landscape of attainment, an embodiment of the deluxe, a place where the door swinging open and the effusive beckoning of the maitre d' told the favored, "You're home," and where tennis star Fred Perry once tipped headwaiter Victor Crotta $10,000 - and it wasn't even his biggest tip. He had once gotten twice that from another millionaire. And there at the hearth was Billingsley, a roguish, sometimes cloddish presence projecting himself as the perfect host, trying desperately to please while often riding roughshod over his astonished and intimidated minions.
The Post's Leonard Lyons arrived one night with Carl Sandburg in tow. "What does he do?" Billingsley whispered.
Writer, Lyons confided. Writes books.
"Tell him," an impressed Billingsley said, "to stick in 'Stork Club' once in a while."
With an ashtray as his battle standard, Billingsley had taken on El Morocco with its distinctive blue-and-white zebra stripes (which were easily matchable after Prohibition raiders had smashed up the furniture), the "21" club with its secret cellars, and the reviled Toots Shor's, sending private detectives to secretly check on their service and prices, only to have them spy on him in return. He left no doubt about who was boss, papering the pantry with stern reminders dictated to secretaries who typed it all just the way he said it, mistakes included.
I WANT ALL THE EMPLOYEES, WHO ARE STUBBORN, TO KNOW THAT I OWN THE STORK CLUB AND HOW I WANT THINGS DONE, MUST BE DONE THAT WAY. I WILL NOT STAND ANYONE WHO BUCKS ME. WHEN ANYONE THINKS THEY CAN DO THINGS THEIR WAY AND NOT MINE, THEY CAN DO THEIR THINKING ELSEWHERE. EVEN IF I'M WRONG -I HAVE A RIGHT TO BE IF IT'S MY WISH. I WANT MY ORDERS CARRIED OUT.
He signed his notices "S. B.," which left just enough space for employees to scribble an O in the middle. As an ex-bootlegger who had made the leap to society by an intuitive sense of how to captivate the haut monde, he presided over chambers electric with possibility, irresistible attractions and interactions, a human fission of supercharged personalities crammed onto banquettes and around narrow tables colliding, splitting apart, and recombining, releasing titanic bursts of energy and hilarity. He had been raided out of his first club and outgrown a second, and now here he was in his third and final Stork Club, which was the envy of a world convulsed in war. When you came in from California, when you came in from anywhere, you announced your presence by showing up at the Stork Club. The leisure class, whose only occupation was to change clothes and go out, was always in residence.
Now, in the sincerest form of flattery, imitators were cropping up all over. A spurious Stork Club had threatened to open in Chicago, too, but there one of Billingsley's faithful with good underworld connections said simply, "They don't have a Tom Dewey in Chicago. I'll take care of this. It won't open." It didn't.
Billingsley had found that even his own nephew, the son of his troublesome brother Logan, was getting into the game, opening a Stork Club in Key West, Florida. Billingsley called his friend Ernest Hemingway, who had a house there. Hemingway often came to the Stork Club and had remembered it fondly in a 1938 book of drawings, All the Brave, by his friend Luis Quintanilla, whose studio and paintings and frescoes were destroyed by a Fascist bombardment in Spain.
When you have sat at a table and been served a plate of water soup, a single fried egg and one orange after you have been working fourteen hours, you have no desire to be anywhere but where you were, nor to be doing anything but your work, but you would think, "Boy, I'll bet you could get quite a meal at The Stork tonight." Hunger is a marvelous sauce and danger of death is quite a strong wine. You keep The Stork, though, as a symbol of how well you would like to eat.
One night in 1940, back in New York, Hemingway had grandiosely tried to pay his bar bill at the Stork with a $100,000 royalty check he had gotten for the screen rights to For Whom the Bell Tolls. (A hundred thousand dollars in 1940 would be $1.2 million today.) Billingsley shook his head; no way he could cash that check, not then. But if Hemingway could wait until closing time ... Then, amazingly, Billingsley did cash it, although it is hard to imagine how, with the club then grossing -officially, anyway -by Billingsley's account, $3,500 a night. Now Billingsley needed a favor back. Could Hemingway recommend a good lawyer in Key West? There was this Stork Club there ...
Billingsley had given a job in his club to his brother Logan's estranged son Glenn, the innocent product of an old family scandal that had ended with a killing. But Glenn had spent too much time chasing the girls, though he finally settled down and married a woman named Barbara (the Barbara Billingsley who would later star as television's June Cleaver in Leave It to Beaver), whom Billingsley irrationally resented for being so thoughtless as to have the same name as his middle daughter. After leaving New York, Glenn and Barbara resettled in Key West, where, Billingsley complained to Hemingway, Glenn had the nerve to open his own Stork Club.
"I'll be your lawyer," Hemingway said.
He called back an hour later. "The Key West Stork Club has changed its name to Billingsley's Cooked Goose."
But then even Billingsley's own brother Fred opened a restaurant on Park Avenue in the forties that he had the temerity to call Billingsley's. Sherman cut Fred off, too.
At the Stork Club, the year that would take America from peace to war had opened, as usual, with a celebrity-crammed New Year's Eve party. Perky Jinx Falkenburg, the model and actress who had appeared on Broadway with Martha Raye and Al Jolson in Hold On to Your Hats and was destined to become the first Miss Rheingold, had been to the theater and, with no taxicabs to be found, walked up Eighth Avenue, parrying the halfhearted advances of woozy male revelers. Ordinarily she might have been with her regular beau, Tex McCrary, Walter Winchell's editor at the Daily Mirror, but Tex was off with the Canadian Air Force delivering the first Lend-Lease bomber to embattled Britain.
Jinx may have been the only one sober in the Stork that night. A few years before, she had been in Hawaii posing for Edward Steichen, taking photographs for the Hawaiian Steamship Company, when she fell through a thatched roof of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, landing in the dining room below and badly injuring a kidney. Now, with only one good kidney, she steered clear of alcohol, although she did contribute a recipe for "Sangrita" (claret, pineapple juice, soda, and lime juice) to Beebe's Stork Club Bar Book.
In the hospital, as luck would have it, she had met Jolson, who had offered her the part in Hold On to Your Hat. Jolson, who was also at the Stork that night, was a little teary - he usually was on New Year's Eve - and the orchestra's rendition of "There's a Great Day Coming Manana" did little to boost his mood, what with his people under attack in Germany and Hitler's panzers on the rampage in Europe, the Nazis and Reds coming to terms, and the swastika flying over the Arc de Triomphe.
Raye was there, too, her usual blustery self, making a New Year's resolution not to get married. Not that anyone had asked her, she said, but in case anyone did, she would wait awhile.
Seated nearby was Errol Flynn's wife, the tempestuous French actress Lili Damita, also in her cups, also lamenting her solitude. Flynn himself, with his secretly treasonous Nazi leanings, was en route to the Burma Road - "a helluva of a place to be," Damita remarked. "I'm sure he'd enjoy this much more than being where he is now."
New York's lieutenant governor Charles Poletti offered up a poignant prayer that 1941 would prove happier for the world than the year past had been. As for resolutions, not drinking more than two cocktails that night might be a worthy goal, but in the longer run, he said, everyone should dedicate himself to sacrifice for the defense effort in the war that would surely soon engulf America.
The year that had begun so ominously fulfilled its promise. By the end of 1941, Pearl Harbor had become a synonym for treachery and America was at war. But phony Stork Clubs notwithstanding, Billingsley was doing splendidly. The worldwide conflict had sent the cream of international society fleeing to safer shores, and now the boites of New York - from the Stork to the Copacabana, Le Coq Rouge, the Versailles, Cafe Pierre, and the Iridium Room of the St. Regis - were thronged nightly with the likes of the prince and ranee of Pudakota, the duchesse de Tallyrand, the Baron de Goldschmidt, the Baroness Koenigswasser and other assorted Rothschilds, and Princess Windisch-Gratz and her husband, Archduke Franz Josef, great-nephew of the assassinated Hapsburg emperor. To make them feel at home, Billingsley reached to England for a new bandleader, Jack Harris, a favorite of prewar London cafe society.
It seemed strange, but somehow a world traumatized by financial catastrophe, global carnage, and war rationing craved the distractions and extravagance of deb parties, old cognac, balloon nights, and rhumba breakfasts. But perhaps it wasn't strange at all, for as well as having become a shining symbol of social aspiration, the Stork Club came to represent in the public imagination the home front, normalcy, and Why We Fight.
The club sat on the uptown side of Fifty-third Street, about a hundred feet east of Fifth Avenue. Inside the front door was a gold chain, real fourteen-karat gold, and beyond it a small lobby with telephone booths and the checkroom, where ladies left their minks and ermine capes and men their hats and topcoats. There were so many similar-looking fur coats that the pretty checkroom girls remembered them by name - Ethel ... Martha ... The girls smiled at you, and you pushed a nice tip through the slot on the counter into a locked box below. The girls got none of it, however, because the concessionaire to whom Billingsley sold the checkroom paid them straight salary and collected the tips himself. To the left as you walked in was the barroom, seventy feet long by thirty feet wide. Above the bar stretched a long mirror that allowed Billingsley to look up and keep an eye on everything and patrons to admire themselves and one another under softly flattering lights - the ultimate entertainment at the Stork Club.
Past the bar, through the thick glass door, was the main room, also paneled in mirrors, where bejeweled ladies in ankle-length dresses and clean-shaven men in evening dress, dark suits, or service uniforms and black shoes supped and sipped and slow-danced and rumbaed to music that never stopped, as Beautiful Mary of the feather-white skin snapped publicity photos. The cash registers rang to music, as Billingsley had long since discovered. The peppier the sound, the more customers drank and ate. But the entertainment was secondary. The patrons themselves, the movie stars and out-of-towners and jelly beans - the good-looking preppie kids to whom Billingsley threw open the doors - were the real attraction, his floor show.
A month after Pearl Harbor, Rita Hayworth posed in the club with boys from the army, navy, Coast Guard, and marines, and the photo made the front page of the Daily Mirror. Almost any night, stars like Joan Blondell, Lana Turner, Peter Lorre, Claudette Colbert, Greer Garson, and Gertrude Lawrence could be found at the bar buying drinks for servicemen.
Otherwise, the Stork Club seemed little touched by the war, except, of course, that uniforms were now acceptable as eveningwear for the 2,500 patrons who dropped in on an average day and night for a drink or dinner. Billingsley, who was fit and hearty at forty-five (and even told everyone that he was four years younger, probably because he couldn't face being older than the twentieth century) himself had escaped military service. But he supported the fighting forces - especially in his club. "They can't be beaten for good conduct and sobriety," he wrote in a guest column for his friend Winchell. "It springs from their pride of self and pride of uniform."
By contrast, Winchell, who in 1940 had earned $800,000, making him the top-salaried American, had applied for active duty the day after Pearl Harbor and was now a lieutenant commander in the naval reserve.
Excerpted from Stork Club by Ralph Blumenthal Copyright © 2000 by Ralph Blumenthal. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
|Stork Club Nights||7|
|Stork Club Twilight||149|